Sunday, January 27, 2008

Steeping All Week

The postings on this site are my own and don't necessarily represent IBM's positions, strategies or opinions.

I Hope It's Finally Ready

Martin Luther King Jr. Day has meant even more than usual to me this year, and I think it will from now on; I am more conscious of brown and white skin than I was prior to being one of the relatively few white people in my surroundings for six months while my partner and I lived in India. Dr. King said:
Let us be dissatisfied until men and women, however black they may be, will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not on the basis of the color of their skin. Let us be dissatisfied.

My approach is to notice people's difference and my own, acknowledge it, and even celebrate it on a good day, and then also to enjoy finding a way to connect with one another while acknowledging our difference. Dr. King was simply asking for no judgment based on skin-color (see the judgment I was tempted to make below, in connection with Sharon's good deed); I don't think he was suggesting that we be color-blind.

On Friday night, a couple of our synagogue's congregants had a baby-naming for their latest child. Among their family was a sister, who had traveled from India with her Indian husband and their three kids. I looked at the husband, whose skin was relatively dark and thought, Wow, one Indian face in a sea of Jewish ones -- how opposite an experience to having been just two Jewish faces in a sea of Indian ones over the past six months. The kids intrigued me, too; their skin was a pretty, golden that's what Indian Jews looked like, or at least these Indian Jews.

Ahimsa (Non-violence) Shall Overcome

The day, I think, also was about celebrating what Dr. King stood for -- non-violent human rights advancement, and my consciousness was higher around that, too. In October, I first experienced that consciousness-raising and so wrote the following e-mail to a number of my Indian colleagues:
Dear Colleagues,

Ritu and I were talking earlier today and when I asked, she kindly explained that Gandhi Jayanti is a contemplative/solemn sort of holiday.

Realizing my ignorance, I went to Wikipedia over lunch-time and learned a great deal.

Prior to Ritu's and my conversation today, I told my colleagues how I'd participate in a Centra session early on Tuesday morning, since "'s not my holiday."

I am still planning to do so, but since learning what I did from Ritu and from Wikipedia, I hope to dedicate the day to honoring Mahatma Gandhi's memory in some way, even if it's simply by being sincere and having a more peaceful attitude.

Wishing all of you a meaningful Gandhi Jayanti on Tuesday.

It yielded some warm responses and I felt just a little more akin with my colleagues after that.

Amazing Races

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day itself, a complete stranger -- at the time -- left the following comment on my blog entry about my colleague and friend, Earnest Hite's, tragic, accidental death:
Hi Sarah,

I found your blog while googling Earnest's name and I felt I had to leave a comment. I was the second person on the scene of his accident last Monday night. I was coming home from the gym, and just as I reached the turning to my house I saw his car in the ditch. A woman was standing next to it, so I stopped. I assumed she was the one driving, but she told me that she was the first one of the scene. I stayed with Earnest while she went to phone the police. Since the car was at an angle I could only reach his leg, so I put my hand on his leg and I tried to talk to him and comfort him.

I found out the next day that he had passed, and I can't seem to forget him. I spoke to someone at BEHIV where he worked. I wanted to let them know that he wasn't alone when he died. I had hoped that she would pass my phone number on to his family so that I could show them where the accident was. I see the tire marks in the dirt there every day and I think of him. I don't think I'll ever forget him.

If you'd like to speak to me I'd be happy to answer any questions.


My first question was, Are you black, too, like Earnest? What I wrote initially instead was:
Dear Sharon,

Thank you for your kindness to my colleague and friend of 20 years ago, Earnest.

Somehow, it's extra-poignant to me to hear about your helping Earnest today, on Martin Luther King's birthday.

And then I wrote again, more honestly:
Dear Sharon,

...I have a question that I'm ashamed...but too curious not to ask: What is your race?

I thought it was interesting to see your comment particularly on Martin Luther King's birthday and felt bad that I was hoping you were white, as if being black and helping Earnest would have made it less of a good deed. Oy!

Sharon responded:
Hi Sarah,

Hey, no problem. I'm white. I actually thought about that yesterday too. I was watching Oprah's show on Martin Luther King and the show addressed the issue of white people being able to kill blacks and get away with it. I'm glad I don't live in a world like that anymore.


I wrote to Sharon again, asking, "May I have permission to refer to this exchange and even quote us...?"

She responded that it was fine -- that she was a freelance writer and understood.

I asked for a sample of her writing and Sharon sent me a great story about a topic with which I'm confident I'd never otherwise have become familiar. Watching the YouTube clip that was associated with the piece, I marveled further at the way life, simply occurring, along with the web, being available to more and more of us, connects the fates of people, who were often previously remote from one another.

If I take a few steps back in my reflection, I can see how the flurry of connections began. After being referred to me by John (Jack) Ryan, executive producer of "The 10% Show," Andrew Davis, associate editor of "The Windy City Times," sent me e-mail about Earnest's death, asking me to contact him with memories of Earnest. When I called, but couldn't reach him that day, since he had already left the office, I blogged that night, and so it began:

First, Earnest's first cousin Susan left a comment; and then a stranger named Gerry London; and then Sharon, who was a stranger to all of us, until we learned that she was the one with Earnest at the very end; and then his colleague Char; and then one of the former youth Earnest helped with his ImagePlus organization; and then Shequitta, the niece of Earnest's partner.

Just as I had been thinking of Earnest and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. all week, Rabbi Cohen had also been considering the more famous of the two human rights activists; the theme of Shabbat (Sabbath) services on Friday night was Dr. King's legacy.

From the Profane to the Sacred

The start of services didn't bode well for my spirituality; Pat and I sat in the second row, center, and unexpectedly, I was peeking at the lovely cleavage of our rabbinical student intern as she turned to sit down. I did not smile back at her after that, but rather, blushed at the floor.

Later, I told Pat of my embarrassment and Pat said, "Don't worry. She was probably flattered." (Cleavage was another aspect of women that was never on display in India...midriffs, sometimes breathtaking, yes, but never cleavage.) After such a start to services, I didn't aspire to traditional transcendence.

Despite that first distraction, a bit later, I was moved more constructively. We sang the "Mi Chamocha" to the tune of, "We Shall Overcome," which put a sack of gratified tears in my throat. And in our new siddur (prayerbook), we turned to a page that contained the part of Dr. King's speech, repeating, "Let us be dissatisfied." The excerpt ended with, "...we must walk on in the days ahead with an audacious faith in the future."

In addition to the baby-naming, we had a guest speaker, Dr. Constance Buchanan, who was Senior Program Officer, Religion, Society, and Culture, Ford Foundation, and former associate dean of Harvard Divinity School. Dr. Buchanan worked with our congregation to ensure multiple grants for its good, innovative work. Prior to Dr. Buchanan's education of the Ford Foundation on our synagogue, she said, "The Ford Foundation had thought of religion primarily in terms of soup kitchens." Her whole focus, if I understood her correctly, was on religious dialogue around difference -- everywhere, including at the Ford Foundation.

Just as I wrote, "religious dialogue around difference," the sun came out a bit, which was significant, since the weather outside my window no longer was that of temperate, banana-treed Bangalore, but that of currently bare-branched-Mapled Montclair.

That has always been my premise:

Once I meet one (of nearly any group) and we speak (face-to-face or virtually), we can no longer blindly dislike or be ignorant of each other...which is part of why I'm always driven to be visible as Jewish and as lesbian. People need to know me and to relate to me, and I need to know them -- the real them. If I'm open about my identity, I hope they feel disarmed to be who they are with me more so, too.

Right on, Dr. King; Mahatma Gandhi; Earnest Hite; Jack Ryan; Andrew Davis; Sharon Biggs; Rabbi Cohen; and Dr. Buchanan! Thanks for spurring on my "...audacious faith in the future."

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