On Common Ground
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When we lined up for the race, the field was at least one-third black, another third Hispanic. Not the usual entry for a road race, but then the El Barrio 10-Kilometer in Spanish Harlem was not the usual road race.
I was there because there was no race that Sunday in Central Park, none on the seacoast where I live. I had no choice but to enter what seemed to me to be occupied territory. I had set out for Third Avenue and 100th Street with some apprehension. I was worried about my car and my belongings, if not my person.
I am as prejudiced as any American. We live in a melting pot that has never quite melted. Most of our brotherhood is symbolic, not concrete. We avoid situations that would force us to act upon our beliefs. We are all for brotherhood, but we stay clear of our brothers.
This is in some ways normal. “Humanity,” says Erik Erikson, “is inherently inclined to differentiate itself into various sub-species: race, class, nation, etc. The resultant allegiances,” he points out, “bring out the best in man in terms of loyalty, self-sacrifice and charity. They also, however, bring out the worst. Outsiders become threats to our basic needs of survival and security, of acceptance and self-esteem. They become expendable.”
Prejudice is an adult disease. Nevertheless, its incubation begins in childhood. It doesn’t take very long for a child to be taught that other people are different. It doesn’t take very many years to establish strata of acceptability. When that happens, childhood is lost.
When I was a kid in Brooklyn, we stayed in our section. We learned that where there were differences in race and language and ethnic backround, there were tensions and even dangers. We knew enough to stay out of what we called “tough neighborhoods.” We came to see strangers as threats to ourselves and our property.
Because I still retain the vestiges of that boy growing up in Brooklyn, those feelings-some conscious, some subconscious-were present when I parked my car a block or so away from the starting line in Spanish Harlem.
Third Avenue was already alive with runners and families with children of all sizes. The playground at the intersection was filled with people getting their numbers and officials giving directions. There were tables of T-shirts and entry blanks for future races, and on the side, paraphernalia for the party that would follow the race. In the backround flowed music with an insistent, catchy beat. The usual movement and excitement and enthusiasm before a race were intensified.
By the time we began that slow walk to the starting line, I felt completely at home. This was the same as any other race on any other Sunday. Ahead of me lay the familiar 6.2 miles that would test my tolerance of pain, my capacity for suffering, the limits of my will, the extent of my tenacity. And as usual, I was about to undergo this trial in community with others, themselves engaged in the same enterprise. I was once more just a runner among runners.
The gun sounded, and within a few strides we were neither black nor white, Irish nor Hispanic. We were simply a homogeneous horde of panting runners. At the mile mark, all I could see around me were fellow sufferers. Pain knows no color; exhaustion has no creed. The language of the body is universal; it speaks to all in the same way.
The race disdains distinctions. Fatigue and discomfort and shortness of breath make all of us brothers. They purge us of the fear and the hate and the pride that breed prejudice. The race cleanses us, using a pace we can barely sustain, for a distance we can barely traverse and a length of time that is at the outer limit of our physical ability. We are renewed by being totally spent.
After I finished, I moved with the others through the cheering crowd into the playground, where the party had already begun. I was met there with soda and beer, beans and barbecued chicken. All around were music and laughter and a great good feeling.
You see, there are things that unify us. There are emotions that demonstrate clearly our essential oneness. These experiences bring us, no matter how diverse the expression of our humanity, into acceptance and trust and belief in each other.
One of them is pain; we had that in the race. Another is sport; we had that in the race, too. Finally, there is celebration, and I have attended few better parties than the one we had after the race in Spanish Harlem.
The awards ceremony came last. There was applause for everyone, and just a little more for those runners who had names like Hector and Carlos and Jose. The 50-and-over trophy went to an Irishman from a suburb in New Jersey. He told the crowd that he had been born two blocks from here and had grown up in Harlem.
“I want to thank the people of el barrio,” he said, “for an outstanding day in my life.”
As we used to say in Brooklyn, that goes double for me.