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Just off the Port Bow—a place of uncertainty, adventure, and insight. Thank you for your ears, eyes and hearts. I hope to bring compassion, grace and beauty to your day.

Speaking of Race

I had a dream last night.

Among other things, and there are always "other things" with dreams, I worked on the issue of racism.

The context of the dream has become a bit of a fog. I was in a school setting, perhaps college, perhaps a reunion, and the racial tensions in our country were in the foreground. I went over to a table, sat down, and began to tell of my "unique" experiences with race. This table talk was on the edge of consciousness, and I soon found myself semi-awake, pre-writing this blog; with three clear points I wished to make. Those distinct points are no longer clear in my head as I type, but I will try to piece them together.

First: The first nineteen years of my life were spent in a mostly white setting. I remember one black student at the private country day school I attended. I still remember his name. He was from a successful professional family. He was a nice guy. The boarding school, where I spent my final three years of high school, may have had one black kid in every grade. That makes for six black boys in a school of 400 white boys. I remember most of their names. They were all nice guys.

I did know about Father Groppi and the racial tensions in Milwaukee in the mid-sixties. But that was taking place in the poor urban neighborhoods. I didn't know any black person's name from that part of town. I lived in a quiet and mostly well to do white suburb.

For the sake of total disclosure, we did take some vacations to the Bahamas, where we employed a black cook to keep us fed while we indulged in pink beaches and dark rum.

That was the extent of my experience. All white. Midwest. Provincial.

Oh, and I do remember the assassination of Dr. King. I was sitting in a History class when the news came to our school. Our teacher dismissed the class, too overcome with depression, anger, and despair to continue.

Second: I went off to college in the Fall of 1969, a few weeks after the close of Woodstock. Spring semester of freshman year the whole college went on strike. I finished freshman courses when I was a sophomore.

Our freshman entry (Williams was still an all male school at the time) consisted of four floors, with two suites on each floor; the Junior Advisors had a room on the first floor. I lived with two roommates on the top floor of the entry.

The two suites on the second floor were occupied by all black students. I still remember some of their names. One of them I befriended to such an extent that he came home with me for Thanksgiving break. He was one of my good friends that freshman year.

We hung out together to a degree, and there was no tension that I can recall. Perhaps that is my naïveté speaking. At some point in that year I remember going into one of those rooms, the one on the right as I was going up the stairs to my top floor room, and walking into a gathering of all six black students. It may have been a meeting, I really don't know, but I knew the guys well enough to ask if I might stay and join them if I were to black my face with shoe polish. Seriously, that's what I said; and it was received with the innocent levity with which it was delivered. They told me I could be an honorary black.

In the Spring, in the midst of our protests, strikes, sit-ins, and banner waving, I sat down on the entry stairs with that Thanksgiving Break friend to talk about it all. The mood on campus was heavy, somber, and highly charged. We may have been discussing the Kent State incident; I'm not sure. Whatever the topic was we drifted into a consideration of race riots.

"Peter, if there were a race riot, and I saw you on the street, I would shoot you!"

I still tremble when I recall his words. He remained a friend of mine, though I think he dropped out of college before our senior year, and so dropped out of my life.

Mary had a similar background, and a similar college encounter with her black freshman year roommate.

For the record, I took the first courses in African-American Studies taught at Williams, one in the History Department, one in English. I was one of the few white students in those classes.

Soledad Brother. The Blue Eye. Manchild in the Promised Land. Mary Chesnut.

This second point was the "big surprise" I meant to bring to the table in my dream. I would show my listeners how my experiences did not all fit the stereotype. I suppose this might be taken as a thinly veiled attempt to assert that, "...some of my best friends are Black, Jewish, Gay, Poor, or Progressive". Judge if you wish.

Third: Here is where the faded dream gets lost, morphing into a generalization which is admittedly offensive and simplistic.

Nobody knows the trouble I've seen.

I understand the context of this statement. I also reckon this to be universally true and false.

I don't know what it is like to be Jewish in Nazi world; to be Gay in a straight world; to be Native American in a Manifest Destiny world; to be Black in a white world, or Poor in a rich world.

I do have some relative experience of what human suffering looks and feels like. A good friend of mine survived a murderous terrorist attack in Israel. A boyhood friend of mine died of AIDS. My best friend from prep school was killed in a car wreck. I've counseled drug addicts. I've worked with homeless people. I've watched people die of awful disease. Suffering is universal, respecting neither race, creed nor color.

Compassion is the only tonic I have experienced which adequately addresses suffering. As far as I can tell, compassion is at the top of the list; ideology, politics, religion, culture, race, sexual preference, wealth, and climate all fall in somewhere below this primary dynamic. Compassion is not an answer, not a solution, not a cure, and is certainly not a political expedient. I just know that it works on the level of human need.

I would like to think that I brought compassion into my dreaming last night. That may be the only place where it is welcome on its own merit in today's highly charged environment.

I will take the dreamer's naïveté over political, ideological or religious rhetoric any day.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Speaking of Compassion...

Addendum to The Characteristics