Off the Press

November 18, 2008

By Greg Farrar

We are on a journey, each and all of us

Where did you find yourself on Election Night, in your personal journey of becoming a more tolerant, more accepting and more broad-minded human being? The longer you’ve lived, the longer your tale would be in learning the lessons of becoming unprejudiced toward others.

When I was probably 7 or 8 years old, in Edmonds, I learned a rhyme from some other youngsters my age, to use when choosing sides. (Kids teach each other things all the time without knowing what they mean.) The rhyme began, “Eeny, meenie, minie, moe…” The rest is as racist and bigoted as can be. But what does an 8-year-old know?

From TV, all I knew was “Julia” was about a black nurse, Lt. Uhura was a communications officer on a starship and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was a horrible tragedy for some reason.

Woodway High School, the three-year high school where I graduated in 1974, had 1,191 students that year. This suburban school, just 10 miles north of downtown Seattle, had a grand total of six blacks and five Asians. In a pool that big, I never even met one of them. I was living at the height of innocence, and if you think I must have been some fool as a kid, I agree.

My freshman year at the University of Washington was where I became amazed at all the black people around me. I had my first black professor in a Sociology 101 class, and visited his office one day just to ask, “How can I get along with people who are black? How should I treat someone who’s black?” He was very generous in answering my totally ignorant question — treat them all just as nice as you treat anyone else is what he told me.

When Alex Haley signed copies of “Roots” in November 1976 at the University Bookstore, I got in a line that was three hours long, with more than 1,000 people, black and white. It was incredible, and I asked him to sign my copy, “to a fellow person.” The book and the famous miniseries were a huge lesson.

Three other books that have taught me a lot were “The Autobiography of Malcolm X,” “Long Walk to Freedom,” by Nelson Mandela, and “Days of Grace,” by Arthur Ashe.

Tennis great Ashe, infected with AIDS by a blood transfusion before we knew how HIV was spread, wrote in his 1993 memoir that a sympathetic reporter asked, “Mr. Ashe, this must be the heaviest burden you have ever had to bear, isn’t it?”

“No,” the Wimbledon champion answered, he of the segregated tennis courts of Richmond, Va., of his youth. “Being black is the greatest burden I’ve had to bear. Having to live as a minority in America. Even now, it continues to feel like an extra weight tied around me.”

I’ve learned a lot in having black neighbors in a quarter-century, and in having gay neighbors and a gay nephew.

I learned the most in 10 years as a photographer in Seattle’s Capitol Hill, Beacon Hill and Rainier Valley neighborhoods. Meeting ordinary black, Asian, Jewish and gay neighborhood activists, organizers, politicians, clergy and residents has given me lessons I can never forget.

The one I remember most vividly is meeting Rosa Parks — on April 19, 1990, at a visit to Seattle University. She was a tiny woman, but her presence filled a room. Every person was awed, and the blacks in particular were in reverence of what she had achieved, in a real way for them, by her civil disobedience of a segregation law on a bus. Her achievement was really for all of us.

There’s still a lot of progress to make, but Issaquah schools are a lot more integrated today than my school was in the ’70s. Minority students make up one-fourth of the enrollment, with a number of minority administrators and teachers. Issaquah has a female mayor and had an Asian-American councilman. We have a Muslim sister city.

Seattle has had a black mayor. King County has a black executive. Our state has a female governor, following a Chinese-American governor, and two female senators. And in two months, we will have the first black president in Barack Obama.

There has been a spike in hate crimes in some areas of the country since his election. Some people are not at the point of humility in their journeys yet. I know my journey is not over either.

When the best, smartest people can be elevated to their highest potential regardless of color, gender, orientation, creed, religion or lack of religion being used to hold them back, we all benefit. Progress comes sooner rather than later, because more minds are allowed to engage the problems we face. Giving others more value in our eyes gives us more value in theirs, and gives us all more value.

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