Letter to my granddaughter: Part 1

By Roger Payne

I wrote the following blog in response to a beloved 14 year-old granddaughter, wise beyond her years, who emailed me to say that her latest school assignment was to ask a grandparent to describe two of the most memorable, historical, world or national events that they had encountered in their lives. With minor edits, this is what I wrote:

Letter to My Granddaughter: Part 1

One of two most memorable, historical, world/national events that has occurred in my life was hearing that Nelson Mandela had been released from Robben Island prison and was working with what I thought of as the racist, South African, apartheid government to end apartheid.

I had been in South Africa in 1974 and experienced Apartheid first-hand—up close and personal. The experience shocked me to the core. I had no idea how savage human beings could be to each other about something so infinitesimal, so inconsequential as the amount of pigmentation in another person’s skin. How could a species—ours—do so much damage when the motive was based on a set of assumptions so unexamined, ignorant, vicious and wrongheaded? I can’t think of anything that we could do that could cause so much damage for so little effort as racism causes. Is there any action you can think of, or way of expression that could hurt so many others for so little effort and so little reward and also rely entirely for its adoption of such an absurd motive?

If a person wishes the world to think of them as entirely ignorant I see no simpler way to accomplish that than to express racist sentiments publicly. Do it once; it will destroy your life. I am sometimes overwhelmed by the appalling fact that we have named our own species Homo sapiens—Latin, of course, for “wise man.”

Wise, my ass.

Not when it comes to our regard for ‘The Other’: other populations, other religions, other sexual preferences, other countries, other races, or, God help us… other, species than our own. But here was Nelson Mandela, a distinguished, dignified man, who wasted neither time nor words complaining about the massive indignities he had suffered from blindingly ignorant racists during his 26 years of imprisonment—a man so clearly more worthy than all of his detractors—the most distinguished statesman of my long life—more honest than Churchill, a braver champion of change than Roosevelt, the embodiment of courage—the best that humanity can boast… walking integrity.

As I watched Mandela in 1990 address a massive crowd in Boston I felt that here was the embodiment of what we might all aspire to be, and that the problem against which he had spent his entire life fighting was the ultimate symbol of ignorance and failure—the thing that keeps humanity small, deformed, twisted; the force that damages its practitioners even more than it damages their victims; the terrible gift that, keeps on giving; The hate that dare not speak its name—racism.

Sorry Luna, I am surprised (shocked?) to find I’m so angry about this topic. I didn’t fully realize how enraged racism makes me feel until I started to address your request. Thank you for the opportunity. I think that part of my anger comes from the fact that one of my closest friends in life was John Marshall, who spent all of his time and resources promoting the future of the San people of Southwestern Africa—the so-called bushmen—the speakers of a click language with whom your uncle John and his wife Annie lived for some years while learning that language, and on whose behalf your aunt Holly negotiated. I visited John and Annie there, along with John Marshall and found the Bushmen to be the most truly happy, well-adjusted people I had ever encountered. Their children spent entire days just jumping, jumping, jumping up and down in play—and, as far as you could tell, simply because they were happy—not how I’d characterize childhood for most of the children here in the US-of-A. And yet, whenever the San people end up in towns they go straight to the bottom of the social heap—where they were treated as if they were the very dregs of humanity—the most despised and disrespected of peoples—whereas, as even a blind person could see, they, as family men and women, are perhaps the best humanity has yet achieved. Or, well, to be more accurate: the best that other, racist/prejudiced humans have not succeeded in wiping out…yet.

Sweet Christ , what the Hell sort of a species are we?

© Roger Payne

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