You may be wondering why I have a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King on my blog for Independence Day. Well I was involved in a situation recently where someone made a casual joke that I thought was sort of racist. The person involved didn’t think it was such and I am sure was not being intentionally racist. But racism, or any type of prejudice, needs to be guarded against at every level and especially at the subtle levels. I believe it’s the only time a tolerant person should be intolerant.
Anyway, Independence Day is not just about celebrating our country’s birth, it is about freedom and the fight for freedom and the right to be free from tyranny. Isn’t that what Dr. Martin Luther King embodies? He fought the peaceful fight and his tyrannies were hatred and prejudice. Those tyrannies, unfortunately, still exist today.
I experienced prejudiced at an early age. Growing up in white, middle-class south jersey suburbia in the 60’s and 70’s, prejudice was as common as conversations about the weather. My paternal grandparents owned their own business in town and were comfortably well off. My grandmother hated just about everyone and I heard all the vicious names she called blacks, Catholics, Jews, Poles, Germans, gays, and everyone else who wasn’t us. Yet she was a loving women who raised 6 children. My grandparents were hard workers and provided many material things for their family. They just missed teaching one very important lesson.
In contrast, my maternal grandparents were poor. I called them Nanny and Pop-pop. My Pop-pop was ill when I was young and I remember him laying on the sofa vehemently stating that it didn’t matter what color your skin was, everyone still bleeds red. He was a staunch support of equal rights. But I learned later on in life that he was an alcoholic who didn’t take care of his family and was abusive towards my Nanny. While he may have believed in equal rights for people of color, he only meant it for the men.
So there you have it, one set of grandparents who provided everything except a moral sense of tolerance and another set that spoke of tolerance but often didn’t act on those spoken words. So what’s a young boy to do? A young boy who, by the age of 12, was being called gay and fag and didn’t even know what it meant.
Fortunately, sometimes when I visited my Nanny and Pop-pop they would let me visit with an old woman who lived around the corner. I must have been around 7 or 8 years old at most. I can still remember her face and her modest home. I especially remember the doilies that adorned her coffee and end tables. And on one end table was an 8 x 10 of Dr. King. I remember it distinctly because the picture reminded me of a picture of my Grandfather. My Grandfather was on the board of directors at our local bank and the picture of him at the bank looked like Dr. King’s picture. I thought that maybe Dr. King worked for the bank, too. I was to learn differently, though.
I don’t remember her name but I do remember her face, which was kind and strong. She was half American Indian and half African. She told me stories about how her ancestors came from Africa and how her father married an American Indian. She told me about the prejudices she encountered from whites and blacks alike. Yet she managed to raise several children who were off in the world now living their lives. And she believed it was because of Dr. King that she was able to do this and that her children could now be out on their own, successes in their own right. The respect she had for Dr. King was immense and I couldn’t help but feel it myself, even with all that prejudice around me and being about 8 years old. I will never forget her and will be eternally grateful for the lesson she taught me.
Jumping back a little to my grandparents, I loved all of them and thought the world of them. While they had their faults, they were basically good people. And I’d like to end this with a quote from Harry Potter. Harry was telling his Godfather, Sirius, that he was afraid he was turning bad. Sirius replied with something like this, “The world is not divided into good and bad people. We all have light and dark within us. It is what we choose to act on that defines who we are.” And there’s the rub. Sometimes we make bad choices-I know I have. But if we want, we can try harder to see the light of tolerance and act on the right choice. It’s a lot easier than you think and you and I and the world will be better for it, too.