I have a brother who lives as a white man. He is the Principal of Cedar Brook Elementary School in Bakersfield, California. He has a wife, a son, and a daughter. I have not met them; I have not met him. If my brother were here today, he would politely deny our kinship. I understand. It takes two men to make a brother.
I have a brother serving five years in Atmore State Penitentiary. Even as a child he took things that didn't belong to him. He is scheduled for release on January 21, 2008. No one will be there to welcome him. He is a thief, a career criminal, and I, despite a log in my eye, can see the speck in his.
I have a brother who was the pastor of Mount Olive Baptist Church in Pittsburgh, the second largest black church in Pennsylvania. He was the most powerful public speaker I've heard. It was like listening to Moses. His voice booming, arms flailing, he would preach until his shirt was drenched with sweat, but before the shirt was dry he would have some young sister spinning in the backseat of his BMW. One day he left that big church and started a ministry for the homeless, and those afflicted with AIDS. A newspaper reporter asked him why he'd left Mount Olive and he answered, "I got saved." Today, he lives, as much as is humanly possible, a life devoid of any hint of hypocrisy.
A year ago a thought came into my head -- and took residence. Forgive the likely hyperbole, but this thought has tortured me, ripped me. It was not an original thought, nor was it especially profound. It wouldn't go away. It wouldn't leave me alone. I tried to not think the thought, which, of course, cemented it in my mind: this thought that tortured me. Five words. Five simple words. It seems so melodramatic, so silly to say that one was tortured by a thought. But I was.
I remember when the thought came. I was delivering a lecture at a conference in Indiana, and I said something -- the thought -- and the audience applauded. I am a professor, meaning, I like applause and rarely get it, so I said it again; this time the audience stood, clapped, some even cheered. On the return drive to Michigan those five words came back to me and I, like my brother, felt like a charlatan.
The five words were these: Every man is my brother.
I've never believed that, and, again, I don't know why I said it -- that first time. Why does anyone say anything? I have certainly lied before, white ones, black ones, big ones, ones not so big. It was a lie because I didn't believe it, yet I had said it, twice. I thought: What's the big deal, people say things, orators say things, it sounded good, it worked, what's the harm, no one will remember, why did I say that, maybe I didn't really say that, people misspeak, there is a hypocrite hugging my children, professors say things, it sounded good, what's the harm. . . But it did matter, and later, it mattered more.
It's so corny to say, "Every man is my brother." It sounds like something you'd read in a Mother Jones magazine, or worse, Reader's Digest.
I have always felt a kinship with men of color especially brown ones. I like it when we say, "Yo, what's up brother?" or "What's happening brother?" or "True that, brother?" A shared history of oppression will make you call a stranger brother or brotha. But even in these cases it was a symbolic act. I didn't think we were actually brothers.
Weeks and months passed and I couldn't get the thought out of my head. One day I was in the Jim Crow Museum and I saw a postcard with a black man being publicly whipped. I've seen that postcard many times, after all, I bought it, I put it in the cabinet, and it's in my PowerPoint presentations. I looked at that man being beaten and I thought my brother was being beaten, publicly, naked to the waist, beaten like a dog, worse than a dog. At that moment I felt in a way that I can't describe that he was indeed my brother, not my symbolic brother, no, a real brother. I wanted to run to him, rip him from the post, and beat his tormentors. I wanted to hold him, hold his head to my chest, and tell him that his brother, this brother, cared for him, and had come to rescue him. My God, he really was my brother. Later, I tried to talk to some people about it, but most people won't go with you when you're trippin'.
Sometimes when I went to the museum I would not look at that postcard; sometimes it was all I looked at. One day I looked and in the postcard I saw a little white boy, he was standing near my beaten brother, and that little boy, he was not laughing, not protesting either, just standing there, near the white man with the whip, and I looked at that child, and it hit me, like a heel to the face, that little boy was also my brother. I thought: No, no, I don't want this. He hates me before he knows the fifth grade. I want to cuss him and the woman who made him. His brother is the white man with the whip; my brother is the black man being beaten. How can that child be my brother? I don't want this.
And then I understood the thought that tortured me.
It wasn't only, or even primarily, that I had said something in a public lecture that I didn't believe; I've done that too many times for that to torture me. No, the real torture was the realization that maybe, just maybe, all men are my brothers. And I didn't want that. I tried to dismiss those five words as a hollow religious slogan, liberal tripe, mawkish muck from the mouths of idealistic zealots. Why? Because if that little boy was my brother, then so was the white man with the whip. My heart said: He's not my brother. He's a monster. I don't hate the whip. I hate him. I don't hate what he stands for; I hate him. I want to make him feel that whip. Strip him naked, beat him till my arm is tired, and beat him like he is not a child of God. Put his naked white back on a postcard. If he's my brother then so was every slaveholder who raped a girl or boy. I don't want that. That's too much. Every overseer. Every lyncher. Every foot on a neck. I don't want this. Every man is my brother. It changes nothing. And from that deepest place came one last yowl: No! No! No!
My Uncle Sonny looks like the black man who was being beaten, and that little white boy who stood and watched looks like my son, Jamie.
Every man is my brother. It doesn't matter if I want it or not. In a moment, the idle thought became a truth, a matter-of-fact truth, absolute. I am the only male born from my mother's womb but every man is my brother: white elementary school principals who deny me, prisoners who robbed, preachers who leave big churches to help the helpless, every man. This kinship is not based on shared wombs, common ancestors, similar skin, communal beliefs, or brotherly love. We are brothers because we spring from the same fountain -- and that water flows one way.
I can hate a man, but he is still my brother. I admired Dr. King and I detested James Earl Ray, but they were both my brothers. We don't choose our brothers. George Bush is my brother, and so is the man who made his breakfast this morning; and Stevie Wonder who cannot see and David Duke who chooses not to, and Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal and the men they killed or didn't kill; and Reverend Jerry Falwell and his white sons, and Minister Farrakhan and his black sons, and Bill Gates, who has more money than the Devil, and Eminem, always bitter, and brothers who cry and brothers who need to, and the men who crashed airplanes into the Twin Towers were my brothers -- and they killed our brothers; and pimps are my brothers, too, and date rapists, and punks, and brothers slinging dope, and Eric Harris and Dylan Faulkner -- young men robbed of the truth, and Dick Cheney, and moonshiners and revenuers, and Jerry Springer, who brings me down, and Stephen Hawking, who lifts me, and brothers who live as white men, and brothers who live as black men, and brothers who live as red men, and brothers who don't want to live, but none are niggers, kikes, crackers, wops, chinks, or fags, because God didn't make any of those; and the men in the Abu Ghraib photographs are my brothers and so are the men who behead the helpless; and Michael Jackson is my brother and so is his accuser; and Cain, and Abel, and Hawks, and Doves, and those who sleep in urine stained hallways, and malicious talkers, and Al Franken and Bill O'Reilly and the men who carry their bags; and capitalists and communists, and some are beautiful, and some disfigured, some run, some sit always in iron chairs, and villagers, too, some are strangers but none are alien; and brothers with tender hearts, and wicked brothers, and weak ones like me; O. J. Simpson is my brother and so is the father of Nicole Simpson; I've got brothers I want to hit and brothers I want to hold; and some who hate me, and some who hate you; and some of my brothers are old, some poor, some ugly, some with whips and strong right arms. Every day is a family reunion because every man -- every good man and every bad one -- every man born of a woman is my brother and to know this changes nothing -- changes everything.
My son is Eustace Jamison Pilgrim. After my son's fifth birthday I asked him, "How do you like being five?" He said he liked being five because the number five was cute. He is my son; he is my little brother. One day he said to me, "I don't love you." He saw my frown. He smiled and said, "Dad, it's Opposite Day." I said, "Oh, then I don't love you, either." My son is my brother and that changes everything. A reshuffling of the cards and he is the man with the whip -- or the man being beaten, either way, my brother, my little brother. Today I will hold his head to my chest. He is my son; he is my brother, and I am his keeper.
A new thought has entered my head, and taken residence. It is not an original thought nor is it especially profound. I will not let it torture me. It is a simple thought and it is this: Every woman is my sister. Some day I will talk to you about that.
Curator, Jim Crow Museum
March 24, 2006