Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Clinton Warner: I Became an American on September 11

The Changing of the Guard: A Minor Epiphany, a Major Horror*
"In all affairs it's  a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted."- Bertrand Russell (1872-  1970).

I cannot remember a time in my life that I  did not consider myself anything other than colored Negro, Black, African­ American and I still do and take pride in this self image. All of my life it seems that I was a member of a group of people who felt excluded, economically, politically, educationally, culturally. There  were abundant reasons to feel this way. In high school I received old books in classrooms, old football gear passed down from the white high school. There was one Bunsen burner in the room where chemistry was taught. I always wondered if I was as well educated as whites. My Army experiences in World War II were the same as those of other Blacks - having all white officers. While on Omaha Beach in a foxhole a few days after D-Day, I wrote a poem:

Democracy to me is a fallacy.
A string of unprintable lines.
A castle on sand that can never withstand
The forces of reality

I was offered a chance to return to the United States to attend Officers Candidate School. I refused. Later, during the Battle of the Bulge, we were asked to leave our units and volunteer for infantry in the Battle. I refused.

After medical school, I fought for and won an internship at Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago, Illinois but, I was not allowed to rotate through obstetrics and gynecology. However,  was asked to stay after completing the internship for further training in surgery and I politely refused. My question had been answered - I was as good as or better than the guys from Harvard, Princeton, University of Michigan and Chicago. The fact that on one occasion, when changing clothes to go into the operating room, a white surgeon burst in and said, ''Boy, go into the storage and get me a scrub suit, and be quick about it; I'm in a hurry" did nothing to shake my confidence. Insidious, subtle and blatant instances of segregation, discrimination and daily observation of "white-skin privilege" did nothing to deter me. It all reinforced the pattern of exclusion that engulfed my senses but was buffered by what I learned from my father, Benjamin Mays and others. It was a fact that everything I did in life, choices I made, where I lived, ate, went to school, sought recreation and friends was based on the color of my skin. I was not an American citizen; I  was a Black American citizen.

In my younger days, I was asked as a Black surgeon to agree to come to Mississippi- during the days of Andrew Goodman, James Earl Chaney and Michael Henry Schwerner by a few splinter radical members of the Civil rights Movement. They had decided to take military action against, whites. My role was to treat our casualties and triage them to Atlanta to Black hospitals. I agreed to go!!! After all, I was a strong Black male. Fortunately, cooler heads and the teachings of nonviolence prevailed. I am not ashamed about this. Yet I treasure my practice, my reputation and personal integrity and I have a 'Malcolm X' tag on my car.

A few days ago, I gave in to my wife and reluctantly agreed to visit Williamsburg, Virginia with our best friends.  was reluctant because of the residual memories just described. I  had never flown an American flag at home or elsewhere. I had never visited a Confederate gravesite or a Revolutionary War site. "The Negro national Anthem" and "We Shall Overcome" were my songs and I never enjoyed seeing evidence or reminders of slavery. Upon entering Colonial Williamsburg, I noticed two street signs: "Harriet Tubman Street" and "Amistad Street." Something half clicked in my head, an epiphany, if you will. They do recognize and acknowledge our Black labor that built this country, our contributions to the American Dream, our inventions, our music, art, writings, scientific advances and political, social, educational and cultural contributions to this great country.

The following day, September II,  2001, at 9:00 a.m., the unspeakable horror, the vicious attack, the abominable terror, the unbelievable reality happened- the deaths of thousands of innocent Americans burned into our collective brain as we watched. The tears came, the other half of my brain clicked, and I became an American for the first time in my life. I can sing "The Star Spangled Banner" with reverence. I remain proud of my historical heritage. I will never forget it and always honor it.

We shall overcome the scourge of evil without hatred. I remain committed to the sayings of two of my favorite people: 

"Don't send me back to Africa: St. Louis is my home". - Redd Fox [John Elroy Sanford] (1922-19910).

"I believe in truth, no matter who speak it. I believe in justice, no matter who is for or against it.  I am a human being and, as such, I believe in freedom and will support anybody or anything that benefits humanity." - Malcolm X [Malcolm Little/El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz] (1925-1965)

*Warner  Jr.,  Dr.  Clinton Ellsworth. "The  Changing of  the  Guard:  A Minor  Epiphany,   A  Major Horror." The Boule Journal 65.4 (Winter 2001). Reprinted with permission.

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