Ugly incident underscores beautiful truth

Posted: Sunday, January 28, 2001

"Even when walking in a party of no more than three, I can always be certain of learning from those I am with. There will be good qualities that I can select for imitation and bad ones that will teach me what requires correction in myself." Confucius

A dangerously smooth layer of ice spread over the post office parking lot and sidewalk the morning of Jan. 15. I slid into a parking space and a van pulled in next to me. Hanging below the vehicle's Alaska license plate was another plate that read "retired."

The gray-haired driver headed for the door in front of me. Following closely, I watched where he placed his feet, concerned he might slip and fall. However, with my attention focused on him, I forgot to watch my own feet and suddenly found myself sliding. Reacting instantly, I grabbed the building for support, caught myself and cautiously continued walking, frighteningly reminded of the danger surrounding us and the watchfulness required.

Approaching the door, I noticed the lights inside the post office were off, leaving it dark and uninviting.

"Oh, I forgot the post office is closed today," I said aloud, remembering the closure was in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.

The stranger's snarled reply caught me by surprise. And I suddenly found myself reeling on the inside much the way I had lost my balance on the ice in the moments before.

"Yeah, well, tell me one thing that black n----r ever did for Alaskans," he snapped over his shoulder.

I physically drew back, repulsed by the anger in his voice, by his snarl, by the ugliness of his words. Reactions to his attitude exploded in me like hot lava, sending flames up my throat, hurling burning words against the back of my clenched teeth.

Fueled by fiery righteousness, I grabbed for a way to balance the powerful strength of his comment. To shake him. To wake him. To put him on the other side of his anger and let him feel its force.

Memories burst into my consciousness. Voices, scenes, incidents from my past.

A fourth-grade classmate announcing to everyone on the playground during recess that her parents wouldn't let her play with me because I was Native.

A night in Europe when a friend and I were pushed into an alley by a group of angry young Germans who shouted hateful accusations we understood even though we didn't speak their language.

Sitting in a Los Angeles university classroom in the late 1960s, while a mob of rioting students whose skin was a different color than mine stood in the door, screaming dares to my classmates and me, trying to get us to step out into the hall.

An elderly man with whom I once attended church, who would cross the street when he saw me coming, telling me in no uncertain terms that the differences in our faith were taking me and my daughters to hell.

Those memories and more burned through me. I wanted my post office companion to know what it was like to be on the other side of his "black n----r" comment.

The words I wanted to say roared in my head.

And then, like the glowing streak that lights up the sky behind a blazing comet, other scenes filled my mind. The disappointment and hurt in the eyes of a close family member I had harshly criticized when I thought she couldn't hear me. My laughter at jokes told at another's expense. Accusations I had made. Judgments I had rendered. The insensitivities of my past. The ignorance that will cause me to stumble tomorrow.

In my religious tradition, I am told that to hate is the same as to murder, a lesson easily understood when applied to someone like the man at the post office. Harder to face was the mirrored surface he provided, allowing me to view myself face to face.

Also, I am told that events in a sparrow's life are of equal importance to the events in mine. Measuring degrees of differentiation is slippery business. More dangerous than an icy parking lot or sidewalk.

Flashing through my mind came news clips of India's citizens beaten for trying to free themselves of British rule and take control of their own country ... historical records of Bible covers made from the skin of Native Americans, victims of this country's version of ethnic cleansing ... photos of marchers knocked down by fire hoses and mauled by snarling dogs, more determined than ever to put one foot in front of another, focused only on the freedom they knew was theirs.

Mahatma Gandhi said, "Intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit."

In his speech on the day before he was killed, Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Either we go up together, or we go down together."

So focused had I been on this stranger's attitude, as I had focused on his footsteps on the ice outside the post office, that I had lost my own inner balance and was dangerously close to going down.

All that flashed through my mind in the short seconds it took to retrieve my mail and for him to drop his letters in the mail slot.

"Well, can you tell me?" he demanded, as the two of us headed to the parking lot.

The rage I wanted so badly to express had dissipated. In its place only one clear thing remained.

"Hopefully he taught us to be more tolerant," I said, a prayer for myself as much as for the man walking beside me.

McKibben Jackinsky is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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