Diversity, Our Greatest Strength
I’m traveling for most of the month of November, and I’ll be sharing some of my blogs from 2009-2010 with you while I’m gone. I’ve loved going back to find those I loved most.
I looked for a Halloween post for today, but this one, from early 2010 appealed to me instead. Diversity in all its many forms is a hot button for so many people today. Especially now, when we’re about to go to the polls (right?) it’s a good time to remember that differences are our strength, and always have been, even though throughout history we have failed to see that. I’ll be back with original blogs in December, and lots of photos of my trip. Thanks for traveling the nostalgia road with me in the meantime.
I was seven the first time I visited New York City with my family. This was the only trip out of state that we ever took together, and perhaps an unlikely destination, except that both my parents had been born there, my mother in the Bronx and my father in Brooklyn. I remember very little. A red bedspread at the hotel. The view from the Empire State Building. A sandwich from the Automat.
And the people.
Growing up in segregated Florida, everybody I knew, everybody I’d ever had a conversation with, looked a lot like me. The people who didn’t lived in another part of town, as mysterious and out of reach as beings from another planet. Our lives did not intersect. Any questions I had about them were answered by people as clueless as I was– and even more determined to stay that way.
That first trip to New York was like a time bomb planted in my young brain. I remember being afraid of everyone, not just the sheer numbers–which can intimidate me even today–but the diversity. The exotic blend of colors. The languages I didn’t understand. Babushkas and dashikis, although those words, too, were foreign to me. People who didn’t look like me, talk like me, think like me. A world in which I was just a tiny sample of a tiny sample of humanity. A lesson to be learned, and one too many people still resist.
I visited New York City again this weekend. There have been a number of intervening trips, of course. I go to New York any time I’m given the opportunity, connected by umbilical cord, perhaps, to stories of life in an apartment in the Bronx in the 1920s and 30s. I feel at home, even though I rarely know where I’m going or how to get there. I wander, and people are helpful, destroying all notions that New Yorkers are a breed apart. I leave my purse in a Broadway theater, and the next day it’s still there, intact, waiting for me. My suitcase catches on a subway escalator, and the man behind me grabs it and brings it up without so much as a murmur. I stop on a street corner with a map, and a stranger asks where I’m going and proceeds to tell me how to get there.
But it’s the diversity that excites me most. The same diversity that enriched my life when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area, or in New Orleans, or these days on my own street in Northern Virginia, where half the houses have someone from another country, sometimes two, in residence. I am no longer a worried seven-year-old. I am an adult, thrilled to be among people who aren’t exactly like me, people who have different experiences to bring to our common table, people whose lives and cultures have led them to a greater understanding that they are willing to share.
Poverty is our challenge. Hatred is our challenge. Ignorance is our challenge. But diversity? Never. Walk the streets of Manhattan for a weekend, and appreciate the miracle of so many different kinds of people going about their lives within arm’s reach of each other.
Oh, and please don’t forget to take your children. The experience might change them forever.
It’s interesting that you had to leave Florida to find diversity, yet I’m finding Orlando to be one of the most diverse places I have lived. (Of course, I know Florida is a much different place now than it was during the period you’re talking about.) It’s one of the reasons I’ve grown to love it here. My children are exposed to so many different cultures (and religions, nationalities, races, etc.), and the friends they’ve made could be the poster children for a Colors of Benetton advertisement! I really do believe the walls of prejudice get knocked down a bit more with each generation.
Thanks, as always, for a thought-provoking post.
You hit on the one thing I miss about Detroit since we’ve moved back to the farm–the fascinating diversity. The ethnic restaurants. The fruit stands. The man who couldn’t speak a word of English, but kindly helped a struggling eight-month pregnant woman place a large watermelon in her shopping cart. The old European men who played peek-a-boo with my babies at the grocery store. Those of African American heritage who shared their memories of marching with Martin Luther King. And best of all, my husband, a white man, being asked to preach in churches of color, where he heard “preach it!” and “Amen, brother!” and “Come on, now,” ringing out from every corner–and the singing afterwards. Oh my. Good memories, all.
Love your blogs Emilie. I have been sitting here reading them this morning. I know that I will continue to follow you (thank you Diane Chamberlain)!
I remember taking my children, who were 4 and 8. We were all enthralled by NYC and talked about it for months afterward.
If I had a do over in my life, I would live there. Thanks for sharing this wonderful story.
Such a beautiful family tale. At 71 yrs old, I too, grew up in a small town with no diversity….I’d almost have to say family dynasties. When I went away to college, my roommate was a lovely black girl. We became good friends and it was a wonderful lesson to me about how we are alike and have the same needs and wants in life. So happy I had that experience to guide me in my thinking the rest of my life!
Living in Jersey for 4-1/2 years in the late 80’s was an eye-opener for this Ohioan. But I learned so much, and made life-long friends. Have also lived in Selma, Alabama, another area so different from Ohio. Wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. So glad to have had the chance to do so!