Last year I learned an interesting fact about the culture of the people of the Dominican Republic. We were having a ‘culture’ day in class, a day when I invite the students to bring an item that symbolizes their culture. It helps to make each of us more aware and appreciative of the diversity in our room, and prepare us for the diversity of our patients. So much of our attitudes towards health come from our culture. Another fun activity we sometimes do is to jot down the health practices we were brought up on. Is there a special tea, a certain salve to rub, a special bath to take? Who knows how far back some of these practices originated?
But I had brought a ceramic Jamaican market woman that my mother had given me. As market women go, she is particularly beautiful and with a gorgeous though slender body. Not necessarily what I remember from the more generously proportioned women of my childhood. But artistic license permits the ready-for-Hollywood version! One of the students who comes from the Dominican Republic ‘borrowed’ my market lady, and told us that they sell similar items in her country; the only difference is that they leave the face completely smooth and blank. At first I wondered if it was some kind of superstition, but no. The people of the Dominican Republic (like most of the Caribbean) are made up of a multiplicity of races, and to honor all of them, an artist decided that to render any particular one of them would dishonor the rest. So there is no one true Dominican. They span the spectrum of complexions and facial features and in the smooth blank space they honor them all.
I thought that was a beautiful concept. I remembered that this week as I watched an interview of the young man who had videotaped the latest evidence of man’s brutality to man, tainted by the pall of racism that has been hanging over us for too long. This brave young man comes from the Dominican Republic. He said that many people around the world look to the US to be the setter of standards, the compass of moral behavior. ‘We have to do better’ is what we are reminded.
This year celebrated 50 years of the march against racial inequality in Selma, Alabama, but the destination has not yet been reached. These tragic events of the past few years remind us that there is much work still to be done. There are systems in place which perpetuate ridiculous levels of poverty and incarceration among the minority populations, and it will take more than a village to demand and obtain change.
It is important to remember the history, the struggle and the sacrifices made by others, up to and including death. John Lewis (the Congressman) was a part of the Civil Rights struggle. At 23 he gave a speech just before MLK Jr., in which he asserted ‘we will not be patient’. He has had his story written in comic book style, in two volumes, with a third on the way. We need to ensure that children know this history, even though it is a difficult story to hear. The struggle continues, as another great African leader wrote, and we all have a part to play.
When we fail to recognize our common humanity, it is easy to label those who are not like us, who come from different backgrounds, or have different physical appearances. But we have far more in common than we pretend. The Nurse Theorist, Madeleine Leininger called for Transcultural Nursing, one which recognizes that all human beings have the same needs, desires, wants. When we focus on our differences we fail to see our connectedness, our similarities.
This week President Obama set foot in Jamaica and became Jamaican. He even demonstrated his linguistic abilities by greeting a crowd with “Wha’ a gwan, Jamaica?” No doubt the many people of Jamaican descent in his inner circle (including Susan Rice of course) prepped him well. But the vision of the first African American US president is symbolic, and demonstrates the possibilities that exist. How can we work to make sure that young people of any racial origin can grow up safely, in a supportive environment, to achieve their dreams?
It begins with us, with the way we greet our brothers and sisters in humanity. The title of today’s message comes from one of my favorite Heptones songs: ‘Each is given a bag of tools, a shapeless mass, and a book of rules.’ What are you doing with your tools, with your mass? Are you following the basic rules of living right with your neighbor? Can we together create a world where no one sees facial features or skin color when they look at or talk about each other?
This Friday morning I am looking forward to a weekend of fellowshipping (is there such a word?), partying and celebrating with my Jamaican schoolmates in Atlanta. Looking forward to yet another opportunity to celebrate our common history, while contributing to the work we continue to do for those who are struggling to achieve their own goals.
Have a wonderful weekend Family!