Still seeking an ideal

Decisions are made by those who show up.A friend sent me a story this week. The story was under a headline, “Oklahoma man praised for heartwarming exchange with little girl at airport.”

According to the story, Kevin Armentrout, the father, said in a Facebook post that his little daughter was “being her usual inquisitive self,” saying hi to everyone she could, until she walked up to a man named “Joseph,” who Armentrout said was visiting from Oklahoma. For the next 45 minutes, Joseph and the little girl played with his tablet, watched cartoons, talked and become, at least temporarily, friends.

As can be seen in the headline, the strange man, a black gentleman in town for a convention, was declared the hero for his kindness to the toddler.

But my first thought was what a terrific dad. Sure, he kept his eye on his daughter, and even caught the whole transaction on video. But the daughter learned, or more likely had reinforced, a lesson about strangers. Maybe especially about black strangers.

By today’s standards, my mother would be labeled a racist. She had a poem she recited about black people being the same as white people; I learned later the poem didn’t quite carry the lesson she interpreted. She sometimes talked of her younger days, working in a factory during World War II, when Polish women gathered in groups to speak in their native language. She thought the women quite impolite; they were, after all, in the United States, where people speak English.

But she encouraged me to travel, though mainly, until I graduated from high school, in books. One of my favorites, which I commend to anyone’s attention, was “Peaceable Lane.” Written in 1960, it was about an African-American family who moved into a white suburban subdivision. Spoiler alert: the story did not end well for the black father, though not for the reason most people would expect.

After graduation, I enlisted in the U.S. Navy and broadened my travel horizons, taking trains and buses away from the bases at which I was assigned – to Tokyo and Hong Kong and Hamburg and Nice and Cannes and Torremolinos and Seville. Some of our leaders, and some of theirs, may profit from keeping us at each other’s throats, but under the skin we’re all the same.

We claim as an ideal the fact that all our citizens are equal. Unfortunately, we have to work on that some. Dylan Roof killed nine worshippers in a Charleston, church. His stated goal, it was later revealed, was to start a race war. It was a goal known to many of those around him, but no one tried to stop him. One can only think they agreed with him.

When Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam was found to have worn blackface 35 years ago, it was said by some that there is no room in this country for such action. I submit there was room, 35 years ago, and even now; college faculty had to have approved the now-convicting photographs.

But many of the same folks who now call for him to step down say in the same breath that he has done much to further the cause of minorities and other citizens in need. I suggest that the young man who admits to an action his peers and leaders thought was permissible may well have learned in the past nearly four decades that it was not acceptable. He has, by most reports, strongly supported the very people who now seek to oust him. We all – not solely those of us in black or brown skin – must be willing to move forward, and recognize, where appropriate, that at least some of us have gone out in the world and discovered they have left behind some harsh untruths, and changed their own beliefs and actions in favor of those they may once have been encouraged to ridicule.

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