Embracing the “We”
I was born in Louisville, KY, so it was a special honor when the University of Louisville and the Louisville Community Foundation gave me their “Victory of Spirit Award” in 1994. With the Award came an invitation to offer a lecture on some aspect of ethics. I recently stumbled into a script of the lecture I gave and I realized that I could give it with little change today.
It was a cool autumn day (October 19, 1994) when I issued a call to see humanity as a single family. Here’s part of what I said:
…I truly do not know what it was, exactly, that motivated White Americans to hide slaves on stops along the Underground Railroad. Neither do I know why Dutch Calvinists risked their lives to hide Polish Jews. Religion was an important ingredient in the recipe for some courage. And I suppose that there was this: A person whose life was not at risk saw a person whose life was, and said “It could be me.” In that one moment of clear thought, someone realized, correctly, that we who are human are, all of us, one.
The division into “us” and “them” is deadly. It justifies slavery and its fills ovens with Jews. It enabled America to believe it had nothing to fear from AIDS because the majority is heterosexual and we, the majority, were convinced that this was a gay man’s disease: theirs. Only when the virus began infecting the majority — people like “us” instead of “them” — did our conscience awaken.
Even today the consequences of homophobia mark the AIDS movement. Legislation is named not for one of the hundreds of thousands of gay men who have died, but for Ryan White, a charming young and heterosexual teenager. These are acceptable: Arthur Ashe, Elizabeth Glaser, Magic Johnson…and Mary Fisher….
But now and again someone sees the truth. A man comes by who hears the cries of an Argentine child, imprisoned for her parents’ politics, being tortured by her jailers. “It could be my child,” says the man, and he launches a crusade toward justice. Or a man on campus is held down in the shower room and abused with a broom handle by a laughing football team because he is gay until one of you rises up to say, “It could be my brother.” In such moments, the spirit of ethics is no faint abstraction. It is a blindingly clear reality, a demanding plea, a cry you must answer with, at least, your life.
For those who walk it, the road to AIDS grows long. The vigor with which we start our journey withers. We discover fellow travelers whom we love, and then we lose them, losing a part of ourselves as well. My children are too old to forget their final memories of their father, and too young to know how to understand their loss. I, who hugged Brian as he drew his last breath, am really no wiser than they. And so we go down the road together, often laughing, occasionally crying, sometimes very, very quiet.
And then I come here, and see you. Some of you are young enough to have your whole lives before you; others of you, like me, have lived a while. Whatever our age, when morning breaks again, we’ll be called to make decisions, ethical decisions, about how to cash in the energy and time we have been given.
If any are looking for ethical role models who might be worthy of imitation, do not look to me. I was dragged into this crusade kicking and screaming, wanting — desperately — not to play this role. But others came by choice: doctors who gave up practices with high profits to care for patients with low blood counts and no insurance; nurses who set aside stigma to give wasting men not only a vial of medicine but a long hug of courageous affection; lovers and parents, sisters and friends, people who became caregivers when the court of public opinion ruled against any care at all — these are the heroes who should take home awards, and there are plenty of them here, today, in Louisville….