The Book of The Day

“I’ll be darned,” I said this morning as I read a passage in a book. “I would never have dreamed that would happen.” 

It was in the ’60s at a bar in Waikiki. Everyone was in a festive mood, eating and drinking to the sounds of a finger-picked guitar. Suddenly a white man announced to the bartender–in a voice everyone could hear–that he shouldn’t have to drink good liquor with a black man, only he didn’t use the word black. 

The room fell silent, and everyone turned to the one black man present, expecting a fight.

The black man stood up, walked over to the man, smiled, and proceeded to lecture him on bigotry, the promise of the American Dream, and the universal rights of man. 

The fellow felt so bad that he gave the black man a hundred-dollar bill. 

That one hundred dollars paid for the drinks and pu-puus for the night, plus the black man’s rent for the rest of the month. 

My shock was that I didn’t think lecturing ever changed anyone’s mind regarding bigotry or other hard-held beliefs. 

That must have been one persuasive man.

Have you ever had a book sitting unread on your shelf for years and finally picked it up and began to read? 

That was my experience this morning. From bed, my eyes fell on this book. So, I pulled it from the shelf, made coffee, and took a cup of it with me to our back porch, where I began to read. I remember specifically when I got the book. It was at Powell’s—that square block of a bookstore in Portland, Oregon. The book once had another owner, for a few paragraphs were neatly highlighted. 

While waiting at the bookstore for my niece to join me, I began to read this book. She arrived shortly, and since I didn’t want to leave the book, I bought it.

“When the student is ready, the teacher will arrive” is an oft-turned phrase, which has often been the case for me with books. Why this morning? Why, after all those years, did I suddenly want to read this book?

While sipping my coffee and feeling the breeze stir my night-tasseled hair, I both chuckled at what I was reading and felt a lump in my throat. And that was only the Preface. 

“I know that the hardening of lines, the embrace of fundamentalism and tribe, dooms us all.” The author wrote.

That quote was pertinent for me, as I have been grieving the fractures that have happened in this country and in my family.

Hard lines have been drawn, and I need to come to some understanding. 

Perhaps Barack Obama’s book Dreams from My Father can help me.

And, in Dreams, I read the story of the black man in the bar in Waikiki. It was his father.

Obama wrote his Preface 10 years after his book came out. When he wrote the book, he had not been the President of The United States. And not being famous, he went through what other first authors have experienced. He said he was filled with hope and despair upon the book’s publication—hope that the book might succeed, despair that I had failed to say anything worth saying. 

Reality fell somewhere in the middle. 

His reviews were mildly favorable. People showed up at the readings his publishers had arranged. The sales were underwhelming. 

And so, in a few months, he went on with his life.

I feel some affinity with Obama’s wonderings about his father, for it stirred up some feelings in me regarding mine. I lived with my father for three to four years. Obama’s father left when he was an infant. 

He was of two worlds, black and white. I was not. 

However, I grew up believing I was German. That’s how my mother identified herself. And, although my father was English, I had no connection with him. I knew what the Germans had done in the Second World War, and my heart hurt from it. So instead of being proud of my strong heritage, I felt embarrassed by it.

A couple of Christmases ago, my daughter researched our genealogy on my mother’s side, and I found my grandmother was Swiss. Would that be like Obama learning that he was not of African heritage but just a dark-skinned white guy?

My connection with Germany has made me extremely sensitive to how fractions of people can be so opposed to each other. As a child, I heard about children turning in their parents, which scared me. 

While there were courageous Germans who fought against the Hitler regime or escaped it, others embraced it. 

I heard the bad stuff first. I didn’t hear about the family who escaped in a hot air balloon or the Von Trapp family (The Sound of Music) who escaped Germany by walking over the Alps to Switzerland. I hadn’t heard about the man who carried his wife out of Germany in a suitcase and how the suitcase sat in the snow at the train station while his wife inside was dressed in a thin, loose garment so she could envelop herself into that small space. (All these people survived and escaped. And the man carrying the suitcase, being a professor, had carried books in that suitcase so many times that the guards had stopped checking it.)

We have all heard how people wanted to come to America, the land of the free, and how thrilled they were sailing into New York Harbor and seeing Statue of Liberty.

I visited the Statue of Liberty once, and I’m sorry to say I did not climb it for the day was extremely hot. So, I lay on the cool grass and stared up at the Lady, while my kids went inside.

However, I did not see the broken shackles at her feet. 

Shackles at the feet of The Statue of Liberty

“The original statue was chained. It’s sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, however, felt that broken chains at the feet of Lady Liberty would remind us of freedom from oppression and servitude. These chains are unseen by visitors as they sit atop the pedestal. However, they can be seen from an aerial view.”

I also read that the first statue was of a black Lady Liberty, but the U.S. rejected it and Bartholdi created the present version. 

The well know poem, “Give us your tired, your poor.” would be one of several factors that turned the meaning of the statue from “Liberty Enlightening the World” into a symbol of freedom and opportunity for immigrants. Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, just prior to creating his famed Tower, was engaged to design the massive iron pylon and secondary skeletal framework that allows the Statue’s copper skin to move independently, and thus face the many storms that have pelted it since its installation.

Now, excuse me, I have a book to read.

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