Equality In The Air We Breathe, If Allowed to Breathe

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!

I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.

O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

America!
O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!

~Langston Hughes from “Let America Be America Again” (1935)

When we remain silent in the face of injustice,
we loudly slap the face of God.
Because the person being abused
is the face of God.
~Ann Voskamp

What has changed in America since Langston Hughes wrote “Let America Be America” in 1935? How many angry generations have passed since then and how many more are to come?

When three generations stand side by side, with angry words and tear-streaked faces, admitting that nothing has changed, then things have to change.

We are withering together in our anger and our tears.

Our children should not be faced with the choice of putting themselves in harm’s way because they are not allowed to breathe the same air of equality as everyone else. They deserve breath because God breathed them into existence, like everyone else. Instead, we are destroying their future as they are suffocated in the streets.

It has never been about “making America great again.”

It is about let America be America, once and for all.

Things Unknown But Longed For

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
    When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
    But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,   
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

~Paul Dunbar from “Sympathy”

…the goldfinch comes, with a twitching chirrup
A suddenness, a startlement,at a branch end
Then sleek as a lizard, and alert and abrupt,
She enters the thickness,and a machine starts up
Of chitterings, and of tremor of wings, and trillings –
The whole tree trembles and thrills
It is the engine of her family.
She stokes it full, then flirts out to a branch-end
Showing her barred face identity mask

Then with eerie delicate whistle-chirrup whisperings
She launches away, towards the infinite

~Ted Hughes from “The Laburnum Top”

The free bird thinks of another breeze
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn
and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied
so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

~Maya Angelou from “Caged bird”

The 4 AM moment of this waning night
before the first bird awakes to sing –
a solemn silence holds its breath
till broken by chitters and tweets.

Like a full breast tingles
with readiness to flow until emptied –
this wave of quiet builds before toppling forward
in barely contained abundance, saturating our ears.

The Conductor’s baton rises to ready
the multi-voiced chorus –
awaking voices, pleading, spill from
a thousand thousand perches.

My anticipation rises for
for such a prayer uncaged and free –
cascading from overnight stillness
into an explosive unmistakeable dawn.

photo by Harry Rodenberger

The Color of Redemption

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If you’re white and you’re wrong, then you’re wrong;
if you’re black and you’re wrong, you’re wrong.
People are people.
Black, blue, pink, green –
God make no rules about color;
only society make rules where my people suffer,
and that why we must have redemption and redemption now.
~Bob Marley

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My skin is kind of sort of brownish
Pinkish yellowish white.
My eyes are greyish blueish green,
But I’m told they look orange in the night.
My hair is reddish blondish brown,
But it’s silver when it’s wet.
And all the colors I am inside
Have not been invented yet.
~Shel Silverstein from “Colors” in Where the Sidewalk Ends

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It demands great spiritual resilience not to hate the hater whose foot is on your neck,
and an even greater miracle of perception and charity not to teach your child to hate.
~James Arthur Baldwin

A Homogenized Amalgam

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Let me say finally, that in the midst of the hollering and in the midst of the discourtesy tonight, we got to come to see that however much we dislike it, the destinies of white and black America are tied together. Now the races don’t understand this apparently. But our destinies are tied together. And somehow, we must all learn to live together as brothers in this country or we’re all going to perish together as fools. …Whether we like it or not culturally and otherwise, every white person is a little bit negro and every negro is a little bit white. Our language, our music, our material prosperity and even our food are an amalgam of black and white, so there can be no separate black path to power and fulfillment that does not intersect white routes and there can ultimately be no separate white path to power and fulfillment short of social disaster without recognizing the necessity of sharing that power with black aspirations for freedom and human dignity.
~Martin Luther King,Jr.– in one of his last speeches, given at Grosse Point, Michigan high school (near Detroit) to a mostly white and often heckling audience, March 14, 1968

I grew up during the 1960’s in Olympia, Washington, a fair-sized state capitol of 20,000+ people at the time and our city had only one black family.

One.

There were a few Japanese and Korean families, a few Hispanics, but other than the Native American folks from the nearby Nisqually Reservation, our community seemed comprised of homogenized milk. Pretty much plain white.

In 1970, a white Olympia High School graduation student speaker caused a controversy resulting in numerous parents walking out of the ceremony she called our town a “white racist ghetto” in her speech. It was the first time I’d heard someone other than Martin Luther King, Jr. actually crack a previously unspoken barrier using only words. What she said caused much anger, but the ensuing debate in the newspaper Letters to the Editor, around lunch counters at the five and dime, and in the churches and real estate offices made a difference. Olympia slowly, in recognition at being called out for racism, began to open its social and political doors to people who weren’t white.

Heading to college in California helped broaden my white and limited point of view, but in the 70′s there were still few diversity admissions initiatives, so it was still a mostly white campus. Living in Africa to study wild chimpanzees in Africa in 1975, I experienced being one of two whites traveling among hundreds of very dark skinned Tanzanians on trains and boats in the interior of the country. I became the one gawked at, viewed as an oddity, pointed at by small children who were frightened, amused and perplexed by my appearance, and so constantly felt out of place. I did not belong. Yet I was treated graciously, with hospitality, although always a curiosity.

Returning to the Northwest meant blending in with homogenized white milk again. Although there was some minimal diversity in my medical school class (even women constituted less than 25% of my class of 1980), it wasn’t until I was in family practice residency at Seattle’s Capitol Hill Group Health Cooperative Hospital that I began to experience the world in technicolor. I joined a group of doctors in training that included an African American activist from the east coast, a Kiowa Indian, several of Jewish background, a son of Mexican immigrants, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, a Japanese American, someone of Spanish descent, and a Yupik Eskimo. Not only was I challenged to articulate how I perceived our inner city patients’ cultural, racial, religious, ethnic and sexual minority context, but I witnessed how much more effectively my colleagues and teachers worked with patients who looked or grew up like them. It was such a foundational experience that I was drawn to a medical practice in a Group Health Rainier Valley neighborhood clinic. There I saw patients who lived in the projects that lined Martin Luther King Way, struggling to overcome poverty and social fragmentation, clustered together in diverse little knots of extended family within a few square miles. There were many ethnic groups: African Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees, Ashkenazi Jews, Middle East Muslims, Russian immigrants and some Catholic Italian families who spoke broken English. I delivered babies who would grow up learning languages and traditions from every corner of the globe. It was a wide world of diversity that walked into my exam rooms, enriching my life in ways I had never imagined.

I found that white milk, nurturing as it was, was not a reflection of everything the world had to offer and pretty bland all on its own.

When I married and we were starting our own family, we made the decision to move north near my husband’s home community of Lynden, a town of Dutch dairy farming immigrants. We planned to own our own farm to raise our children in a rural setting just as both of us had been raised. There was significant adjustment necessary once again even adapting to a primarily Caucasian community. I am not Dutch even though I am as white and tall as the Frieslanders (some of my ancestry is from Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, right across the Holland border).  I still didn’t belong.

I didn’t have the same cultural or church background to fit in easily in my new home. The color of my skin no longer made me noticeable, but the difference in rituals, the language quirks and traditions stood out. In other words, the milk looked just as white, (maybe skim versus whole or 2%), but varied significantly in taste (were the cows just let out on grass??)

Even with those apparent differences, our rural community has transformed over the last twenty six years since we moved here. We have two growing Native American sovereign nations within a few miles, the Nooksack and Lummi tribes, along with increasing numbers of migrant Hispanic families who work the seasonal berry and orchard harvest, many of whom have settled in year round. My supervisors where I work are African American. Our close proximity to the lower mainland of British Columbia has brought Taiwanese, Japanese and Hong Kong immigrants to our area, and East Indians immigrate to our county in large extended families, attracted by affordable farmland. A rural corner grocery only a few miles from our farm was built and managed by Sikhs who have stocked the shelves with the most amazing array of Indian spices and Mexican chili sauce, with Dutch peppermints and licorice thrown in for good measure.

Our children have grown up rural but, as adults, have become part of communities even more varied. Nate teaches multiracial students in an international high school in Tokyo, Japan and married Tomomi a year ago. Ben just finished two years as a Teach for America high school math teacher on the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, and married to Hilary, they are a racial  minority in their mostly black neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut.   Lea is completing her Education Degree with a Spanish emphasis and spent last semester attending a variety of Hispanic churches in the Chicago area.  Our children are privileged to work within the kaleidoscope of humanity and our family is blessed to be multiracial.

Homogenized means more than just uniformity. It is a unity of substance, a breaking down of barriers so there is no longer obvious separation.  Martin Luther King, Jr. called it amalgam — a mixture that yields something stronger than the original parts.   I call what has happened in my life a homogenized amalgam.  I am still all white on the outside — I can’t change that —  but strive to break down barriers that separate me from others who live, work and worship around me who will enrich my life.    It can’t help but improve the flavor.

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