My life on his. His life on mine.
Isn't that the way of love?
Shadows On A Stone: Voices Of Our Time
The year was 1968. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy had been slain. Our country was in turmoil. The controversial war in Vietnam polarized our politics and our hearts. Richard Milhous Nixon was about to become the 37th President of The United States.
I was about to begin my education. It started at the backdoor.
“Come on in, Joe!” Papa exclaimed with a laugh. "And Joe, come around to the front door. I'll let you in." In some areas of the south in the sixties, visiting black men in small town USA still did not approach the front door of a white man's residence. Forty years later, we are quite possibly about to elect the first African American President of the United States. What astounding progress. I do not know the direction my grandfather's politics might have taken had he lived to see this election - which fell on his 94th birthday - nor do I know for sure how he might have cast his vote but I can promise you one thing: the candidate's social status, the color of his skin, his religious affiliation, political slant, or the cost of his shoes would not have mattered. Papa's welcomes were equally sincere and easily given, just as surely as his profoundly obvious walk with his everyday conscience.
He followed its voice.
I followed his.
What did he want? I wondered....as I sat in the tiny kitchen with my grandmother....and why did he come to the back door? Nobody ever came to the back door. The man needed a job, she said. He couldn't feed his family. I heard low whispers from the living room and then the front door shut. Lesson one duly noted.
were just background noise to voices of his time that mattered – those who championed and upheld the most basic of human needs - the right of all persons to be treated with dignity and respect as the crucial core issue which lay at the heart of his generation's unrest and violence.
As a teenager, I waitressed in my grandparents' restaurant. I was, admittedly, the worst waitress on the planet. One of our regular lunch customers was a Democrat running for Governor. He went on to serve our state in the U.S. House of Representatives. I distinctly remember the day I took his order as he sat with a group of political groupies in a corner booth. With my usual I-hate-waitressing-scowl accentuated by the hippie-like pigtails and bell-bottom jeans, he decided to play twenty questions over iced tea refills. “Who would I vote for and why? What was my opinion on the Vietnam conflict? What was my party affiliation? Civil Rights? What are your feelings on this issue, young lady?” Caught off-guard and woefully unprepared to answer, I stammered something unintelligible I'm sure and returned with his ticket, making a hasty retreat back into the kitchen with my grandmother. I still, to this day, remember how embarrassed I was when I couldn't answer him.
Ignorance, especially mine, was intolerable. I expected more of myself and set out to learn what I could, just in case my pigtails ever held court with a pre-polling candidate again.Perhaps that's why my grandfather started saving the newspaper clippings. About the war. The peace process. The presidency. The assassinations. Current events. Senate races. I still have the yellowed marks of that time in my closet where I keep his things.
And even after all this time you see, the ghost walks around in my pencil head at night - causing me to remember the Joes and the governors and the furniture plant needy and that laugh of his that welcomed even the most down trodden of souls. What made him tick? My grandfather was so religious that he wouldn't even buy gas on Sundays. He gave more than 10% of his wages to his small church all his life and was the Superintendent of Sunday Schools for seventeen years.
It was about respect.
For himself and for others. Everyday. Not just on Sundays. He stood up when a woman entered the room long after it was fashionably safe not to do so. He dressed extremely well and took care of himself. He listened. He laughed. He loved immensely and huge. Where did it come from? That answer is easy. It's explained in a memory I have of him standing time and time again with his gentleman's hat in his hand as he prayed aloud in some small sanctuary or at home, oftentimes dropping to one knee and never failing to bring the presence of peace to those present.
I have a confession to make.I was not praying. I was watching....because I was so proud of him and I wanted to see how he managed to get God's attention. I thought, in my little girl mind, that it was the hat. A sign of respect. That must be it. So I watched....his respect for his God and his unapologetic awareness of what quietly burned within him. There was no one in the room but the two of them when they spoke. I was quite sure of that. Not only that, but I felt it too. I still feel it when I think of that hat.. It was a place of reverence inside his head and his whole being. A reverence that he carried for his Maker. A reverence that carried over into the limited world in which he walked. A reverence that I sense now as his small town steps walk with us around the world. What made his peaceful presence so extraordinary was that it was just as evident outside the walls of the church as on the inside. In fact, he brought it in with him.
It is not what I heard him say – but what I watched him do.
And that is why, when I look at a man's worth, a woman's worth, and try to seek out the tenor of their character by the words and deeds they offer up in public in a year such as this that markedly shadows the very essence of the year 1968, when we must make the right decision and do the right thing.....I want to hear a voice of compassion.
I am looking for the man who will not only leap boundlessly to his feet at the knock of a voice crying for help and comfort but who will also shamelessly and with conscientious joy usher that visitor to a new place of dignity, through innovative doors of ideas and hope, never to fall back again to a place of backdoor visitations and shame. For minorities, for women, for teenage black children in my faraway small town memory still seated emotionally in the roped off balcony section of theatres, for those oppressed by all type of stereotypical prejudices and discrimination, for families with nothing to eat and no place to sleep in this community I call my country - for children dying in politically fueled wars on the other side of my world. There are those who cannot enter one way and exit another without our help.
And we cannot hope to facilitate their peace and their rightful place in this world without an intrinsic reverence and respect for life and human dignity . We have to be willing to offer a new direction and cast them gently toward a threshold of pride.
We need a leader who will open the door.
And take off his hat.
At my grandfather's wake literally half the town showed up. There was – and still is – a colored funeral home and a white funeral home. It was out of the ordinary for blacks to visit the dead on the other side of the tracks. But visit they did. His friends became our friends because we loved him.. He was the thread. And the door opener. And the bridge builder. And the example of moral courage in my life. We all need one. There were many in his generation. We are still looking for those voices in our own.
This election is not solely about race and yet it has become the issue that stares me in the face; because it tears at the vilest of human prejudices and by necessity, as one holding a mirror, demands our attention, once again, to disgraceful acts in our nation's history. And do we really not understand that halfway around the world in dark places such as Darfur and Ethiopia people still are stripped of all things human simply because of the color of their skin?
Until we stare back it will not be healed.
Not since the 1968 presidential election has there been greater unrest and volatility in our nation's voting conscience. As I write this, I do not yet know the outcome of the 2008 election. That, at this moment, does not matter nor will it change the tone of this post. It will be what it will be and we as a nation will come together and heal. Because we must to survive. Not because it is politically correct but because it is morally right.
What matters are the voices of hope that I will read on this day and the grace that comes with tolerance and respect for one another's diversity and culture, baggage and blessings - because I have faith that you are the most kind of human beings. Because I know that collectively we are more than a stump speech and a soundbite. Because I know our hearts yearn for peace; in our homes, in our communities, in our world, with each other.
The voices of our time matter too.
If we can do it this day - we can do it everyday.
And although he never formally discussed politics with me, he left large hints and gave large hugs, conveying by a massively quiet power - that love is really all that truly matters.
Perhaps my shadow has fallen at just the right moment - excavating memories and voices of a flame that was not buried underneath granite and dirt and stone after all - but lives to speak as the voices of his time still do from heart-shaped resting places of peace. And hope. And even mystery. I'll be the first to admit that his method of getting my attention lies closely akin to the audacious. But if I choose to let my shadow fall upon his and allow his to align with mine... as Dr. King's fell across the front door of my grandparent's home...then the two can meet and be whole; not one fine day – but now.
If my grandfather were alive today he would be the first to say,
"Barack and John, come on in the front door. Sit down and let's have a talk. Take off your hats.
There's peace to be done."