I met Gerald next to the blueberry stand at the farmer’s market when I was seven years old. Every day he sat in the same cold metal chair and played his flute for the money it cost to feed himself. Each time my grandmother and I got to the blueberries, I would pretend to hunt for the best-looking carton while soaking up the music note-by-note. For a while I was too shy to let him know that I listened, too shy to ask my grandmother for a dollar bill to slip into the coffee can he kept by his feet.
When I finally mustered enough courage to approach him it was with a sweaty fistful of allowance. The memory of our conversation after he finished his song escapes me, but I remember that he was as kind as his smile. I was about to stuff my wad of crumpled dollar bills into the coffee can when my grandmother grabbed me by the arm and tore me away. I was told not to waste my money on people like him.
Later I turned and watched with contempt as shoppers passed Gerald by as if he wasn’t there. These were people with deeper pockets and without unsympathetic grandmothers to hold them back. I asked my grandmother why they didn’t seem to care at all. Didn’t they like the music? She told me that Gerald was poor and black and filthy, and that that made people here uncomfortable. Gerald was somehow below them – unworthy and subhuman as the gum on the soles of their shoes.
I believe that the greatest threat to humankind is the idea that someone can somehow be less of a person. It is dehumanization that transforms people like Gerald into non-persons, convicts into monsters, and soldiers into statistics. It is easier to condemn a vagrant to starvation than it is to allow a father to die, and it is easier to shoot a man in a different-colored uniform than it is to kill a brother. The crimes of apathy, hatred, and violence exist only in a society where an individual’s humanity is adjusted by and dependent upon the goals and convenience of his peers. I believe that we are better than this.
But most of all, I believe in people. All kinds of people. I believe in Gerald. I believe in the people who passed him by. I believe in my grandmother. I believe in sinners, in preachers, and in prostitutes. There is nothing you can do or be that will ever make you any less of a human being. My belief is that we are all intimately connected simply by virtue of our humanity, regardless of who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. That connection, above all else, must be honored. Because of this, we can never allow ourselves to settle for anything less than universal and fundamental respect for every single living person, regardless of our differences. This I believe.