CHARLESTON, W.Va. — My preschooler is a fairly observant kid. Not much gets past him, especially if it involves t-o-y-s and their ancillary products.
His boyness is becoming manifest in his love for adventures, be they of pirates, firefighters or superheroes.
I take responsibility and a geeky pride in his appreciation of the superhero, as I pick up the occasional story book featuring Spider-Man, Batman or one of their muscled, spandex-clad ilk for his bedtime reading.
As such, I have taken it upon myself to be responsible for which superhero “tribe” he’s going to belong to.
Marvel Comics is the publisher of Captain America, Spider-Man and the Hulk; DC Comics is the home of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Rarely does their twain meet.
For reasons that are a column unto themselves, my brother and I allied ourselves with the house of Marvel and, while we love a good comic book story regardless of source, we can still roll our eyes at DC loyalists and their love of the undefeatable, unrelatable Superman.
So it was with some difficulty that I had to explain to my boy why my Marvel all-stars T-shirt featured Spider-Man and company, but not Batman.
“Batman has different friends,” I offered sheepishly.
I thought, It’s going to be a few more years before I begin seeding his mind with my affection for Marvel and my jaundiced view of DC.
Then it occurred to me that, benign though it might be, I’m going to teach my son his first prejudice.
While goofy, it’s also sad. I mean, I’m going to rob my son of the chance to make judgments on his own, on a (super) person-by-person basis.
After all, I wouldn’t dream of expounding to my children what I might deem to be the foibles of other ethnicities or faiths.
And I doubt that there are many parents out there spelling out to their children the likes and dislikes they might have about people who are different from them.
But maybe we don’t have to.
A snide comment here, an offhand gesture there, and pretty soon, we have created an oeuvre of judgments and generalizations for our children to call upon for their thumbnail sketches of the world around them.
And it’s a world that is constantly changing. And not.
Hank Aaron has been celebrated this month on the 40th anniversary of his breaking Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record.
Back in 1974, in his run-up to claim the slugging title, Aaron was the target of a barrage of hate mail threatening him if he, as a black man, should dare approach the longstanding tally of the New York Yankees legend.
Aaron revealed to USA Today that he kept those hate letters as a reminder “that we are not that far removed from when I was chasing the record. … A lot of things have happened in this country, but we have so far to go.”
The response to Aaron’s comments seemed to bear out The Hammer’s opinion as the Atlanta Braves’ offices were inundated with correspondence vilifying him for speaking his mind.
One email captured an ugly undercurrent of the racism that has yet to die: “My old man instilled in my mind from a young age, the only good (racial slur) is a dead (racial slur).”
With the ascent of Barack Obama, I’ve heard more and more about the notion of a “post-racial” society, where we have moved past the point of race as an issue, where it is no longer a topic worth mentioning.
As much as I’d like to think that we are drawing nearer to Martin Luther King’s dream, I’m still reminded that our advances are only baby steps.
Until around the time I turned 40, I couldn’t go a year without some teenager trying to impress his friends by spouting mock Chinese derision toward me.
(I think it began to abate once I started losing my hair and looking like a grownup; it takes a nervy kid to insult an adult stranger unprompted to his face.)
But just because it’s no longer happening to me doesn’t mean it’s not happening.
Thing is, it’s not just name-calling — or even bullying and violence; it’s the thought that went into it. And, without education or empathy, transient, immature notions that a culture is undeserving of respect harden into a belief — a corrosive, soul-crippling belief.
While its accomplishments are many and its prominence unquestioned, ours remains a young country — a gawky, albeit powerful, adolescent, if you will, on the stage of civilization.
Our culture is still evolving, absorbing influences drawn to the promise of America. We are too young to grow inflexible and resistant to the possibilities offered by diversity.
Comic book aesthetics aside, I hope that I can pass along to my children not only the ability to tell right from wrong but a discernment of the value of what others have to offer.
While it may be a goal too distant to see, perhaps the best I could hope for them — and our country — is that we continue to work to unlearn and unlock the shackles of prejudice.