Tahoe is where we go to “get away from it all,” but, even here, where we find so much pleasure in the lake and mountains, conversations can sometimes turn to politics, religion and other delicate subjects. It’s not always emotional or alcohol-induced chaos.
Saturday night I had the pleasure of talking with a woman and her husband about politics and current events. No one was obsessed with making a point, but it was a lively exchange. Good points were made by everyone, listened to, considered and absorbed, though not all were in agreement. It was an enjoyable, uplifting experience.
Racial attitudes were discussed in the context of the George Zimmerman trial as well as the reactions of black people in the inner city to the not-guilty verdict.
I said I grew up in Sacramento. The person I was talking to grew up in Flint, Mich. The point was implied that I couldn’t understand the black experience because I didn’t grow up in the inner city. It was also implied that I had no real life perspective on the issue, and there is some truth to that allegation. I have no experience of the level of violence found in the inner city, whether it stems from racism or black-on-black violence.
But I grew up with an experience of one black person in particular that shaped my whole attitude about race. Her name was Pearl. My grandmother, a senator’s wife, employed Pearl as her personal housekeeper, and grandma would confine us to a room for an hour, and not allow us to play outside or swim in her pool if we ever tried to cross Pearl. Pearl was our guardian, as worthy of respect and obedience as grandma and our own parents.
But Pearl didn’t need grandma to keep us in line. She was able to handle us just fine with her strong will and kind spirit. Pearl was one of the happiest people I ever knew. She was always smiling and had a sense of humor that captivated all the children. And Pearl was a hugger. When Pearl hugged you, she made you feel as secure as a pearl in an oyster shell.
We were always disappointed if Pearl wasn’t there when we went to visit grandma.
What Pearl taught us was not the violence of the inner city, but the richness and love that comes with the absence of racism. The most valuable lesson of all about race is that we are human beings first, and skin color is secondary if it means anything at all.
That’s what the Civil Rights struggle of the 1960s was all about. Hundreds of signs that said, “I AM A MAN” were carried all over the south by some very brave men.
When Pearl died, we were as heartbroken as we would have been if someone in our own family had died, because Pearl was family.
When George Zimmerman, also a man, was found not guilty, many said the system failed blacks again. But there is no “system.” There are just imperfect human beings, who did not witness the shooting of Treyvon Martin, who had to figure out what really happened and reach a conclusion based on, and required by, the law and all the information at hand.
A person’s environment and upbringing makes a difference, but the black experience is the human experience. Racism and love can be found among all groups of people.
If you want to know how poverty, drugs, broken families, gang violence, hopelessness and racism come about, ask a youth from the inner city. If you want to know how the absence of racism comes about, and learn how to avoid hatred, suspicion and fear, all you have to do is ask an innocent, middle class little kid who was raised in a nice town in the 1950s, pre-civil rights era, who experienced loving and being loved by a beautiful human being named Pearl.
Bob Sweigert is a Sierra Sun columnist, published poet, former college instructor and ski instructor. He has a B.A. and an M.A.T. from Gonzaga University. He has lived at Lake Tahoe for 30 years.