OVERCOMING THE RACE AND GENDER DIVIDE
I'm watching the ground-breaking musical South Pacific. I have long known all the songs by heart, and most of the dialogue, but this is a different version. I'm astonished to find a Glenn Close/Harry Connick adaptation, which I never knew existed, and it's glorious. (BTW, did I ever mention that I was Glennie's understudy at age sixteen -- and she was only a few years older -- in the cast of "Up With People"? Who KNEW?)
But having just written about the race element of this presidential campaign, it's especially relevant. Nothing defines this courageous Rodgers-Hammerstein musical so much as its attempt to address racial fears and prejudices. And there is no greater capsule of the whole musical, and our continuing race divide, as the song, "You've Got to be Carefully Taught."
Let's remember the lyrics:
You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.
You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!
And that's the crux of the matter. We have to teach our children, and their children, something different. We have to elevate our daily dialogue to a level that excludes not only racial and gender epithets but also stereotypes. It's time that we simply delete these from our speech and attitudes.
I'm not naive. I've been robbed at gunpoint by black thieves. I've been devastated by white female executives who thought their best chance at professional advancement was to join the boys' club and discredit all other women. I have tried my whole life to transcend such ugliness and teach my five children that the teachings of the Bible are sacred and not to be violated because of adverse singular personal experiences, that our Constitution is the best and greatest modern human attempt to institutionalize proper behavior among the people of a common nation. I don't know what else we can do, other than the simple things. For each of us, we must protest or refuse to passively consent to racial and gender slurs or jokes when we hear them. We must speak out when we hear them. And we must be courageous enough, though in a non-judgmental manner, to point out the truth when prejudice and bias rears its head in our presence.
Let me give you a couple of examples. I had a dearly beloved Dad, who died a dozen years ago (a career military officer and local John Kennedy campaign manager), and still have my precious Mama, who has spent a lifetime doing good deeds among the poor and disadvantaged. Mama regularly conducted what she called "beauty parlors" among the poor districts when I was a child and teenager and insisted that I and my friends participate. We washed the gnarly hair of kids who hadn't seen a brush or shampoo for months while Mama and her older friends primped the elder ladies of the International Paper Company labor neighborhood. We'd also bathe the children, and while all this transpired, we'd share the Gospel of Christ with them, not in a heavy-handed way, but as a response when they'd ask, "Why are you always coming here to help?" Later, and for her past twenty years, Mama has headed her church's vast, almost Target-sized thrift shop, where she's ministered to such as hookers and the homeless. I mention these things only to impress upon you how dear and kind my parents were and are. But yes, they were born into a Southern tradition and mindset that was not conducive to racial reconciliation.
I have two stories to tell.
When I was seven years old we lived on an Air Force base in England. My parents, as was their wont, were pillars of the base Christian chapel, Daddy being a deacon. One night I woke, hearing a group of men discussing the fact that a black Chaplain was being transferred to our base and church. I crept out and hearing them talk, understood that the deacons were going to boycott the next day's (Sunday) services to protest a black Chaplain being installed. After the men left, I went into the kitchen of our home (several quonset huts combined to serve as such) and asked Daddy why we weren't going to church the next day. Daddy stumbled in his explanations, but when I innocently asked why the Chaplain's skin color mattered, I was sent to bed. See, even in those late fifties, I'd been raised in what was for our country an unusual environment -- an integrated U.S. military abroad, where my second grade class president was a popular and charming black child. Even as the product of a Southern family, I just hadn't learned that race mattered.
The next morning, our whole family dressed and appeared in church as was our practice. Daddy was the only deacon in attendance. The Chaplain became a lifelong friend of my parents.
The second story took place much later, when I was married and The Sage and I had five young children. We had recently moved to Dallas (so The Sage could attend seminary), and our youngest daugher's best friend was the little girl across the street. My Bible-believing Christian Mama and Daddy were visiting and noticed that she was what they still called "high yaller," meaning mixed-race. When they made some slightly derogatory remark about her race, I (deliberately) off-handedly remarked that they had better be careful with such attitudes in light of what God's attitude had been when Moses' older sister Miriam had made similar remarks about his wife, an Ethiopian. What did I mean? they asked. I referred them to Numbers 12, where the Bible tells us that God made Miriam leprous because of her criticisms.
I have been so proud for years that that incident, because Bible-based, caused my folks to radically change their opinions.
I've often, through the years, thought about these two seminal incidents in my life. I've been so proud that my parents, both born and raised within the most traditional deep South traditions and attitudes, when faced with reason, morality and Biblical truth, were able to transcend their upbringings and accept and put into practice new attitudes, despite their "generation" and age. And that has given me faith and hope that our nation, guided by the principles of good will and the common good, can eventually overcome the race divide.
In the matter of gender equality, I think we have a greater challenge, but even then, my parents' example give me hope. I remember that when I decided to pursue my career, my folks had two reactions: my Dad was so proud of my initial accomplishments -- after all, he had four daughters and no sons, and he'd always been my strongest supporter, hoping the Air Force Academy would admit women in time for me to attend (it didn't). My brilliant and accomplished Mama, who stayed busy with a myriad of activities but never worked professionally, said to me at one point, "I guess you girls think I don't have a real life," and I realized she was experiencing and taking personally the generational divide between the traditional woman's role and the world that her daughters could embrace. Now she is my greatest admirer, and as I watch my three daughters live their lives, I have great hope that they will not be limited by the kind of discrimination and exclusion that I have experienced in my professional life.
It's long past time that we stop characterizing in our minds and actions people by their identities, whether race-, gender- or sexually oriented identities. Haven't we matured enough as a nation to just see one by one as characters rather than characteristics?