While I miss him daily, I often reflect that itâ€™s just as well my father isnâ€™t around to discuss politics with me. While other people have to deal with the reality of family members who voted for Trump, I have only to deal with a ghost, one whose intentions can be guessed but never known. But I have a pretty good idea, moreâ€™s the pity.
Itâ€™s one thing to stand for three days beneath the American flag at the college where you teach to prevent students from turning it upside down. I respect the man for that, even though I disagree, and though I would have, as I told my mom when I first heard this story, probably been one of the people trying to turn the flag upside down. (â€œYou and your father would have disagreed on a lot of things,â€ she said. â€œCall me if you need to be bailed out. I was on my way to an anti-war march.)
But itâ€™s quite something else to suggest that the Republican party needs to adopt the techniques of the civil rights movement and find its own James Meredith, as my father suggested in a memo to the state Republican party in the mid 1960s. I felt ill reading that memo last year in the basement archives of the college where he taught (the same as the flag incident college). I feel ill writing about it now. But he said it, there in black and white.
Several years ago I resolved to stop writing things about or for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in part out of embarrassment at what Iâ€™d written before and in part for the real and good reason that white people, myself most definitely included, need to talk less and listen more. Iâ€™m breaking that promise now, and in the worst way possible, opening a remark about MLK with an image of my racist father. But then itâ€™s my father Iâ€™m writing about, really, not Dr. King. If acknowledging oneâ€™s own racism is the first step in being a good ally, then surely reckoning with the racism of oneâ€™s forebears is part and parcel of that.
Iâ€™m not sure how much help it is, though. Anything I start to write is too easily contestable by those who knew him and who might well hold a different impression of the man, about whom I have heard little but good in the years since he died. But not entirely, for which Iâ€™m grateful.
Iâ€™ve been told, for instance, by multiple sources that he believed the best man would always beat the best woman. If Billie Jean King won anything, it must have been because she wasnâ€™t actually facing the best man. (He was a tennis player and would doubtless have had an informed opinion on this, even if it was wrongheaded. I know King only as a cultural icon and have no ability to pass judgment.)
But then Iâ€™ve also been told that he was deeply and profoundly upset by anti-Semitism in any form, despite what we would now term his own anti-Semitic microaggressions, usually in the form of commentary on NPR reporters. For years I clung to this as a sign that he wasnâ€™t completely given over to the dark side: as long as you think Hitler is evil, you canâ€™t be all bad, right?
But what Iâ€™ve learned â€” in part from trying to listen more than I talk, which isnâ€™t a strong point of mine, as this essay demonstrates â€” is that one good instinct does not a good ally make, or even a potential one.
So itâ€™s just as well, I think, that I canâ€™t talk to my father about the presidential election. Still, though, I wish I could. Because the other thing I know â€” from listening, from reading, from writing, from life â€” is that oneâ€™s lived experience rarely fits neatly into a paradigm not matter what your political affiliation. Blood, in my case, runs thicker than the bully pulpit, and Iâ€™m willing to forgive a lot in the people I love. In real life, Iâ€™m not called upon to do so much, as my family and friends largely inhabit the same bubble I do. I often say that if my father were alive, Iâ€™m not sure weâ€™d still be speaking. But I never stop wishing we could.