I Have a Dream — Still

I look to a day when people will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.   Martin Luther King, Jr.


Martin Luther King, Jr. would have turned eighty-six on January 15th — although we choose to observe his birthday tomorrow on January 19th because it is more convenient, being a Monday.  He died at the age of thirty-nine…  yes, only thirty-nine. He was just then maturing into a voice for broader issues and, had he lived, I think the world and our country would have been much better for it. The issue of race was not resolved in his mind or in fact but he was beginning to turn his thoughts toward issues of general exploitation and oppression, human rights and world peace. Issues that went beyond skin pigmentation.

MLK has been gone almost forty-seven years and there is no one like him today in America. There were a few people who stepped up over the years and spoke out but today we really don’t have anyone of his stature who can serve as a voice and conscience of America.

Unfortunately, in the vacuum, we have folks like Al Sharpton and a few others. Sharpton recently voiced outrage over the Oscar nominations and the fact that no African American was nominated in a top acting role. Well, it’s true, for the first time since 1999 there has not been a person of color or a Hispanic nominated for an Oscar in an acting category.  Does that mean the well ran dry and there will never be another nomination that he will feel good about? No…  Is Sharpton only going to be pleased if African-American actors are nominated?  I suspect so. For him it is mostly an issue of skin pigmentation.

MLK served as a worthy lightning rod and absorbed and deflected a great deal of hardship and criticism in order to further his cause. He was the tallest tree in the forest. He did not often intentionally seek that type of negative attention but there were many willing to provide it. There still are. Today, Sharpton is the only tree — there is no forest — and because of that he draws a lot of attention and enjoys it. I find it odd that he chose to get upset about the Oscars given the many other issues that need attention.

This is not a blog about Al Sharpton. He is simply an example of how things can go wrong. The topic is more about skin. Skin pigmentation is simply a genetic trait. I suspect that, at the dawn of human existence, we were black. We were living in the tropics and all mankind rose up and populated the world from our African cradle.  Blackness, then, was our uniform coloration. Whiteness, or various shades of lighter skin, came later as an adaptation to climate and environmental conditions.  Thousands of years ago some little gene on some little chromosome mutated and a change in skin tone took place…and we’ve decided that that is cause for classification and generalization and worse.

For some reason, whiteness is desired by a large number of people. I sometimes watch Spanish language TV and saw an infomercial on some product that, if used as directed, will lighten the pigment of the user’s skin. They showed before and after photos and the images before using the product were only slightly darker than the after images but they looked sad and not as cheery or agreeable as after the product was used.  Being a white person myself (though somewhat mottled at my age), I was a little puzzled. White folks spend good money and a lot of time trying to obtain a darker shade of skin color. The ideal among whites is a slightly tanned — just look at movie posters and advertising images. On the other hand, some people whose skin color is naturally a darker shade, close to the ideal in those advertisements, are trying to become noticeably paler.  Among African Americans there is a subtle difference in perception and, in some cases, social behavior based on pigmentation…it seems that lighter is, or was, considered better in some way. How odd we are and how preoccupied with something so meaningless.

I recently had my DNA tested as part of a genealogical project. I’ve been curious about my roots for many years and decided to look at the topic from a genetic standpoint. I’ve worked on family tree information for a long time and figured I knew pretty much what to expect. My father’s family is entirely German as far back as I could go, but “Low German” from coastal areas. My mother’s family is more of a mix but is half Irish with the rest being English, Dutch, Bavarian and Walloon/French. I’m firmly European and probably northern European…I figured. Well, not so fast. The results confirmed some of what I expected but I’m surprised to learn that I’m not entirely what I thought I was. My German-ness took a back seat. I’m mostly Irish and English. I’m also Ashkenazi, Druze, Finnish, Scandinavian, Balkan, Iberian and North African. I’m 3% Neanderthal, which is somewhat greater than average. I wasn’t interested in skin color but lots of people of varying skin shades have paraded through my personal genome. Most were light skinned Europeans, I guess….but it is just the luck of the draw. There is some debate about genetic skin pigmentation (and I’m no expert)  but it seems to be partially centered on chromosome 15. My chromosome 15 seems to be linked to my Irish/British, Ashkenazi and Scandinavian ancestors…but it could have gone another way.  And, just because these people had a similar skin color doesn’t mean they were kind or even friendly toward each other. The Vikings were not very agreeable people if you were Irish or British and if you were an Ashkenazi Jew you were an easy target for all sorts of abuse from everybody.

Not long ago scientists discovered the gene that controls left-handedness and about ten percent of the world’s population is left-handed. My dad was left-handed and so was my mother’s sister. I’m right-handed, like my mom, and so is my brother…but it could have gone differently. Most people — today — treat left-handedness as a novelty at most and it is generally not even noticed. Not that long ago — less than 100 years ago — lefties were looked upon as somehow defective and they were abused by teachers in school. My aunt was hit with a ruler if she used her left hand for school work. We have changed our perception and approach to left-handedness. Why can’t the same thing happen with skin pigmentation? Wouldn’t it be great if skin pigmentation, if even noticed at all, was looked upon the same way we do right- or left-handedness today? Maybe the content of a person’s character  is of more importance than all of the artificial things we set up as false barriers.


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