Long ago, maybe it was a September, I sat in a training at a youth program in Waltham, Massachusetts and heard this: that the Chinese character for the word “crisis” is the same character for the word “opportunity”. I have since read that this is somewhat wishful thinking on Western trainers and speakers parts – that a more realistic interpretation of that particular character is this: “meeting a critical point”. It is to these two possibilities that I want to speak. We have arrived at a critical point, we, us, here in the United States of America. And, if we pay enough attention, there most certainly are opportunities.
I grew up in a small town in the East – Wareham, Massachusetts – close by the Atlantic Ocean. Sixteen miles from New Bedford, 50 miles from Boston, 70 odd miles to the tip of Cape Cod and the very end of the country. Our country. According to a 1984 census report, approximately 33% of the 12,000 or so of us living in Wareham identified as black Americans. Many were from the Cape Verde Islands, the country of Portugal providing transportation of sorts over to New Bedford and out from there, towards the Cape, into Wareham. When I look at my high school yearbook, which I just did, I see 119 photos of graduates, and 20 of those photos are of black faces. This was the make-up of my high school class, this was the color of my hometown, and I have always considered myself very fortunate, enriched, blessed even, by those truths.
Not to sound like the old cliché “some of my best friends are black”, but, in fact, some of my best friends were black. Sixth-grade girlfriend. Community College roomate. Fellow partiers. It would be a lie to say that there was never a racial comment, or trouble between groups, or constant hanging out with one another in Wareham. But there was the day in, day out, year in, year out we all live here togetherness. A naturalness. So it was, head in the sand or not, shocking to me a few years later when, at Salem State College, I watched a charged, angry, determined backlash to an effort by students from Roxbury and Dorchester and Jamaica Plain to form the Black Students Union. The student government turned them down. The boys dorm continued with it’s annual “slave auction” rite. These were kids from Beverly and Danvers and Tewksbury and Peabody and all those other North Shore and western suburbs in which nearly no black families, families of color, lived. The only things those kids knew about different people was what they told each other, or heard from their parents, or thought they understood from books and movies.
My father was a gentle guy. More than most men, virtually no aggressive behaviors or thoughts ever. It wasn’t his nature. He judged everyone on how they treated him and each other. In fact, when my father died in 1980, the Director of the Wareham Municipal Maintenance Deprtment – a black man – said my father was his best friend. I bring up my father not in terms of race relations, but in regard to domestic violence. He and my mother argued and fought, a lot sometimes, but never physically, never even close to that. I don’t know when I first had any awareness, even, of domestic violence as a universal problem – men beating women – certainly way, way later than I did of racism. In some very clear, to me, ways I have paid a price for having a father who was absolutely not physical or aggressive. But not in any way related to domestic abuse.
I need to tell a Mother story here, because it leads me to where I want this writing to go. My sophomore year at Cape Cod Community College my roomate was Julius Britto. He was so many things I wasn’t. Highly social, very athletic, a magnet for women, energetic, enthusiastic, and black. One of the quarterbacks on our high school football team. Just a great guy. When, in late August prior to the beginning of the school year, I told my mother I was going to be living with Julius on the Cape, her response was, “Why do you have to live with him?” Sorry Mom. However, after bringing Julius home many weekends, my mom getting to know him, and after seeing how goal-oriented and full of life he was – versus her son whose primary goal was to get high – in June, at the end of the school year at graduation, my mother said this to me: “Why can’t you be more like Julius?” There you go Mom.
People can change. If you ever saw the movie “16 Blocks” it is displayed, that fact, so beautifully. The same thing in my all-time favorite, my very favorite, movie “In the Heat Of the Night.” People can change. I bring this up here because in the last couple of months we have witnessed, as a Country, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the punching out of Janay Palmer by Ray Rice. These terrible, God-awful events have pushed racism and domestic violence front and center in our collective conscience. Violence begets more violence in Missouri. The outpouring of racial hostility is shocking, again, and sick. And the National Football League, where athletes wear pink shoes and headbands, and owners pour in millions of dollars, in the cause of making aware and taking on breast cancer, reverts to it’s default mode and does what it does best – places profit before people. Does the next wrong thing.
But, people can change. I’m talking here, in our country. And as we meet “a critical point”, again, in our large group conscience, there is an opportunity to look at how we, as Tiny Tim would say, each and every one of us, operate. How we look at our fellow Americans, how we treat each other. How we can do better. How we can change. As individuals, as communities, as a Country. We can do better and better and better if we commit to do so. If we ask the right questions. Like this one: What’s the Goal? Really, what’s the goal? Or this one: Now What?
Look on Facebook today, September 11th. Everywhere there are posts remembering 9/11. Posts of God Bless America. Posts of United We Stand. Posts of Never Forget.
Maybe someday we will, in fact, stand united. Each and every one of us.
Can you imagine how much greater this country – and therefore the planet – could be, can be someday, is no one is afraid anymore? How much freer people will be to create, to combine, to shine their little light?
Can you imagine?