The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.
Sometimes I joke about the U.S. coming apart during the year I was away. I left in late 1967 and came back in Autumn 1968. I go away for a year, and the place falls apart! The country I came back to was not the one I left. I left during the “summer of love.” When I got back, love was nowhere in sight. While I was away making war on behalf of our government: 1.) Martin Luther King, Jr., the “drum major for peace,” had been murdered. 2.) Robert Kennedy, whose charism and care for the poor brought my Mother to tears, had been murdered. 3.) Cities were aflame, and raging, angry riots brought military rifles and uniforms into our streets. 4.) The mental defective, Richard Nixon, was running for president and lying about a “secret plan” to end the hateful war in Vietnam while he covertly and illegally sabotaged peace talks. Amid all that upheaval my Father did something I never knew about until one night last Spring.
My “year abroad,” 1967-68.
I found out what my Father did because I met Malcolm X. My sisters, brothers and I were having a dinner out, a Mother’s Day remembrance of our Mother who died a year ago that month. I got there early and was sitting at the bar downing a bracing ginger ale. A conversation ensued with a nearby couple. He was a dead-ringer, so to speak, for Malcolm X — the glasses, the teeth, facial structure, everything. I asked, “Your name isn’t Malcolm, is it?” He smiled and said he’d heard that question before. My brother, Jim, soon arrived; he and his mate took the seats of the departing Malcolm and his wife. I introduced them, and called the man, Malcolm. That prompted a discussion of racial issues and “white privilege” with my brother. I was pleased to learn he is a white man who actually understands the reality of white privilege. I guess that’s what triggered Jim’s memory, and he told me a story.
We had an uncle on my Mother’s side who was a casual racist. He got it from his father — and the resistance to that father is what made my mother so anti-racist. My uncle probably wouldn’t do much openly racist; he just carried it around seething inside him all the time. This uncle and his family were visiting my family one Sunday afternoon. I was in Vietnam at that time, but I remember those regular visits; they always included delightful fresh sweets from a bakery. Jim says during this particular visit, my uncle used the word “nigger” to describe black folk. First time he said it my Father let it pass. The second time my Father stopped him and said, “If you say that word again, I’m going to ask you to leave my house and never come back.” And never come back!
My brother, Jim. A standout in his pink pickup.
I’ve been 10-feet tall since hearing that. I had no idea. My Father and I never had any sort of real conversation about such things. I generally knew he was on the equality side of the civil rights movement, but nothing more specific than that. I’m in awe of the courage it took for my Father to say that to my uncle. Sadly, I’ll never have a chance to ask what prompted him to speak up so forcefully. I think there were two possibilities.
On one hand, it was a message and a powerful lesson to the whole family. He could have taken my uncle aside and told him privately, but he took a more difficult and meaningful path. He publicly rebuked a racist, thereby delivering a more powerful sermon than most delivered on any Sunday in the churches. He could also have been protecting my Mother. She was virulently opposed to the use of that word. I think when she heard a man refer to another man as a “nigger,” what welled up in her were awful feelings of the hate and fear and violence she saw in her father. All that emotion was more than she could handle. And to see her father’s oldest son using that word, well, my Father would have understood exactly. Either way, I wish I had been there to see it. I’ll chalk it up as one more thing the Vietnam war took from us.
My parents, Bill & Jane, circa 1993 in Florida.
During dinner with the brothers and sisters (five of us) we talked about changes in parenting during our lives and how we were raised with violence. Whipping with belts was common. The worst was when I came home late for dinner one night. I was probably 12 years old. My father was angry and started hollering. I responded by zipping up my jacket and saying something about getting out of there. That sent my Father into a rage. Before I could take a step I was thrown across the room. Coming to my rescue my sister, Janet, also got tossed. We agreed it was the way parenting was done in those times, but it was wrong. Throughout the discussion I kept thinking about evil living on as it did in our talk, yet the good had been disinterred by my brother, Jim. For me, the good in his story far outweighed the bad. My Father, in a sober and considered moment, had demonstrated integrity and courage and compassion for his fellow humans. That’s a lot of good in one life.
Sorry, Mr. Shakespeare, not this time.