Lighting a Candle


By Rolf Schweizer Fotografie from Hoffeld, Schweiz (Pourquoi?) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

“It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.”

So much has been said and written about Charlottesville (including some by me over on my Facebook page). It’s pretty simple for me. Any group that says that America is only for white Euro-Americans is un-American (and un-Christian) and is espousing an evil ideology–particularly in the denigrating remarks made about Jews, Blacks, and others. Others have said this and more, and said it better.

I want to light a candle rather than add to the curses of this darkness. As a white American of German-Scots-Irish descent, I am so thankful that much of the country is not white like me, and how much richer we are as a nation because of this.

There are the Native peoples who were here before us, from whom we took the country. From Squanto without whom the Pilgrims may not have survived their first winter, to Will Rogers, the American humorist, to contemporary author Sherman Alexie whose writing has opened my eyes to contemporary reservation life, Native peoples contributed to our life. Many of our rivers and place names recognize their presence here before us.

The ancestors of many of our African-American citizens came here against their will. I sing in a choral group led by an Africa-American who has taught us about spirituals, and how they came out of the experience of slavery. Spirituals give voice to deep laments and hopeful longings, and have not only been a joy to sing but provided means to express emotions of the heart that my Anglo-Saxon upbringing failed to offer. Jazz, blues, soul, and hip-hop all trace from these. Black athletes like Willie Mays and Hank Aaron were childhood heroes. Jesse Owens, a Buckeye alumnus, courageously competed and won in the 1936 Olympics to the intense displeasure of Hitler and the Nazis. Thurgood Marshall successfully argued the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case and went on to a distinguished career on the U.S. Supreme Court, and served as a mentor for Justice Elena Kagan. Patricia Bath is a path-breaking ophthalmologist who pioneered laser techniques for the treatment of cataracts. Colin Powell gave distinguished leadership in Operation Desert Storm, restoring freedom to the people of Kuwait.

Hispanic and Latino Americans have influenced our country since the 1700s when Fr. Junipero Serra engaged in missions work in California and shaped an architectural aesthetic that continues to influence California buildings. Joan Baez was one of the voices of folk music from the 1960’s on, whose songs gave voice to Vietnam protests. A collection of Christmas music featuring her clear, soprano voice is one I try to listen to every year. While we may think of many Latino entertainers and musicians from Jennifer Lopez to Carlos Santana, scientists like Luis Walter Alvarez, a Nobel prize winning physicist have advanced our scientific understanding. I don’t know who came up with salsa, whether we are talking about music, dance or the sauce, but I’m sure glad they are now part of our culture!

How grateful I am for Jonas Salk and his work to eliminate the scourge of polio! Gertrude P. Elion likewise pioneered treatment for childhood leukemia.  Blue jeans are, I think, one of the most practical articles of clothing. Thanks, Levi Strauss for making those first “Levis”! Another music icon of my youth, and Nobel Prize holder is Bob Dylan. “The Times They are a-Changing” articulate the turbulence and transformation taking place in the 1960’s. Irving Berlin and Barbara Streisand in music, Woody Allen and Lauren Bacall in film, Saul Bellow and Chaim Potok in literature all enriched our cultural life. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s writings brought insights into my own spirituality. Jon Stewart and Jerry Seinfeld make us laugh. All these are Jewish-Americans.

Asian-American architect I. M. Pei designed the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame in my former home of Cleveland. Likewise, architect Maya Lin helped begin to heal the wounds of Vietnam with her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Satya Nadella is the current CEO of Microsoft. Asian-Americans founded many of the technology companies that have transformed our culture, from Sun Microsystems to Linksys to Wang Laboratories. I’ve personally appreciated the writing and art of Makoto Fujimura. His illuminations of the Gospels are stunning. For years, I’ve delighted in recordings of Maurice Ravel’s orchestral works by Seiji Ozawa.

I could go on and on. There are Middle Eastern peoples, more recent migrants from African countries, and other corners of the world. Some of the people I’ve written of have touched my life personally. Others have enriched our national life and shaped our world. You may disagree with some of my choices, and certainly you could add to them. Certainly European-Americans have also contributed to our national and cultural riches, but I can’t help thinking how impoverished our nation would be in so many ways without all these others. In everything from food to literature to medicine and law, to business and technology, our political life and our spirituality, we are much richer, I think because of the mosaic of peoples who make up our country. Sure, at times, it is complicated, and maybe we think privileging a single cultural heritage would make things simpler. I like to think of our culture as robust, made up of many different influences. Like a rich sauce, take out all those ingredients, and maybe things would be simpler, but also dull and uninteresting.

To my fellow citizens who are not Euro-Americans, I am so glad you are here. I know the words and acts of some would suggest otherwise. Perhaps those of us who think otherwise need to get better at raising our voices and reaching across our cultural differences and standing firm against the evil and the vile. What an interesting country we can make together. Might we begin by joining together to light a candle. . . ?


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