Many of you reading this are too young to remember the scenes of fire hoses being turned upon the angry black youth of Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960's for having the nerve to demand the right to vote, a seat on a public bus, or service in places of business comparable to that enjoyed by those with lighter skin. I grew up with these images and lived in those times.
I was in the 3rd grade when my school became integrated. It was a small 12 grade school in the county system, but it was all white. The black children in my community attended another, smaller school a few miles away. Prior to that, I was aware that black families lived close by but didn't know any of the children in them. For that matter, I didn't even know any of their last names. That first day started out pretty tense: There was fear that names would be called and fights would break out. We white kids had no idea what to expect from the black kids suddenly found in our midst, and I expect the black kids were even more fearful about what they would be facing in the foreign environment of a new school where they would be outnumbered ten to one. I remember sitting in the classroom that first day looking at the scared black faces around me and wondering what was going to happen next.
What did happen next caught everyone by surprise: We all became friends. Turned out we all spoke the same language, liked the same games and spent the next 9 years together in the same school. The black kids were kids just like us! There wasn't too much crossover dating, but incidents of racial unrest were very rare, and most of the racial slurs that were screamed were the result of fights, not the cause of them. Not to say racial slurs weren't used privately, but I saw and heard more bigotry watching "All in the Family", "The Jeffersons" and "Chico and the Man" on television than I ever did at school.
It's just as well I didn't grow up to be a bigot: For one thing, it would be incompatible with my belief that we are all children of the Lord and Lady, none more special than the other. For another, it would be disrespectful to the memory of my father, who watched, frightened as a little boy, as a cross burned on the same front lawn that he played on every day. It seems that his dad, my grandfather, had the unmitigated gall to introduce his black housekeeper to the concept of Social Security as a way to ensure an income in her old age. He got her signed up and paid his share as her employer, and as a result raised the ire of others in town who profited by keeping blacks in the community uninformed. I never heard that story until my mother told me about it long after my father's passing. I wish I'd known sooner, and could have found out more about what went on during that period in his life.
As one of very few Pagans in a small Appalachian community I keep expecting to find out. I'm none too closeted about my beliefs, but don't run around advertising it either. I figured that the jig was up last summer when my IP announced that they wanted to compile a list of web sites that their subscribers had made. I thought, "Cool", but wasn't sure what the reaction would be from people in a sleepy community where folks don't lock their doors at night, and women get out of their cars at the post office, leaving purses on the seat and the engine running, so I called the office. "Are you going to use subscribers' names, or identify the sites just by the URL and maybe a description?", I asked. "Oh, we're just going to list the internet addresses... no names", I was told. So I submitted my site, as well as the little web pages my daughters had made.
Next thing I knew, a mass e-mail to all subscribers appeared in my inbox with every site by every subscriber to my IP, with our full names listed beside the URLs. I didn't even bother to call and complain; the damage was done, and it was a little late to do anything about it, so I just waited. I'm pleased to announce that either nobody bothered checking any of the URLs or nobody got bent out of shape about it, because I never caught any flak, even in the form of flame mail. I prefer to think it was the latter. I'm probably an idealist, but I prefer to think the nuts out there that would carry protest signs on my front lawn, flaming or otherwise, are rarities. Besides that, most of the people I come into regular contact with at work or around town already knew about my spirituality, so the fact that I had posted a Pagan web site probably came as no surprise. I like it here. People leave people alone.
What did come as a surprise was an experience I had a few months ago. I joined a Dianic mailing list that was created to discuss a major festival for women being planned for next year. I'd heard that men's opinions and views were not especially welcome on this particular list, but as the list was open to all and I was sympathetic to the cause there was no reason for me not joining. I was already advertising the festival on this site and in addition was curious about Dianic Wicca. All I'd ever really heard about Dianic Wiccans was the old joke, "How many Dianics does it take to change a light bulb?" (Answer: One, and it's NOT funny.) Okay, I guess some Dianics take thermselves way too seriously?
For the most part the women on the list were friendly, educated, open and interesting people. A few, however, were all too quick to attack most anything I or any of the few other men on the list said, and some frankly criticized anyone who openly acknowledged a male deity at all. The list-mom, a "noted author" and High Priestess of this Dianic tradition did little to discourage this, advising that the men on the list should tread lightly and not run all over the women on the list by posting too frequently. In other words, we were welcome as long as we were good little boys and sat quietly, seen but not heard. Right. As if I could drown out 200 women, had most of them ever bothered to post anything to the list! This same respected leader of women also alluded that men's spirituality consisted of nothing more than drumming, dancing and watering the trees. All attempts to discuss this reasonably fell on deaf ears, the troublemakers on the list accused me and Amber of things they never bothered to back up with the slightest bit of evidence, and we were finally asked to leave by the list owner, the "noted author", for defending ourselves against the attacks by demanding evidence of wrongdoing. I did so gladly, as I had about wrapped up my business there and really had better things to do with my time than argue with a bunch of sexists, and the condescension and loathing expressed by a vocal few on that list just because of my gender disgusted me.
I can hardly compare my experience on that mailing list to that experienced by others who have suffered needlessly because of their gender, beliefs or skin color. I had it easy; I was there by choice, secure in my own home and could end it at any time just by clicking a button. My heart goes out to those countless victims of discrimination who have faced it in their jobs, their schools, and even in their own front yards. They couldn't just stop it by ignoring it. It still happens today, in different parts of the world, and for different reasons. I pray for a world in which we can one day all agree to disagree, and let it go at that. I don't know if that will ever happen, but at least now I understand the joke.