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Broken promises...broken dreams - Part II (11/16/2003)
By Janet Lewis Burns
by Janet Lewis Burns

"We must learn to live together as brothers, or we will perish together as fools." - Martin Luther King

I can remember only one instance when I felt vulnerable and white-knuckled due to a racial situation. We were visiting a casino at Morton, Minn., and staying at a nearby motel. On this particular morning Pat had gone before me, catching an earlier shuttle bus to the casino.

As I boarded, sometime later, the entire bus was jam packed with black people, guffawing and having a roaring good time. I could not believe the feeling in the pit of my churning lily-white stomach, as I slithered sheepishly into the seat directly behind the driver.

So this is the discomfort of a chip weighing on the shoulder, or the grip of inborn hesitation to let your defenses down, "outcast" flashing across the forehead. No one paid any attention to me, but I was self-conscious. I felt the knife of disdain against my heart. I was the minority.

None of this is about me, however. My uneasiness lasted for a very brief time; the insight I gleaned is lifelong. I thought of a beautiful book I had read, retrieving James McBride's "The Color of Water" from my bookshelf. The true account was written by a black man in tribute to his white mother, a rabbi's daughter.

McBride's remarkable and eccentric mother Ruthie McBride Jordan had fled to Harlem, married a black man, founded a Baptist church, and put twelve children through college, to become doctors, professors, teachers, all professionals. It's difficult to choose excerpts - read this book!

As a boy, living in Brooklyn's Red Hook projects, McBride knew his mother was different. Once, when he asked her if he was white or black, she snapped, "You're a human being." "Educate yourself or you'll be a nobody."

When James asked what color God is, she said, "God is the color of water." In the sixties, the sense of justice and desire for equal rights that his parents had imparted to their children began to backfire, as they rebelled and turned to leaders like Malcolm X and H. Rap Brown for inspiration.

As James' siblings began to bring the outside world home with them, it was a trying time. McBride noted, "Mommy was the wrong color for black pride and black power, which nearly rent my house in two." When, as a child, he would have preferred that his mother was black, as a grown man he mused, "I feel privileged to have come from two worlds. My view of the world is not merely that of a black man but that of a black man with something of a Jewish soul."

Across racial divides, this is a testament of a mother's faith and grit, and a son's deep-set respect and awe of her. His story does not dwell on racial turmoil, but reveals a strength of spirit and family stability that surmounts any obstacle encountered.

Out in the greater world, James McBride discovers that "the nebulous white man's world wasn't as free as it looked; that class, luck, religion all factored in as well; that many white individuals' problems surpassed my own, often by a lot."

We are all familiar with President Abraham Lincoln's decree to free black slaves (just think, these are human beings!), in his Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. Yet, his statement in a letter to H.L. Pierce is more compassionate:

"This is a world of compensations; and he who be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, cannot long retain it." Though words, cleverly arranged, ring true to the conscience, it's a factor that we're not all on the same page.

Has the era of "don't look back - the past may be gaining on you" long since surpassed? I am what I am...and not what my dead ancestors were. "Freedom is like love: the more you give to others, the more you have." - Alice Walker, author of "The Color Purple" 


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