When I Think About Martin, I Think About James

“it was this liberation we had torn from the gray encroachments of 1943, the escape we had concocted, this afternoon of momentary, illusory, special and separate peace.”
~ John Knowles, A Separate Peace
 

He spoke on those hard steps in August of ’63. It would be four years later that I was born and many more years before I knew of Martin’s voice. My grade school friend was James, a boy with skin black like night. He wore a corduroy jacket on his back year ’round and Wallabees on his feet. James was strong and fast. I was thin and average. But we both were born gentle and that was our meeting ground. Most mornings I sat beside James on our yellowed bus, neither of us cognizant of  how much had or hadn’t changed since Martin thundered. As James and John we were ignorant of the status of funds in the bank of justice; we had no sense of the urgency of Now. We were ignorant but not entirely innocent. When Sundays came I would attend my father’s church filled with white people beneath a white steeple. James went to his church in another section of the small Texas town that sits 33º North and 94º West. So the singular place that could have been more than a banquet table for brothers was not. Our friendship could only travel so far, beyond that lived the hidden wound. It would be years later before I knew of Martin’s voice, and still more before I realized how little I knew of the life of my friend with skin as black as mine was white. Back then we were two gentle boys struggling against the high plane of the playground in our special and separate peace. The rude awakening from the dream awaited us both. Now, having put away childish things, I am most certain James was startled awake many years before me. I often think of him. I can see his smile like it was just yesterday. I do not wonder if he is still gentle. But I do wonder if he is still strong.

*The phrase the hidden wound is taken from Wendell Berry’s book by the same name.

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8 Comments

  1. Developing A New Image on January 20, 2014 at 3:00 pm

    Beautiful tribute, it made me pause, reflect and remember that the reflection is never as clear what is being reflected….en theos † jim

  2. Mike Van Hooser on January 20, 2014 at 3:28 pm

    I also remember some of the friends I played with, oblivious (or at least terribly disinterested) to our differences. That awareness is taught by our parents and our society and serves to end possible life-long friendships before they can truly start. I do wonder if some of those people ever think about those times before skin color and social position became relative.

  3. Gretchen on January 20, 2014 at 4:54 pm

    Sure grateful for that man. And for the gentleness that connects friends.

  4. Diana Trautwein on January 20, 2014 at 5:37 pm

    Lovely, John. It’s a bit of a scary thing for me to realize I could easily be your mom – my eldest was born in ’68 – and that my growing up world was very different from yours. I do not remember black students at my school, but I do remember a black teacher, a woman who taught 1st grade – beautiful, gifted, quiet and strong. I am grateful for how far we’ve traveled over those years, but saddened by how far there is to go. Thanks for these good words.

  5. Susan Irene Fox on January 20, 2014 at 6:49 pm

    Weighty and uplifting, you awaken sleeping memories from friendships long ago, causing me to reach back and heave a sigh…and smile.

  6. Lindsay Terry on January 20, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    I had a wonderful friend while growing up. We worked together at the grocery store. I was a white teenager and he an elderly black man. Our faith in Christ drew us together. Beautiful memories!!!
    Thanks for helping me bring them to the forefront, if only for a few moments.

  7. genesmith12 on January 20, 2014 at 11:27 pm

    Thanks for the balm John. Resurrected a few fond memories from my childhood as well.

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