Thursday, July 2, 2015

Hyphenated Friends and Acquaintances

Some more random thoughts this week. I am seldom introspective, but when I fall into such a mood, I tend to get into trouble. The following ruminations will probably put me there again.


The historic events we watched unfold in the last few weeks made me re-examine some of the basic beliefs I hold about myself. I speak, of course, of the killings of so many individuals by police and others. And I refer to the Supreme Court decision declaring the act of marriage to be fundamental right guaranteed everyone under the constitution. I also include increasingly strident calls to remove the Stars and Bars from statehouses and state flags.
I was raised from birth until young adulthood in a small triangle bounded by Broken Bow, DeQueen, and Texarkana … Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Texas, respectively. That might have spanned three states, but it was more or less a single culture. I was an odd duck in that tight, insular society. Tuberculosis at the age of six. Averse to physical activity. Library habitué. I learned my pronunciation and patterns of speech from movies … and was told I talked funny. That really does things to your popularity, I can tell you. Others played baseball and basketball and football. I played chess … and a little tennis when pushed.
We lived at the top of a hill, behind which lay what we called “Colored Town.” I watched its inhabitants walk back and forth between their community and downtown and utterly failed to understand why friends and family called them ugly names. Images of the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia, which we identified as the symbol of Dixie, adorned quite a few windows and bumpers of homes and vehicles in town, although it was nowhere near as evident as during the backlash against the later Civil Rights Movement. I considered it nothing more than an anachronistic symbol of pride in my southern homeland.
Emotionally, I rooted for the Rebs during a movie or literary battle, but intellectually, I understood “Right” and “History” were not on their side. Gone With the Wind was probably my favorite book, although I cherished The House Divided, which presented the other side of the equation.
By the time I left for TCU all the way over in Fort Worth, I was well-established (at least in my own mind) as a social liberal. This attitude was tested a few times, especially by a young woman who referred to herself as “African-American.” She was likeable, and I considered her a friend, although she wore her welcome thin rather quickly with her constant, in-your-face reminders that she was different.
I occasionally played tennis with a young man of Hispanic heritage who was raised in the Fort Worth area and worked hard at developing a friendship with him. The effort was successful – up to a point. When he very naturally included his circle of friends in our developing relationship, I immediately felt ostracized, uncomfortable. We continued to play tennis and enjoyed one another’s company on the court, but that was it. Not only that, but somehow he’d become a Mexican-American in my thinking.
One of the guys in our dorm (an old army barracks housing about 20 individuals) was a homosexual, and he announced that fact if you didn’t figure it out for yourself. I liked Bruce. He was an interesting, intellectually active man, but his constant harping on how different he was from the rest of us tended to grate on the nerves. So he became a Gay-American.
Although I lived in Indian Country, I can remember no Native American friends or acquaintances.
At any rate, those were my hyphenated friends and acquaintances.
Later in life, one of my closest friends was a Hispanic, but I was seldom consciously aware of the fact we were from different cultures because he didn’t take the trouble to point it out. In the army – in boot camp, as a matter of fact – I formed a friendship with a black college instructor who had been drafted. (You guys under the age of fifty go look that one up.) We went everywhere together, and I was so blind to his “difference,” I often suggested we go to the movie in town instead of on base. He always tactfully declined. I’d forgotten that in El Paso, Texas he would have been relegated to the balcony while I sat downstairs.
While serving in Germany, I formed a friendship with a fellow named Lloyd. The only time I recall being acutely aware of his being of Japanese ancestry was in the middle of Denmark when we ran across three Chinese tourists. At that time, Orientals were so rare in that part of the world, they stared at one another in passing so hard we almost had a massive bicycle crash in the middle of an intersection.
Even later, I formed a friendship with a Comanche-Kiowa man that lasted for years. Yet I never thought of him as Indian-American until he got too far into his cups and declared he was a warrior.
These latter individuals were my non-hyphenated friends and acquaintances. In looking back on things, I believe the difference between the two sets of people was that the former – those who were hyphenated Americans actually put the hyphenation on themselves.
Now before I get a storm of protests, let me say I’m speaking from my own experience, I’m not speaking for anyone else. I am fully aware many people are infected by racism (remember my childhood puzzlement as to why others were shouting insults at passing blacks?) I have witnessed undeserved hostility and demeaning behavior to others who were different. I personally believe such actions and attitudes are driven by fear. The point is, I had thought myself immune from such infection. Yet, perhaps I wasn’t entirely free of the “disease.” But I believe – in my case – when it surfaced, the other individual was at least partially complicit in the commission.


Hope you won’t be motivated to “take after me with a claw hammer,” as my grandfather used to say. Thanks for reading. Be happy to hear from you – so long as you keep it civil.

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