Racism: cancer we can overcome

  • Eveline MacDougall, founder of the Amandla Chorus, leads them in song at Jane Sanders' memorial service at Greenfield Community College, Saturday, March 25, 2017.

Monday, September 04, 2017

When we were 16, my friend Toby broke his leg while practicing with our high school wrestling team. The break was not the result of a particularly aggressive move — the bone simply snapped like a twig.

The ER doc ordered X-rays, and the radiologist consulted with several colleagues to verify images on the film. It was a shock to learn that cancer cells had gone wild in Toby’s thigh and eaten much of his bone. All it took in that moment on the wrestling mat was a bit of pressure.

Toby underwent surgery to remove the diseased bone, which was replaced by a metal rod. (Never again did he bend that leg.) After months of chemo, hair loss, and nausea, Toby returned to school and graduated on schedule.

Even with a leg that didn’t bend, he was a masterful sailor. He taught me how to handle a boat, and we spent many happy hours on Lake Champlain. He went on to marry, raise children, and become a successful innovator in his chosen field.

Life wasn’t the same for Toby after that freakish accident in the gym. The experience of coming perilously close to losing his leg, and his life, imbued him with wisdom that outpaced the rest of us who were plagued with concerns like Will I pass the chemistry test? or Will these zits disappear in time for prom? A high spirited and hilarious fellow, Toby also carried himself with gravitas the rest of us lacked.

Recent headlines remind me of Toby’s story. I regard white supremacy as a cancer that has lurked in the bones of this land since European settlers set foot here. This disease known as racism has led people to enslave fellow humans, set fires, parade around in sheets (or polo shirts), and hang our brothers and sisters from trees. It’s invaded the judgment of policy makers and led to reams of despicable legislation, including Jim Crow laws and a host of discriminatory housing codes.

The metastasis of racism invades our national body in thousands of overt and covert ways, and will continue to mirror a terminal illness unless we take decisive action, as did the staff of Sloan-Kettering Hospital in response to Toby’s illness.

For me, Donald Trump brings to mind the wrestling accident. While he’s not the root cause of all toxic racism, he helps to make it evident. In dozens of ways, he encourages bones to snap, and from our nation’s marrow spill poisons that endanger the well-being of these United States of America — which unfortunately have yet to be truly “united,” if you stop and think about it.

Donald Trump is a disease unto himself, swollen with delusion, septic with xenophobia, and feverishly egotistical. Yet we can’t blame all of our ills on one misguided person. Certainly, the current president must be called out for omissions and hate-filled rhetoric, but where do we stand in all of this? Where do I stand? Where do you stand?

If ever these states are to unite in practice as well as in name, we must answer these pressing questions.

I wonder if — just as Toby ultimately appreciated that painful, snapped bone — we’ll look back and be grateful (in an ironic, nauseated sort of way) for Donald Trump? Especially for those of us of European descent — who have the luxury of deluding ourselves about a “post-racial” America — we have an opportunity to understand the ways Trump’s actions and attitudes make the sinister tumors of racism show up on our national X-ray.

We must understand, too, ways in which we are complicit.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but absolutely necessary if we’re to treat this illness.

While I don’t have space in this column for an exhaustive list of resources, I’ll point you in the direction of one local treasure called Racial Justice Rising. There, you’ll find vital doses of medicine.

My fellow patients, we’re overdue for a treatment plan. Let’s get down to it.

Eveline MacDougall of Northfield is founder of the Amandla Chorus of Franklin County and a long-standing advocate for peace.