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Bigotry, Cross-Dress Day and the Luckey Elementary 4th Grade Production of Sounder
By Larry Dean Harris

Have you ever noticed how all the truly bigoted expressions are blessed with hard consonants? Faggot. Nigger. Spic. Kike. Dyke.

As if, by design, each word was especially crafted for maximum effect: the unstoppable force of every perfect syllable as it creases the air with a dab of spit to ensure perfect trajectory, fueled by the momentum of intention until it reaches its target. Impact! The insult finds its mark.

When I was six, I learned my first hateful word: prick. I had overheard an older neighbor use it jokingly in conversation, and I loved the sound of it, the way it rolled off the tongue: P-rrrrrrr-icK!

Proud of my new verbal acquisition, I promptly tested it on my dad, who immediately taught me about the pain hateful words can cause. My own posterior pain, that is. But it was somewhat of a paradox. For I eventually learned that it was okay to use derogatory terms as long as they were aimed at OTHER people. You know, folks "Not Like Us." Growing up in a small rural community where everyone's white, Protestant, middle class and Midwestern, those OTHER people were pretty easy to spot. Especially in 1972.

They rode the school bus only for the first two or three weeks during tomato picking season. They appeared on the 6 o'clock news from the big city as felons and murderers. They came into our neighborhoods to find affordable housing, but never bought.

And having no deep socio / cultural / generational roots of my own, I WAS FASCINATED! You see, we're essentially mutts in my family, although I pride myself on our hillbilly heritage (hey, we invented Mountain Dew!)

But we have no fiery passion, no traditions in the Torah, no pasta recipes handed from generation to generation, no folk lore or stories from the Old Country, no gospel, no Great Spirits, no curses, no Uncle Louie's or Crazy Aunt Esthers.

We have Patsy Cline, Sears Roebuck and corn dogs.

I had a friend who once professed that he was a "black man trapped in a white man's body." In reality, he was a gay man trapped in a white man's body. But I could relate.

When I was in fourth grade, our teacher announced to us that we were going to put on a play, but she hadn't selected one yet. Being an overachiever and sympathetic to her plight, I set out in search of the perfect play. In truth, I'd never actually seen a play, which made the search all the more difficult.

As luck would have it, my teenage sister was reading one of those scholastic magazines (you know: the ones that proclaimed "Don't use drugs. Except Stridex®) and what was on the cover? "INSIDE: 'SOUNDER': THE COMPLETE SCREENPLAY."

And since I didn't know the difference between a play and a screenplay (now that I live in Hollywood, I do: a play is pithy and well-crafted, a screenplay is banal and lucrative), my search had ended.

Now for those of you unfamiliar, Sounder is the 1972 Oscar-nominated film about a family of poor black sharecroppers in 1933 Louisiana starring Miss Cicely Tyson and Paul Winfield. The title character is their dog.

Well, the next day I marched into class, handed the magazine to the teacher and said "Here's our play!" She took one confused look at the cover, said she would "consider it" and then placed it onto a pile on her desk.

As luck would have it, before a play could be selected, the poor dear had a nervous breakdown (we never learned the details, although infidelity at home was suspected), and a fresh college graduate from the local university was hustled in to replace her.

"I'm afraid Mrs. _____ (name removed to protect the insane) didn't leave any lesson plans, so I'm going to have to ask you what you were working on," she smiled.

My hand shot up immediately. "We were going to do a play! Sounder."

"Are you sure?" the sub questioned.

"Oh, yes," the class responded in unison. "It's on your desk."

Maybe it was naiveté on her part, but I don't think so. I'd like to think this child of the '60s (who probably wanted to go to Berkeley, but her parents made her go to Bowling Green) saw this as an opportunity.

We read the original book on which the film was based. She managed to procure a copy of the film for us to watch, and together we learned what it was like to be black in the South during the Great Depression.

The play was edited (for time and language) and cast with me in the Paul Winfield role. My character had stolen food to feed his family, so I spent a better part of the play in a refrigerator box transformed into a prison cell.

I don't remember who played Miss Cicely Tyson's role, but I can tell you that Cicely lost the Oscar to Liza. And I do recall the entire class wanting to play the dog.

The big day finally came, and all our parents shuffled into the classroom to witness their white, Protestant, middle class, Midwestern children become poor black Louisiana sharecroppers.

This was definitely a first for Luckey, Ohio. Desegregation had crept into our school, under the guise of thespian 10-year-olds. And just as the "N" word was stricken from our version of the play, it was stricken from my -- and many of my classmates' -- vocabulary that day.

The old adage says "Before you criticize someone, walk a mile in his shoes." That way, you're a mile away AND you have his shoes.

But seriously, there is credence in the belief that we fear what we do not know. And I'm just as guilty.

A friend here in LA shared a story of her daughter's day camp celebrating Cross-Dress Day. On this particular day -- part of an entire week of dressing up (you know: Sports Day, Green Day) -- boys would dress as girls, and girls would be boys.

I immediately feared the worst, registering my concern. But Diane shrugged, laughed and said the kids loved it. They hadn't been exposed to homophobia yet. They just knew it was their chance to be someone different for a day, and they celebrated the event as kids do: with unbridled enthusiasm and spirit.

This is a new generation that isn't offended by gay marriage, interracial love, or diverse religions. Maybe they will help us forget all those words with the hard consonants and replace them with the softer sounds of "peace, love, diversity, humanity."

And maybe, just maybe, our little elementary school production in a little town in Ohio played the tiniest role in this quiet revolution. That's a legacy I can embrace with pride.

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