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In the aftermath of a painful truth about the death of an American boy on an American shore, I taught my racial psychology class, and the irony did not escape us last night. It is in the pre-holiday spirit where the teacher does not want to teach; the students do not want to learn. Early dismissal and good-bye. But it just doesn't go down that way. Bright students really wanted me to say something. And of course there is only one topic in racial psychology this night.
"So, what about the matter of Trayvon Martin?"
And there is no variation of a theme. Crossing diverse color lines, there is no standing down in fighting stereotypes and race prejudice. A young man is dead and forever is a long time, though it may only seem a heartbeat away.
Someone asks,"Where is his chance for children?" It is a depressing thought before saying, "Happy holidays."
Easter and Passover are the mainstay of the Judeo-Christian creed. We try to give voice to the other side of the coin. Whose America are we talking about? There are, though, realities, I caution, playing devil's advocate. I remember a James Caan flick, "The Gambler." He does the unpardonable. After an ignominious bout of losing all his money, he wants to punish himself some more. Not obliquely, but in some dreamscape reality. I think it was at 2 A.M. where he, a white man, tries to pick-up a Black girl in an all-Black bar in Harlem.
Where I come from, that is suicide. It just isn't done. Nor would a Black man do the same at 2 A.M. in Bensonhurst. Likewise, a woman in a drunken stupor,walking out of a mid-town night club at 2 A.M. on a Saturday night all alone ... how many times in my lifetime have I read about subsequent rape and murder? And there are logical, prudent principles about placing oneself in danger.
But whose America is it? Must we stand down in different circumstances?
The Chicago Riots of 1919 begin in the Black Belt of Chicago(I teach my class from an excerpt of my novel, The White Bridge) because a Black boy tries to swim between a white man's jetty. He is killed because he wants to swim in the free ocean on a hot summer day at the beach.
I tell this to my class ... about how Carl Sandburg interviewed Blacks to gain their perspectives when there were no arrests. Then, in 1919, Blacks would not stand down to murder. And now, in 2012, Blacks will not stand down to murder. In a hundred years from now, I suspect, and we hope, Blacks will not stand down to murder.
For this principle of racial justice, our society must never stand down. It is our common humanity, taught us even in our childhood games. Remember the concept, "Free All?"And does it really matter the color or the cause? And what group has not suffered, has not been the victim of oppression? Aren't we really all the same?
The returning veterans of the trenches and poison gas did not stand down. They knew better.They began to riot. It marked one of the first Black protests in America that had answered racial injustice with fists, with sticks, with guns.
So, what is the answer to when we must stand down? I remember what happened during the summer when I was traveling near the Texas border, and was stopped by a policeman. It was racial profiling, but in reverse. Here the border cop was stopping an elderly white man whom this policeman somehow suspected. Okay, it was his prerogative.
(My class is really uproarious by now. They call me, "bandito," and words like that. But it was not funny to me at all. The humiliation of being stopped, detained; a violation against our privacy, our liberty.)
"Where you going, hombre?" I imagine him saying. It is my way. Quick to irony, hyperbole, imagination. But I do wonder if this is some kind of joke being played on me. Me, a white man, now, hombre. And he, an American, doing his job.
"Where are you going, sir?" The policeman asks.
I look outside to the space and the dazzling skies. I know further north the mesa and the sandstone cliffs will soon rise. The noonday sun will bask the pueblos through the hot grandeur of New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Utah. To points East and West, our great land is blessed by so much.
I answered the policeman,(I tell my class) "Where am I going? I am going to America." My hands wave to the four corners of the American earth. "This is my country. I am going wherever I want to go."
Thank G-d the policeman lets me go to ... America, the land of Treyvon Martin. Of Yoself Hawkins. Of Martin Luther King. This is the America of Bobby Kennedy. And the martyrs who died here. Of Mickey Schwerner and Andrew Goodman and James Chaney. Of Will Porter, and the five thousand citizens lynched in trees, or the sixty thousand sterilized by our own decrees. This is the America of the Navajo and the Pima, the Hopi , and the Zuni ,and all our beautiful Natives. Of those who died for their land because they would not stand down. This is the land of Sacco and Vanzetti, and the right to form political parties, even to have radicals among us, and to rebel against tyranny in a time when"man is wolf to man."
Where can we walk to in our America? Where shall we not? Are there any restrictions? Does my freedom not become mere license to intimidate? When I hide my face? But is my face, my color, but a mask, a hoodie?
My class answers with the hot bravery of youth. They will go wherever they must for the justice that has alluded our people, the American people, for so, so long. That thought is, perhaps, the best wish for a joyous holiday season.