There is a moment in John Steinbeck’s classic, East of Eden, when readers witness the transformation of a stereotype into a human being.
Set in Salinas Valley, Calif., around the turn of the 20th century, Samuel Hamilton picks up Lee, his friend's Chinese servant. Lee wears a queue and speaks Pidgin English. Moments after meeting him, Hamilton learns that Lee was born in the U.S. and asks why he still can’t speak English.
Lee’s face and eyes soften and he speaks perfect English, explaining that he speaks Pidgin for the whites in town to understand him. Lee says, “You see what is, where most people see what they expect.”
Did you catch that? Lee plays the role of the foreigner in order to be seen and understood.
I first learned about President Obama’s comments about racism and the Trayvon Martin case last week when a Facebook friend posted a link with this comment:
“Full text of the American President’s divisive and racist remarks today. He moves smoothly into his new role as race-baiter in chief.”
Let me try an analogy.
Imagine that Joe Lieberman had been elected our first Jewish president. And that in a moment of crisis, he felt compelled to explain that some reaction to even the hint of anti-Semitism is partly explained by the Jewish cultural memory of the Holocaust. And he included personal anecdotes about growing up Jewish in America.
Would he be accused of being divisive and guilty of whatever the Jewish equivalent of “race-baiting” might be?
Fred Luter had a lot of firsts in the last year: first black president of the Southern Baptist Convention; first time chairing the denomination’s annual meeting, this week, in Houston; and recently, first-time missionary.
“It was inspirational, but also very humbling in a lot of instances, just to see how some people are living,” Luter said, days after returning from Ethiopia and Uganda.
Struck by the poor living without running water and by missionaries willing to “leave the comforts that we have here in America,” Luter wants more members ofhis New Orleans congregation — as well as more of the nation’s 16 million Southern Baptists — to take overseas missions seriously.
In particular, he wants more of his denomination’s relatively small black population to serve as missionaries.
Trethewey focuses her keen verbal gifts on the most sensitive nerve in American life.