(From my Jan, 6th, 2003 newspaper column)
With so many black people killed and black churches burning or burned down it is time to revisit this call to embrace our diversity.
I receive a lot of strange things in the mail. I think the oddest thing I’ve received was an unsolicited poster of Martin Luther King. It is a stunning photograph, nearly life-size, and simply a beautiful portrait of a remarkable man. Some branch of New York State’s government sent it to me. Why, I do not know, but I’m glad they did.
I get many comments about it. It hangs on the wall in my book shop window and literally stops traffic. It is so lifelike, people do double-takes. Eight weeks of the year it is covered by one of Thomas Nast’s famous Santa Claus drawings, so if you only come into the village at Christmas time you probably missed it. The rest of the year it hangs there, next to a sign that reads, “Hate is not a family value”.
In the four years it’s been there I’ve only had 2 people say something negative about it. One was the proprietor of a short-lived shop in the Village who said he met the man several times and didn’t like him. Well . . . that’s OK. I didn’t know Martin Luther King, so I can’t say what he was like personally. I respect him for what he stood for. It was the other comment that was more troubling to me.
One fairly warm day just after I put the poster up, someone I knew called into the open door of my shop, “Hey, Frisbie. What’s his picture doing hanging there? This is an Anglo-Saxon town.” For better or for worse, I have to admit that I’m rarely at a loss for words. (HA! That qualifies me for an honorary membership in the Understatement Of The Month Club! ) This time, however, it was close, but I tersely replied, “I’m exploring my roots.” That remark was meant as an end to the exchange, but anyone with the nerve to ask such a question was not to be silenced. He yelled back, “I know your mother, and I knew your father. Those aren’t your roots.”
What can be done with such an insensitive lout? I quietly explained that I liked the picture and my customers liked the picture, and if he didn’t like it, he didn’t have to come into my shop. His witty retort? “Ah, Frisbie, you know I don’t read. What would I want to buy books for?” With that, he was gone, and I was ticked off. Was it just a bad joke? Or a smart remark half meant in jest? I don’t think so. I know the guy. I think he meant it in all its ugly connotations.
“Exploring my roots.” I use that phrase a lot now. I enjoy ethnic diversity in people and in food, too. Whenever I am cooking a Mexican, Asian, or some other culture-specific dish, that’s what I say I’m doing – exploring my roots. So, on the following Thanksgiving, when 12 or so of my immediate family members were finished with dinner, I offered them some of my sweet potato pie. Now, it wasn’t the stringy, rural Southern dish I remember having in my youth, dark with molasses like the kind I used to bake. No, this is a smooth, refined, almost “white-bread” (if you’ll excuse the expression) version that many people mistake for pumpkin. It doesn’t compare to the real thing, but there is much less of it left over, so I guess everyone else likes it better. Anyway, I mentioned exploring my roots again, and because everyone at the table knew him, I told the story about so-and-so and his Anglo-Saxon town.
Didn’t that liven up the conversation around the table! Everyone had a story to tell about this guy. None of them laudatory. And then my mother floored us with the statement, “He was wrong, you know. You are exploring your roots. My grandmother was born in Africa.”
My mother always had something to say, God rest her soul. This time was no exception. If you knew her, you’d know I didn’t lick it off the wall. Once she was sure she had our attention, she told us the story I’ve condensed below.
She said that her great-grandfather and mother were part of the British colonial presence in Africa. I knew her mother was from England, but little more than that. Anyway, while they were there, they had several children, her grandmother among them. When the fighting with the indigenous people took a bad turn, (that’s not exactly what she said, but there is no reason to perpetuate a 150 year old racial slur that I’ve never seen in print – suffice it to say it was the only term she ever heard to describe those fierce warriors) it was decided the family would return to Great Britain for their safety. On the way home, one sister died on board the ship and was buried in the Indian Ocean. The rest made it home safely and, after a few more branches were added to the family tree, we were all sitting around the holiday table thankful for their fecundity.
So, while I don’t exactly have African “Roots” (with apologies to Alex Haley) I have ties to the African continent. I also have the sensibility to embrace the diversity of cultures drawn to this melting pot of a country of ours. Heck, only a few generations back, we were part of the wretched refuse ourselves. So, a word to the blowhard bigots out there – Get over it!
This weekend we have a National Holiday celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King. Shortly after that will be St. Patrick’s Day, then Passover and Easter. Before you know it we’ll be celebrating Cinco de Mayo. When you look at the rest of the calendar year, you can see that it, too, is rich with ethnicity. Let us explore it, embrace it, and make peace with it.