Here's Johnny - Rerun? What rerun?
(An uncounted number of Dear Readers wrote me in the last week or so, begging me to, for the first time in the 14-month history of Here’s Johnny, rerun a column: “Race? What Race?”, which was published a year ago tomorrow. As Gertrude S. from Millville wrote, “Johnny, you can’t improve upon perfection. Please run that race thing you wrote last year again.” Gertrude, thanks for asking. You’re welcome.) Race? What Race? With yet another damnable deadline racing towards me and the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., just behind, it seems that a column about race is in order. Let me begin (and follow, no doubt) with a compliment that came my way in the form of a joke, or vice-versa. At least, I think it was a joke. A good friend from Alabama once told me, “McGary, no one can ever say you’re a racist, because you make fun of everybody and everything.” Sociologists and mental health experts might say that’s not the best definition of a non-racist, but then again, you know how they are. (The use of the word “they” in the previous sentence, and setting it in italics, is another joke. There will likely be others.) Dr. King’s most famous and poignant sentence was this simple request after the March on Washington in 1963, as he stood within sight of the Lincoln Memorial: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. More than half-a-century later, has that dream has been fully realized? No. On the other hand, is there any more important manifestation of the progress we’ve made than the fellow presently in the White House? Regardless of your feelings about his policies, don’t you agree that Barack Obama has taught some white folks of the worth of black folks, and some black folks that it is indeed possible to rise to the top regardless of the color of your skin? We are all sinners and most of us do or think something every day we should be ashamed of, yet living in our glass houses, we still lob stones at others. I mean, c’mon, people, there are so many better reasons for getting irritated at people: Getting cut off in traffic by someone who didn’t bother to use a turn signal; nearly being side-swiped by someone texting or e-mailing while driving; returning to your car in a parking lot to find a new ding on your car brought about by someone who didn’t return their shopping cart to the corral. As Dr. King might have said, if we are to judge others, let us do so based upon their behavior. Humor may not be the best antidote to racism, but it’s a valuable tool. Consider it a vaccine. I’ll close with a story from my Navy days, when I was serving in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. My good friends Joe, a white fellow, and Craig, a black fellow, were talking baseball. Craig was explaining why he was most assuredly not a fan of the Boston Red Sox. Craig pointed out that the Red Sox were not only the last American League team to allow a black player to play (having turned down Jackie Robinson, among others, at a phony try-out 13 years before), but they also had only a sprinkling of black players, even in the 1980s. Joe, perhaps the funniest man I ever knew and someone who enjoyed winding people up, said, “What about Luis Tiant?” Craig shot back, “He’s Cuban!” to which Joe responded, “Same thing.” We all dissolved in laughter. A few months later, Craig and I visited Grand Cayman for perhaps the finest weekend either of us have had (though that had less to do with our traveling companions than those we met while we traveled). As we got off the plane, I told Craig that I didn’t expect him to carry my suitcase, to which he expressed both thanks and several words sailors resort to at such times. Fast forward: Craig stayed with Joe and his wife a time or two while Joe was stationed in Washington, D.C. Joe came to visit me when I was stationed in Orlando. The only time race came into a discussion was when one of us was trying to make another uncomfortable, usually unsuccessfully. Not long before he was scheduled to get out of the Navy, Joe was sent to a base on a small island in the Mediterranean. The Navy neglected to give him the required physical, and, not being doctors, Joe and Val didn’t think a thing of the small blue spot in his thigh. He was 27 when he died in a foreign hospital, with the doctors thinking he had the flu or pneumonia, not the blood clot that had gradually worked its way from his leg to his heart. Craig and I wept when he learned of his passing. I wasn’t any more heartbroken because Joe, like me, was white, nor Craig any less. It is no great achievement to see beyond the color someone is painted, but aside from the stupidity of failing to do so, think of what we miss when we don’t.