“These are the times that try men’s souls” Thomas Paine wrote in 1776. These words are appropriate today, except we should add “women’s” to the mix. What the hell is wrong with our country? With our leaders? Heck, I can’t even call them leaders any more.
I grew up in the late 1940s/1950s in Wichita, Kansas, a state considered for all intents and purposes to be Southern in leaning. I remember my first contact with a Black person, a man whose car my Dad was fixing. We were introduced and I was afraid to shake his hand for fear the color would rub off. I was 6. Dad was mortified and apologized to the man. My first lesson in prejudice.
In Wichita at the time, neighborhoods were strictly divided and one didn’t cross over into the other. When a Black family, a doctor’s family, moved into my grandparents’ neighborhood, every house in that neighborhood went up for sale; I saw this happen.
I made a friend at the butcher shop where my grandpa worked. We played whenever I was there and one day I asked my grandma if I could invite her over to the house to play dolls. I was told a firm “no.” She was Black.
When my folks decided to buy a house in Seattle after Boeing moved us there, Mom waited in the car while Dad went in to talk to the realtor. The realtor questioned this and asked if Mom was Black. Dad said, “No, but I’m an Indian.” There were no houses available after that.
In the 1960s I watched in horror as one leader after another was assasinated in the name of Civil Rights and wondered what kind of a terrible world I was bringing my new infant into. I watched on TV the marches, the protests, read about the hangings, the injustices.
And years later I went to Selma, I crossed over the infamous bridge I’d seen the marchers cross, I held hands in Atlanta at the tomb of Martin Luther King Jr and sang “We shall overcome” with Coretta Scott King and a crowd of people I didn’t know. My husband and I were the only whites present.
And later still I stood at the mass grave at Wounded Knee and laid my Sema (Indian tobacco) down and prayed. A Native elder sat at the bottom of the hill and gave me the quiet I needed while keeping others at bay.
And now it’s happening again. I’m not naive enough to believe that these things didn’t stop but to see it happen again and witness a president who seems to condone it is beyond belief. We’ve taken a giant step backward.
Who do we want to be as Americans? Do we want to stand for “freedom and justice for all?” ALL. Do we want to love our neighbor as ourselves? To stand up for our neighbor? Fear breeds hatred; we hate what we fear. And if it’s a person with a different skin color, be it Black, Red, Brown, Yellow or Blue, we will hate that person because we don’t know him.
When I’ve spoken publicly about the forced march of my Potawatomi ancestors from Indiana to Kansas in 1838 I’ve concluded my talks by encouraging people to get to know their neighbors. To get to know the person across the street, down the block. To share each other’s stories, to learn what makes them “tick.” Maybe only then can we start to heal. It begins with us, with you, with me. It’s time to begin.