I wrote this diary a week ago. I've been asked to submit it again.
This is not a popular phrase any more - "If you want to understand someone, walk a mile in their shoes." I heard it a lot when I was a kid, but it’s been ages since I heard anyone say it. It’s not the style anymore. The style now is to judge first, and judge before you understand. This has been encouraged by our leaders and the news media, the very people whose responsibility it is to educate us. Our leaders almost universally want us to be afraid, whether they are political or religious - or both. At least they have until now.
Barack Obama has invited us to try on some different shoes. That’s not an easy thing to do, because it requires thought. As I was growing up, may father, who grew up in Missouri in a dirt-farming community in the depths of depression, told a story of him and two of his friends taking his twenty five dollar car, which burned more oil than gas, all the way into Wisconsin in search of work - any work at all. They couldn’t find any work. As they were heading home in defeat, they chanced upon a farm in Iowa which had work for one of them. My father took the job, and sent his friends home in his car. It was only two weeks work, difficult and backbreaking, sunup to sundown, but my father was grateful to have it.
The farm was owned by Germans, not the most popular nationality at the time, as Hitler was in the process of taking the Rhineland, Austria, and Czechoslovakia. But they treated him well, and fed him very well, which was a rarity in his life. It affected how he thought about the German people, and allowed him to think of them as ‘not all bad’. I loved hearing that story, because he made it so easy for me to wear those shoes.
My father never knew any black people until much later in his life. Neither did my mother. They had the kind of prejudice that we still see a lot, the kind that Geraldine Ferraro has. Not the cross-burning, epithet-throwing hate-filled kind, but the kind that comes from the fear of the unknown. However, my Dad coached Babe Ruth baseball, and inevitably, in the mid ’60’s, even in the small Iowa town that I grew up in, some African-Americans made their way into the league. He accepted them gladly, because he was a liberal, and the most kind hearted and generous man I have ever known, but it wasn’t complete acceptance. I heard some of those things that make you cringe, statements made out of ignorance, like those Barack heard, because my Dad had no frame of reference with which to walk in those shoes.
Economically, my father grew up as disadvantaged as anyone could possibly be, but he never had to deal with people who wouldn’t deal with him, or mistrusted him, or hated him on sight because of the way he looked, and he was never exposed to anyone who could teach him anything about it - until Dr. Martin Luther King. When Dr. King came along, my Dad listened. And he learned. And he loved. He still didn’t understand everything, but I remember him nearly getting in a fistfight, defending Dr. King in a downtown Iowa cafe. I walked in his shoes then, too.
My Dad died last year, at the age of 86. He was one of Obama’s earliest supporters. He still didn’t understand everything - but he wasn’t afraid. I am so proud of that. I remember him sitting at the table, with tears in his eyes and a Newsweek in his hand, crying over the young men who had died needlessly in Iraq. See, he had walked in those shoes, too, in WW II. He hated, you see, but he hated war, and injustice, and ignorance, and stupidity. Those were shoes that he could wear. He could put the shoes on that let him understand that the Iraqi people are people, and probably didn’t like the part of the democracy that we brought to Iraq that involved blowing up those people’s children, and mothers, and brothers, and fathers, and wives. He couldn’t understand the Muslim faith any better than he could the black experience, but he understood people.
He read books so that he could walk in the shoes of Native Americans, He talked to people so that he could put on some Jewish shoes, or African shoes, or the shoes worn in the American Revolution, or the Old West. He married my mother, whose parents were Italian immigrants, and he put those shoes on as well. We called him the ‘Secretary General’, because his oldest son married a Ukrainian woman with two children. My younger sister married a Korean man. His granddaughter, my older sister’s oldest daughter, adopted 5 black sisters to rescue them from a crack whore mom. I am married to a Chinese woman, and we have a son of our own, and one from her first marriage. Quite the melting pot. My Dad loved them all.
Which brings me to Dr. Wright and Barack Obama. See, I know Dr. Wright. In the 90’s, I recorded his sermons at the Interdenominational Ministers Conference in Harrisburg, PA. Every year, for 10 years, I provided live sound and recording services for this week long revival. For 5 days in a row, Dr. Wright would preach, and I would record. It was a challenge for a lot of reasons. First, all of these preachers start at a bare whisper, and end up at full volume. But if you try to turn them down, they will tell you over the PA system "Don’t you touch that fader!!!". They work the mic, they work the system, and they work the crowd. Where I recorded from, I couldn’t see the stage. One night, I heard this awful thumping noise coming from Dr. Wright’s mic, but I lost his voice. As I crept onto the wing of the stage, I saw why - he was swinging the mic on the cable, and pounding it on the stage as he exhorted the crowd to let Jesus into their hearts. I didn’t love that part, but the crowd did. Dr. Wright walked backstage, grinned at me, and said "Send me a bill for the mic."
For one week of each year, for 10 years, I hung out backstage with Dr. Wright, Dr. Owens, Dr. Moss, Jr. and Dr. Moss III, who has succeeded Wright at Trinity. As the only white guy in this crowd, and an atheist to boot, it was uncomfortable, at first. Mostly for them. So they solved it by declaring me an "honorary Negro", and trying to convert me. It made for some interesting conversations.
So what did I hear? I heard a man preach who loved Jesus with all his heart. He loved people with all his heart. He even loved me with all his heart, even though it was probably hard for him to walk in my shoes. He tried his best to make me see the light, and he never gave up on me. I heard him say things about white people in his sermons that were not flattering. I also, and more often, heard him say things about black people that were not flattering. He preached that no-holds-barred, do-the-right-thing, eye-for-an-eye stuff that is so hard to live up to, but was for him the only acceptable way to live. Dr. Wright did not turn me into a black militant. But he did turn me into a white atheist who spent a lot of time thinking about what it might be like to grow up as a black man in the America he knows. He helped me to wear those shoes, at least for a little while, and he tried to wear mine.
Imagine my surprise a week ago, when there he was, in all his Pentecostal glory, on the TV, saying "God Damn America!" What could have made him say such a thing? Maybe it was the segregated bathrooms, restaurants, hotels, busses, trains, and planes. Or was it the dogs? The fire hoses? the billy clubs? The nooses? Or maybe it was serving in the Marines, and coming home to be spit on and denied even the pretense of equality, in a country where the watchword was "Know your place."
Dr. Wright and Dr. Moss Jr. marched with Dr. King. Try marching in those shoes for a minute. Hate pouring on you like lava, fear in your heart because you know that many of the people lining the streets would happily kill you because of that one chromosome that gave you black skin, and because you had the temerity to insist that you be treated equally? I can walk in those shoes in my mind, but I don’t think I could do it for real, because I don’t have that much courage. Dr. Wright did. My Dad did too.
I didn’t intend for this to be about my father at all - I intended for it to be about the things I talked about at the start. But as I’ve written more and more, I’ve realized how much I miss my father, especially right now. Because I could have told him about Dr. Wright. I’m sure my Dad would have been offended by Wright saying "God Damn America." My father fought for this country, and his knee jerk reaction would be that you don’t say things like that out loud. But I would have enjoyed telling my Dad that Dr. Wright fought for this country, too. He fought for the right to be able to say "God Damn America" in places where you can’t say things like that. I know what my father would have said when I told him that Dr. Wright has spent 40 years helping people who couldn’t help themselves, and who America had forgotten. I know what my father would have said when I told him that Dr. Wright was very kind to me.
I missed my father the most when I sat in front of my television with tears running down my face, listening to Barack Obama give that speech. I knew as he was speaking that the world was tilting on its axis, that things were going to change for the better, that this was one of those seminal moments that are born out of turmoil and strife, like the Gettysburg Address, or I Have a Dream, or FDR’s Inaugural speech, or Kennedy’s. I’m sure that after those, there were people who said "It’s all political." I’m sure there were people who hated so badly that they wanted to kill that messenger - and they got 3 out of the 4. My Dad cried when they killed JFK, and MLK, and RFK. And my Dad hated the people that did it, and never believed that the whole story was told. My Amazon account still has my Dad’s shipping address as the default, because we shared baseball, and politics, and a love of books. I would order books for him about 9/11, Bush, politics, war, and baseball. They would show up every week or two, and it made him happy. I still order a lot of books from there, and I cry when I see my Dad’s address in there, but I can’t take it out. I miss him.
I’m just so sorry that I couldn’t have talked to him after Barack Obama’s speech. Because he would have happily put those shoes on, and finally understood everything.
I miss him.