Sometimes small events relate to monumental issues.
Last summer, while hiking a lonely trail along a Southern Oregon lake, I rounded a sharp bend and was surprised to encounter two boys coming toward me with fishing rods across their shoulders, the larger of them carrying a tackle box. I could see that they were brothers, about 10 and 12 years old, and my surprise was the result of the fact that they were the first African American anglers I’d ever seen in a half-century of fishing Oregon’s rivers, creeks and lakes.
The boys were also surprised to see me, and I recognized an unmistakable expression of abject fear in their eyes. But then, when I smiled and said hi, they smiled back immediately.
We talked for quite a while. The older brother had caught and released one fish, which they thought had been a bass. When they described it I agreed. I gave them a rundown on other species in the lake: bluegills, crappies, perch, and stocked trout. Knowing the lake well, I described the most productive kinds of places to fish and the lures likely to prove effective. I wished them luck and I think we parted as friends.
What troubled me, and still does, was the boys’ initial reaction, their fear. I’m a larger than average man, a former college football player, but I’m certain there was more to it than that.
In his esteemed book, “Sapiens, A Brief History of Humankind,” author Yuval Noah Harari explains what he calls “the racial hierarchy in modern America.” In the beginning, settlers from Europe found it convenient to displace and slaughter Indians, and expedient to import slaves from Africa. The resulting moral dilemma that white North Americans faced was their desire to be pious as well as economically successful, so they solved the problem by manufacturing both religious and scientific myths.
Theologians proclaimed that Indians were inferior people, and that America was destined by God — “manifest destiny” — to expand across the continent. Africans, as descendants of Ham, were biblically predestined to be slaves.
Biologists contended, without evidence, that blacks were less intelligent than whites. Doctors, with no proof, alleged that blacks spread diseases. Sex between the races became an egregious sin. These notions were deeply imbedded in early American culture, and, despite the Civil War, and then the 1964 Civil Rights Act, tens of millions of 21st century white Americans cling to the conviction that blacks are inferior.
Harari sums his argument up this way: “Such vicious circles can go on for centuries and even millennia, perpetuating an imagined hierarchy Unjust discrimination often gets worse, not better, with time.”
In the late 1950s, a friend and I, both from Hawaii, hitchhiked and worked odd jobs through every state in the Jim Crow south. We formed occasional friendships with blacks, and for that were often threatened by ignorant white men, some of them cops. We passed through one small Mississippi town a few days after a lynching, and whites in a cheap dive where we drank some beer openly joked and laughed about murder.
Oregon certainly isn’t Mississippi, and in fact has a reputation as a progressive state. But it remains a very white state, with an African American population of 2 percent, compared with 13 percent nationwide. We also have a long history of extreme racism, complete with sundown laws and Ku Klux Klan chapters. The brothers I encountered, young as they were, were quite likely aware of at least some of this history, and had to know about the long and apparently endless succession of innocent African American boys senselessly murdered by white men.
Like boys anywhere, a powerful instinct for self-preservation is indelibly written in their blood, and the sad fact is that they have every right to fear venturing outdoors to remote places.
Michael Baughman lives in Ashland.