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On Having Dreams (and Colors and Words) (1/18/21)

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

On this holiday to honor the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, I’m trying to keep the Reverend’s long view in mind. A true visionary, he still takes care of us, here in early 2021, with his energy, clarity and poetry. After the '65 Watts riots in California -- and the 2020 BLM protests -- he made sure we understood that “a riot is the language of the unheard.” Also, that “hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Dr. King shared his dreams; he sang his dreams. My father was born a few weeks before Dr. King. He went down to the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 and heard the power of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech as he first sang it out.

The other day on a Zoom with medical students, we had some time before all the breakouts finished. They talked about the detours and blockades around their apartments and clinical sites, in-between an armed insurrection and a let’s-hope-peaceful Inauguration. I told them I could remember 1968, when our city held similar tension.

“Was that when President Kennedy was killed?”

“That was ’63. In 1968, Dr. King and JFK’s younger brother Robert were assassinated. People were protesting injustice and war, and sometimes they got hurt, tear-gassed, even killed …”

Inside the array of Zoom boxes, their heads nodded. The mood sounded familiar, even if the details were different. Looking at them, t thought how news articles at the time of King’s murder used the word “Negro,” even “colored,” while these 3rd-year med-students use “BiPOC” (black and Indigenous people of color). Language evolves and mutates as surely as any virus does, if less dramatically.

Today is also the birth day of my cousin John, who died in his 30s from complications of Type I diabetes. Many years later, I still think of John, his 8 sisters and our Aunt Patsy when I develop any standardized-patient case involving diabetes. A few years ago, in a revision meeting about a longtime case, I used the term “diabetic” and was reprimanded by one of the content experts. “We don’t say that any more!”

“Oh, I’m so sorry. This is from the original text, from docs who co-wrote the case (in the early 2000s). How -- what do we say now?” (My brain had fogged from his indignant tone.) The doc gave me a disappointed look and said, “A PERSON with diabetes.” Sure. Of course, done. Likewise, the earlier version's words like “compliant” were now offensive: “You mean adherent.” Yes, that is better, less judgmental, more partnering. Still, I felt shaken by using terms I still heard, but turned out to be offensive, now.

Recently I read a piece [1] from UC Berkeley’s library system about the importance of words in catalog holdings. To paraphrase, if you searched for a book only by keywords, for example, The Bluest Eye, the system might assume you’re looking for genetic, or color-palette-related, or ophthalmologic holdings. But with Subject Headings like fiction, or Morrison, Toni, or first-novel or American authors, you’d land in the land of the book you sought. Berkeley, like other academic institutions, is struggling with keeping Subject Headings ‘neutral,’ when the context of a certain era mutates language. "Illegal Aliens' would not have applied for my great-great-grandfather Patrick Donovan, for example. To flee famine didn't render him illegal when he arrived.

His son, my great-grandfather TJ, directed a boys’ school in Rock Castle, Virginia, after retiring as a trial lawyer in DC. He’d been born in Illinois, came to DC when his boss was elected to the U.S. Senate, and later, successfully represented the owner of a movie theater that collapsed during the historic Knickerbocker Storm of 1922. (That’s a big story for another day.) TJ died suddenly on a train while bringing the payroll to his school. At the time it was called St. Emma’s Industrial and Agricultural Institute for Colored and Indian Boys, founded in the 1890s. The school was dedicated to educating what we’d now call BiPOC students. Their “education was similar to that of Booker T. Washington in its emphasis on practical skills. The curriculum at St. Emma’s included canning, farming, equipment repair, engineering, accounting and management.” [2]

“Colored” and “Indian” were politically correct terms in that day, before evolving into “Negro,” then “Black” or “Afro-American” when I went to high-school.

The “N-word” sucked the air out of me when I read the hate-letters in my locker about dating J. There were two scrawled notes, one folded inside the other, which read: “You just love those big juicy black jobs, don’t you, n- lover” and “Why don’t you stick to your own kind?” (I was a virgin through high-school graduation, but the assumption that we’d had sex was the least of my concerns, even as a girl named after a famous Virgin.)

I was standing outside my locker, frosted from the shock of those words, even the force of the handwriting, when J. walked by.

“What’s wrong?”

I handed over the notes. “Who could have written this kind of thing?” Our school was relatively small. J. and I were in the first graduating class. Our well-integrated student body was exceptionally close, building a high-school with our teachers as we went along. We’d picked the school colors and mascot. Our choir director and band teacher wrote the school song and taught it to us in Chorus; the students still sing it today. This was the late-‘70s, when we were supposed to be past racial issues like going to school together, or even getting married. Right?

J. said he had an idea who had written them, but he wouldn’t tell me. (And never told me. For all I know one or both classmates are ‘friends’ I’m connected to now, through social media.)

Whoever they were, I wonder if they, in turn, raised children to believe that writing hateful notes like that was somehow “patriotic,” like raising a Confederate flag inside our country’s house last week. A country or state can pass laws, but there’s always a lag before beliefs and behaviors – taught by elders who were taught under older laws and fear – catch up. For some, teachings like “stick to your own kind” persist long after the laws change. Even through MLK weekend of 2021.

I'm still trying to catch up with history not written in textbooks, about practices like red-lining certain neighborhoods, to prevent mortgage-lending to persons of color. Still trying to appreciate the massive gaps of opportunity, from different starting points of trust, higher-learning, safety, inheritance.

Along with my cousin John’s, today is also my Uncle Chuck’s birth day. He was born around the time of the Knickerbocker Snowstorm, but far from DC. Uncle Chuck told stories of his childhood in Africa, hopping across the backs of crocodiles to jump onto a ship bound for America, running away from lions with his brother. We weren’t completely sure the stories were true --- they sounded a lot like old Tarzan movies, or Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom on TV -- but we didn’t care. We loved him and whatever childhood he described. He was our uncle, who loved and married (legally, by 1972) our Aunt Teresa, whom we also adored. Chuck’s skin was as dark a brown as I’d ever seen on a person. When we went for walks and he told his tales, his cheeks and eyes sparkled from perspiration and a joyful spirit. He died in 2007 in Macomb, Illinois, after decades of food-service work for a college, a country club, and a school. Over this very weekend, a 'leaf' popped up on Ancestry from our grandmother Donovan's (nee Betz) side: a copy of Chuck and Teresa's marriage certificate. It stated "Buffalo, NY" as Chuck's birthplace, so it seems he had been born in the U.S.A.

Our grandmother struggled at first with having a black son-in-law in the ‘70s, mostly from uncertainty about his acceptance among her peers and neighbors. She needed very little lag time, however, before she’d shoot a sharp side-eye or string of words toward anyone who dared to speak against “my son.” She had raised 11 children to internalize a commitment to community service and social justice. The middle of those 11, my father, wouldn’t miss a March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, a chance to hear a reverend sing his dreams of living in a nation where his 4 children would “not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” We may not be there quite yet, but the Reverend sure led us closer.

In 2nd or 3rd grade I had a one-on-one conversation with my father outside our crowded house. One evening after dinner he said, “Muffin, let’s go for a walk. I want to have a talk.” This had never happened before. At that point there would’ve been 5 of us kids between ages 3-9, and one still more to be made. What in the world was happening – walk and talk, by ourselves? “Am I in trouble?”

“Well, no,” he said. That didn’t sound like no trouble. To make my kid-brain’s point, he repeated, “We need to have a talk.” He led me down the hill from our house to a patch of grass at the curb on the next street, and motioned for me to sit down.

My father said, “I’ve noticed you haven’t played with Linda in a while.”

Linda was my newest neighbor, right across the street. She walked to Rock Creek Elementary while most of the neighborhood rode a bus to Holy Redeemer, like us. Linda’s family had moved in the previous summer, on a weekend day when all the kid-choked families were out in their yards, playing, mowing, crying, grilling. My father walked right across the street and made a point of shaking Mr. W’s hand, welcoming them to the neighborhood. Other fathers and families stopped moving and talking, to watch this. From their stares and their not crossing the street and everything I'd unconsciously learned by then, I guessed that it mattered that the W family had darker skin. That not all our neighbors felt so welcoming toward a Negro family.

I’d felt very glad my own father had crossed the street and said Welcome to the neighborhood! (He wasn’t always the friendliest person.) To him they were our "own kind” – the humankind, who lived in houses.

My Dad was waiting for me to answer. “I guess I haven’t, played with her lately.”

He took a long drag on his cigarette. “Do you think that’s because she has darker skin?”

My head tilted. I thought, that would be weird. “Why do you ask that?”

“Because for some people it does matter.”

I remembered coloring with Linda on our front porch, a few weeks earlier. Our family’s big box of 64 Crayons had come with a sharpener in the back, but at some point a crayon had broken off inside, blocking the blade.

We were chatting away and picking out crayons. I noticed she took the brown one to color her princess’ face. “Why are you using brown?” The Crayola people had put the word “Flesh” on a much lighter, pink-ish-clay crayon. That had not struck me as strange; my flesh looked something like it, at least in winter. Linda answered, “Because my skin is brown.”

“Oh. Okay.” Well that made sense. I nodded and we kept going with our princesses. My mother referred to my skin as ‘olive,’ like hers, meaning not ‘very fair,’ like my Dad’s. But I did not pull the olive-green crayon out, to color my picture's skin. My father turned almost magenta if he did too much yardwork. I wasn't sure what to do with Crayola's Truth -- like much of the Big World of Everything I Didn't Understand.

Linda must have asked me what was my favorite color, because I remember launching into a complex explanation about the sharpener.

“Usually it’s either blue-green or green-blue, then comes magenta, or burnt sienna. But I’m not using any of those today, because our sharpener won’t sharpen, and I don’t want to get partway through a dress or something and then not be able to make a point with it again, so I’m using one of my not-as-favorite colors.”

Linda stopped coloring. “Why don’t you use one of your favorites as long as you can?”

I remember feeling frustrated, even though I could see her point. “Because for me it would be worse not to be able to do a whole something, like make this shawl only half blue-green and then the point's more of a circle which is hard to aim and suddenly I'd have to switch to some other color. I want it to be a good point, at the top. So I’d rather just use a color that’s not so much of my favorite.”

Like, to save the best color. For when it mattered, and I could finish with it, how I wanted it to look.

But I was not making the point of the point well. Linda shook her head. I knew she didn’t understand, while she understood that she didn’t understand my logic. She stared at me, and I stared at her. After a few more minutes Linda said, “I think I have to go home for lunch.” That actually sounded fine to me.

How could I explain this to my father, sitting by the curb on a bit of grass, during one of a handful of conversations with him throughout my entire childhood? That my new friend and I probably hadn’t played together lately because of different creative / aesthetic approaches toward sharpening a dulled Crayola tip? We were 8 years old. We would get past that.

Yet I could understand why he would ask, how for some people, the color of someone’s skin meant something. I remembered it had even mattered to me, when I wondered why Linda didn’t use the Flesh for her picture’s flesh. I was already absorbing larger lessons that conflicted with my family’s own lessons, even if I couldn’t have found those words at the time. “Unconscious bias” must be a relatively new Subject Heading for librarians.

“It’s not because of that, Dad.”

He took another deep drag and turned to look at me. My father had THE bluest eyes.

(Mine are dark. In daylight, speckled with green and gold. None of the grandparents I knew had the same color.)

“Okay,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure.” He added, “You know you’re no better than anyone else, right?"

I nodded. “Yes.”

While we walked back to our house, I thought, I’m going to remember this conversation, and its rarity means he wants me to remember it.

I’ve recalled that talk many times. As complicated as our relationship was through the years, I hold that (“just wanted to make sure”) among the most precious lessons of my life.

My father was the only Donovan present at Uncle Chuck’s wedding to Aunt Teresa back in Chicago. (She had come to live with us in Oak Park after her teaching days in Evanston, IL, so we felt especially close to her, even after we moved to Maryland. We all wanted to go back with him. But the ceremony was small, and 8 plane tickets and all that missed school weren’t reasonable. Teresa wore an off-white wedding-dress with a gorgeous red-plaid placket, from our dad’s photos. Chuck looked so happy.)

I never told either of my parents about the hate-messages in my locker (which had only brought J. and I closer – sorry, haters). I remember feeling sorry for whoever had written them. Sorry that those high-school classmates had had a father other than my own – who must not have sat them down on a curb to make sure they understood that the content of one’s character did matter.

As an adult and learning more about my ancestors, I’m ever more grateful to hear of our great-great-grandfather who gave up a lucrative life in the law, to direct a school for “Colored and Indian boys,” even if he lived only a short time longer. He was born in Illinois of parents born in Ireland, who managed to escape during the Great Potato Famine. I don’t know if hardships like that help one to understand we are all of the same “your own kind.” I don't know if, in my lifetime, I'll ever be able to appreciate the depth and breadth of advantages I had, simply by having "white" (olive) skin. But I’m grateful my specific family’s culture found a through-line to wonder about justice, down to me, and over to you, with your own beautiful through-lines, still threading as we go. I'm grateful for your time, to read these thoughts about mine.

I hadn't thought before writing this -- how my own father is still trying to take care of me here in early 2021, in his way, a year after he died.

Thank you again, Dr. Martin Luther King, visionary, teacher, baritone, And as the Irish say, to their close kin and humankind, Safe Home.

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