Marotta: If You Work It

Columns / Jan. 15, 2004 12:00am EST

Marotta: If You Work It

For most humans, dwelling in abstractions is as hard as trying to hug a cloud. We do better, I sometimes think, when we just share our experiences.

Below then, the account of several experiences offered at the lip of this Martin Luther King Day, regarding how far we have come since that good man’s time, and how far we yet have to go.

The How Far We Have Come part calls up for me the world of my childhood, when people were acutely mindful of one another’s ethnicity.

"We’re IRISH, 100%" my folks would tell us kids, as if this were some stunning accomplishment. And when a new boy named Joe Cigliano asked me to the big senior dance, they pounced upon his surname. "What kind of a name is that? Italian? It sounds Italian." 

They had reacted the same way when my sister had been asked to her prom by a boy named Schliemann. "German!" they had crowed, like people calling "Bingo!" at the community center.

And they weren’t even prejudiced. Far from it in fact. They reflected their times is all. We had been taught we were a nation of immigrants so that’s how we saw one another.

How Far We Have to Go I didn’t learn about until much later, when my husband and I began welcoming into our family several kids of Afro-Caribbean origin.

The first of these came to us as a tiny ninth grader. Today Dodson is a full-grown man, a professional, joyful and handsome and smart.

On impulse, I e-mailed him at work just now to ask if there were ways in which he still experienced prejudice.

"Many ways," he wrote right back, "most noticeably when someone drops the ‘N bomb’ either at you or in your vicinity. 

"When you step in an elevator and people switch their pocketbook from the side you're standing on.

"When they lock their car doors as you pass by.

"There’s being watched when you're in a store. Having salespeople imply you can’t afford a particular item. Oh, and not being able to get a cab late at night, unless the cabbie too is dark-skinned."

I was saddened to hear of these experiences, which show what a long way we still have to go.

But I was comforted by another e-mail sent me by a reader in Milwaukee, describing his experience New Year’s Eve, riding one of the free buses Miller Brewing provides on that night.

"Our driver had the perfect attitude," he wrote. "She tooted the horn as we drove through downtown, and had everyone shout ‘Happy New Year!’ whenever somebody boarded. She also helped any obviously-under-the-weather riders get off, making sure they landed safely on the sidewalk.

"At one point, a couple boarded who were having a bit of a spat. The man began getting obnoxious with the woman, until our driver stopped the bus and spoke softly to him about this ‘not being a night to disagree with anyone.’

"She had him sit on one side of the aisle, while the lady sat on the other. And they remained quiet. And I thought to myself what a difference she had made, by being calm and peaceful herself. The New Year wasn't an hour old and she was showing us all that peace works."

It can work, if we work it maybe.

It can work, if Dr. King was right and "unarmed truth and unconditional love" do indeed have the final word.

It can work, if, on Time’s old bus, we ever learn to look past the accidents of birth that determine race, or class, or ethnicity to just share our human stories.

Write Terry at

Return to top