It’s Complicated

Without going into the whole tabula rasa thing, I’m simply going to share something I heard on a podcast a few weeks ago. It wasn’t anything I didn’t already know because I did. But what arrested my attention and kept me listening were these words by the presenter: You know what you know because you’ve been told that by someone.

That someone might have been a parent or a teacher or a friend. Still, until you heard those words, you didn’t know that fact, i.e., the earth is round. As you matured and began to read, words from a book told you things you didn’t know before. Before long, you realized you were part of a culture, and although you knew there were different cultures and peoples and traditions and languages in the world, yours was the most awesome. Maybe you were a bit ethnocentric. I was. Probably still am.

As a child, I learned to speak English. In my baby book, my mother wrote, “Jane now says so many new words each day that I can’t write them all down.” I’m confident that the words were dog (not chien), brother (not frere), and house (not casa). My parents and extended family spoke only English, not French or Spanish, so that’s what I learned. A simple example, and yet you get the point. Language is a huge and unifying part of one’s culture. 

We went to a Baptist church where I was taught that “Jesus loves the little children, all the little children of the world.” My young friends and I sang those words with fervor, and yet none of us really knew any other children except the ones who were just like us. Until I went to college, I didn’t have classes with any Black or Asian Americans.

In grades 1-12, my friends and siblings learned quite a lot about the traditions and history of our country. George Washington was our first president and a brilliant military leader; Thomas Jefferson was a great statesman, the third president, and primary author of the constitution; Native Americans (called Indians back in the day) were savages who lay in wait to attack Europeans as they tried to “make it” in this land.

I’m not saying the above statements are bogus. I’m saying the truth is somewhere in the middle. 

Washington was indeed America’s first president, Commander-in-Chief of the colonial forces, and slave owner of about 300 slaves (give or take). Jefferson once called slavery an Assemblage of Horrors, yet he owned around 175 servants. And then there’s Sally Hemings. Native Americans lived here long before the Europeans arrived, but now ….

I bought it all—hook, line, and sinker and was an adult before I realized how complicated things were. My awakening was slow. First, it was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. His “I Have a Dream” speech can still move me to tears. Then I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. The world was changing, and while I saw that as a good thing, it was a little discomforting. I read Ramona and learned more about the treatment of Mexicans and Natives, visited Juneau and stumbled upon “The Empty Chair” Memorial, toured Mount Rushmore and began to understand why the Native Americans were a bit bothered by the faces of white men carved into what they (the Natives) viewed as a sacred mountain. During the last several years, we’ve been fortunate enough to travel to many Plains states, and some of things I saw and heard and read will disturb me for the rest of my life. 

One night I watched an interview with Susan Sarandon and Jimmy Fallon in which she said, quite calmly and assuredly, that America was founded on the “genocide of Native Americans and on the backs of slaves.” I gulped. In that moment, I knew she was right and that she had known this truth for a long, long time.

I just started reading Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. It’s funny and clever and smart (like he is). At the end of the introduction to apartheid, he says: “….but the general thrust of it should be easy enough for any American to understand. In America you had he forced removal of the native onto reservations coupled with slavery followed by segregation. Imagine all three of these things happening to the same group of people at the same time. That was apartheid.”

I’m not dissing my teachers, preachers, parents, friends, books, or television for the things I blithely accepted as fact. I’m saying that being open to learning the “also truths” has been eye opening. It’s complicated.

Change or Die

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Evolve or repeat; change or die; don’t look back; inhale the future, exhale the past; be proactive. Do those phases look familiar? I bet they do. We’re inundated with reminders and recommendations about change, improvement, and moving on.

Last week I saw Evolve or Repeat on Facebook and immediately thought of a similar phrase: Change or Die.

It’s been a while, probably fifteen years at least, but I’ll always remember the moment when I first saw the words: Change or Die. I had l seen them before, but this time was different. The title of an article, they were capitalized, and the font was large. The students were taking a test while I read updates on the computer. I glanced up at the class immersed in their work and then began reading.

“Change or Die” referred to businesses that refused to get with the program, so to speak, those who continued to follow traditional ways of attracting and keeping customers. The author of the article advised that unless they became internet savvy and kept up with the changing times, they would soon become defunct. Although I already knew this to be true, there was something about the title that forced me to sit up straight and take notice.

 I walked through a huge Sears store two weeks ago and recalled the days when such stores were bustling with customers in all departments. On this day, I was one of three people walking through the aisles, and truthfully, I was there because I was trying to get a walk in, not to shop. I thought things would surely be better when I got to the tools area, but no. Row after row of Craftsman air movers, garage door openers, hook sets, work benches, pocket planes, saws, tool sets, wrenches, and drills lined the shelves. The two employees stood talking to each other, and I wondered if they did that all day, every day.

I thought of the days when my children delightedly pored over the Sears catalogue choosing Christmas gifts. The huge books were even used as seat elevators when little ones couldn’t reach the dinner table. I’d love to see one of the catalogues today. Who could have foreseen their end? Who could have predicted Amazon? Not I.

I recall when the college where I worked began online instruction. Excited about the possibilities, I jumped on the bandwagon. When some naysayers resisted, one administrator was overheard saying, “This train is leaving the station. Climb aboard or be left behind.” There’s a lot of jumping, leaving, and climbing in this paragraph, but I’m not a good enough writer to write without a cliché or two. Those terms imply action and change.

For the record, the students above were taking the test on their computers, one of my first forays into paperless tests. A younger colleague mentioned that he planned to go paperless with just about everything work-related, and he graciously volunteered to be my mentor. As a retiree, I’m still teaching online classes. There are virtual schools everywhere. Teaching has changed, and if I hadn’t adapted, well, you know.

Changing or dying applies to all areas of life, personal, business, emotional, social, spiritual, physical–everything. Want to share how changing has kept you afloat–or how refusal to change led to stagnation?

Golden Age?

One recent morning, I turned the corner to go back in the neighborhood when I heard a great line on a podcast. In this case, great means true. “Conservatives long for a Golden Age that never was and liberals hope for a perfect tomorrow that will never be.” That’s it, I thought. That’s the gospel truth!

There was never a Golden Age in America, at least not for everyone. Just ask the Natives like Chief Powhatan. And there will never be a perfect tomorrow–or even a fair and equitable one.

When planning our 50th class reunion, some classmates and I talked about how fortunate we were to have grown up in a sleepy little town in South Carolina’s midlands. Before I go any further, don’t be offended, fellow Camdenites. To us, it might be the best little corner of the world ever, but I’m often amazed and disappointed when I tell people where I’m from and they give me the stare that asks, “Where is that?”

“About thirty miles east of Columbia,” I tell them, and if they still look befuddled, I add that Columbia is the state capital. It’s nice here, always pretty and usually peaceful. There are robberies and drug busts and hungry children, heartbreakers in all locales, but that’s a story for another day.

Back to the reunion planning day. After bandying back and forth about our good fortune at having been raised in Camden during the best of times, those years of relative prosperity after WWII and before Vietnam, someone said, “For us, it was a good time, yes. But it wasn’t for everyone.”

I recall being glad that someone besides me had introduced the elephant in the room and led him to the center ring. Someone else’s bravery in truth telling gave me a pass that day. I could listen and contribute to the conversation without being blamed for casting a pall over our lively and lovely lunch by bring up something unpleasant.

Every girl (we still think of ourselves as girls, not old ladies) at the table had grown up in a similar environment. Some were raised in wealthier families, and some were Baptist while others were Methodist. You get the picture. We had been homogenous as kids, not a Buddhist or African American among us. In fact, we were raised in an era when JFK was given some flak for being Catholic. Would he answer to the Pope or to the people? It’s actually laughable to consider how scared some Americans were of JFK’s religion.

About our so-called Golden Age, there was that Bay of Pigs thing, the Red Scare, the Cold War, and the Vietnam War. Am I going to mention the Civil Rights Act of 1964? You can bet on it. Although change had been brewing for years, this legislation changed America’s landscape forever. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus, and Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote a letter from the Birmingham jail. His “I Have a Dream” speech is a standard selection in college literature texts. There were other leaders, but this is a blog, not a history lesson.

I’ve rambled. My point is that to my classmates and me, we thought we lived in a golden age. We were naïve. We lived in a bubble, blind to social injustice and the several horrors and misfortunes that others suffered. In our white-bread world, we actually believed Native Americans were the bad guys. Or I did. I believed the history books. And we knew little about African Americans although they likely comprised 25-30 percent of the community’s population.

Then one day at the doctor’s office, I noticed another door at the end of the hall, one that had escaped my notice before that morning. While waiting for Dr. Shaw to come in and diagnose my tonsillitis, a frequent happening, I asked my mother about the door. When she didn’t answer me right away, I looked at her face and could tell she was bothered by my question.

She leaned in and whispered, “That’s the colored waiting room.” My mother, by the way, was simply using the parlance of the day and was the least bigoted person I’ve ever known.

Shocked at the revelation, I didn’t answer. I see that moment as an awakening, for it was absolutely the first time in my young life that I recognized inequality. I’m not dissing the doctor.  Like my mother, he was a product of the times. I’m simply expressing my feelings about America’s mistreatment and marginalization of people perceived as “different.”

While conservatives long for a golden age that never was and liberals hope for a perfect future that will never be, could we just love one another?