Roger Marolt: I didn’t dare get to know him
I was being interviewed for a volunteer position. It was a structured and thorough inquiry examining my life, making sure I was fit to fulfill the organization’s important mission. It took more time than it would to win a marathon, and was nearly as exhausting.
At one point they asked how much exposure I have had to different races and cultures. I haven’t had much. I grew up in Aspen and remember only one African American family living here my entire childhood. “But,” I half apologized, “in college I had a Black roommate.”
In that instant tears came, not a couple, not a few; they were gushing. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t know why they came. But, here they were and I could not stop them.
I tried to laugh it off as I wiped my eyes. I confessed my surprise at it. I explained that maybe it was because I have been reading Isabel Wilkerson’s book, “Caste”, which I find to be a consuming and intense study. It is an ambidextrous page-turner, causing me to flip back and forth, over and over to make sure I am comprehending correctly the atrocities of a caste system in our country wrought from the recycled wreckage of slavery.
The author points out that slavery in America is not just a sad, cruel chapter in our history, as it is frequently, popularly and conveniently described. It is more than half of our autobiography! It is the recurring theme in our diary. She states, “This is what the United States was for longer than it was not. It is a measure of how long enslavement lasted in the United States that the year 2022 marks the first year that the United States will have been an independent nation for as long as slavery lasted on its soil. No current day adult will be alive in the year in which African-Americans as a group will have been free for as long as they have been enslaved. That will not come until the year 2111.”
The truth is hard. While the mass murders and torture of the Holocaust are recognized as universally abhorrent, the crimes against humanity with slavery in America remain repressed here, where it occurred. Awareness of the undiluted evil behind the staggering number of murders committed by the Nazis undoubtedly weakens our faith in mankind. Yet we resist reconciliation for the massive number of lives utterly and completely ravaged in our own country by slavery. That we preserved more of the lives we oppressed, degraded and tortured had nothing to do with love or even minimal respect for Black human life. We let human beings with darker skin hang onto life by a string only for our economic gain and convenience.
And still, this cannot fully explain why I cried.
A day after my tearful episode, my wife coincidentally came across a test on the internet sponsored by Project Implicit, which is designed by a team of social scientists and hosted on the Harvard University Website. The results are intended to give an indication of personal inherit bias in an assortment of categories. I dove into the one on race.
The test consists of examining a list of words and pictures and then right and left clicking to make associations with each. I am not a racist. It’s an awkward declaration, but I have to make it, because the test indicated that I have a strong implicit preference for European Americans compared to African Americans. As crushing to the core as this result is to me, and as much as it is my inclination to explain away the results and the test design, I am not going to. I need to accept that I have the disease before I can begin to be better.
Perhaps the reason I cried is exactly because I don’t understand why I did. Andre and I never had disagreements. We never argued about who would take out the trash or whose dirty dishes were left in the sink. We split the phone bill evenly. We were not normal roommates. We were cordial friends who spent time together on the baseball field and few other places.
He was a kid from New York City and I was a sheltered boy from weird-town Colorado who, not by chance but by good fortune, found ourselves living together. He was kind, profoundly intelligent, and one of the most gifted athletes I have known. But, I know little else about him. Was the distance between us me playing my role in the caste system? I think so. It was a missed opportunity. That’s what’s completely heartbreaking.
Roger Marolt now believes that slavery was so inhumanely cruel and so broadly dismissed for what it truly was, that is has shrunk and frayed the fabric of all humanity. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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