An Amalgam of Black and White

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Let me say finally, that in the midst of the hollering and in the midst of the discourtesy tonight, we got to come to see that however much we dislike it, the destinies of white and black America are tied together. Now the races don’t understand this apparently. But our destinies are tied together. And somehow, we must all learn to live together as brothers in this country or we’re all going to perish together as fools.

…Whether we like it or not culturally and otherwise, every white person is a little bit negro and every negro is a little bit white. Our language, our music, our material prosperity and even our food are an amalgam of black and white, so there can be no separate black path to power and fulfillment that does not intersect white routes and there can ultimately be no separate white path to power and fulfillment short of social disaster without recognizing the necessity of sharing that power with black aspirations for freedom and human dignity.
~Martin Luther King, Jr.
in one of his last speeches, given at Grosse Point, Michigan high school (near Detroit) to a mostly white and often heckling audience, March 14, 1968

 

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I grew up during the 1960’s in Olympia, Washington, a fair-sized state capitol of 20,000+ people at the time and our city had only one black family.

One.

There were a few Japanese and Korean families, a few Hispanics, but other than the Native American folks from the nearby Nisqually Reservation, our community seemed comprised of homogenized milk. Pretty much plain Anglo Saxon white.

In 1970, a white Olympia High School graduation student speaker caused a controversy  when she called our town a “white racist ghetto” in her speech. Numerous parents walked out of the ceremony in protest of her protest, and didn’t watch their children graduate.

It was the first time I’d heard someone other than Martin Luther King, Jr. actually crack a previously unspoken barrier using only words. What she said caused much local consternation and anger, but the ensuing debate in the newspaper Letters to the Editor, around lunch counters at the five and dime, and in the churches and real estate offices made a difference. Olympia, after being called out for bigotry in its hiring practices and housing preferences, began to open its social and political doors to people who weren’t white.

Attending college in California helped broaden my limited point of view, but in the early 70′s there were still few diversity admissions initiatives, so Stanford was still a mostly white campus. While living in Africa to study wild chimpanzees in Africa in 1975, I experienced being one of two whites living and traveling among hundreds of very dark skinned Ugandans, Rwandans, Tanzanians and Kenyans. I became the one gawked at, viewed as an oddity, pointed at by small children who were frightened, amused and perplexed by my appearance.

I constantly felt out of place. I did not belong. Yet I was treated graciously, with hospitality, although always a curiosity:  the homogenized white milk in the mix.

There was minimal diversity in my medical school class where women constituted less than 25% of my class graduating in 1980.  It wasn’t until I was in family practice residency at Seattle’s Capitol Hill Group Health Cooperative Hospital that I began to experience the world in full technicolor. I joined a group of doctors in training that included an African American activist from the east coast, a Kiowa Indian, several of Jewish background, a son of Mexican immigrants, a daughter of Chinese immigrants, a Japanese American, someone of Spanish descent, and a Yupik Eskimo.  I was challenged to appreciate my inner city patients’ cultural, racial, religious, ethnic and sexual minority identities, and saw how much more effectively my colleagues and teachers of diverse backgrounds worked with patients who looked or grew up like them.

My training was such a foundational experience that I was drawn to a medical practice in a Group Health Rainier Valley neighborhood clinic. There I saw patients who lived in the projects that lined Martin Luther King Way, struggling to overcome poverty and social fragmentation, clustered together in knots of extended family within a few square miles. There were many ethnic groups: African Americans, Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees, Ashkenazi Jews, Middle East Muslims, Russian immigrants and some Catholic Italian families who spoke broken English. I delivered babies who would grow up learning languages and traditions from every corner of the globe. It was a wide world of diversity walking into my exam rooms, richly filling in the white corners of my life in ways I had never imagined.

I found that white milk, nurturing as it was, was not a reflection of everything the world had to offer.

When I married and Dan and I started our own family, we made the decision to move north near his parents and home community of Lynden, a town of Dutch dairy farming immigrants. We planned to own our own farm to raise our children in a rural setting just as both of us had been raised. There was significant adjustment necessary once again adapting to a primarily Caucasian community. I am not Dutch even though I am as white and tall as the Frieslanders (some of my ancestry is from Schleswig-Holstein in Germany, right across the Holland border).  Even though I looked like my neighbors, I still didn’t belong.

I didn’t share the same cultural or church background to fit in easily in my new home. The color of my skin no longer set me apart, but the difference in rituals, language quirks and traditions became very apparent. In other words, the milk looked just as white, (maybe skim versus whole or 2%), but varied significantly in taste (were the cows just let out on grass??)

Over the past thirty plus years since we moved here, our rural community is transforming slowly.  We have two growing Native American sovereign nations within a few miles of our farm, the Nooksack and Lummi tribes, along with increasing numbers of migrant Hispanic families who work the seasonal berry and orchard harvest, many of whom have settled in year round. My supervisors at the University where I work are African American. Our close proximity to the lower mainland of British Columbia has brought Taiwanese, Japanese and Hong Kong immigrants to our area, and many East Indians immigrate to our county in large extended families, attracted by affordable farmland. A rural corner grocery close to our farm is owned by Sikhs with shelves stocked with the most amazing array of Indian spices and Mexican chili sauce, with Dutch peppermints and licorice thrown in for good measure.

Our children grew up rural but, as adults, have become part of communities even more varied. Nate teaches multiracial students from a dozen different countries in an international high school in Tokyo, has married a Japanese woman and our beloved granddaughter is biracial. Ben finished two years as a Teach for America high school math teacher on the Pine Ridge Lakota Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, and married to Hilary, have lived as a racial minority in a mostly black neighborhood in New Haven, Connecticut before moving to the melting pot of the Bay Area in California.   Lea is teaching fourth graders of multiple ethnicities in a Title 1 school in a military town just a few hours away.

Our children are privileged to work within the kaleidoscope of humanity and our family is blessed to no longer be just plain white milk.

Homogenized means more than just uniformity. It is a unity of substance, a breaking down of barriers so there is no longer obvious separation.  Martin Luther King, Jr. called it amalgam — a mixture that yields something stronger than the original parts.

I am still all white on the outside — that I would never want to change —  but I can strive to break down barriers that separate me from the diverse people who live, work and worship around me.  Thanks to that amalgam, my life is enriched and the flavor of my days remarkably enhanced.

 

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Fall’s Warm Milk of Light

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portrait of Dan’s mom, Emma Gibson, praying, by granddaughter Sara Lenssen

 

I sit with braided fingers   
and closed eyes
in a span of late sunlight.   
The spokes are closing.
It is fall: warm milk of light,   
though from an aging breast.   
I do not mean to pray.   
The posture for thanks or   
supplication is the same   
as for weariness or relief.   
But I am glad for the luck   
of light. Surely it is godly,   
that it makes all things
begin, and appear, and become   
actual to each other.
Light that’s sucked into   
the eye, warming the brain   
with wires of color.
Light that hatched life
out of the cold egg of earth.
~May Swenson from “October”
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I know all too well that the end of October means the light changes, the colors fade, and the chill sets in.  I grasp and bundle up what scenes I can preserve now, like harvesting hay to be tied up in bales and stored safely until the middle of winter.  Then, at the right time, when I’m most hungry for color and light,  I loosen the strings and let the images tumble out, feeding me like mother’s milk.
And I am filled…
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An Abstract Expressionist

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A full year passed (the seasons keep me honest)
since I last noticed this same commotion.   
Who knew God was an abstract expressionist?
I’m asking myself—the very question   
I asked last year, staring out at this array   

of racing colors-the out-of-control Virginia creeper   

my friends say I should do something about,
whose vermilion went at least a full shade deeper…
~Jacqueline Osherow from “Autumn Psalm”
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It gets out of hand — the Virginia Creeper — traveling surreptitiously from one building to the next, up trees and poles and down holes.  We don’t know every place it has gone until it turns crimson in October, shouting loudly in technicolor from the most hidden spots.  It cannot hide.
Our efforts at creeper control are meager in comparison to the Artist’s effort to brighten our world on a sullen autumn morning. What is stripped away one year reappears reinvigorated somewhere else.
The farm has become gallery, the buildings and grounds a canvas, the Artist busy painting free-form, and the audience, (yes those of us with eyes to see), stand breathless as mere witness.
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A Relinquishing Light

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There is no season when such pleasant and sunny spots may be lighted on,
and produce so pleasant an effect on the feelings, as now in October.
The sunshine is peculiarly genial;
and in sheltered places, as on the side of a bank, or of a barn or house,
one becomes acquainted and friendly with the sunshine.
It seems to be of a kindly and homely nature.
And the green grass strewn with a few withered leaves looks the more green and beautiful for them.

~Nathaniel Hawthorne

 

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If I were a month, I would prefer to be October…

A kindly and homely nature, with comfortable temperatures and just a hint of fogginess,
with flashes of burnt umber flashing misty gold in a relinquishing light.

 

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Kiss the Light

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…I have been younger in October
than in all the months of spring
walnut and may leaves the color
of shoulders at the end of summer
a month that has been to the mountain
and become light there
the long grass lies pointing uphill
even in death for a reason
that none of us knows…

my love is for lightness
of touch foot feather
the day is yet one more yellow leaf
and without turning I kiss the light
by an old well on the last of the month
gathering wild rose hips
in the sun
~W. S. Merwin from “The Love of October” from Migration

 

 

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A wind gusts through shedding branches
stripping them bare
and carrying the leaves to yards
far away, to a diverse gathering
they have never known:
chestnut, cherry, birch, walnut, apple,
maple, parrotia, pear, oak, poplar
suddenly sharing the same fate and grave,
each wearing a color of its own,
soon to blend with the others
as all slowly melt to brown.

There is lightness in letting go,
for reasons none of us knows.

 

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Strange Visions of Mountains

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photo by Dan Gibson

 

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photo by Dan Gibson

 

He found himself wondering at times, especially in the autumn, about the wild lands, and strange visions of mountains that he had never seen came into his dreams.
~ J.R.R. Tolkien from The Fellowship of the Ring

 

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photo by Dan Gibson

 

Perhaps we actually dwell in Middle Earth here in the Pacific Northwest where astounding, mysterious and dangerous places abound.
The mountains are much more than strange visions; they stand sentinel over our backyard.

For those who live in the unending horizon of the plains, this is the stuff of dreams.

I wake early each morning,  just in case the color explodes overhead.

It did today.

 

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photo by Dan Gibson

 

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Enter Autumn Cautiously

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Enter autumn as you would 
a closing door. Quickly, 
cautiously. Look for something inside 
that promises color, but be wary 
of its cast — a desolate reflection, 
an indelible tint.
~Pamela Steed Hill  “September Pitch”

 

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Today is a rainy gray start to the University’s academic year:  we enter autumn cautiously with no little trepidation about what comes next.

Once we’re on the other side of the closing door, we search for what enriches and envelopes  —  that which is unforgettable and indelible.

May we find the color midst the gray.

 

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Support for the Barnstorming Blog

Your financial support keeps this blog a daily offering and ad-free. A one-time contribution helps greatly.

$10.00