A Sense of Place

Saying the NFL kneeling is about the flag
is like saying Rosa Parks staying seated on the bus in Montgomery
was about transportation

–Overheard somewhere, yesterday

It’s now sixty-four years since I saw what I saw, and nothing’s changed. Nothing.

It was 1953, I was 14, visiting my sister in New Orleans. Late one night, I board a street car on Canal Street. A stop or two down Canal, a drunk Negro boards, shuffles half-way down the isle and slumps down in front of the placard on the seat back that reads Whites Only.
“Get back a the sign,” the driver says. Drunk doesn’t move.
“Boy, you better move,” the driver says. Surly stare from the Negro.
Driver gets off the trolley, walks over to a phone booth and calls the cops. Minutes later, a paddy wagon with four cops arrives. The cops rush aboard, jerk the Negro off the Whites Only seat, drag him off the trolley, slam him onto the pavement and beat the living shit out of him with night sticks. They truss him in a straight-jacket, throw him in the back of the paddy wagon and drag his ass off to who knows where–fling him in the Mississippi river, for all I know.

It is frightening. I nearly vomit. I’ve never seen such violence done to a human being. I feel somehow violated myself.

Well, something has changed. The violence done to blacks, seemingly because they are blacks, is still a matter of sad record. You do not hear about a white mother telling her son, “No matter what happens, DO NOT RUN!” For a black mother, this is a survival strategy she must teach her young men, and pray they listen.

The change is that America’s persistent, shameful racism is out of the closet because a thoughtful young man demonstrated his  resistance to the status quo a year ago. And now it is in our face, and we are, one hopes, beginning a reasoned conversation about it.

At bible study this morning, Pastor Bob directed us to open our minds. In the circumstance, what should we do? Respect the nation’s flag, our most hallowed symbol of our values, some said. Respect the right that our constitution gives to lawful citizens to protest, said others (there is no law prohibiting burning or defacing or spitting or urinating on the flag).

Then we heard what, for me, was the real deal from a seventy-something, self-admitted Good Ole Boy.

He said, “My Granddaddy was mustard-gassed in Germany during WWI, my Daddy fought the Japs on Iwo Jima, and when I smarted off about the anti-war protesters during the Viet Nam war, my Daddy said “You just hold it, right there, son. Yore Granddaddy and I did what we did so that they would have the right to raise hell if they didn’t like things the way they were. Don’t you forget it!”

Then he cited the Constitution and its amendments, all of them. And he asked the question to the fifty white guys in the class, “Do we have any idea what it’s like not to be a privileged white man, something we had nothing to do with?”

Author Annie Dillard, In her book, Teaching a Stone To Talk, would have us think about these things:

In the deeps are the violence and terror of which psychology has warned us. But if you ride these monsters down, if you drop with them farther over the world’s rim, you find what our sciences cannot locate or name, the substrate, the ocean or matrix or ether which buoys the rest, which gives goodness its power for good, and evil its power of evil, the unified field: our complex and inexplicable caring for each other, and for our life together here. This is given. it is not learned.




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