by Jeff Rivers, The Undefeated
Even when I was a child in the 1960s, I wasn’t a big fan of what I’ve been calling the “Kumbaya Yada Yada” for the past 20 years. You know, how we all have to learn to live together, as if all the wise men and women don’t always teach and preach that, as if all the bullies who rise to power don’t ignore that teaching and preaching for as long as they can get away with it.
Still, when my Uncle Sam started to launch into what I thought and feared would be a disquisition on national unity, I leaned in.
Born into a sharecropping family in 1905, Uncle Sammy was short and powerful, a little big man. His movements reflected a lifetime of carrying heavy burdens, from the plantation to the factory floor. He was my daddy’s older brother, and he spoke quickly and in a low voice. He barely opened his mouth when he talked. Yet he expected his listeners to laugh or nod respectfully on cue. Just 9 or 10 years old and sitting in my uncle’s North Philadelphia living room on a Saturday afternoon, I prepared to laugh or nod.
“The trouble with white folks,” my uncle began, “is they don’t understand that black people are people too.” At those words I prepared to tune my uncle out, but with subtlety and respect. I thought but didn’t say, “If white people don’t know black people are people, and often very good people, I wasn’t going to join the effort to persuade them.” After all, generations of black people had sought to make that case, from slavery to a begrudged freedom that folks were fighting to protect and expand, from the picket lines to courthouses.
After all, in my life, spent almost entirely with black people, I’d lived among honest, loving and spiritual people. They paid their bills. They cleaned their streets when the city didn’t. They took care of their grandparents and their grandbabies when they couldn’t take care of themselves. And they prayed, humbly and beseechingly, that their tormentors receive God’s grace and forgiveness.
Consequently, at my uncle’s words, I lifted my gaze from his round and unlined face and glanced at the living room TV. I quickly took my gaze from the TV screen and rested it upon my uncle’s fingers, which, as he talked, traced the words of a newspaper, as if he could receive their wisdom through his fingertips. I returned my gaze to his face and watched his lips move ever so slightly and listened. Then I leaned in some more and tried to catch up to what my Uncle Sam was saying. This all took a few seconds.
My uncle wasn’t singing “Kumbaya.” Instead, at a rapid pace, he was explaining that the fundamental denial of black humanity led America to embrace a cruelty that hit black people first and hardest but ultimately affected and infected the entire society.
Which is to say, the South that he, my father and their father fled between the two world wars was brutal for black people, tarred and feathered with the N-word. But it was no bed of magnolias for the people who were balled up and tossed aside as “white trash” either.
Which is to say, my uncle thought that at one time or the other, almost anybody could be subjected to being treated the way black people are routinely treated in America. Consequently, my uncle wanted white America to understand that the treatment of black people served as a cautionary tale and a warning for the rest of society.
Which is to say maintaining a society that’s unjust for many of its people is a dirty job that soils, tarnishes and corrupts everyone.
From time to time, I’m reminded of my uncle’s mumbled wisdom, especially when somebody bemoans dishonesty or hypocrisy among high government officials or the absence of decency in the way someone is treated or talked about, especially by someone who is white.
America’s dishonesty and hypocrisy toward the dispossessed, the casual and routine cruelty and disregard for those defined as the other, are not new. They are as old as the broken treaties with Native Americans. It is as old as the slave auction. It is as old as the Japanese internment camps. But so is resistance, resilience and renewal.
If my Uncle Sammy were alive today, perhaps he wouldn’t speak in black and white terms. Since the 1960s, the demographics of the nation have changed so much. And the chorus demanding freedom and respect swells with many voices.
Perhaps today my uncle would decry the general inability of the favored and the privileged in America to understand and respect the humanity of those less favored, whether that privilege is based upon race, religion, ethnicity, wealth, gender or sexual orientation.
That inability to embrace the humanity of others is cruel and stupid. But it is not new. And neither is the solution. Unity is the only way to defeat the bullies and their minions.
As the wise elders say, we have to learn to live together.