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Martin Luther King Birmingham Jail

Reading as a Remedy to Racism

Many years of voracious reading have taught me that reaching a truly objective level of understanding about reality is unlikely. Still, even though I think the chances for complete objectivity are slim, my enthusiasm for pursuing impartiality remains intact because the persistent searching prevents rigidity, complacency, and cynicism. Sometimes real progress is measurable, and the quest is exhilarating.

Elsewhere I have written that books are but perspectives—the more of them you read, the larger your own perspective becomes. I maintain that the very quality of the future depends upon our ability to achieve a perspective of maturity, and this is a fundamental requirement for getting beyond racism. First, let me provide some history.

I grew up in Texas and Oklahoma in the 1940s and ’50s. In those days, the cultural expectations of what a person was supposed to do in life were simple. They were immediately apparent when your behavior was in some way unacceptable, but vague when you considered all of the possible things you might do, given talent and opportunity. But bias and blatant racial and ethnic prejudice were so ubiquitous in the communities where I lived that a social climate existed analogous to a thick fog of contempt for differences or otherness, especially racial differences.

I use this analogy to make the point that a lifetime of reading can be, in essence, a lifting and thinning of cultural fog and a platform for inclusiveness. While we can never rid ourselves completely of our cultural upbringing, nor would we likely want to abandon everything about it, the perspective made possible by reading is such that civilization itself could be said to depend on the kind of thinking that reading accomplishes.

Cultural expectations in our youth are so pervasive that we remain unaware they even exist; they seem merely to reflect reality—the way things are. As we age, we are able to see farther, primarily from our depth of experience. The first dissonant clues about our cultural reality arise when we begin to realize that the grownups in our midst, namely our parents and grandparents, are mere mortals, subject to the same human frailties as the rest of humanity.

Then, in time, if we are truly observant and reflective, we begin to apply the same critical lens to the groups we belong to and to our respective political and geographical allegiances. Traveling the world is a big help to gaining perspective, but nothing serves us better than extensive reading and reflecting on what we’ve read because of the thoughtfulness involved in the process.

It’s far too easy to learn to inhabit a local worldview—a narrow outlook that is familiar, dependable, and comforting but ultimately destructive to the very idea of expanding human relations. Thus, for many fearful people it becomes necessary to maintain a restricted viewpoint that requires avoidance of outside opinion and a distrust of change and uncertainty. When the citizens of any culture become uneasy about gaining knowledge, new information is subject to being censored, ignored, or banished. That’s why anti-intellectualism is ubiquitous.

I grew up with a sheltered worldview much in agreement with the same politics and prejudices of my community. It was a world of black-and-white notions of morality, and it was a literal interpretation of racial superiority that white was right. I experienced my first serious dissonance to this rigid ultraconservative worldview when I joined the Marine Corps in 1960. It was a subtle unraveling over a four-year period of service in which I was witness to young men of all races and from all regions of the country and from all sorts of backgrounds, many of whom, in spite of conventional stereotypical assumptions of inferiority, proved to be natural-born leaders. Black, white, brown, red, or yellow—race just didn’t seem to matter. Individual character did.

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Lifelong Learning—Charles D. Hayes

Lifelong Learning—Charles D. Hayes

After four years in the Marines, I joined the Dallas police department, a bit more open-minded about race than what I had grown up with, but still far from being free of racial bias. The next cultural dissonance I recall was the result of reading sociology texts in a college class on police science and administration. The fog was still thick, but beginning to lift as I entertained other viewpoints, many of which seemed superior to my own.

A few years later, I read The Story of Philosophy by Will Durant and The Third Wave by Alvin Toffler. I was so taken with these works that I read each one several times in quick succession. By then, the fog was really thinning. Durant’s book put my regional outlook into a global perspective with ideas so profound that they made the whole range of my prevailing cultural assumptions seem arbitrary and ill thought-out. For Toffler, it wasn’t the accuracy of his observations about what was going on in the world that I found compelling so much as his ambition to explain it in big-picture fashion.

It was about this time that I read Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, which I still view as one of the most dissonant and stunningly insightful moments of reading I have ever experienced. King’s letter, laying out the absurdity of the tired old argument that always claims it’s too early to push for desegregation, shattered the remains of my regional worldview and its justification for racial segregation. Since then, I have been a ravenous reader.

Ironically some of the writers I admire most warned obsessively about being overinfluenced by books, while being careful not to reveal that they were themselves voracious readers. In my view, the point of reading is to move beyond the works one is reading to an enriched perspective that will equal or surpass the author’s, and not to become so enamored with a work that it blots out the need for further inquiry. Frequently I encounter individuals who don’t read very much and thus become overly influenced by a particular book simply because they have too little to compare it to.

One of the important lessons I’ve learned about reading is the value of rereading. Every time I reread a book that I once felt was very important, the effect is startling. It happens without fail, and yet I always wonder why it took me so long to do it again. The books that are important to reread are the ones we thought were profound and that influenced us the first time we read them.

Rereading after some years have passed is doubly rewarding for reasons I’ve seldom heard discussed. But to me it seems evident when you consider that long after we have been moved by new ideas, our subconscious continues to kick them around and to ruminate on them for years as they become a part of our repertoire of comprehension. With regard to racial prejudice, in particular, the best part is that, if you have made genuine progress in learning about the absurdity of such behavior, the rereading will make you wonder how you were ever naïve enough to have held such views in the first place.

Reacquainting ourselves with the original presentation of an idea is an invitation to the subconscious to make our quiet deliberation become clear to us as never before. All we needed was the right kind of reminder, since the first time we encountered these ideas, we were barely ready for them. That’s why they impressed us in the beginning.

Charles Hayes

As we begin the new year this January, we can let Martin Luther King’s birthday on the 17th be the day we resolve to rid ourselves of the reflexive bias that we unwittingly internalized growing up without realizing we have done so. A good place to start is with King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail.

Charles D. Hayes

Originally published 8 January 2011