November 29, 2011

Considering Colors Beyond Red and Green This Holiday Season

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The only way to avoid getting pissed off at the cruel tease that was Thanksgiving break is to take it one day at a time and think about everything you need to get to tomorrow. As tomorrows go, today’s tomorrow is a big day. Dec. 1: ChristmaHanukKwanzakah is around the corner, and Winter Slope Day is only two days away! With finals week looming, Dec. 1 reminds us of some nifty study breaks for the athletically, nerdishly and old-person-ly inclined: basketball, invented by James Naismith on Dec. 1, 1891, Scrabble, trademark registered on Dec. 1, 1948 and BINGO, invented by Edwin S. Lowe in 1929. More importantly, Dec. 1 always reminds me of the resolutions I’ll be making in 30 days — hopes and promises that even a night of drunken debauchery can’t conquer. Among my favorite resolutions ever made is the Dec. 1, 1959 Antarctic Treaty to regulate international relations and guarantee the scientific and peaceful use of Antarctica. The treaty is widely regarded to represent the common heritage of mankind,  but on continents where people actually live, there’s still much that demands resolution.

For all the fun and games history has shown us on Dec. 1, the date must be remembered for creative and earnest efforts towards alleviating racism in America. Born on Dec. 1, 1835, Mark Twain grew up in the slave state of Missouri and piloted riverboats up and down the Mississippi before the Civil War broke out. His 1885 masterpiece Adventures of Huckleberry Finn juxtaposes Huck’s escape from his tyrannical father with Jim’s escape from Miss Watson’s enslavement. In the midst of post-Civil War attitudes ranging from segregation to dehumanization, Twain smacked his reader in the face with an honest, compassionate and human Jim, whom he realistically referred to as “nigger.” When Huck resolves to free Jim he illuminates the magnitude of white prejudice still present 20 years after the Civil War: “All right, then, I’ll go to Hell!”

This year marks the 370th anniversary of Massachusetts becoming the first colony to legally recognize slavery, and the 56th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ jailing for violating the segregation laws in Montgomery, Alabama. As we all hopefully know, Ms. Parks’ refusal to give up her seat to a white man in the first row of the black section — a defiant repeat of Claudette Colvin’s stand nine months prior — was far more than an act of civil disobedience. A twelve-year member and then secretary of Montgomery’s chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Parks’ resistance precipitated the Dec. 5 Montgomery Bus Boycott, orchestrated by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After a year of walking miles to work and school, on Nov. 13, 1956 the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Alabama and Montgomery bus segregation laws as violating the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. Achieving the right to coexist on any public platform was undeniably massive progress for the Civil Rights Movement.

On the right to coexist Richard Pryor remarked, “I went to Zimbabwe. I know how white people feel in America now; relaxed! Cause when I heard the police car I knew they weren’t coming after me.” Born on Dec. 1, 1940, Pryor’s hilarious and profound comedy — predominantly spanning the 1970s and 80s — rarely missed an opportunity to depict racial tension. “Ain’t no nigger’s ever said to me, `I think you’re a racist ’cause you portray white folks so funny’… Anyway, you have nothing to fear from the black man except just thoughts. That’s enough.” Even in an era characterized by groundbreaking multi-racial achievements like Alvin Ailey’s American Dance Theatre that showcased the finest artistic talent based on talent alone, Pryor spoke the obvious: “There’s a lot more hypocrisy than before. Racism has gone back underground.” Despite tireless trials to desegregate public art until his death from AIDS on Dec. 1, 1989, Ailey echoed Pryor’s sentiments: “Racism tears down your insides so that no matter what you achieve, you’re not quite up to snuff.”

More than a century earlier, famed American author and humorist Mark Twain endeavored to fundamentally alter our standards of “snuff.” Twain emphasized human frailty and ignorance in his views on racism: “All I care to know is that a man is a human being, and that is enough for me; he can’t be any worse.” Thankfully, we still read Huck Finn in our classrooms, listen to Richard Pryor’s standup on TV and watch Ailey’s world-famous choreography on stage — but do we have a less pressing need to alleviate racism today?

“Be Mindful” is always my first New Year’s resolution. It’s vague, but it encapsulates a lot: respecting my parents and peers, staying honest with my friends and myself, honoring human needs for kindness, mercy and love, giving a granola bar or a PB&J to a corner homeless man, and so on. But many of us simply aren’t very mindful about racism today.

There’s not one way to define coexistence or address racism, in the world or on our campus. Anything from attending multicultural events to eavesdropping on a conversation may make you feel “good” or “bad” about your interactions with students of other races and creeds. But if you need a study break in the coming weeks and don’t feel like basketball, Scrabble or BINGO, consider the common heritage of mankind in Antarctica and on our campus. There’s a lot of creative, earnest work to be done, so never be afraid to think big.

Jacob Kose is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at jkose@cornellsun.com. Scrambled Eggs ap­pears alternate Wednesdays this semester.

Original Author: Jacob Kose