Archive for January, 2016

Martin Luther King, Jr., Political Correctness and my Bittersweet Birthdays

17 Jan

I’ve taught Martin Luther King, Jr.’s essay “Letter from Birmingham Jail” more times than I can count.  I love his strength, his resilience in his fatal fight against white oppression and bigotry. He was assassinated on my birthday and every time right before I celebrate, I always first think of him before I blow out the candles, how he took a bullet for his beliefs.

But I think if he were alive today he’d be ashamed of how divided our society has become.  He’d be ashamed that much of his work has, in many ways, been undone in the face of political correctness that sterilizes our language, blunts our thoughts before they can even form into spoken words and punishes those who speak out or God forbid accidentally say the wrong thing.  MLK used to stress people needed to have a “dialogue vs. a monologue.”  Sure, we talk today.  We talk in a code so generic and careful that nothing ever truly gets discussed.  Racists remain racist and the self-righteous keep on pointing out the flaws in everybody else but themselves.

For years I’ve gotten used to checking the White, Non-Hispanic box when asked about my heritage, my ethnicity.  I am classified as white, period.  I am to keep to myself who I am.  My European ancestors, the dirt-poor ones who came here from the islands of Greece, who took in other people’s ironing or sold fruit out of the back of a pick-up truck just to put food on the table for their children, their hard-earned identities, they simply don’t count, not to the United States Census Bureau.  I am Native American too, on my mother’s side.  But exactly what percentage?  Is it enough to constitute shading in another box?

No.  To the eyes of the US Census Bureau and all other institutions that call for me to answer who I am, I must remember this – I am what I am not.

Years ago I published a piece in the New York Times Magazine titled “Prejudice and Pride.”  It sparked a lot of conversation and it has and continues to be taught in universities across the country.  I hoped that by now we’d be beyond intentionally drawing distinctions from one another, our race or our sexual orientation and maybe, just maybe, we might try and connect with one another by some of our similarities.  We have plenty of them.  Love.  Loss.  Grief.  They’re universal feelings experienced by all of humanity.  But sadly enough, in a society where walls are favored to be constructed between our country and another, I couldn’t be more wrong.




My Mother and I Vs A Would Be Mugger in Vegas

01 Jan

I should’ve seen it as an omen that morning at 7 a.m. in the casino lobby of Planet Hollywood when a well-dressed man wearing a sweater/blazer combo and a black fedora began to serenade me with the seventies hit “Feel Like Makin’ Love.”   As a writer, I am an early riser.  It cannot be helped and, most of the time, I prefer it this way.  Except at that moment as I was being sung to by some European guy still drunk from the night before, I was alone, my family members I came to Vegas with still asleep.  I sat there stunned on a stool in front of a Britney Spears slot machine with my Venti black coffee.  A younger man quickly interrupted and hit the older man with his shoulder, apologizing profusely, and I thought that maybe this would be as strange as my day in Vegas would get.

I was wrong.

I hadn’t seen my mother in nearly five years.  She lives thousands of miles away and she doesn’t travel much after a car crash left her with a fractured vertebrae that never fully healed.  It was hard to see her slightly hunched over, her gait slower, somewhat frail, but still feisty as ever.  We had plans that crisp, sunny afternoon to cross the street and check out the elaborate Christmas decorations at Bellagio.  I held my mother’s arm while she carefully made her way down the concrete steps to the crosswalk, and that’s when I heard it.

“I’m your baby, I’m your baby, I’m your baby,” a young woman in a red sweatshirt and tan pants yelled as she charged down the steps towards my poor unsuspecting mother.

Instantly I turned, placed my left hand on my mother’s back to brace her, and I faced the woman who was now one step away from knocking my mother to the ground.  I’ve always hoped in times of crisis that I would react the right way, that I would not be one of those people who dumbly stand by and watch a criminal act occur.

I did not yell back at the woman screaming at the top of her lungs at my mother.  Nor did I think she was all that crazy as she was attempting to act.  I sensed that what she really wanted from my mother was her small canvas purse that hung off her shoulder, filled with hundreds of dollars in cash.

Instinctively, I stepped in between this woman and my mother.  She would have to get through me before she ever got to her.

For several seconds this woman and I stared at eachother, neither of us saying a word, both of us sizing the other up.  I’d watched enough boxing matches with my favorite boxer Gennady Golovkin to know what I’d have to do next if she tried to strike me.  Suddenly, it surfaced in her eyes, the stark reality that this would be no easy mugging, that a daughter’s love for her mother was a force she was no longer wanting to mess with.  She cursed at me, then ran off into the crowd on the Strip.

My mother and I continued to make our way to Bellagio.  We weren’t going to let some random stranger ruin our time.  We took a couple pictures of the famous fountains out front, but later I took my mother’s suggestion and we sat at the bar inside with a pianist playing nearby and each had ourselves a calming glass of good red wine.