Soaring to Seattle, Senior Citizenry, Sushi and Sisters: Part I
Okay, so here is the context! Recently I traveled to Seattle, Washington, to co-present six “N-word” sessions with a very good friend and colleague of mine, Dr. Eddie Moore Jr. Now, you can’t even imagine what a trip (yes, a journey) that was! We engaged the City of Seattle, a community college, a private K-12 school, an organization of professional educators, a large, underrepresented High School, and a community center all in two days. More importantly, the conversation that we immersed all these different groups in was one that almost all of them had never had outside of their comfort zone. Black folk do not discuss with White folk the pain and/or pleasure they find in using the N-word . Mexicans, Asians, and First Peoples don’t discuss their take on the N-word with others. Many White folk seldom if ever examine the moral implications of their bystander status when others use the term around them. But you best believe, all of these groups have a take on this problematic word and it would blow you away to be in an extended conversation with Eddie and I. We are two like minded people when it comes to our passion for social justice, but we are light years away from one another in terms of our ideology of its problematic nature, as well as how use of the word may suggest something about certain types of people that it doesn’t suggest about others!
Eddie is the founder of one of the fastest growing conferences in the country, The White Privilege Conference. Before some of you get too uncomfortable about the name of the conference and what it might entail (though that might be a sign that you have some things you may need to explore, if not address about yourself) this is a conference that attracts a who’s who of white scholars committed to the social justice movement (Peggy Macintosh, Robert Jensen, Jean Kilbourne, James Loewen, Jane Elliott) as well as the usual suspects of underrepresented scholars (bell hooks, Cornel West, Michael ‘Eric Dyson, Lee Mun Wah). Suffice it to say, this conference is large and getting larger. Eddie as the architect has grown quite large himself and so it is real cool for me to have the opportunity to hang with my homeboy, a burgeoning (if not already arrived) superstar himself. Plattsburgh had the opportunity to see Eddie. He came to town and joined me in doing the “N-word” at SUNY Plattsburgh.
On my way to Seattle I departed from Burlington. I sat next to an elderly White woman on my first plane. If I had to guess her age she may have been in her late 60s early 70s. We initially chatted over Delta's tight scheduling and then further bonded when she shared with me details of her previous travel history. I sat and chatted with this woman thinking to myself what a strange world we live in. Here we are today, this beautiful elderly White woman and I laughing and chatting away. 50 years ago we wouldn’t have been able to even sit next to one another. 20 years ago I wouldn’t have said a word to her out of thinking we had nothing to talk about. The other day we were two people who for a moment tapped into our humanity and rolled with it!
I changed planes in Cincinnati and amazingly enough, encountered an elderly Black woman. I was grading papers for a class and I heard an elderly woman’s voice asking me if I could help her. I looked up to see an elderly Black woman needing help with opening a breakfast container. She must have been in her late 70s early 80s. Later, she would request my assistance again opening a water bottle. Beyond those two exchanges the only other conversation that took place between us was her apologizing for all her requests for help! What a sweet woman!
The difference between the seeming health and level of engagement with these two elderly women aside, my wonderment about what age we become the person who needs assistance preoccupies my thoughts now? The slightly younger elderly White woman was vibrant, alive, and intellectually curious. The older elderly Black woman was reticent, reserved, and somewhat shy like. I wondered how different their lives might have been because of their racial experiences. Do you have any ideas about that reality? Both women bore the brunt of living long lives in a society that appeared to enable them to live long lives where they still generated an endearing energy, though one’s energy output was high and infectious, while the other’s was low and in need of a boost. Both of them made me think of one of my favorite sayings. Dr. Lynn Schlesinger told me early in my days at SUNY Plattsburgh that the one community we are all apt to join at any moment is the disabled community. While she said this in the context of ability, it definitely applies to age. If we live long enough we will age and our physical ability will become different, we will become differently abled. We will become physically challenged. When none of this reality is immediately upon us we easily can feel invincible which unfortunately can lead to our being quite inconsiderate. It is this inconsideration, or what I was once accused of, that I want to address.
I once had a conversation with an elderly black man who chastised me about being inconsiderate because I didn't treat him and his friend (a friend I greatly respect) with the respect he felt they both deserved! It is intriguing to have someone chastise me about disrespect when I rearranged my schedule to accommodate a request of his for assistance once. Or went out of my way to encourage his participation in community events in which my office facilitated. But none of this mattered to him. His dropping an unsolicited memento off by my office, to which I neglected to say thank you to him for, and my not making it to his friends big birthday celebration were enough for him to privately tongue lash me and interpret the entire situation as a major piece of disrespect on my part. I had to ask myself if his age was a contributing factor to my possible procrastination! Do you think it could have been?
How many of you ask yourself questions or seriously contemplate various answers about aging? Will I be healthy? Will I have family to assist me? How must it feel to be all alone as you are undeniably playing the back nine? While I couldn’t relate fully to the elderly black man insinuating I was inconsiderate by rudely taking me to task, I wondered would I be taking the same actions at some point in my life to some young man that may think he’s all that, when I don’t. Perhaps the cat is in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man on the moon! What are your thoughts on one day being dependent on someone to open a bottle of water for you, or assist you in clarifying a connecting flight’s departure gate? Are we prepared to be our grandparents one day soon?