I Have A Prayer: By Joyce Sweinberg
I decided early to give my life to something eternal and absolute.
Not to these little gods that are here today and gone tomorrow,
but to God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
~Martin Luther King, Jr. From “Rediscovering Lost Values,” Feb. 28, 1954
I have reproduced below a letter I delivered to the principal at my son’s elementary school on January 20, 2009. It could easily have been written in any of the many small towns in the USA, as well as in many places around the world. It could easily have addressed the first cousins of racism, such as religious intolerance or sexism. The child who was victimized by intolerance could have been American Indian, or Eastern Indian, or Asian. It could have happened anywhere. It just so happens that it happened here, right in my hometown, the child who was victimized was my young mixed race son, and I am the one to author the letter.
I have removed some parts of the letter which make it possible to identify the child who called my 9 year old son a nigger on the school bus, to protect him, because he is only 10 or 11 years old and is much too young to bear the responsibility for what he has learned somewhere. It may have been from irresponsible lyrics and images shoved into the eyes and ears of the children of the USA by record companies more interested in making money than uplifting the listener with music rather than raucous unholy odes to violence and intolerance. It may have been from the home environment where conversations are not censored and that which is not spoken in public is freely flowing for the children to hear. It may have been from the TV where black folks are paid to refer to themselves in such a manner, supposedly as an inside joke which only one black can call another, but one which reaps financial rewards as it crushes the human compassion and spirit of all who come into contact with it. This child is not the true source of the comment, but the unwitting mirror reflecting the world in which he lives …
January 20, 2009
It is with great sadness that I write this explanation for Jesse’s absence from school this past Friday, January 15. On Thursday evening, Jesse set the stage for his stay home the next day, telling me he did not feel well, that his belly hurt and he had a headache. When I went upstairs to wake him in the morning, he first told me that he had thrown up in my bathroom. Being an attorney provides me with the interrogation skills I need to get to the truth, so I asked him, point blank, “Where did you throw up…did you do it in the toilet?” “Yes,” he tells me. “Did you flush it yet?” He now knows where I am headed, to the toilet to sniff for the unmistakable smell of vomit. So he backs off and admits that he “almost” threw up. Still, he persists in saying that he does not feel well..his belly hurts. So I move on. “Well, I have to go somewhere this morning, and I cannot change the commitment. That means you will have to stay home by yourself, or you can come with me, but I still have to go. (He does not know it but I have a friend who is coming over to work on some projects at my house, so he will not be there alone) Also, you do not go out anywhere today and no friends are allowed to come to the house, even if you happen to feel better later today. Got it?”
He thinks for a moment, and despite the thought that he might be here alone and has to stay confined to the house all day, insists that he does not feel well. Having passed my test of his veracity, I let him stay home. As has happened before, as the day wears on, he becomes “cured.” When my ex-husband stops by to visit him, he is not allowed to go out and hang out somewhere with him since he had stayed home sick that day. Observing his miraculous recovery from his belly ache as we hear him squealing down the hallway playing one of his video games, his father suggests that he will try to see the real reason behind his absence, as he is of the opinion that there is usually some motive behind the boys’ “illnesses” which cause them to miss school. While I trust my own judgment on this most of the time, this time, I could not help but wonder as well, so he goes back to hang out with him and see what he can find out.
He emerges from the room a few minutes later to tell me that Jesse says his homework was too hard. Homework? He told me he had no homework. Little liar! But he has gone to school before not having done his homework to face the consequences and has never had trouble confessing to me in the morning before school that he had homework. Still I do not think much about it as I am cooking and preoccupied with that. His dad goes back to him again. About ten minutes later, he comes out again to tell me this…The day before, Thursday, after Jesse got on the bus, he sat in the seat across from a boy and his younger brother. With his younger brother listening and anyone else in hearing range to hear it, the young boy turned to Jesse and said…”Silly rabbit, Trix are for niggers.” It was such a stupid childish statement, a silly joke really. He may not have had any conception of what he was saying, yet his message plunged itself deep into my heart with the butcher knife of racial prejudice. He does not want to talk about it, but I wonder how the knife felt as it plunged into Jesse’s heart.
At first, he was upset with his dad for telling me this, already hearing me from down the hallway saying that I wanted to have a conference with the boy and his parents and the school guidance counselor. He does not want to talk about it. He also informs me, in all my whiteness, that my ancestors probably had slaves. I laugh and tell him that my ancestors did not have enough money to be slave owners, but his thoughts and feelings do not go unnoticed towards my whiteness. Of course, he has the advantage of having a mother who is white who loves him and whom he loves, who wraps her arms around him and takes him into her heart, so he has an immediate salve to the racism around him by his very life circumstances.
[Text describing the child’s first name and bus stop removed to protect privacy of child involved] Please determine who the child is so that we can arrange a meeting at school with him and his younger brother and at least one of his parents. Please be assured that I am not angry…I lived with racial prejudice for many years when I was married to Jesse’s father, which included my father’s inability to accept my life choices because of his own racism. I have already processed and clearly understand that many good people, my father having been one of them, are prejudiced, so I have no axe to grind. However, I do want this young boy and his parents to clearly understand the ramifications of his statement. My young son did not want to go to school Friday because of it and I am still crying tears of sadness and pain for him as I write this note to you.
When I tried to question him he did not want to talk to me about it. I asked him why and he said “Because you will try to make it right.” While I am secretly pleased that he sees me that way, I am also saddened knowing that he has no trouble coming to me to make it right when he gets into a fight with his brother, or his belly hurts, or one of the bigger neighborhood boys got too rough with him and hurt him. His father tells me that Jesse is fine and that he is an intelligent young boy and will handle it, just like he did as he grew up. I am not satisfied with this answer or this approach. Yesterday, we celebrated the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr., to honor him and his contributions to our world. Today, our first black president will move into the White House, marking the beginning of a new era for the world around us. As he walks through those doors and sets up house, the suffering around him will not stop just because he is there. It will take much more than that to slowly erase the lines created by racism in our world, and it is not his job…under His guidance, it is ours. I await your response to my request.
While Barrack Obama took the oath to serve this country as one who is considered the first black President of the US (notwithstanding the fact that he is not black, but is mixed race, just like my Jesse), I saw and heard none of it as I sat at my computer finishing the letter to deliver to the school principal so that the matter could be handled. And while it was a day for celebration for most, it was also a day for somber reflection and shedding of the tears of sadness I felt at the irony of the circumstances giving rise to this letter on this date. Yet, this is a beginning toward the change which cries out for deliverance through our actions predicated in tolerance and universal love.
Where should we look for the answers to our pleas for peace and love in this world? There is no one who acts without His impetus, so why not appeal to the very Source? Has He not promised to redeem us from our suffering and to maintain Sanatana Dharma? He is a Keeper of His Promises. So let us appeal to His mercy and love to Grace us with that which He has always promised and vowed to do when we need it most…to make His presence felt as He manifests to uphold dharma…Sanatana Dharma (the eternal truth of right and proper action), heralded in the Bhagavad Gita ( the Celestial Song of God), a holy gift to the world from ancient India delivered by Lord Krishna Himself.
And what is this Eternal Truth contained in the Veda,
the Truth that shines effulgent in the eyes and burns brightly
in the souls of all sentient beings upon this earth?
What is this Truth which unites us all even when it is
obscured by the veil of our ignorance of it…?
quoted by H.H. Pujya Swami Dayananda Saraswati in his article “Vedic Vision of God” …
Ishavasyam idam sarvam
yat kincit jagatyam jagat
The Veda is not saying that there is one God;
it says there is only God.*
Eternally In His Service,