August 26, 2013
Fifty years ago this week I was fifteen years old. It was one of the worst weeks in my family’s history, as my already brooding and violent father was seething at events in Washington, D.C. We knew we couldn’t talk, my mother, sister and me. We knew he would blow if the words Civil Rights were spoken.
So it was deadly quiet. I snuck to friends’ houses to watch the TV reports. I reveled and felt electric as I watched Martin Luther King. “I have a dream.” I repeated that phrase over and over, wishing I had a better dream than escaping my old man. Somewhere in our town, James Earl Ray was in his house too. He and his brother robbed their first bank in Alton. I wonder what they were watching on TV.
I am the father and the son, and the mother. I feel the father rise up in me, feel my head blowing off from rage. I feel the mother rise up in me, so peaceful, so beautiful was Charlene Jones, herself tragically killed a few years later. I feel the son—me—conflicted, tense.
And still my town is tense. Still, the very class of people Dr. King was speaking to, the disadvantaged regardless of color, the homeless, the unloved grow in numbers; yet still many of the comfortable pale-skinned people, rather than follow their hearts, hold on to what they were skillfully taught. Still, religion is co-opted by bigots and haters, in the name of Jesus. I am a relapsed Christian, but I know whom Christ would choose.
All of the above.
A night in the early 80s at the Irish Eyes Bar, on Lincoln Avenue, in Chicago. I was there with my friend, Philosopher George. A street preacher entered waving a Bible like it was a fly swatter. He walked down the bar, asking drinkers if they were saved. He reached George. “Are you saved, brother? Sinner?” “Pal,” Philosopher George, who looked like the Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, replied, “if Jesus Christ walked in to this bar I would say, ‘hey buddy, how about a beer.’ You’d ask him if he was saved because you wouldn’t know him. Forget that White Jesus picture—nobody knows. A beer gets you into heaven, friend. Calling everybody a sinner will burn your ass. Not in hell, but in your own bigot’s brain. I forgive you. Can I have an ‘amen?’” Drunks and pool players and the bad folk singer and his too-old-to-be-groupies groupies and the lonely older neighborhood men and Bruce the bartender and the darts teams all shouted, “Amen.” The street preacher deflated like a balloon and walked stoop-shouldered to and out the door.
All of the above.