Did we ever treat black people like lepers?


iday, 6/26/15

The leper in today’s Gospel was probably Jewish, but he was not allowed to enter the temple or a synagogue. To warn people off, he was bound to call out, “Unclean, unclean.”

We never treated black Americans so badly, but we treated them badly enough. Back in the early nineteen-forties when an anti-lynching bill was proposed in Congress, President Roosevelt, for fear of losing Southern votes, refused to support it,

Once, when I was twelve, and my mother took me to the park, I was surprised to see black people at a nearby table. I gasped when a black mother started nursing her baby. My mother explained it, saying, “They are just different from us.” She meant that in a kindly way, but nothing could have been more cruel.

When Jesus said, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” we take it he was saying love your neighbor as much as yourself; but maybe he meant for us to love the neighbor as though he or she were ourself. Maybe he was telling us to practice an empathy by which we would identify ourselves with the common humanity of the other. It would be hard for a twelve-year-old boy to identify himself with a lady with her blouse open; but maybe Jesus would have wanted him to try.

 We didn’t have a car when I was twelve. Eight of the ten of us who sat together for dinner all came home on the same bus. We knew the school or the place of business of the other passengers. We felt at home on the bus with them.

For my first thirty-five years in this city I didn’t once ride the bus. They seemed to be only for black people. However, for the past eight years, since I grew too old to drive safely, I have been riding the bus. I have come to recognize the people riding the same bus. I know what schools they go to, and I know where they work. I feel more at home with them than I do with the occasional white person who is forced to take our bus while their car is under repair.

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