Labor Day is here. In the downtown of my little DC suburb that means the biggest festival of the year. A photo of one of my children on the ferris wheel, too much money spent on $5-a-pop lemonade I will always drink and associate with someone I love, the salt, the fat, a parade of all the clubs in our neighborhood: the swim team, the push lawnmower clan, all three members of the local Green Party.
This is not going to be an essay about Americana, however, or even the real — or original — Labor Day, which is May 1st, May Day. I read an essay or two on that subject every year at about this time, my inner fire all ajump for the Haymarket martyrs we forget every year — as we forget our own sacrifices as workers — our people’s history shoved down the drain of conservative progress and melted away with the Draino of power politics. Nope, this is not going to be an essay about that. I am not a historian, by any means, and while I care about the stories of history, those building blocks of culture, I care more about now. Now is the point.
But, let me start with some personal history. My date of birth is August 28, 1976. When I was little someone told me I was a “bicentennial baby”, and explained to me what that meant. As a result of this careful explanation I thought I was actually born in 1776. So, I thought, I must be very old. Older than my parents in fact. Why couldn’t I remember all the events before I began to remember me, a child who didn’t like itchy clothing, living on the edge of a marsh and wishing for a unicorn?
To make things even more wrenching, my family lived on a property in South Carolina that had an old graveyard in the woods. It was property my father’s family had bought after the American Civil War, after the rice plantation that had been there was burnt to the ground by the advancing Northern army. My cousins and I spent time playing in the family plot of Thomas Heyward, one of the signers of the American Declaration of Independence. Several Heyward children are buried in swampy, moss-covered raised graves made to fit the sizes of their tiny bodies, with cracked marble sides and a sleeping statuette of small baby atop one. It was a scary place to me, but scarier yet when I thought I had forgotten my life and outlived those little children. Why were they dead?
Whenever anyone asked me, “How old are you little girl?” I would say very seriously, “I don’t know. I look pretty young, but I think I’m a lot older than you. When were you born?” No one knew why in the world I answered this way because no one ever asked me enough questions to correct me. All I knew was that adults had a mysterious way of laughing at me when I answered their questions. I would stare at my glittery blue plastic sandals, with the little Disney version of Tinkerbell on them, and ask myself why I couldn’t remember my life. I would climb up atop our 70s green bathroom sink, smell the sulfur of our well-water in the air, and stare at myself in the mirror there, looking deep at my face until it looked like the face of a stranger. “I am me, no one else; no one else is me. Why can’t I remember who I am?”
Sometime after having this mystery resolved for me, in school I learned about Martin Luther King Jr. Since the only thing I was ever taught in school about King, from the time I was little to the time I was big, was what he was going to call his “Normalcy, Never Again” speech, but which we of course know as his “I Have a Dream” speech, and of which most of us only know the “dream” part, I was pleased to note the anniversary of this famous event is August the 28th — my birthday. What a gal am I. I was old enough by the time I noted this to know that there was nothing mystical about dates in my life, including my birthday — other than being born at all in the first place — but still, I liked it, the way someone might like being born on the dawn of the New Year.
Was I incensed last week over Glenn Beck’s use of the date in an attempt at both self-advancement and the advancement of his bizarre socio-political objectives? A good friend of mine very sweetly made his protest of the event, and his homemade fliers, in honor of my birthday. He thought I might like that, and indeed I do.
But, let me digress again, into personal history. I remember in early highschool, in Alabama, this teacher of mine I made fun of relentlessly. She had this suga-puddin’ Southern accent I loved to mimic. I memorized all her best stories and lines and tried to reproduce them. In one such story she was a young woman in Georgia, interacting with her neighbor, a folk artist I think now must have been Howard Finster. The artist in her story called himself, according to my ears, “Saint Ohm,” and wore long white robes, which he felt made him appear like Jesus. One day my teacher lost her feminine cool with him for this heresy. “I said to him, I said, now, Saint Ohm, you do not look like Je-sus, you look like a fooooooool!”
Glenn Beck, gentle reader, is a fooooooool. His using the date of August 28th to say what he already has to say every other day of the year hardly advances his cause with anyone not already sympathetic to him — his audience being people who already couldn’t care less about the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. — which is obviously about as much as they truly, deeply care about the legacy of Jesus Christ, even though many of them call themselves Christians, and that should tell us all something. Jesus and King, as many of us have pointed out year in and year out, were explicitly anti-war, pro-love, anti-poverty and pro-justice. You just can’t make a logical argument for being both ideologically like Glenn Beck and claim to even so much as have been inspired by either King or Jesus.
But why do we, who are so offended by people like Beck, bother having this argument? It is not a poor understanding of theology or history that is killing children in Iraq and Afghanistan while stealing away our own children or throwing many of us into poverty. Oh no. A neighbor of mine came over yesterday to tell me that she and her child, and her sister and her child, and that child’s father, have been living on chocolate syrup, right out of the bottle (and sugar I gave them the other day, I was told), and all I could do was offer her my last $20 for this pay period and a small offering of food. I’ve got just about no one to call on their behalf and there are not enough social services to meet their needs. We have voted social services away — or allowed them to be — and when our neighbors with certain taboo problems, like poverty, need us we turn our backs, thinking it’s always someone else’s “job” to “deal” with their needs. It is not until we really need the same kind of help that we understand. Do we ever ask ourselves what Jesus would do, really? Or is our reaction, whatever it is, a matter of our own capacity for empathy? Do we ask ourselves what the pertinent quote from King is before we act? We are in a crisis, not of an intellectual nature, not connected to the dates of a people’s history — like some zodiac of justice — we are in a crisis of empathy. And words and dates and even facts are not cutting through it.
I am offended, deeply, when the dignity of people, dead or alive, whom we should respect, is sullied. I remember when Obama was running for president being offended by the t-shirts which showed an edited image — where his face had been placed where that of Malcolm X used to be — in that iconic photo of he and Martin Luther King shaking hands. President Obama is not Malcolm X (nor is he Martin Luther King). But, then, I ask myself, other than the disrespect done to these two great, dead, men — as their graves are trampled upon by the feet of everyone from Obama to Beck, for each of their own mangled reasons — what does this disrespect amount to, what real damage is done? Each of our own hands are busy digging the graves we will all too soon fill if we do not learn the lessons of love and justice our greatest heroes tried to teach us, but which it seems we have to learn for ourselves.
As a union organizer for SEIU 1199 in Baltimore, I remember going on housecalls with one young man, who later became the lead organizer of that local. He would knock on the doors of hospital housekeepers and nursing aids, living in the projects — using their day off to have a friend come over and straighten their hair in order to deny their almost-always-blackness, or spend some time with their babies, or make love or whatever — and he would start to tell them about socialism in the 1930s, and about how much in common we have with the spiritual ancestors populating his stories.
Yes, we do have much in common. I would like to honor that.
The organizer I traveled with, though, was always very frustrated by what he felt was a kind of stupidity present in each worker’s lack of spark at such a brilliant people’s history as his. My friends, it is less the words of our ancestors that we need to find — it is the power of love which they found in themselves and which they tried to give us and we have thrown away. Glenn Beck didn’t throw it away for us. Glenn Beck does not have access to our hearts. I have seen such a lack of empathy from everyone from ministers to union and community organizers in my life, it makes my head spin — and we in this category of folks know the history of our work and we know the theology and ideology behind it.
It is time to stop looking to our parents, even our spiritual parents, for magic incantations, words and dates. Justice is you and it is me and it is us together, learning how to hear and how to speak and to walk, like the victims of the global car crash we are. There’s nothing much more to know.
We will honor people’s history when we have made the space for it in our lives, in our hearts. When it’s not just history we treat with dignity and respect, but each other — the living, the people who can still talk back.
And that is why this isn’t an essay about Labor Day.
WINDY COOLER is a psychology student at Goddard College. A long-time organizer and former teenage-mother-welfare-queen, her study focuses on the emotional lives of activists. She has two sons and lives in suburban DC.