“Don’t get me wrong, some of them are good people”
That’s a line I’ve heard many times during my lifetime. Another is, “Some of my best friends are…” However, the best line I’ve heard so far came from the harmonica player in our Nostalgia band. His comment was, “The trouble with those people is they think they’re just as good as us.”
Naturally, the last line is said with the tongue planted firmly in one’s cheek. But being realistic, isn’t that what the first two statements really mean? The “Don’t get me wrong” line indicates that most of ‘them’ are inferior to us for one reason or another; the second, “Some of my best friends” indicates that I’ve ‘stooped’ to their level and will go so far as to call some of them ‘my friends.’
You may be wondering who I’m referring to with these statements. Perhaps you’ve already made some assumptions based on your own ethnic or (surprise!) economic situation. The truth is that these statements can be used to describe anyone who is different from us for whatever reason we choose to make the differentiation.
I grew up in a neighborhood that was, for all intents and purposes, all white. There was one black family that lived down in a nearby hollow. The rumor was that Mr. Blackwell had been born into slavery. He and his wife raised a couple of children. I don’t recall ever seeing any member of that family; I was just told they were there and that we should respect their privacy.
I’m sure some of the children in our neighborhood avoided going near the Blackwell’s home because they were afraid of ‘colored’ people. Our parents taught us to live by the Golden Rule – “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” In later years I learned that my older siblings went to school with the Blackwell children, so I might have found myself in hot water if I’d done anything to show disrespect for that family.
While our neighborhood was ‘mostly’ white, our elementary school was all white. Things changed when we moved on to Langley Junior-Senior high school. There were numerous elementary schools in different neighborhoods that fed into Langley. In the seventh grade I found myself attending classes with numerous ‘colored’ boys and girls. I believe the make-up of Langley’s student body at that time was about 15% colored.
Forgive me if I’m offending you by using the term ‘colored’, but that’s what we called Black-Americans back then. As everyone probably knows, there was another term used to describe Black Americans, but I usually avoided the “N” word.
In the six years I went to Langley (1956-1962) there was only one minor incident that had anything to do with racial differences. For the most part, we all got along fine. To this day, I’ve always interacted well with Black-Americans and I’m sure the friendships that were forged in my formative years have a lot to do with it.
Racial differences are only part of this story. I discussed that issue first so it could be put aside. Let’s look at the other aspects of diversity.
The neighborhood I grew up in was comprised of people from all walks of life; dentists, butchers, office workers, salespeople, retail clerks, postal workers, store owners, lawyers, teachers, bakers, and others all lived within walking distance of each other. We even had a vegetable ‘huckster’ just down the alley from our home. Naturally, the children of all these people played together and went to school together. (Did I mention the Czechoslovakian shoe maker who was an integral part of our neighborhood’s business district?)
The characters on the Sesame Street children’s program used to sing a song about the people in their neighborhood. The song included verses for a wide variety of people, but I wonder how many neighborhoods have that sort of makeup today.
For the most part, it seems that the people of America have segregated themselves not by color, but by the level of their economic success. I’ve driven through sections of Atlanta and seen one mansion after another. I call those homes mansions because many of them are larger than the elementary school I attended, and I’d guess the cheapest (perhaps I should say ‘least expensive’) of them would sell for well over a million dollars. I see those homes as the kind of place where a corporate president would reside, but I doubt if Atlanta has that many corporate presidents. And there are many neighborhoods with similarly large homes.
Getting farther away from the city, we find more moderate housing. The street we live on is a real hodgepodge. We live in a manufactured home as do many of our neighbors, but there’s also a sprinkling of old farm houses and cottages. Then there is a relatively new sub-division where the prices for new homes start at $300,000. But the crowning glory of the street is an estate (I can’t think of what else to call it) valued at nearly three million dollars.
If I tried to place a value on the least expensive home on our street, I’d have to value the land more highly than the dwelling sitting on the land. My guess is perhaps $45,000. So, when it comes to economic diversity, our street certainly has it.
When it comes to a diversity of ages, we also have that… as did my childhood neighborhood. We have young families with young children, older families with college aged youngsters, empty nest-ers, and retirees.
Another area of diversity is religion. I grew up in an area that had multiple Catholic churches, a couple of Presbyterian churches, a Methodist church, and a few Baptist churches. As with any neighborhood, there were devout people of many religions as well as confirmed atheists.
As far as I’m concerned, I had a marvelous upbringing because of the many differences I encountered and accepted… and I’m especially grateful to all those who accepted me! But the key ingredients to that sort of environment are, for the most part, non-existent in America today.
I blame two things for killing our ‘village’ mentality: air conditioning and television. Our homes have become our cocoons – our fortresses – that protect us from the elements. We can stay inside and be entertained, and live in a neighborhood for years without interacting with our neighbors. So, even if our neighborhood held a diverse cross-section of society based on economics, race, religion, and every other known factor, we’d be living in ignorant bliss.
In my younger days I believed that if the common people of warring factions could get to know each other on a personal basis, we’d tell our leaders to stop the fighting and find a way to get along. I still believe it could happen – even though I recognize that there are some government and religious leaders who brainwash the common people and teach them to hate and kill anyone whose beliefs or skin color are different than their own.
I hope my words will lead some people to make an effort to understand and accept everyone they encounter. The next time you visit a foreign land, take the time to get to know the common people – the shop keepers, the shoppers, the cab driver, and everyone else. And, the next time you leave your home, take a few moments to chat with your neighbor. It’s a good place to start!
By the way, did you notice that I still remember the precise wording of the Golden Rule? I believe the one I recited was the King James version. (My tongue is in my cheek with that statement!)