Jameson is six years old, almost seven. We had a birthday party with some of his favorite foods—hamburgers, hotdogs, watermelon, a Power Ranger cake from Publix, and Rocky Road ice cream. Our present to him R-O-C-K-S! It’s a Power Ranger Jungle Fury Mega Mission Helmet. Oh yeah! This thing lights up, talks, and makes Power Ranger noises. And get this—you can download audible “missions” from the website. If he doesn’t play with it, I’m going to.

Jameson is into Power Rangers, particularly the red one called “Jungle Fury,” like a lot of his friends.  I’m caught off-balance by what else settles and stays in a seven-year-old’s mind.

Last Friday, when Jameson and sister Carly spent the typical overnight “Grammy Day,” I found him gazing through the books on The Cellar bookshelves.

“What are you looking for?” I asked.

“Oh, I was wondering if you had this book… It’s white. It has that picture of the bus that caught on fire…” he said.

A bus that caught on fire. White. Could it be…

“Do you have the book at your house or have you just seen it here?” I asked.

I knew I had seen a copy of The Children on a bookcase in the hall at Jameson’s house. I bought the book for his dad, John, several years ago for Christmas after he’d put the book on his Christmas wish list.

“We have the book. It’s my dad’s book.” He paused for some sign of recognition from me, I nodded, and then he added, “There’s this man named John.”

He stared at me while I thought for a moment. John Graham knew the history of the Civil Rights Movement. He knew the beginnings here in Nashville. He knew names and stories of the ones who sat at the lunch counters; Marion Barry, Bernard Lafayette, Diane Nash, John Lewis

 “John Lewis?” I asked.

“I don’t know his last name,” he said.

I started looking for my copy on the shelf. Everything else is so well-organized except for the non-fiction. One of these days, I have to…

“Grammy, he’s African-American and he’s still alive,” he told me in a rush.

“John Lewis. You’re talking about the book The Children, aren’t you? And you’ve been reading that book?” I asked.

He’s a good reader but he can’t be reading that.

“Freedom Riders, Grammy! There are Freedom Riders in that book!”

I pulled The Children off the shelf. I know my face showed my bafflement. How would he get interested in this?

“Is this it?” I held it out to him.

“Yeah, that’s the one.” He grinned. “Can I look at it?” he asked.

“Sure.”

“Okay, I’m going to take it upstairs and read it at bedtime,” he said.

Isn’t that a strange topic for a first-grader’s bedtime?

After Jameson and Carly went home on Saturday, I straightened up the bedroom and stripped the linens off the twin beds, pink for Carly and blue for Jameson. I sat down on the mattress pad and picked up David Halberstam’s book from the chest beside the bed where Jameson had slept.

I opened the book to the photo section. There it was. The caption read, “The Klan sets fire to the first bus filled with Freedom Riders at Anniston, Alabama. Hank Thomas is standing (in shirts sleeves, back to camera) as the noxious fumes pour out. (UPI/Corbis-Bettmann).”  On the opposite page was a picture of John Lewis after a severe beating in Montgomery.

This weekend, I participated in a multi-congregation program called “Setting the Table.” Since we have an interest in our church congregations looking a little more like our neighborhoods, and since we’ve discovered that maybe following The Way means radically welcoming all sorts of people, many of us Lutherans are learning how to talk to each other—and our neighbors—“cross-culturally.”

We began the workshop with the histories of different cultures around us. In small groups, we got to the point of sharing feelings about those histories, about cultural traits of public discussion that have evolved out of those histories, and about how we view our worlds.

There were four of us in my group: Gene and Mike, African-American men; David, a white male pastor; and me, one white female. After being directed to share a memory of a time that we felt “different,” or excluded, we began to share stories, every one of them curiously originating in our middle-school years.

Mike was one of about twenty early teenage African-Americans to integrate a Greensboro, North Carolina high school. Taunts and expressions of hatred were open and ugly—except for the sports teams where winning demanded cooperation and respect. But when the game or the track event was over, so was the camaraderie.

David told of growing up in Middle Tennessee with a different religion other than one of the typical Southern Bible Belt varieties, and often being asked, “You’re such a nice boy. Why would you be Lutheran?”

I described moving from Tennessee to California at age eleven to begin junior high school in Mill Valley, California, only to discover that neither the students nor the faculty liked Southerners. I was extremely lonely and silent for the few months that we lived among those who were “regionally” prejudiced.

And then Gene told of moving to Kenya as a pre-teen, thinking, “We’ll get a ‘Welcome home!’”  He and his brother discovered, instead, that they had more in common with the British expatriate students than they did with the locals. The native Kenyans did not like African-Americans.

We all agreed that the middle-school years were difficult enough—still are—without the pressures of isolation and rejection. Each story shook each of us. At times, a voice would crack.

It was Gene’s further explanation, though, that alternated between stirring my brain and pummeling my heart.

“Then we go back to the States, and we’re in the middle of the place that wasn’t home when we left it, still wasn’t, and I realized that we had no home. Africa was not home. America was not home. I’ve always felt that I just don’t have a home to go back to.”

Sharing those personal histories is critical. If we want to know each other now, we have to know each other then.

Graham Nash wrote this song. It deals with the difficult relationship he had with his father, who spent time in prison. (From the liner notes of the 1991 boxed set): “The idea is that you write something so personal that every single person on the planet can relate to it. Once it’s there on vinyl it unfolds, outwards, so that it applies to almost any situation.”

It sure applies to where we’ve been and where we are now; me, Gene, David, Mike.  Jameson, too. 

TEACH YOUR CHILDREN

You who are on the road
Must have a code that you can live by
And so become yourself
Because the past is just a good-bye.

Teach your children well,
Their father’s hell did slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.

Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

And you, of tender years,
Can’t know the fears that your elders grew by,
And so please help them with your youth,
They seek the truth before they can die.

Counter Melody To Above Verse:
Can you hear and do you care and
Can’t you see we must be free to
Teach your children what you believe in.
Make a world that we can live in.

Teach your parents well,
Their children’s hell will slowly go by,
And feed them on your dreams
The one they picked, the one you’ll know by.

Don’t you ever ask them why, if they told you, you would cry,
So just look at them and sigh and know they love you.

                                                                              -Graham Nash

 ***

Advertisements