“This is a wonderful planet, and it is being completely destroyed by people who have too much money and power and no empathy.”~ Alice Walker.
At the age of 8 or 9, I attended a country school in the heart of Jamaica. I was the only white girl in the school, which meant I was the object of great curiosity. Like most kids I tried my best to blend in, rapidly losing the English accent and trying my hardest to not only replace it with a Jamaican one, but to learn to speak ‘patois’. This is a very challenging form of broken English, full of old English words, mixed with words that reach back to the motherland, West Africa. I learned turns of phrases, slang, and became more and more comfortable with my adopted tongue.
I always remember the phrase spoken at the beginning of term, when, after a long ‘holiday’ (the term given to those long lazy weeks off from school) the common complaint was ‘Free paper bun!’, and back to school we went. It became one of those phrases I spoke often, understood what it meant, and gave it no further thought.
My life, as a transplanted white girl, taken from England in the early 60’s, growing up in Jamaica through the early days after Independence, then being a teen during the era of ‘Black Power’ gave me a unique perspective on life. I was only reminded that I was white when I looked in the mirror, or saw photographs of myself. I married a Jamaican who was particularly politically and historically aware, and so I read books by Eldridge Cleaver, by the Jackson brothers, and learned of a different experience, that of being black in the USA. I learned about the struggle, the oppression, the injustice and the crimes perpetrated against one race of people by another. Moving to Miami in the late 70’s, it was uncomfortable going out in public with my husband. I had to take my nursing ‘boards’, the qualifying exams, in Jacksonville, which qualified then as part of the ‘deep south’. That was downright scary. I made sure my windows were up and my doors locked when we stopped at traffic lights. I have experienced being pulled over while being ‘black and white’ – black driver, white passenger. I have read the works of Kwame Nkrumah. I consider myself to be informed, aware, and to have a unique perspective for a white person.
The other day I realized that I had never understood the term: ‘Free paper bun’. I knew what it meant in terms of vacation time being over, back to school. I knew that ‘bun’ meant ‘burn’; but I never paid attention or questioned what was meant by the term free paper. Until last week, when I read a letter written by a freed man to his former owner. Jordan Anderson had escaped from his owner (as his owner shot at him) while the Union Army camped nearby. His story is spellbinding, but his letter even more commanding. Apparently his owner had sent to him to ask him to return to work for him. The letter politely points out all of the reasons why it did not seem sensible to return to the conditions under which Jordan and his family had been held and suggests some terms which must be met before Jordan would consider returning (such as back pay for the 39 years he was held as a slave).
But what caught my eye was the phrase “…I got my free papers in 1864”. All of a sudden I realized with shame that the childhood phrase indicating the end of a summer of freedom and the return to school harkened back to the days of emancipation, of liberation from slavery. When released from the torture of slavery, people were given their ‘free paper’. If taken back into slavery, their ‘free paper’ would be burnt. At that moment I understood that despite my evolved understanding, my broad-minded attitude and my exposure to ‘black life’, it was my ‘white privilege’ to have no frame of reference, no need to know the significance of the term.
In order for us to live together, recognizing our common humanity, we have to want to walk a mile in the shoes of another. We must try to get to know the perspective of another, not surround ourselves with people who have the same experience as us. Only then can we develop empathy, only then can we begin to understand why another person thinks or acts the way they do.
We are approaching the 15th anniversary of 9/11. A musical has been written about one particular aspect of that. When the skies were silent, when all air traffic was grounded, over 67,000 people from 38 planes were stuck in the tiny town of Gander, Newfoundland (where in the old days, airplanes would refuel before the long trans-Atlantic flights). The town itself had a population of around 10,000; a few hotels, one stoplight and a strip mall. But the people of Gander came together to provide food, shelter and clothes (passengers were not allowed to retrieve their luggage) for the stranded passengers. When confronted with a common tragedy, we often show supreme self-sacrifice and compassion. In our every-day lives, we are more likely to close our eyes to suffering.
This Friday morning, after spending last weekend partying with my childhood schoolmates, and after a week of startling news, I am reflecting on what it takes for us to be better human beings. Challenge yourself to walk a mile the shoes of another. Don’t assume, ask! Expose yourself to the realities of others in order to understand their history, their story.
Have a wonderful weekend Family! And give thanks for health, it is the only thing that matters!