Some great white guys!
Bet the title above got your eye. A modern day oxymoron? Well before anyone jumps to that conclusion let me explain, beginning with a backdrop.
I’m often asked to suggest some good books to read to learn about diversity. I tell them to just punch “books on diversity” into their favorite search engine and lots of stuff will pop up.
But you know what? Though we may not have thought about it in this way, many of us were exposed years ago to some of the best stuff ever produced on “diversity,” and long before the word etched itself into today’s vernacular. And the truth is that much of it was done – as my title suggests – by some great white guys who spoke, wrote and painted pictures laced with “diversity” themes. Astoundingly, much of their work was often done under social and political conditions unmatched by modern times.
Now before you question the veracity of my premise, my sanity, or perhaps both, c’mon, join me, and I’ll take you back through the lyrics, prose and paint brushes of history. You needn’t pack a suitcase nor purchase an airline ticket; just bring along your memories and wildest imagination. You’ll hear from some of these guys and will, I hope, end with an appreciation of how their words and deeds put today’s diversity work into the historical context it deserves.
The late 18th century Elizabethan England is as good as any place to start. We’ll slip down the dark alley and tiptoe quietly into the back of a church I’m familiar with. There’s a sermon going on inside. Shhh, listen to the guy at the podium, the bearded one. “No man is an island, entire of himself! Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the whole.” Remember him? Recall that line? Yes, that’s John Donne, one of the pre-eminent orators of his era. Now tell me that’s not a “diversity” message!
Let’s fast forward across the ocean to an old barn in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, west of Boston. I’ll scrape an opening through the frost on the window so that we can sneak a peek at the inhabitants inside.
Ah, listen to them, Herman Melville, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Nathaniel Hawthorne, as they hotly debate — in conversations lubricated with rum and black beer — the key issues of the day. I’m willing to wager that the average reader never thought of these guys as great diversity writers. But they were.
Take Melville. Through the imagery of his Moby Dick, I visited the sun-drenched deck of the Pequot standing alongside a white-haired Captain Ahab in his famous search for the great white whale. From there we sailed across the ocean to the unspoiled island of Tahiti where I soaked up the culture and admired the rainbow tints of its inhabitants.
Not one to be outdone, Mr. Longfellow, in his Song of Hiawatha, enthralled me with the inner strength, the dignity and the humanity he saw in the American Indian. My hunch is that few would consider Melville and Longfellow as great writers of cultural diversity. But they were.
Let’s head east now and try to catch up with Henry David Thoreau on Walden Pond. Word about town is that he was released from jail last night for refusing to pay his poll tax in protest of slavery. He’s probably in a cantankerous mood so it may be unwise to stay too long. But maybe, just maybe, we can get him to read a few lines from his Civil Disobedience before he cusses us out and runs us off. Hum, wonder how many of us figured that “protests” actually started in the 1960s, continued with the Stonewall rebellion, women’s rights and Black Lives Matter movements? Try telling that to Henry David.
Oh, oh, we must move on before snowfall. We’ll stop and chat with James Russell Lowell, a powerful writer in his own right and a vocal abolitionist. Remember the line, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again?” Yes, that one belongs to Lowell. And yes, in today’s context it’s a diversity message.
And while we’re out near Great Barrington, let’s assemble at the feet of Norman Rockwell. Through eyes moistened by pipe smoke, we’ll immerse ourselves into his painting, “The problem we all live with.” Remember that one? It appeared on the cover of Look Magazine in 1964 with the image of a pony-tailed young black girl taking courageous steps to enter a previously segregated school. With magical strokes of his brush, Rockwell adroitly captured the tone, tenor and essence of the civil rights movement.
Time to swing southward now where Walt Whitman holds a seat for us on the Brooklyn Ferry. He’s agreed to read aloud passages from his Leaves of Grass, splendid lyrics, parts of which flirted dangerously close, especially during his times, with subtle references to male homosexuality.
Our trek continues further south where the green countryside of rural eastern Pennsylvania beckons us. Let’s climb on the back of a horse-drawn carriage with some Quakers, many whom provided stopovers for runaway slaves along the Underground Railroad. They have lots of stories to tell us and promised that they’d drop us off at the West Virginia state line. By day’s end we should end up in Harpers Ferry and, with any luck, may get to share some freshly brewed coffee and a cigar with John Brown, who led a historical rebellion for the sake of diversity.
On to Mississippi. When we get to Oxford, let’s hike up a dusty road to a decaying bungalow I know about. The gentleman on the front porch who’ll stare out at us from his creaky rocking chair will be none other than William Faulkner. Once there we can sip lemonade and swat flies as he tells us what motivated his Go Down Moses and his courage in tackling other thorny social issues of his day.
OK, open your eyes, shake your head and snap back into reality.
Here’s the crux of my message: if you really want to learn about diversity, start with these guys. Their works are probably packed away, perhaps in a box in the corner of your attic. Failing that, try the local library, your daughter’s book bag or the next garage or yard sale.
Yes, these were just a few of some really great white guys. And if my experience is a good enough barometer, there are some great ones in the world today. Let’s acknowledge that fact, then take time to recognize, thank and encourage them. Hopefully, our just completed journey is incentive enough for us to do just that!
© Terry Howard is an award-winning writer, trainer and story teller. He is currently a senior associate at Diversity Wealth, a contributing writer with the Chattanooga News Chronicle, The American Diversity Report, The Atlanta Business Journal, The Huffington Post and New York-based Catalyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.