This I Believe
The year I turned ten we were living in Ossining, New York, a village about thirty miles north of New York City. Late in the summer of that year I was standing on a corner with my little brother, preparing to cross the street. As we waited on the curb, a bus moved slowly into the crosswalk, then stopped. The bus was dented and scratched and its windows seemed to all be cracked or smashed completely out. The passengers on the bus showed signs of various injuries–arms in slings, bruises, scratches, dried blood on chins or lips or shirt fronts.
Standing with my brother and me on the curb were two men in overalls. They might have just come from their work at the nearby Croton train yard, I don’t know. I do remember the smell of coal dust, or maybe diesel fuel. One of the men stared at the bus, then turned to the other man and said, “What the hell is this?” His companion answered, “Aw, that’s that bunch of kikes that went up to Peekskill to hear that commie nigger sing.”
It was to be several years before I learned about Paul Robeson and the Peekskill riots. It took many more years for me to realize how much the incident had affected me and how it had shaped my beliefs. That day in Ossining was the day I began to break away from the narrow, stifling influences of race, religion, gender and nation. I began to see the world through the eyes of others.
First, though, I had to pass through an arrogant, self-serving and ultimately unhelpful stage of youthful cynicism. I smirked when I heard Southern governors and Southern sheriffs refer to civil rights workers as “Communists” or “outside agitators.” I rolled my eyes when student anti-war protesters were called “pinkos” and accused of “aiding the enemy.” I found it particularly amusing when such slurs came from the lips of self-serving–and sometimes corrupt–politicians. I eventually got to the point where, when I heard someone call another person a “communist”, I wanted to know what the “communist” was doing right–and what his accuser had done wrong.
Now, in my sixty-sixth year, I am convinced that the narrow confines of nationalism and self-serving patriotism are insufficient to solve the problems we–the people of the world–face. Global warming, war and militarism, poverty, the nuclear threat and terrorism–none of these will yield to bluff and bluster or one-size-fits-all economic solutions.
I believe we must see the world as one we share with others, not one which must be engineered for our benefit. In other words, we must look through the eyes of others and–yes, as trite as it may sound–feel their pain. The angry youth growing to adulthood in a refugee camp and the horribly maimed London subway commuter are both victims. The insurgent and the soldier are both, in their own way, terrorists. We must see the “us” in “them” and the “them” in “us” before we can work together to hand a more peaceful, just and wholesome world over to succeeding generations. This I believe.