Most of the time, however, when someone asks me how I am, I reply "Peachy!" And they laugh.
On Sunday, a cashier asked me how I was, and I quietly replied, out of nowhere, distracted and not even looking up, "Happy." We were both suprised.
"Happy?!" she exclaimed, startled. "As long as I've worked here, I don't believe I've ever heard a customer answer that way. Happy...humph."
But honestly, that's where I try to live. I mean, with people all over the world starving and being bombed by weapons of mass destruction and eating coca leaves to stave off the pangs of an empty stomach and snorting glue to kill the hopelessness; with people all over the world dying of infected mosquito bites and the result of drinking water that should not -- but must -- be drunk; with people all over the world being forced to make their bodies a sexual receptacle either because they do not have the power to resist or will not eat otherwise; with people -- even children -- all over the world fighting wars they never started and cannot win, despairing of ever again being free of the nightmares that have been deposited in their minds; how could I dare whine about my condition?
I eat, have health insurance, know my job (paying a living wage) will last at least until May. No one is subject to bomb my town tonight. I talked to my mother today on my daytime minutes and wasn't even worried about it. I have -- thanks to a lot of work and a lot of help -- bested most of the demons that were visited on me as a child. I do work I love. I no longer resent being born a woman. And overall, I do expect that, for the time being at least, my human rights are more or less protected. Looking like I look, living in the nation in which I live, having enough money to live on and having the support of others who care about me and know I dance well over the line sometimes, having been taught the skills of articulation and argumentation, having been granted the grace to finally stop apologizing for my existence, I am -- most of the time -- when I'm not tired, peachy.
But I am incredibly conscious of those who are not being allowed to exercise their basic human rights. The right to dignity, safety, privacy, and health, for example; the right to a decent education and meaningful work for a living wage; the right to express their views without being threatened, to worship the way they choose without harassment, and to participate in governing themselves without intervention; the right not to be locked up unjustly or tortured under any circumstances; and possibly above all, the right to equal treatment no matter what.
Last Friday, while starting my day in prayer and meditation, I suddenly began to cry. I couldn't stop the tears. I beseeched the Higher Power I call God to please save us from ourselves, to protect those who are powerless, to comfort those who are suffering for any reason, and to move on those who think they are the only ones who matter. I was a bit unnerved. The episode (as it were) came unexpectedly. And while it wasn't by a long shot the first time I've despaired of our human condition, its effect -- or the effect of what caused it -- has lingered.
And now here it is Human Rights Day. And I've been thinking about the death of Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton, who was killed by the police on December 4th, 1969, for such heinous crimes as coming up with the first school breakfast program.And I've been thinking about Joseph Conrad, whose book, Heart of Darkness, recounted the story of what Belgian King Leopold II did in the Congo between 1880 and 1920, killing, it is said, as much as half the population of the country in what Conrad called "the vilest scramble for loot that ever disfigured the history of the human conscience." Conrad spent four months piloting a steamboat up the Congo River until he couldn't stand it any more, but it was ten years later before he could finally write down what he had seen, including the stuffed heads of Africans jammed onto stakes around a Belgian trading post. "The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary;" wrote Conrad, "men alone are quite capable of every wickedness."
And I've been thinking about how what Conrad saw and what Hampton experienced laid the ground work for the dual consciousness of my current students of color, who have been socialized to carry the belief in their hearts that they are inferior to people who look like me and that it is hopeless to imagine that they will ever be allowed to assume that their human rights -- the rights they OWN as citizens of the world -- will be respected.
My White students will write in a heartbeat how happy they are to live in a country where everybody's human rights are protected and how terrible it would be to live in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan where people are denied those rights. And my stomach turns. And my heart breaks a little more. And I become a little sadder.
Then I remember what Martin Luther King, Jr., once said: "I look forward confidently to the day when all who work for a living will be one with no thought to their separateness as Negroes, Jews, Italians or any other distinctions. This will be the day when we bring into full realization the American dream -- a dream yet unfulfilled. A dream of equality of opportunity, of privilege and property widely distributed; a dream of a land where men will not take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few; a dream of a land where men will not argue that the color of a man's skin determines the content of his character; a dream of a nation where all our gifts and resources are held not for ourselves alone, but as instruments of service for the rest of humanity; the dream of a country where every man will respect the dignity and worth of the human personality."
And I become a lot more resolute.
And then I listen to a poem such as the one written and recited here by Roger Bonair-Agard and I smile. Because where there is life, there is hope. And where there is breath, there is life. And so far, we're still breathing.