When I was a boy, I’d go to my grandmother’s house on Wednesdays for dinner. Two Scottie dogs awaited me on the hallway table. They were made of metal, less than an inch high, and each one was secured to a small magnetized base. I liked playing with them.
I’d place them on the dining room glass top table and put them through various exercises. Turn one Scotty this way and he’d spin or flee from the other. Turn him around and both would race and crash into the other with lightning speed. If I maneuvered them correctly, I could get one or the other or both spinning out of control. It was one more instance of how attractions and aversions can behave as we try regulating their differences. The Scotties, one black, the other white, each possessing the properties to repel or attract depending on which way they were maneuvered.
In America, matters of gender and race have always generated aversions and attractions, reduced to simple black and white formulas. Both were poorly understood but nevertheless were assigned barriers never to be crossed. Regulating their differences in American society has been as confused and unstable a process as I could ever recapitulate with the two Scotties. I think ignorance has contributed mightily to the instability. We understand only dimly the forces of aversion and attraction inherent in gender and in race, except perhaps for one factor we know for certain is always a part of the equation: power; who has it, who doesn’t, and who wants to keep it.
One of the iconic figures in our country’s racial strife was the African American writer James Baldwin. I remember as a boy seeing his picture – I’m not sure where I saw it – but I never forgot it. I had never seen so much pain and passion in one man’s face. His eyes reflected the soul of suffering. He had been wounded by two cultural aversions; a white society’s aversion to blacks and a cultural aversion to homosexuality. In the early forties advocacy for gays and blacks barely existed. He had to forge a meaning for his life with almost no help from the society in which he was raised.
When a society loses its way, it fails to nurture its citizens. When a culture has no vision for inclusion and when it begins living the lies it perpetrates, where does anyone like Baldwin, seek what’s true and enduring? I found James Baldwin’s comment on the matter prophetic. He wrote: “It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive or who had ever been alive.” In literature, he found the stories common to our humanity’s suffering. He found validation for himself in those stories. Religion didn’t help. If the cultural tides that ran against Baldwin’s sense of self-worth were not enough, his stepfather, a preacher, only added to the tragedy. He said of James that he was the ugliest child he’d ever seen. As preachers do, he had a way with words.
Our gender and our race automatically connect us with others. Those connections can be the occasion for pain or happiness, depending on how they are understood. We are, by virtue of race and gender, necessarily a part of something larger, a piece of some greater whole.
I knew very few African American kids. There was an exception; a family in our church, the DeHarts, that I would see on Sundays. They were among other parishioners whom I recognized but didn’t really know that well. As many Yankee liberals of that era who would later claim they were never prejudiced, I was simply clueless about the layered society in which I occupied a privileged place. I was cushioned by white middle-class class surroundings that protected me from the hard-edged realities of racial discrimination. Like so many whites of that era, I lived in the innocence of a Mary Poppins world.
My grandmother (in whose house the Scotties resided) came from an old Staten Island family. In researching Island families’ years later, I learned many were Dutch and I saw the name DeHart mentioned, my grandmother’s maiden name. The DeHarts of Island history owned a large farm on the north shore. During the American Revolution, George Washington was reputed to have stopped at the farm with some of his troops. He remained long enough to refresh the horses and enjoy the hospitality of the DeHarts before resuming his journey. The account didn’t indicate that he slept there.
At that time in America, owning slaves in the north was as common as slaveholding in the south. I have wondered since, whether the African American DeHart family in my church may have been more intimately woven into my DeHart family fabric than I could ever have imagined. It can be a small world.
One afternoon in one of my idle moments while playing with the Scotties, I discovered something about their particular ability to attract or repel. Placing them head to head drove them apart. It was only when I placed them side by side facing in opposite directions could I make them sustain contact. Placed that way made them appear as if they were looking out for each other, that they “had each other’s back” as the saying goes.
I’d seen just such an arrangement once in a field in Vermont. Two horses stood closely side by side, facing opposite directions. The farmer told me that they often stood that way so when the flies deviled them, they could sweep their tails and brush the flies away from each other’s heads.
In the configuration of the Scotties, I also noticed that they exercised greater power of attraction than they possessed individually, so much so that they were able attract my grandfather’s metal pipe reamer from a short distance across the glass top table.
Joining together, they had greater pull.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.