Monday, January 19, 2015
MLK legacy ... what legacy?
Where things lack in-your-face experience, I guess I think they are pretty squishy ... sincere and logical, perhaps, but front-loaded with a righteous squishiness. It's common enough and I am not immune, but that doesn't mean I can't notice it.
Today, in the United States, it is Martin Luther King Day -- a day off for some as the nation sort of recognizes the legacy of a civil rights leader who was assassinated April 4, 1968.
I wouldn't for a moment demean the energy King inspired in a nation trying to get over its hate affair with race. But what springs most vividly to mind, what is far from principled-but-squishy, is a couple of black friends I had during basic training in the army. They stick in my mind like a splinter under my fingernail ... embarrassing and revealing and instructive and somehow still painful. My painful ignorance.
The basic training installation was in Columbia, S.C. -- Fort Jackson. Most of the young men being trained ranged in age from about 18 to about 22 -- an age-range favored by nations intent on war. I was 21 and had joined up because military service was, in 1961, compulsory. I joined because I didn't have the courage for conscientious objection, the desire to go to graduate school or the ability to get pregnant -- any of which might have exempted me. And besides all that, like a lot of young men 18-22, I wanted experience more than I wanted or understood virtue.
I can't remember the name of the first black fellow I started to pal around with. We just fell into each other as pals will. We would tease and goad each other about who could do more pull-ups or push-ups or get a better shooting score. It was good-natured and friendly and fun.
But then one day, my black pal wasn't in formation and I didn't see him in the chow hall. This happened for two or three days running. Where had he gone? He was a bit of a cut-up, but he wasn't a fuck-up so I couldn't imagine his being expelled.
Then, after about three days, he was back. And it turned out that he had been in the hospital where, at 19 or whatever he was, he had had ALL of his teeth pulled out.
The news hit me like a large rock in a still pond. I had been brought up brushing my teeth (grudgingly) and going to the dentist. To have all of his teeth pulled out suggested that he was not like me ... that he had come out of a significantly different background, one that was impoverished by comparison to my own. How had I not recognized this about the world? How could I be so stupid, so blinded, so lacking in understanding? Somehow, I was deeply ashamed of myself.
My second black chum was named John. We bunked near each other in a bay of perhaps 20 double-decker beds. And a bit at a time, we warmed up to each other. John was quiet. He had returned to the army after some absence from an initial tour. He had to take basic training all over again and I thought his silences betokened a desire to keep a low profile and get through the bullshit.
Late in the eight weeks of basic training, everyone got a pass. This meant we could go into Columbia free from the strictures of military life. It was a big deal. I was dying for a good meal, a private room, and a chance to read a decent book. If I got drunk along the way, that would be OK too. Strangely, I didn't really think about women.
I took my enthusiasms to John. Would he come with me and hang out and perhaps celebrate a little? John remained silent. He said he wasn't planning to go into town. I was flabbergasted. How could he not want to get away from the olive-green conformities?! How could he not want to breathe a breath of unfettered air?! One, two, three times I argued and cajoled ... come on! we'll have fun!
Finally, he surrendered his silence to our friendship.
"No, man," he said without inflection, "I wouldn't want to cause you any trouble."
And it was then that I realized John was black. Black, in the South, and with a more informed understanding of how the world, the real world, worked.
If someone had stabbed me in the heart, I couldn't have been more informed. Out of ignorance and into a light that made me incalculably sad. Sad for the situation and sad for my own, ingrained and unintentional ignorance. Even today, I would do anything to erase or take back the awful black light that lit up my understanding. It was like a death. As I mourned my ignorance, I also mourned for my ignorance. "What the fuck does skin color have to do with anything?!" I raged. And the answer came back implacably, "quite a lot."
These are the memories I bring forward on Martin Luther King Day. They are my celebration. I'm not trying to do a mea-culpa, squishy, caring number by recalling them. They were experience and to this day I cannot recall them without cringing ... and hoping without much good reason that I won't be so stupid again.
Martin Luther King did a lot of wonderful things. I wish his legacy could wipe away my capacity for stupidity.
Unfortunately, it can't.