I have to tell you all this, personal as it is.
When I was seven years old, Rogers and Hammerstein wrote a song for South Pacific called, “You Have to be Taught.” If you want to listen to it right now, you can find it here, introduced and played by the geniuses who wrote it. The lyrics make an important case: that race prejudice is not natural to us. It is learned behavior.
Over the course of my life, I have seen many, many instances of young children naturally playing and laughing together, despite any outward differences between them. Kids want other kids to play with. They don’t care what color the other kids are as long as they know how to have fun.
Rogers and Hammerstein were absolutely right. BUT. Sometimes it is the child’s environment, not his or her family that teaches the kid to hate. Pre-civil-rights-movement case in point: It’s the early 50’s, not only pre-civil rights, but also still the age of “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Soap went into the mouths of children who talked back. My father, however, was as gentle of soul as he was strong of body. To mete out punishment was not something he did readily, so the event I am about to describe was doubly dramatic because of his heated response.
One evening at the family dinner table, my older brother—maybe he was nine—used a word he learned from the kids in the neighborhood: “nigger.” My father rose out of his chair and said, “Stand up, young man. I am going to show you what happens to anyone who uses that word in this house.” He took my brother into the bathroom and washed out his mouth with soap. In my house the kids were not only NOT taught to hate. They were quite actively taught NOT to hate. “Whatever other people might do, WE do not do that,” was my father’s message.
Much later, I learned how my dad learned his attitudes: He had been a child in Matewan, WV when his coal-miner father, along with other Italian immigrants, was brought in to break a strike. The other group of “imported” workers were blacks. In the end the Italians and the Blacks banded together and joined the strike. If you want to learn about this historic event by watching a great movie, see “Matewan.” There is a fabulous scene where all the strikers (West Virginian, black, and Italian) are living together in a West Virginia “holler,” making music together. My father wept when he saw that. “It was your grandfather paying the mandolin,” he told me.
After the Italians went back to their coal mining jobs in Western Pennsylvania, the Ku Klux Klan went after them. You know, don’t you, that the KKK’s hate extends to immigrants and Catholics and Jews.
If you think what comes next sounds self-congratulatory, please understand that I was carefully taught NOT to hate and fear. My parents and my father’s parents deserve the credit for my decent behavior—not me.
When I was in high school, there was one “colored” student in whole school. He was one year younger than me and my classmates. It was small Catholic school—only 37 in my whole class. At school dances, that boy usually sat on the sidelines. But one day, he asked me to dance. I gladly accepted. After the song ended, a couple of boys from my class warned me that what I had just done was very wrong. One of them called me a name I cannot bring myself to type. The second word in the phrase is “lover.” My classmate had learned to hate. He warned me that if I danced with that colored boy again, no one else would ever dance with me. “Well, yeah,” I answered, “if you were a better dancer, I just might want to dance with you.” (When my mother washed my mouth with soap, it was because I was a smart aleck!)
In my college, the students were all required to take twelve credits in philosophy. It was in my first course that I learned Aristotle and Thomas Acquinas’s definitions of “essence” and “accidents.” “Essence” is what makes the thing what it is. “Accidents” are qualities that describe how it is. A chair has the essence of being a chair. That it is a rocking chair, wooden, and painted blacks are its “accidents.” A person’s “essence” is that he is a human being. Skin color, height, etc. are “accidents.” “So,” the nun who taught the course said, “if you are going to decide to hate a person because of his skin color, you might as well decide to hate him for his eye color or his shoe size.”
I embrace that idea with all my heart. I was brought up to believe it.
Within the past couple of weeks, Stan posted a guest piece from Ali Karim asking people to stand up against hate. A few days ago, in discussing the miserable recent behavior of some Americans, Stan told me that he now sees more progress against racism in South Africa than he does in the US. That observation froze my soul.
I take Ali’s pleas very much to heart. Given what’s been going on in the world lately, and what has happened in the last ten days in the USA, we ALL have a lot of standing up to do.
“What the world need now is love, sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s just too little of.” Jejune lyrics of a simplistic song? I don’t think so.
Me, I am still a lover. So lucky to have been brought up to be one. And I ask you stand up and be one too.