In three days, Christians celebrate Epiphany. In the States, it’s not that big an occasion. However, in Puerto Rico, it’s religion on steroids. There, it’s called Three Kings Day, and it’s a blast.
The observance commemorates the legend of the Magi: the three wise men (kings) that follow a star that leads them to the infant Jesus.
I’ve arrived in Puerto Rico several times shortly after the festival ended. Evidence of it lingered everywhere. There had been parades with horses bearing the three kings, streamers still hung festively from the overpasses and colored lights blinked from trees. The festivities lasted 12 days, from Christmas to the observance of Three Kings day, January 6th, when people exchange gifts ending the celebration.
Christians stateside are less exuberant. The celebration here is called Epiphany and often passes unnoticed. Not for me. My interest began 75 years ago with an unremarkable event that I’ve never forgotten.
In church on Epiphany, we were issued a small candle. We lit it from the altar candle, and were to take it home while keeping it lighted. We were symbolically bringing Christ’s light to the world. I walked home that day with Franny who lived near me. The wind blew out my candle. Franny was older so I thought she’d know what to do. I asked her if I would be cheating by relighting my candle with hers. She replied it was ok; ‘We’re supposed to just keep it burning,’ she said. I relit mine with hers and made it all the way home. I felt triumphant.
We have a small wooden carving of the Three Kings. It’s charming and over the years it’s endeared itself to me. It’s pictured above. I assumed for years the kings were white. I suspect that’s because I grew up in a white world where not only were the Three Kings white, even Jesus was. He was pictured in Sunday school books, and on funeral home fans, looking far more Norwegian than Semitic. This year I was especially conscious of the Black king, Balthazar. I think it’s because George Floyd had been on my mind.
I believe white people, myself included, are constitutionally racist. It’s bred into us through the cultural myths held for centuries in America about people of color. Whites are inclined to react to strangers of color with a caution and uncertainty, and sometimes fear. I wish I could say I’m not prejudiced, but my experience tells me otherwise. I’ve caught myself reacting unconsciously in racist ways.
There is a road in front of my house. I frequently walk it. The people living nearby are white and privileged as I am. They are solid citizens and good neighbors. I see strangers walking there at times, most related to residents they’ve come to visit. One day I saw a Black man walking the road. I immediately felt a strong sense of caution, even mild apprehension accompanied with the thought: he doesn’t belong here. What made me think he didn’t belong? It was obvious that his color evoked my response. I see strangers along the road regularly and I don’t have this reaction, but they are white. I think racism manifests itself like this –– with instinctive suspicion and apprehension, a reaction born of ignorance.
I swam competitively in high school. There were few Black kids in my high school and none on the swim team. We competed with many of New York City’s public high schools and I don’t recall seeing any people of color in competitions. One day, in one of our spirited, although rarely informed locker room bantering, the matter of race arose. Arty was the alpha male on the team and in the locker room. He was feared, envied and the best 100yd freestyler the team had. Arty told us that Black kids weren’t good swimmers. Why, someone asked? “Because they are sinewy and muscular and more likely to sink,” Arty told us. “Blacks lacked the buoyant layers of body fat competitive swimmers have.” Arty offered this analysis with sublime confidence which seemed to satisfy any lingering questions. Our discussion of race and athletics ended.
To my shame, I accepted Arty’s spin well into my twenties. Ultimately the incident taught me how crazy ideas can insidiously take hold of our minds, especially if the ideas appear to offer tidy answers to complicated matters. If indeed, there were fewer Black swimmers in competitions back then, I’m sure it had nothing to do with body fat and a lot more with racial exclusion. But when you know nothing, and the alpha man is commanding your attention, it’s easy to get suckered. Nature abhors a vacuum, vacuous minds especially: it fills them with hot air.
Many whites declare that they aren’t prejudiced; they’ll say they never notice color when dealing with African Americans. My question would be, why aren’t they noticing it? Skin color, after all, shapes a big part of anyone’s personhood. Except for various pigmentations, skin is just skin, except –– and this is a big exception–– the history that people of one skin color have had that those with another, haven’t.
America was blessed by Black King; we knew him as Martin Luther King Jr. He followed his dream the way Balthazar followed a star. I’d call King’s dream an Epiphany. Epiphany’s root meaning is ‘to reveal.’ When Dr. King’s dream revealed light to a troubled nation, America began a long process of reclaiming her soul. The light he held goes out sometimes, and needs someone to step up to rekindle it.
This King, however, kept the light burning all the way home.
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.