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Marching In Renton

We are gathered in a Safeway parking lot in downtown Renton, Washington, in a January rain that has slackened. My children stomp in expansive rain puddles, oblivious to soaked sneakers, calling out with delight. I admonish them: their feet will be wet and cold and tend to blister. They laugh, barely acknowledging that I have spoken, and splash more with the other kids. My children, white; the others, black.

One of the organizers steps forward to greet me as he makes his rounds.

"Here to show your support?"

“Yes.” I nod and grasp his extended hand. He smiles.

Has he observed that I am the only Caucasian man here, except for a photographer from the South County Journal? Does he know that I feel out of place? I have chosen this discomfort, taken a holiday from work to march in the Martin Luther King Jr. Day parade, as a gift to my children. I want them to understand that their lives must have real heroes, to abandon the notion that baseball players, singers and movie stars are the only role models.

The group numbers fifty or so. The organizers huddle, making forays to greet marchers as they arrive. One opens the trunk of her car. Inside are placards and signs: THE DREAM IS ALIVE; WE ARE THE PEOPLE WHO WILL GET TO THE PROMISED LAND. A King County executive is working those gathered. He extends a hand that envelops mine. He thanks me for being there, introduces himself to my daughter, ten, and my son, seven. Their jeans are soaked to the knees.

The march begins late, after the group has waited out another spell of rain. By the time we begin, the words on the placards are running. The group leaves the parking lot in a line, with two Renton motorcycle cops clearing the way. We move onto Third Avenue, twelve blocks from the Community Center, and down the center lane. I'm feeling conspicuous and look around to gauge the reaction of white bystanders.

My children do not yet understand the complex riddle of race. They have been raised on music television and casually integrated schooling. They learned from the start the bigotry of Custer, the ingratitude of the Plymouth settlers. In 1623, just two years after celebrating the first Thanksgiving with their indigenous benefactors, the Wampanoag, a Puritan elder praised God for the spread of small pox and the demise of "chiefly young men and children, the very seeds of increase, thus clearing the forests to make way for a better growth." It was a well-received sermon. This is not the history I was taught.

We pass a funeral home on the left and the Eagles lodge. On the right, there is a Thai restaurant and a pawn shop. Already my boy is saying his legs are tired. I say, "You're getting older. Look at the other boys walking."

In my line of work I am periodically called on to arrange logistics for important visitors to my company's factories. I've done this for the president and vice president of the United States, the presidents of Russia and Romania and for the late King Hussein of Jordan.

Reverend Jesse Jackson toured our factory beside our chief executive officer. At the conclusion of the tour, he and the CEO made remarks from a makeshift stage at the final assembly position, Jackson speaking in sports metaphors about teamwork. The CEO stood behind him to the left and nodded in agreement, a powerful man yet dwarfed by Jackson's presence.

The Reverend put me in mind of the African-American activist, author and publisher Ishmael Reed, who had visited Washington State University when I was a student there. Reed had read a short rugged poem:

"Today I feel bearish
I've just climbed out of
A stream with a jerking
Trout in my paw.
Anyone who messes with
Me today will be hugged
And dispatched."

Later, he signed books at the University bookstore. I introduced myself and said, regretfully, that I had been unable to locate the book with the bearish poem. Reed reached down, opened his briefcase, and extracted a slim volume, his own copy of “A Secretary To The Spirits.” He signed inside and made me a gift of it.

The march passes a hardware store, a renovated cinema where the local community theater company enacts its plays, and a Chevrolet dealership. A man with a megaphone is quoting Dr. King.

When I was in sixth grade we had a black boy named David in my school. His family lived in the neighborhood and, one Saturday during a childish disagreement at play, I called him a damned nigger. My mother overheard from inside our apartment, rushed out, and slapped me.

"Don't ever let me hear you say that again," she said, rejecting her own heritage of Arkansan segregation. I don't know what happened to David that day - I was smarting too much from my mother's cuffing - but, I have followed her instructions. David was friendly afterward, as if the incident had never occurred.

We pass a western store where I once had a pair of boots made. "Daddy, there's where you got your boots," my girl says and my boy runs over to the store window to see the rattlesnake there, jaw unhinged and fangs wielded. We pause there for a moment as the parade slowly marches behind us.

I pull them away to rejoin the column. They take up with a couple of the other children. My son asks a boy about his size for a placard to carry. Its message, WE SHALL OVERCOME, is practically a Rorschach blot from the rain.

There are just a few blocks left. The photographer has snapped all the photos he needs and breaks away to meet his deadline. I am feeling less conspicuous. I am not sure if this is so because I have acclimated or because there are no onlookers on this avenue bordering the freeway.

We arrive at the Renton Community Center and the group, cold and soaked, assembles in one of its rooms. Rows of folding chairs have been arranged for us. Volunteers are serving yellow fruit drink and coffee from enormous plastic urns. Others are staffing awareness booths: “HIV, AIDS and You,” reads one poster affixed with scotch tape to the front of a table. “Community Resources,” reads another. My children want a drink. I send them for one and take a chair closer to the back row than the front.

The program begins with an invocation, then a Scout troop acts as color guard, bringing in the flag. We intone the Pledge of Allegiance and the King County executive speaks. He marvels, he says, that he is here today - and he means “here” as a state of being and achievement rather than in the room with us. “Here,” as the great-grandson of slaves who has risen to become the chief politician of a county named after Dr. King. His oratory is compelling. The crowd is with him and he assures them that the future looks bright.

Then a woman takes center stage and she has in her hands a book of poetry. She gathers her voice and it comes out clear and clean and anguished because the poem she is reading is about the 1965 firebombing of an Alabama church. Two girls about the ages of my children lost their lives.

The poem is written from the perspective of the dead girls' mother. At the beginning she doesn't know that the bombing has taken place, just that there is a great deal of commotion on an otherwise normal day. Then she hears sirens, a footfall on her porch, and a knock.

The reader is crying, tears running down her cheeks, and, as the terrible realization dawns on the mother, she moans, a low visceral sound. My daughter turns to me and sees that I, too, have tears welling. I can't stop them, have no wish to, except that they concern my daughter and might make her miss the message of the poem. This, I think, would be a tragedy as well.

Acknowledgments:
Robert F. Berkhofer Jr., "The White Man's Indian," Copyright 1979 by Random House.
Ishmael Reed, "A Secretary to the Spirits," Copyright 1978 by NOK Publishers International Ltd.

Brian Ames writes from St. Charles County, Missouri. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, including The North American Review, Glimmer Train Stories, The Massachusetts Review, Weber Studies, South Dakota Review, Night Train and Wisconsin Review. He is the author of the story collections Smoke Follows Beauty (Pocol Press, 2002), Head Full of Traffic (Pocol Press, 2004) and Eighty-Sixed (Word Riot Press, 2004). He is a fiction editor at Word Riot, and a former editor of Wind Row, Washington State University’s literary journal.

Photo Courtesy of NARA.


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