In the middle of a pool game in the back room of the Flying Bull tavern, my new friend, Jarrod Stout, pulled me aside. He wanted to make sure I had his back if things got rough. As soon as he’d come into the bar he had gotten glaring looks from some of the white patrons, and now a grim-faced guy with a custom-made pool cue was acting a bit strange.
Jarrod is a young black college student with dreadlocks, a quick wit and a magnetic gregariousness. He grew up in a comparatively open, accepting Seattle suburb where black families are scarce but not scorned. The vibe he was getting in the Gettysburg bar was something he was not used to; a small-town narrowness that felt personal.
The night passed without incident, but the next day inside the elaborate visitors’ center at the Gettysburg battlefield, Jarrod felt it again. The little white kid who gave him a smile was followed by a parent with eyes that displayed anything but welcome. A string of other tourists would not return his hello or his grin. And then there was the young black man in a red T-shirt sporting the words “Make America great again.” These encounters rattled him.
Jarrod found himself doing that thing that black Americans must do so many days of their lives: questioning himself and asking, “Am I imagining this or do these people detest the color of my skin?”
As a white male, there are a lot of questions I do not have to answer. If I am pulled over by a cop, I do not wonder if I might get shot for doing or saying the wrong thing. I have never worried that I would not be hired for a job or not allowed to rent an apartment because of the way I looked. My racial identity is not something I think about each morning when I look in the mirror.
In these days of identity politics when Americans seem to be retreating into separate tribes, I find it impossible to tie my own sense of self to any narrow group. That attitude is more than a perk of white privilege; it is based on a conviction that extreme tribalism — a militant and exclusive loyalty to a certain religion or race or ethnic group or nation — is the scourge of humanity. We need to find common ground wherever we can, even as we celebrate and respect the richness of cultural differences.
Riding on the bus with my Project Pilgrimage companions, I got into a discussion with Esmy Jimenez, an aspiring young journalist who recently graduated from the University of Southern California. I told her I felt no compelling link to the lands of my ancestors, England and Norway. The United States is my home and I am nothing if not an American. I think she found this a bit mystifying, but said maybe she could feel more that way if the country she grew up in would open its arms and embrace her.
Esmy, you see, is a “Dreamer.” Her family crossed the border from Mexico without documents when she was a child, and now, after receiving a promise that young immigrants like her could stay and be a vital part of American society, the promise has been revoked by presidential order. That may change or it may not. All her ambitions are in jeopardy. No wonder she finds her identity through other connections.
As our group walked the ground over which the Confederate and Union armies fought, I wondered if Esmy and Jarrod and the other twentysomethings among us could relate to what they were seeing. Why should they care that tens of thousands of white men spent three deadly July days slaughtering each other in this place more than 150 years ago? They have their own battles to fight in today’s America. I thought of my own ancestor who wore Union blue and managed to survive the war. I know little of the man, but I think it likely he shared the prejudiced ideas that were common in his day, and joined the Army not to free slaves but to have an adventure. Still, if men like him had refused to fight, the slave masters would have prevailed.
As we stood at the line where a small contingent of Union cavalry awaited reinforcements and held fast against Robert E. Lee’s oncoming rebel army, I pointed out to my young companions that if those few men had failed, the war might have been lost right there, the country would have permanently split and slavery would have gone on for many more grim decades. I don’t know whether that impressed them or not. It seemed important to me.
The next morning we gathered at the cemetery where the Union dead are buried, the spot where Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. Our group leader, David Domke, chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Washington, drew us to the shade of the trees down below a memorial to Lincoln. Domke asked us to form a circle, then he passed out copies of the Gettysburg Address. Working clockwise around the circle, each person recited a line from the speech. I had read and heard Lincoln’s phrases many times in my life, but they had never sounded more immediate.
Lincoln spoke of the men who died on the battlefield to save a nation “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He said, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work … the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion … that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”
In that moving moment, we all stood together — young millennials and aging baby boomers, black, white and brown — and resolved, each in our own way, to carry on with the unfinished work of freedom.
This is the last installment of a five-part series.
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