My coming of age was guided rather delightfully by the music of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. I learned a lot from their thoughtful lyrics that I would not have learned from my parents, and I honed my political and pacifistic tendencies in their harmonies.
I made the motto of my life from a Stephen Stills refrain, paraphrased, “If we can’t do it with love, brothers and sisters, we have no right to do it at all.”
One David Crosby song that gets stuck in my head from time to time is “Almost Cut My Hair.” I’m sure you’re familiar with it; it “happened just the other day.”
The song tells of a young man who is tempted to adopt a more socially conventional appearance, so he can more easily get a job, a mortgage, decent housing and a car loan — and be treated more fairly by police.
He tamps down fear and keeps his hair long, out of respect for those who went before him, their “freak flags flying” as they battled discrimination based on nothing but physical appearance.
Over the past few days, this song came barreling back to smack me with a truth about the hotly debated concept of white privilege. For our singer and for me as his listener, it was as easy as getting a haircut.
You can’t change your skin color to make it easier to get a job, a mortgage, decent housing and a car loan. Or to assure fair treatment by all officers of the law.
For generations, no one in my family has been denied a place to live, a job, a loan, college admission, a role in the military — or fair treatment by police or the courts — because of the color of our skin.
My parents, grandparents and great-grandparents used mortgages, real estate and college to build wealth and etch comfortable positions. They got traffic tickets with impunity, and never feared being prejudged — or killed — based on something about themselves they should have been able to be proud of, and certainly could not change.
That’s not true for our friends and neighbors of color.
This heritage isn’t my fault; I was born with it. I hope no one hates me for it, but I guess I could understand if they did. I hope I’ve done what I can — with the help of friends — to recognize it and be part of creating a better world.
I can’t be effective in that work, though, without acknowledging the decades of advantage that have shaped my experiences, my perceptions, my life.
Don’t get me wrong; I wasn’t born into wealth. Over the generations, my family has faced the usual challenges of extreme poverty, disability, premature death, alcoholism and the like. When husband Jeff and I arrived in DeLand, we had but a few nickels to rub together.
But our white skin meant we faced no special obstacles. If we chose to succeed, the way was clear.
I learned a lot from Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, but nothing about being black. Theirs was a white experience, and mine was, too. Growing up in Indiana, I was physically and musically distanced.
I’m ready for everyone in my community to have all the advantages my family had, along with a humble apology for the scars of the past and the persistent wrongs of the present.
In 1969, CSN&Y advised us to “speak out against the madness,” and sang, “It appears to be … such a long, long time before the dawn.”
Half a century later, maybe it’s time to see that dawn light shining.
— Shepherd is publisher of The Beacon.