I awoke a few days ago to these words that I almost immediately tweeted:
“Family provides us with a safe space where we laugh at ourselves freely. Safe spaces strip us of our ability to consider one another family.”
I tweeted the thought almost as a reflex. I then commenced to my normal daily activities and began to contemplate what I had written. And while the responses to my tweet have been plentiful and positive, I still feel the need to elaborate on what may have been the impetus for this thought.
I was barely in junior high. My folks were headed out for the evening. I was standing at the top of our stairs seeing my parents off. My dad was pulling the front door shut as he looked back over his shoulder and said, “There’s a really good movie on HBO tonight.”
You need to be made aware of something at this point. Those nine words (ten if you take into account the contraction) accounted for one of the longest conversations my father and I had ever had (save for the time I told him I wanted to go out for football and he sat me down to explain how that activity was going to be immeasurably different and more demanding than pee-wee baseball). Thus, I took heed of his warning (which is how I received his words) and tuned in to the football movie that started at the beginning of primetime.
The movie was titled “Brian’s Song” and starred Billy Dee Williams along with James Caan. The storyline centered around friendships, hardships, race relations, and football (it all comes back to football).
Friendships, Hardships, and Race Relations
Billy Dee Williams and James Caan were portraying Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo were teammates for the Chicago Bears during the 1960’s. The movie tells the story of how their friendship had to endure and overcome a number of hardships. Most significant of those hardships was the issue of race.
The manner in which the movie portrayed the two heroes dealing with and overcoming bigotry provided this writer with what I perceived as the optimal way of interacting with friends of another race.
Unfortunately, yet predictably, the method I chose to emulate proved to me that the artistic world often does a horrible job at reflecting real life.
My Friendship, Race Relations, and subsequent Hardship
A friend of mine back then was named Willy (at least for our purposes here). Willy was my lab partner in science class. Willy was African-American. Willy was not, as I learned the hard way, Billy Dee Williams.
I do not remember which science fact was in dispute. I do not remember why I felt I needed to provide some levity with a joke. I do not remember why I chose to pull a quirky quote from James Caan (a.k.a. Brian Piccolo). I do not remember just how long we had been friends when I chose to call Willy a “chicken nigger.”
I do remember my friend Willy’s shocked look. I do remember the shocked look turning into one of pain. I do remember Willy not being my friend the rest of the day.
The Good Thing About Back in the Day
I despise the phrase “Back in the Day.” I find it especially bothersome when I hear my kids using the term (because it usually means something that happened well after I stopped thinking of myself as young). Nonetheless, we had some exceptionally cool things back in the day: Old phones with operators and a total void of Safe Spaces!
Willy and I were forced to endure the rest of the period sitting next to each other in science class. He was forced to listen to my pleas for understanding. I was forced to be subjected to the silent treatment.
Willy was exposed to my ignorance. I was exposed to the hurt of losing a friend. Fortunately, we were also exposed to the way in which we could truly overcome the hardship.
I dialed and redialed that old slow rotary phone. I listened again and again as the other line kept ringing and ringing. It was getting late and near the time for me to be in bed when I dialed that old rotary phone one more time, but this time the other line did not ring. I got a busy signal.
Now, folks of my generation knew exactly what could be done to combat a busy signal. We would call the operator–if it was an emergency–and request a breakthrough of the line.
This was an emergency. I called the operator. I requested an emergency breakthrough, and I got to talk to my friend to well past both our bedtimes.
A Total Turn Towards Safety
Willy and I talked it through. We worked it out. We overcame our differences and thus went on to enjoy a friendship and a bond stronger than either one of us could have contemplated on that day back in science class.
We were fortunate. Neither Willy nor I had a safe place to which we could withdraw. We had to talk. We had to endure some pain (and in my case, a good bit of humility for how wrong I had been). We had to deal with the situation. We had to find a way to overcome and move forward. We did.
So, what if we had a safe place to which we could turn? No emergency breakthrough? Would Willy and I have had any chance of being friends after that day in science class?
The trend today is to steer our young ones towards safe spaces as an attempt to keep them clear of having to feel any hurt, disappointment, or injustice.
My fear is that such a direction points us nowhere other than to an ignorant, intolerant, and segregated past.
I could be wrong, but I see stories like the one below and just feel as if we need an emergency breakthrough.