Dreaming of Black Dignity

Scripps-Howard News Service 12.18.02
Balint Vazsonyi

In January 1959, when I began my American life in Tallahassee, Florida, the adjustments for a Central European immigrant were many. Most shocking among them was the realization that the segregation of black people was not communist propaganda after all, but hard reality.

My friends tried to point out that, in the absence of an emotional investment, there was no way I could judge the situation. As soon as I could do so in English, I countered that no argument on Earth could justify what was being done. Soon, a concert by William Warfield at Florida A & M, the all-Negro university - which I decided to attend because of his reputation - demonstrated to me that there was a price for "deviant" behavior.

Although I had arrived neutral, by the time the Civil Rights movement got seriously underway, I was anything, but. Though I never came to share "white guilt," neither was that necessary to tell the difference between right and wrong.

Watching door after door opening for black Americans was a truly fascinating process. Apart from the sense of righteousness, much of the motivation for supporting the Civil Rights movement came from encountering black Americans of great dignity and then witnessing the treatment meted out to them. Their willingness and capacity to preserve their dignity in the face of such treatment increased the cries for urgent remedy.

Alas, as the injustices of discrimination diminished, as the efforts of American society for fair and just treatment increased, so dignity seemed to fade. That was all the more astonishing because demands for dignity and respect grew louder every day, and even a new verb, "to disrespect" was given legitimacy - even though it really is a silly word by any standard.

Dignity is a funny thing. You can't demand that people give it to you, and you can't purchase it at the supermarket. Whether or not you have got any, depends entirely upon you. Someone like Nat King Cole did not have to work at it at all. Someone like Jesse Jackson, Jr. could not live long enough to develop it.

And that brings me to the disturbing topic of this article. Millions of personal relationships across the land are troubled, interrupted, perhaps even destroyed by the harsh, unpleasant, hostility-laden tirades that are our nightly ration by those who claim to speak for black Americans. While Jay Leno and Kevin Eubanks endeavor to show us five times a week how it can be done, how it should be done, John Hope Franklin, Randall Robinson and the "reverend" Al Sharpton assure us that we can die on the cross for all they care - harmony there shall never be.

All that has occupied my mind these last days, prompted by the Trent Lott affair. What the good senator said was so inane, so unworthy of intelligent discussion, that I had no intention of commenting. In 2002, you don't start debating whether or not the Earth is flat.

And then, it struck me what an incredible opportunity this might have been for something entirely different.

Imagine if the Congressional Black Caucus had lined up behind the microphones in the U.S. House of Representatives and delivered something like the following statement:

"Apparently, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott made some improvisatory remarks on the occasion of retiring senator Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday. We understand that his comments could be construed as deeply offensive to black Americans, if we chose to take them seriously.

"We believe that the most appropriate comment from us is not to dignify his by taking them seriously. Besides, the people of this country have worked long and hard to deal with our divided past, and to create a common future. We assume that, for the most part, they view this incident very similarly to the way we do, and that no one will permit the effort and good will of decades on both sides to be placed at risk for someone's momentary indiscretion."

I am not naive enough to think this would actually happen. But I wish it did. No legislation, no financial assistance, no campus regulations could generate the warmth, respect and pride such a moment would harvest for black Americans.