Pluralism. I like the sound of the word. The syllables coat my tongue like chocolate. Sweet and easy. But pluralism is not so easy to understand. America boasts a pluralistic society, so gloriously diverse in race, religion, culture, and ethnicity and yet, we continue to divide ourselves in ways destructive and heartbreaking. For me, one of the great human mysteries is how we can look about, see so much beautiful diversity and continue to treat each other so very badly. No one, as far as I know, has come up with a conclusive answer. It’s been suggested that I read the Pulitzer Prize winning book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond for context on the subject.
I have been experiencing anxiety about the backlash to the expanding multicultural population in the United States, and I talked with my therapist about it. She questioned me about my use of the word pluralism.
“What do you mean by the term pluralism? What do you mean by a successful pluralistic society?”
My idealistic vision of a peaceful, love-each-other society is something I’ve been struggling with for decades. Her question encouraged me to delve deeper into a concept that I believe I had misunderstood.
Merriam-Webster lists several definitions of pluralism. Among them: “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization”
Right. Our common civilization is one that exists under the commitment to equal rights and justice for every individual under the Constitution of the United States.
In 1955, a book of photos from an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, was published. The book, created by Edward Steichen, contained 503 pictures from 58 countries and was titled, The Family of Man.
A friend gave me a copy of the book shortly after I had returned from a year in San Francisco. I had fallen in love with the Bay Area, its people and the progressive politics of the time. This was in the late 1960s during that era’s Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the Nixon administration and its involvement in the overthrow of democratically elected Latin American leaders.
My friend knew of my dreams for a multiracial, multifaith, multicultural society where people treated each other with respect and tolerance. I was 22 at the time, and I often wondered, like so many young people, “What is wrong with humanity?”
The Family of Man became one of my favorites and graced my bookshelf for years. I would flip through the pages leisurely, marveling at the diversity and beauty of humanity. Also during this time, Tony Bennett’s I Left My Heart In San Francisco became a louder and louder siren song. So loud that in 1973, I packed my things and moved back to the West Coast. I never looked back. But I lost the book. I didn’t even think about The Family of Man until I returned to the East Coast decades later.
A fragile dream of multiculturalism
This morning, disgruntled by the disheartening political discourse and the corrosive Big Lie, I resorted to one of my two faithful companions ─ food. The other is prayer. I devoured an unhealthful breakfast of syrupy sweet coffee and a hunk of overly cheesy macaroni and cheese. I had added cream cheese to the other three kinds of cheese I used ─ sharp cheddar, provolone, and Monterey jack. I had used coconut cream instead of regular milk and went heavy on the butter. No eggs. One hunk became two, then three until the pan was almost empty. It was delicious. It was soothing. I felt ─ calm. Then I felt drawn inward. That would be the other companion. Prayer.
I considered pluralistic societies and how successful these societies could or could not be. There’s more to be studied on this, but for now…
In the midst of the media focus on those sowing the hatred and division we are experiencing, I have come to consider that my personal vision of pluralism has been based on unrealistic idealism. My understanding of our particular pluralistic society has changed as we struggle to create a more tolerant and peaceful one. We are not the vaunted “melting pot,” but more like a “tossed salad.”
I found a quote the other day while researching that seemed to state my vision beautifully. (Dear fellow Democrats, let me accept the message if not the messenger!) In his farewell speech, President Ronald Reagan said “…I’ve spoken of the Shining City all my political life. … a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace…”
Reagan didn’t actualize his ideals with his failed trickle-down economic policies, union-busting, and incendiary racial rhetoric. Things got worse. But this phrase haunts me because it is a part of my vision of the United States, “teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace.”
A return to where I ran from
In 2001 I moved to upstate New York, and in 2003, because of my mother’s illness, I moved to Philadelphia. There, I was referred for an informational interview where the interviewer, a woman, looked at my resume and scowled. Then she said:
You spent a lot of time out west. I don’t like it there. All the cultures mixing and whatnot. I like it right here where I am in West Philly. I don’t want to be around people who are not like me.”
So much for brotherly [or sisterly] love. That’s what she said, and my enthusiasm evaporated. All I could think about was what a horrible human being she was.
Shortly after that meeting, I was “garage sailing,” the term I used for sidewalk sales in those days. At one of those sidewalk sales, I found a water-damaged copy of — you guessed it — The Family of Man. I was delighted, re-inspired, and rejuvenated. In my heart, I knew I was right about multiculturalism. The Universe had spoken! The woman at the interview was irreversibly wrong.
So here we are again. Living our lives like a scratch on a broken record. We are stuck. We move forward a little and then we hit that damned scratch. We eat Asian cuisine. We salivate for Mexican and Latinx food. We like Russian, Italian, Indian, and African foods. We are exploring the health benefits of Native American cuisine. Our eating habits, for most of us, reflect our acceptance of a pluralistic society. We also get treated by physicians, taught by professors, and interact with people during business and leisure with people from various countries, cultures, ethnicities, and religions.
Many continue to balk at accepting a reality of a vast and diverse population, spewing hatred and division among us. Fact: we are becoming a more and more beautifully diverse society every day. The latest census report revealed that 57.8% of Americans identify as White, a decrease from 63.7% in 2010. The rest of us are everything else.
Today, as I was listening to an interview with the U.S. Poet Laureate Joy Harjo, I was moved by her depth of empathy for people of all colors and cultures. As a Native American and, in my view a social warrior, she uses the poet’s platform to tirelessly bless and protect the native peoples by bringing their stories and history to the front of American consciousness. She’s doing the work to bring tolerance and cultural acceptance. She is encouraging.
We have the potential to become that shining example of peaceful pluralism.
“Let us break bread together on our knees.” I remember Mom’s soprano filling the apartment with melody.
The lyrics are branded on my heart, and I’m reminded of three principles spawned from eating with family and friends. Gratitude. Service. Healing.
Gratitude for having access to food no matter how humble. Service in preparing food to share with others. The Healing that comes with sharing prayers, laughter, and companionship.
When I allow myself to feel the sadness that can come from eating alone ─ a consequence of the pandemic lockdown and my being medically unvaccinated ─ I recognize that sharing a meal is fundamental to self-nurturing.
I don’t remember the exact holiday. Some 50 years ago, at Passover, Rosh Hashana, or a Friday evening Shabbat, I sat across from my Jewish hosts. I knew nothing about Judaism except for what they explained about Kosher meals. Nineteen years old, Black and, most definitely raised Baptist, I nevertheless felt an intimacy with my new friends. We had mutual history: slavery, oppression, and escape from bondage. I relaxed into the comfort of being welcomed and learning about a new culture. I felt…nurtured and accepted. But I also nurtured and accepted them when I agreed to share a meal ─ “break bread” ─ with people I barely knew.
Recently, I came upon an article in The Atlantic by Amanda Mull entitled “How America Lost Dinner.” (https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2019/10/work-its-whats-for-dinner/599770/ )
Mull outlines the path taken to our fast food, take-out culture and how we’ve become a society where so many of us are accustomed to eating alone. Family dinners, it seems, have been relegated to the back burner of American life. At first, I was reactive, thinking, “Well! That’s not my experience.”
Reaction instead of response is always a misstep.
By the time I finished reading, I was responding to Mull’s analysis that “By all indications, Americans want to cook and eat together.” Agreed. I rarely feel bad when I’m sharing mealtimes with others.
I grew up in a family that bonded when eating together. Maybe it’s because each of us contributed to the preparation of a meal. A task might not be pleasant, but it contributed to the health and joy of the meal. Yes, I said it. Joy. There was nothing like Daddy rolling from his chair onto the floor to exaggeratedly crawl away from the Thanksgiving table because the meal was so good and filling. Of course, once on all fours, he became a horse. There were plenty of siblings and cousins around to take advantage of his back.
My father liked to fish, bringing home perch or shad or whatever unlucky vertebrate took hold of his line that day. Cleaning fish taught me a kind of focus in the kitchen. Mom was always nearby watching. If I grabbed them the wrong way, the scales would prick my fingers.
“No. Do it this way!”
And I would do it as she instructed. When the fish’s body was smooth enough to run my hand along both sides without getting caught on the scales, I was ready for the nasty part ─ gutting. Sometimes, there was roe, a delicacy that, to this day, I will not eat. Call it caviar if you want.
The grossest part was the beheading. Looking into the blank eyes of a lifeless creature was my personal science fiction movie. With vacant eyes staring, it seemed, at me, I looked the other way as I severed the head from the body. And there, my friends, is another delicacy I will not touch ─ fish heads in any dish whatsoever.
We did not fillet our fish. I remember only too vividly my mother reaching into a child’s throat to remove a spiky bone. She may at times have resented motherhood, but she would not let us die.
We blessed the food. We ate the food. The fried fish, accompanied by biscuits, collard greens, mashed potatoes and gravy was well worth the trauma of the cleaning. In those moments of blessing, intimacy filled the space. If Daddy was home, we’d have spirited discussions about what was going on in the world. Assassinations ─ Gandhi. Malcolm X. President Kennedy. Civil Rights. Daddy shared some important wisdom: “Don’t ever judge another man unless you’ve walked in his shoes.” To this day, I hear his voice in my head as I meet all kinds of folk.
The pandemic has caused many of us to reevaluate and reprioritize our values and forced folks to slow down and acknowledge ─ positively or negatively ─ the people and communities surrounding them. For me, ironically, the lockdown highlighted the absence of cooking for folks and sharing a meal. I delighted in self-examination and sharing my time with the food writings of Ruth Teichl, Verta Mae Grosvenor, Edna Lewis and the delightful food adventures of Peter Mayle. I truly loved the stillness and nature’s rejuvenation and protection of the animals. However, there was something missing. I know it takes time to plan, shop, and prepare meals. But there is a huge ripple of love in the heart when serving others ─ that love is serving myself.
I was in a large vegetarian kitchen of an ashram. There were maybe fifteen of us or more. We were engaged in various stages of preparing the meal for a holiday celebration. Some were kneading bread, others chopping fruit and vegetables; a huge caldron of soup was being stirred and tofu “turkey” artistically prepared. The enthusiasm in preparing a meal to serve so many people ─ literally a few hundred ─ filled the room with ─ you got it ─ Joy. It was joy that came with gratitude for the chance to serve and for the personal satisfaction that comes with feeding others. Nurturing for them, nurturing for me.
Shortly after moving to Philadelphia, I lived in a house with a woman who lived in filth. I didn’t know this at first. When I went to check out the house, it was immaculate, but by the third week, the truth had revealed itself with the dog poop in the front yard that was left to dry on flagstone plates. The flies and stench irritated the neighbors who told me that it had been an ongoing problem. The laundry basement reeked of a cat litter box. My housemate was either unwilling or unable to help with kitchen and bathroom duties on a regular basis. I had been duped.
In a phone call with a clergyman, I whined, “Is Philadelphia hell?” He was kind; he chuckled, and gave me practical advice. Meditation, prayer, and finding someplace to volunteer. This made me feel better, and I began volunteering at a grocery coop where my job was ─ wait for it ─ weighing cuts of cheese and slicing bread. I was not homeless. I was not hopeless. My search for a new home began.
I ate in my room with the door closed, and in the days that followed, I consulted a psychic who told me: “Your housemate has unhealed trauma. People who live in filth have unhealed trauma.” I could hear Daddy’s voice again.
“Don’t ever judge another man unless you’ve walked in his shoes.” Lordy. What a mess.
Shortly after that call, I found some compassion, ordered pizza, and we ate together. Tensions began to dissolve, and I found my own apartment.
“Breaking bread opens people up. If you get in the habit of this as a family, you can talk about anything.”
My friend Tina said this to me almost 20 years ago. She and her husband had an ironclad commitment ─ which they keep to this day ─ to family dinners. At that time, they had eaten with the children every single day for 15 years. And I want to say that her children have become the most grounded, healthy, loving adults I know. Healthy traditions give birth to healthy families. Healthy families spawn unity. Unity is what we need in these miraculous, challenging, and eventful times.
Posted in Commentary, Essay, Family memories, Food, Gratitude, Heart and Mind, Memoir, Reflection, service, Stories about life, values and spirituality
Tagged essay, Family memories, food, Gratitude, memoir, Reflections, service, Stories about life, values and spirituality