At home in The Observer’s bookshelf is a little wooden barrel: a bow-sided keg with brass rings around the top and bottom — maybe six inches high, dark with age. It was made by my great grandfather, who worked a good bit of his life at a stave mill. When he was too old and feeble to work, he carried on his vocation by carving staves with a jackknife, fitting them together with homemade rings into miniature barrels for friends and family. My father got his from a cousin some 20 years back. When my father died in 2001, it passed to me.
I’ve got a photo of that little barrel on my Facebook page, where I’ve written about it before. On the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday just passed, I looked at that photo a lot. When the workday was through — too busy at a newspaper to take off for most gubmint holidays, even the holiday honoring a personal hero — I went home and turned the barrel in my hands, feeling its terrible weight. There’s a story behind it, you see.
My father’s story about my great-grandfather, always told with a kind of horrified awe, was that he once fell into a rage over a supposed slight and killed a black man at the stave mill where he worked with a double-bit axe. This was in the teens or ’20s. This was Arkansas. There was no arrest, no trial, no conviction. The murdered man’s family simply came and collected the body, someone washed the blood down the drain, and that was that.
Was it rumor? Overheard half-heards that my dad stitched together as a boy and then carried next to his heart like a stone? I hope so, because blood like that is a heavy thing. But I fear it’s all true. By the time I was born, the story had become a dark page of my father’s lore.
And so, on Monday, on the day dedicated to the man who helped end a world where that kind of terror could go unpunished, I thought a lot about that little barrel, and my son, and myself. One of the great fallacies of life is the belief that if you or I lived in times of institutionalized injustice — Nazi Germany, America during the time of slavery, the American South during Jim Crow, South Africa during Apartheid — we would be among the brave few who rose up to help stamp out that injustice. You tell yourself: I would be different. You tell yourself: I would crawl through the sewers with a knife in my teeth, dynamite supply lines or march in the streets until it was changed.
The truth, however, is that those places were full of people just like you and me: people who loved their children, laughed with their friends, went to work, went to church, and stood by while horrors were committed in their names. Some of those same people even participated, and then went home and slept the deep sleep of the Just. But the place you come from — where and when you grew up and the attitudes there — shaped the person you are. The truth is: If you and I had been born white in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1930, there’s a chance you or I might have wound up one of those snarling buzzcuts in the old pictures, staring down Dr. King and Rosa Parks and the Little Rock Nine. You tell yourself it isn’t true. That it isn’t in your heart to hate anyone. That it could never happen. But context is everything, and I am not even exempting myself from this.
And so on Monday, I turned that barrel in my hands and I thanked Dr. King and all the rest who stood with him. Not only because they were brave enough to do what a lot of us wouldn’t, but because they created an America where trying to subjugate someone because of their race is not only seen as abnormal, but immoral. That’s the world I was born into — a place where I can be better than my blood. That’s the world my son has grown up in, with a love for all of mankind in his heart.