“Like an idea whose time has come, not even the marching of mighty armies can halt us. We are moving to the land of freedom. Let us march to the realization of the American dream. Let us march on segregated housing. Let us march on segregated schools. Let us march on poverty. Let us march on ballot boxes, march on ballot boxes until race baiters disappear from the political arena…” (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., on marching for Civil Rights, Selma to Montgomery, 1965)
Of the many latent learning experiences I received, within the kaleidoscopic images of my life journey, my introductory college discourse in philosophy was probably the one class that gave me more “aha moments” later in life than most. It even helped me re-evaluate earlier personal confrontations with certain incidents of hate and discrimination.
The quirky intellect and classroom attire of the Ph.D. that taught the course were mutually difficult, yet charming. But, the eye-opening concepts of dualism and other complex relationships between the mind and body could make the brightest of minds, on their best day, question their old perceptions and weary senses about what they saw in the world around them.
I later thought about this odd interplay between perception and reality, internal and external, when applied to one of our nation’s more onerous and stubborn issues, racism: that certain mix of feelings regarding the superiority of one race over another and/or the idea that one race might have some inalienable right to rule over another, especially within a racially and ethnically diverse society, such as ours.
In my opinion, America’s apparent resurgence of politicized bigotry, congressional hyper-polarization, wretched race-baiting rhetoric and a curious romance with right-wing militias poses profound implications for various exaggerated ideologies already gnawing at the social fabric of this nation.
Yet, as difficult as sorting out those issues can become, I’ve often had fun with this motley mix of notions by simply flipping the script on a few of society’s so-called status quo or purveyors of prejudice, so they too could walk in my shoes for a spell or experience some qualitative “aha moments.”
For example, without sharing specific confidential or protected information, by sheer chance I once found myself and three other African-Americans, all military veterans, on one of five four-member combat-shooting teams, a total of 20 individuals, taking turns firing at various targets. This happened many years ago within extensive new career training qualifications, for civilian employment, as a member of a rather elite security force. One member of our team, an ex-Marine Corp Scout Sniper, had extraordinary marksmanship skills, except for certain less-complicated civilian-oriented weaponry. And, we were unmerciful in teasing him about how pathetic he was with handling them. Yet, we had a great bond and formed a pretty good team, on an off the job.
It so happened that all of the remaining four teams were comprised of Caucasian-Americans- mostly Southerners, as we were, also. The camaraderie among all five teams was good although, to our surprise, a few individuals kept insisting on referring to themselves as “proud rednecks and honkies” not such an endearing term in the communities our team came from. Every now and then, someone would joke about how they shouldn’t be giving black folk any guns. Other somewhat racially offensive comments were slipped into the bantering, too. Frankly, some of it was pretty funny, but we remained stoic and only laughed, very selectively.
Due to the mostly one-sided joking that was taking place, some good-natured and some not, our team decided to give our Southern brethren a good-natured, perceptual lesson in humility. It wasn’t the first time. And, it certainly was not to be the last. But, as in our military experiences, we all instinctively knew when the time for joking ended and the time to get down to business jumped off.
Since all of the tactical targets were traditionally vital-impact ‘black’ torso units with ‘white’ backgrounds, we decided to add a little shock value to the lesson for our good-natured Caucasian-American “cousins,” as well as the range safety-instructors on the firing line. After our team fired off several volleys, at increasing distances from the ‘black’ torso target, beginning with close-in, crouching and standing positions, strong-hand and weak-hand, we arrived at the final and greatest distance from the targets where we were to assume a combat-shooting, prone position with a more powerful weapon.
I can still see the puzzled look on everyone’s face, as four serious looking black men, in their late 20s and early 30s, suddenly became quiet, calmly approached the firing line again, slowly walking four-abreast and no longer smiling. Then, following the order to fire, on our pre-arranged cue, we safely laid our weapons down and simultaneously refused- and refused again when ordered- to fire at the ‘black’ torso targets. Motionless, we simply stared ahead at the targets. As everyone else watched one of the range instructors approach our team, it was probably certain within their minds that we were heading for trouble (i.e., getting fired, suspended, reprimanded, etc.).
Then, head bowed, face flushed, still pondering what to say, almost inaudibly, in a thick, face-twisting Southern drawl and clinchéd teeth, the instructor asked “What the hell is going on here, y’all?” His face turned even redder when we simply but respectfully announced, almost in unison, that we did not intend to fire at another ‘black’ torso tactical target, until our demands were heard by the company’s management team that all of the ‘black’ torso targets be replaced by ‘white’ torso targets with ‘black’ backgrounds, immediately or within a reasonable period of time.
The awkward silence which swept across the shooting range was deafening. Even the range’s waving red flag seemed to stop blowing in the wind. Both instructors first looked at each other, then at the rest of the group, trying to decide what to do, presumably without losing face, or dignity. That much was obvious. And, I imagined that the stern, no-nonsense looks on our faces were equally baffling. But, frankly, we were cracking up on the inside. It was definitely a gotcha moment and we were milking the situation as much as we could.
By the time it seemed that the range instructor had gathered his wits and decided how best to proceed, we smiled and assumed the tactical shooting position for that distance. Fortunately, he got the big picture and flashed a sweeping grin to the rest of the teams. The whole group, including our team, was cracking up. The tension just seemed to float away as the range’s wind flag began to flutter again.
There was probably some good-quality latent learning that took place that day. In fact, years later, as I progressed through the ranks, several of our Caucasian brothers-in-arms often mentioned the incident, again, citing how they later shared the events of that day with their friends and family, including their children. They also expressed some appreciation for the lesson. Although we never really discussed in detail their perceptual realities of that day, or any “aha moments” they may have experienced, I could see it in their eyes.
No one that day, at least in my presence, even mentioned racism or race problems. They didn’t have to. It was clear that the incident seemed to generate a different kind of bond and respect, as we all advanced in our careers. It’s like what happens when you’re able to walk, however briefly, in someone else’s shoes for a spell. You begin to appreciate the why and the way they walk, as well.
Nearly thirty years later, during the special retirement luncheon which was held for me, the incident came up in a couple of side conversations. A couple of the guys shared some fairly humorous stories, about what they told their friends and family about the incident. That’s when their “aha moment” became mine, once again, after all of those years.
Today, when I listen to all the nutty hoopla surrounding the reasons why- or, why not– the 2012 Commemorative March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama should even take place, or the flaming right-wing rhetoric about taking ‘their country’ back- or the drumbeat of fake claims about the “failed policies” of our esteemed, gifted and compassionate president, President Barack Obama- I’m reminded of the latent learning experiences many of us have realized in the last 47 years, as well as the future “aha moments” which will likely arise out of the ashes and continuing efforts and activities of veteran Civil Rights workers across the land- of all colors and creeds.
This includes the families, friends and neighbors they might cause to pause, to rethink the self-destructing antics and vitriolic mumbo jumbo spun by ego-driven scatterbrains, pundits and politicians, on all sides of the constitutional spectrum. As we approach Election Day 2012, it’s important to note that our system of government is not broke… yet. But, it’s certainly in urgent need of bipartisan repair, consistent within the intent and confines of constitutional law, in my opinion.
Surely, by now, the blood previously spilled, along with other physical and mental injuries, at the Edmund Pettus Bridge on the first Selma-to-Montgomery march of March 7, 1965 (a.k.a., “Bloody Sunday”) has likely generated some instructive “aha moments” concerning the counter-productiveness of racism; but, not enough, in my opinion.
Our children- yours and mine– and our children’s children will need to ensure that such latent learning continues and, somehow, remains within our collective national consciousness. It seems to me that a certain kind of harmony and goodwill just seems to follow, eventually, when you take the time to walk in someone else’s shoes for a spell.
“Backstreet Djeli” w.d.s.