By: J. Scotte Burns
When I was but a wee lad in the 1960s, just after the Earth’s surface had cooled and proto-dinosaurs roamed the jungles of Pangaea, we lived for a short time near my grandparents’ home in the little Great Plains burg of Hutchinson, Kansas. With Vietnam, the Apollo missions, and the Johnson and Nixon years chilling in the Cold War, even as a kid, sensing only their echoes, I remember feeling that those were important times. On one visit downtown, my sister and I waited in the family Buick in front of a bank while my mom took care of grownup business. Watching real hippies strolling along the sidewalk, I imagined it as a kind of wildlife excursion and, as a product of those times, conjured Wild Kingdom’s Marlin Perkins with a tranquilizer rifle drop a furry peacenik while his assistant, Jim, ran out to tag the hippie behind the ear to radio-track him in the wild.
One evening, my grandparents discussed race riots at the table, but I don’t recall much detail; I was a child when the civil rights struggle took place. However, I remember visiting Hutchinson’s Carey Park Memorial Fountain and reading the letter imprints on the stones that surrounded the restrooms. These imprints were from Jim Crow signs, which had been removed recently. I wondered why “colored only” and “white only” people got different water before a law had passed that abolished this practice.
Overcoming prejudices and shame is an American story because so many people have been thrust together in this social melting pot. It’s no wonder we tend to melt a little unevenly and blend oddly at times. Fondue is messy stuff. It was humbling to reflect upon all this fifty years later, standing atop the steps of the Alabama Capitol building, and looking down Dexter Avenue—the place where Dr. King had given his “How Long, Not Long” speech, following the Montgomery bus boycott. It was a moment made even more poignant when we were honored by a conversation with Reverend Cromwell Handy, current minister at King’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. It was a talk bridged by the knowledge that we were there, through our Love in America work, looking for love—the most powerful connection between humans and the essence of Dr. King’s message.
After my field work, I returned home to the sacred South Dakota Black Hills where I pursued Western American history. I reread Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee and viewed Ken Burns’s excellent series The West. There, I listened to a Lakota man recount his attempt to reconcile with the past of his people and their experiences at the hands of those who “settled” these lands I’ve grown to love so passionately. The anger he found in his spirit was something for which I had no depth of words to express, and the freshness of those wounds to the Lakota is something we might understand intellectually but can never touch with our hearts in the way that it has broken his and his people’s. Moreover, his astounding answer to all of it was this: forgiveness. To do anything else, he said, was a path to never-ending despair and destruction. To find the strength to forgive gave him back the dignity others had sought to take, something Dr. King knew when he had said, “Let no man pull you low enough to hate him.”
We can only respond to that kind of strength with humility and awe. It is a poignant manifestation of the power of love. Even so, I still hear people who look like me ask why they should feel guilty over slavery, colonialism, or the violent subjugation of native peoples, and my heart cringes. We are not of those times and do not bear personal responsibility for them, so it isn’t anyone’s guilt that is asked. Nor would such bloodguilt amend those tragic events or heal the memories of them, even if offered. Still, as members of the only true race—human—we have to recognize that the legacies of those times lead to the feet of us all. We honor the memory and sacrifice of the past, as well as the forgiveness of the present, by owning that and by assuring that recognition leaves a different legacy—one that begins with understanding and continues with love and respect for each other.
As I pen this, I share a quiet time with my students while Mendelssohn accompanies our writing period. It is a piece written by a Jew, played by the Boston Symphony (the seat of American Colonial history), and conducted by Ozawa, a Japanese maestro. My Vietnamese students find themselves writing in this place, with this music, an American flag hanging between pictures of Shakespeare and Langston Hughes. They know a very different family experience from those of the Russian and Latino faces beside them. A fatherly smile on my face, I peer over my glasses to shush one of the girls, wondering at the paths that brought a child adopted from China to conspire with a fiery Irish-descended boy whose crush on her is a not-so-secret delight. I wonder how my Scottish forebears might consider all this after being forced to America themselves, Covenanters and Jacobite Highlanders, banished here by the British crown. Many of our ancestral histories are stories of violence and oppression, others of exploration and conquest—but most are a mix of victory and vanquishment, triumphs, tragedies, hopes, and follies that are the tale of humankind. And in all our hues and faiths, creeds, clans, and confederacies, in this room, I see the ongoing aspiration of human beings trying to make it all work out somehow. In America, with all her faults, I still see the best possible hope to make that happen, so long as we continue to tell each other’s stories and listen to those tellings.
Too often the message of love is seen as quaint or some kind of fairytale when, in reality, love is the single most powerful force in our world. It drives our passion for freedom, redeems our hopes, and kindles our spirits. Like grass growing relentlessly through the concrete and drops of water patiently splitting stone, it is stronger than cynicism, hatred, and ignorance. Championing its stories and legacy have become my and my wife’s life’s work because we’ve seen its redeeming power, its unifying attraction, and its relentless victory.
Besides, who could resist being on the same team as Gandhi, Jesus, King, John Paul, Black Kettle, Nightingale, Browning, and so many more? Under their eyes, I look around my little classroom in America, and my heart smiles.
I like our team’s chances.
“When I speak of love, I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: ‘Let us love one another, for love is God.’” —Martin Luther King