Embracing the Other: You Can Make It If You Really Try
Guest Post by Patrick H. Moore
Confession time. I was raised to NOT be a racist. Way down on the farm in the outback of old Wisconsin, my father used to read aloud to us from the autobiography of the great Frederick Douglass. Many a night we gathered around and listened. I learned how young Frederick fought his cruel overseer for hours one fine day. Mano a mano. Fought him till they both dropped from exhaustion. I learned how young Frederick learned to read on the sly. I learned how his mother was sold off to one place while he stayed behind. Bad as it was in slave-holding Maryland, it was far worse down in the deep South. I don’t think we ever got to the part where Frederick escapes to the north and becomes a famous abolitionist but that didn’t matter. I learned the lesson my father meant to impart.
Being the OTHER, #1
I need to explain. There in outback Wisconsin in the late 1950s there weren’t any black people. Not a single one in our whole county. No Asians either. Any Latinos? Probably not. We were white people. White on white. I believe there was even a law against black people spending the night. Which led to a curious and disturbing phenomenon.
Every so often at recess or lunch hour (this was before I organized the boys to play football, even in the snow), a hush would come over the playground. A premonition of something strange building up in the psyches of fine young American boys. Then a single silent bugle would sound deep in the reptilian brain and the boys would come charging across the playground like madmen contaminated by some appalling virus. They would dive into a huge pile, 8, 10, 12 gleeful squirming boys shouting: “N_____ pile! N_____ pile!” Oh did they enjoy this strange ritual. Finally, they would get tired of it, stand up, brush themselves off and break off in twos and threes to go play marbles or climb on the jungle jim…
I did not enjoy this strange ritual. In fact, I hated it. These boys were my friends. Yet I knew that I was nevertheless irredeemably OTHER because I did not, could not, join in the game. It was not a good feeling. I never told the boys how I felt, just kept it inside. Now, nearly 60 years later, with racism apparently on the rise in many parts of our beleaguered land, boys may well be playing this awful game in dozens, perhaps hundreds of all-white communities.
But back then in 1957, even though I had plenty of friends, and within a year or two would be leading the boys on the football field, I was still OTHER. Deep down where it counts.
Being the OTHER, #2
Every so often an imported boy or girl would be transplanted temporarily to our small community. One year it was the Luzak brothers, white boys, orphans, one large, one huge, here to live with foster parents on one of the neighborhood farms. The Luzak brothers knew all about Otherness. But this story is not about them. This lesson is about another species of Otherness who walked into our fifth grade classroom one winter morning. His name was Elliot. Elliot Feuerhammer. Curly red hair, glasses, a ready smile. Not that good at baseball or football but not terrible. The sort of kid who could be decent with a little coaching.
But it was not his appearance or undeveloped athletic ability that made Elliot the OTHER. In fact, at first we didn’t even realize that we had an alien in our midst. This is how we learned. We had an assignment in which we had to make a presentation to the class. I don’t remember the details. Just a presentation. I was a good student. I probably made a good presentation. Some kids struggle with this sort of thing; some kids don’t.
Then it was Elliot’s turn. He stood in front of the class holding a rolled up piece of whiteboard. He unrolled it and stood it up on the eraser rack at the base of the blackboard. It was huge and intricate. A presentation, I now believe, on microscopic life. Paramecium. Amoebas. Mitochondria swimming around in the cells. Drawn in multiple colors with painstaking care. We had no idea what he was talking about. We had never heard the word amoeba. We were not hip to mitochondria. In science we’d learn about basic things like water condensation and the solar system. How to find the North Star on cold clear nights…
We all stared as Elliot became the teacher and discoursed about the strange beings he’d drawn so skillfully. I don’t know if I really listened; I don’t know if anyone listened. Even if we had, it was doubtful we would have understood. There were three rather bright kids in my fifth grade class, I was probably one of them, but this was out of our league. So we all just stared. Unperturbed, Elliot continued his lesson. Rolled up his sleeves and went to work. It was like Louis Pasteur had suddenly time traveled into our classroom. Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, I suspect that I was subliminally aware that Elliot, just like me, was irredeemably OTHER.
It’s perhaps not surprising that Elliot and I became friends riding the school bus together. We would sit together and talk, letting the words flow…
The next year he was gone. Back to his family in Milwaukee which was full of black people. In fact, I saw him one summer day when I was with my father on his egg route delivering eggs door to door in Milwaukee. We knocked on a door in what was probably a housing project. Elliott answered. Same guy. Same hair. New glasses. He was glad to see me. I was glad to see him. I never saw him again…
The point of this humble tale is that Otherness is everywhere. It can appear when you least expect it. You might find that you yourself are suddenly OTHER. Should this happen, you might hope to be accepted despite your Otherness. If you are white among other whites, it might be easier. But what if you were black in my all white county? Good luck. What if you were white in an all black county. Again, good luck. What if you were somewhere in between and didn’t fit anywhere?
Because of how I was raised, I’ve spent a long lifetime embracing the OTHER. The OTHER has made me who I am today, for better or worse. I think I was lucky to be raised that way. Contributes to having an open mind. Open to new experiences. Open to what life has to offer. Open to the OTHER.
Does that mean that I am never close-minded, narrow, a prejudiced jerk? Of course not. My faults are just as serious, if not more serious, than the next man or woman. Those who know me well know my faults. But I do try to embrace the OTHER. The OTHER in literature. The OTHER in music. But most importantly, the OTHER in human interaction. The man or woman sitting near you with a heavy accent and strange clothes. The single black man starting a new job in an all-white company. The shy Chinese woman who came up to me at a singles event and is now my wife. I can tell you one thing. The OTHER has made my life richer. Richer by far…
Patrick H. Moore is a Los Angles based Private Investigator, Sentencing Mitigation Specialist, and crime writer. He has been working in this field since 2003 and his areas of expertise include drug trafficking cases, sex crimes, crimes of violence, and white collar fraud. Patrick holds a Master’s degree in English Literature from San Francisco State University where he graduated summa cum laude in 1990. Prior to moving to Los Angeles, he worked as a Community College English teacher.
Patrick is the author of Cicero’s Dead, an award-winning crime novel.