A rambling shambling tour through racial guilt.
I sat in a classroom, listening to a man. Free lunch provided about forty percent of my motivation to be there; the rest was made up by, thirty percent avoidance of other work, twenty percent a desire to be inside while a thunderstorm raged outside, and ten percent the event’s billing of a conversation with a civil rights legend. His talk was not efficient. I’d long ago mowed through the polite number of sub sandwiches from a party platter (two), and now I listened to him ramble. He spoke of living in Golden Valley since sometime in the eighties, as if this should have some resonance. Perhaps it did for Twin Cities natives, but not for the transplants.
He talked about moving to Golden Valley and then he spoke of dislocating his knee on the ice and about having a higher than average pain tolerance. These two items emerged as the themes of his talk, an inhumanely high pain tolerance and his home in Golden Valley. At points they intersected. He never reached any stories about the Struggle that ostensibly he had been brought to this classroom to discuss.
My primary concern as the half hour talk stretched into forty minutes became the class I had scheduled at one o’clock. For some reason, walking out while the speaker still spoke seemed disrespectful. I could justify it all I wanted, especially with the catch all idea that as a law student, my time was valuable, I am busy and will be until I retire so please don’t waste my precious seconds. However, odds were good that I would while away precious minutes doing all sorts of wasteful things like getting drunk, playing Wii golf, playing real golf, and adding things to online shopping carts without any chance that they would ever be ordered. And yes, I had a class coming up, but I had missed class for such frivolous reasons as: the weather is above seventy degrees fahrenheit; I don’t want to get out of bed; and, there are baseball playoff games on during the day.
It didn’t help that at the forty minute mark, I still had no better idea of why or how this man was a civil rights hero than I had at the one minute mark. I did know the name of this man’s orthopaedic surgeon however. I also knew his opinions upon various civic undertakings, past and present, by the municipality of Golden Valley. But my frustration grew, knowing that this man had done Great Things, and he held out on me. By virtue of being black, over seventy, and a lawyer, he’d defied all kinds odds. I could not figure out whether he was trying to get at his story through some round about creative device that he long ago lost the string to, or if he decided to regale a group of law students with a lecture on injuries because he was old and that’s what he wanted to talk about and he didn’t give a shit if we were entertained or getting what we expected.
I noticed more and more people’s necks craning to look at the clock. I locked eyes with another student that I didn’t know, but we acknowledged our common suffering with a glance. His eyebrows wondered if we should leave to be on time for class. I answered with a look of uncertainty, and he turned back to the front and sighed heavily. I sought out the organizer of the talk, one of our professors. He followed the speaker with rapt attention. He either developed a keen ability to appear engaged, or he really was engaged. As the talk dragged on into its fiftieth minute, the latter rapidly receded as a possibility.
My embarassment for this man grew. He’d lost the room, aside from his most ardent supporters. The talk went so far off the rails, I wanted to gently lead him out of the room and get him a cup of coffee. Maybe then the stories would flow of fighting oppression. More likely, he would, as many elderly folk do, prefer to talk about doctor’s appointments and grandchildren. I cannot fathom why I thought it at that moment, but I needed to protect him and save him from embarrassment.
In Minneapolis, there is a park called Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. The city wanted to put a dog park in at MLK Park, in a part of the park that was seldom used. Many black residents of the neighborhood balked at the idea of a dog park being placed the park. The common refrain went, how could they put a dog park in MLK park, when dogs were used to go after civil rights protestors. The dissenters evoked black and white images of German Shepherds sinking their teeth into black flesh. In my mind, dog park conjured up an image of white yuppies exercising their goldendoodle.
At the time, I felt embarrassed for the anti-dog park people quoted in the Minneapolis Star Tribune. The idea that a dog park could be conflated with civil rights era police tactics, was, and is, laughable. As is the idea that whatever dead person a park is named after should have any bearing upon what activities and amenities that park offers. Lake Calhoun, a favorite summer hangout in Minneapolis and close the suburb of St. Louis Park, is named after notorious Southern statesman John C. Calhoun, a passionate defender of slavery as a way of life. By the same logic, no descendents of slaves should deign to step foot in the park. Actually, what seemed more reasonable than keeping a dog park out of MLK Park is to try to get one of Minneapolis’s most used parks and lakes named after anyone but the most passionate defender of slavery in American history.
Of course, I missed one important piece of the puzzle. Only recently did I consider that yuppies and goldendoodles may have been just as frightening to the black residents of that neighborhood as police officers holding leashed german shepherds. The argument sounded silly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was wrong.
In the wake of yet another police shooting of a black person, I expect to see a lot of #BlueLivesMatter in my Facebook timeline. There are a good number of cops in my circle of Facebook friends and acquaintances. Where I live now, Stevens Point, Wisconsin, there is a “Blue Lives Matter” billboard, but no billboard for the small minority of African American people in our community.
I will hold my tongue, because no one ever changed their mind because that smart ass they talk to once a year went #woke on their Facebook post about how we shouldn’t kill police officers.
Even as I attempted to will the speaker to be more eloquent or more informative or less weird or more focused, he failed to oblige, even as the hour neared. This talk was not going to turn around, and I was going to be late for my class. I forgot everything about my flimsy excuses for missing class previously, and determined it was too important to attend that class. I cannot recall what class it was or the topic and I am not currently a lawyer so one could argue it would be better to find out what else this man had to say and stick around. But I left because I believed I had more important things to do.