Saturday, November 21, 2015

Melting Pot (Part One)

I don't remember what grade I was in or which nun it was, but I have this specific memory of being told that the concept of America as a melting pot was wrong, that a more accurate way to describe it was as a mosaic. I've encountered this particular refinement to this particular metaphor many times since, but this was the first time. Sorta/kinda missing the point (hey, I was a kid) I decided that I liked the melting pot analogy better because it conjured up a vivid image of a huge cauldron, boiling and bubbling, powered by an intense fire, flames licking up the sides. A melting pot, or at least what I thought a melting pot should look like, having never actually encountered one. And no, my imagination didn't include people being tossed into the pot. You've clearly watched too many horror movies.

I didn't care for mosaics, as an art form I mean. I still don't, but considering my extremely limited knowledge of the visual arts, about which I'm going to do something one of these days (I've been getting psyched up for this project for better than forty years, so I'm ready), I feel obliged to throw in a buhwhaddle know?

I say sorta/kinda because I knew what she meant. She explained that what she was talking about was that while there was truth to be discerned in the melting pot meme, in her opinion, America was more like a mosaic because while we held certain truths to be self-evident and that there was such a thing as American culture, we could all fit into the big picture without having to give up what it was that made us different from each other. Well, mostly.

But I took that for granted. Not intellectually, but intuitively. Within the bubble of my childhood, which, being a kid, I thought included everyone else, this was the way of the world, well, the way of the USA anyway. I'd been made aware that the Godless Commies of the countries behind the Iron Curtain (BOING! another vivid image) didn't see things that way.

See, I somehow managed to get through my preschool years and then grade school, until the eighth grade, with kids from all sorts of ethnic backgrounds (in the early 1960s) without having a clue that various groups were locked in power struggles with each other, like the ones you see in the movies. Not even black folks (they were called negroes at the time), though admittedly, there were not a lot of black people in my bubble.

This was in spite of the fact these were politically incorrect times and we thought it normal to use words like dago, pollock, mick and the like. I didn't hear the n-word very often, but that was only because, as I mentioned above, I didn't have much contact with African-Americans. I had no idea, at the time, that this was because of segregation. The various Sisters of Charity that were in charge of my intellectual and moral development certainly made us aware of the civil rights movement. But that was something that was going on down South, wherever that was. That was about mean-spirited, narrow-minded rednecks that never got over having their butts kicked in the Civil war. President Kennedy and Martin Luther King were going to get that fixed. Then we would all be one big happy family, and did you know that George Washington Carver was a great scientist?

It was a very strong bubble. I remember, in the second grade, that when we got this new kid, the first black kid in our class, that we were fascinated by the novelty of it. He taught us to stick out our hands, palm up, and say, "Gimmie me five" and then you turn your palm to the ground and say, "On the n-word side." We loved it. It was almost as cool as the time Mrs. Barrett broke her dreaded yardstick (I had a lay teacher that year) over his ass and he shed not a single tear. Our hero!

In the summer of 1966, we moved from the inner city to the suburbs. As far as I know, it was primarily so my dad could be closer to work. If it was about "escaping the inner city," this was completely lost on me. I don't recall feeling like I had escaped from anything. But things sure were different.

We moved into what was probably the most humble section of a fairly affluent community and I had my last year of Catholic education, eighth grade; my parents couldn't afford to send me to a Catholic high school, and I was in the process of rejecting Catholicism anyway.

Ironically, it was a handful of prosperous little all-white suburbanites that introduced me to the societal upheaval that changed everything and has ever since simply been called the sixties. This was exciting stuff, we were going to change everything and save the world! I took to it like a duck to water. Fortunately, I had no access to recreational pharmaceuticals. Nobody under the age of 18 should, 25 would be better. I never cared much for alcohol, or cigarettes for that matter, which were available. Drugs were just starting to trickle down to the high school level, in my world at least, towards the end of my sentence there. But that's a subject for another post, and it will be.

Two quick items that have virtually nothing to do with this post but are vitally important. One: Yes I graduated, smart ass. As a  matter of fact, I also have 39 officially certified college credits. Also, in case I should drop dead before I get around to expounding on the secret of life, here it is.

The secret of life: So-called real life is just high school with money.

Anyways...somebody tipped over the melting pot and set the world on fire. Some of it was for the good, but a good deal of it wasn't. We've definitely got ourselves a mosaic now buddy.

To be continued...

Have an OK day.                                                                                      

©Mark Mehlmauer 2015

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