Oddly, when I was a young man my biggest influences were, well...somewhat unique?
As a boy I once dressed up as Mark Twain for Halloween... I read Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn over, and over, and over again. I begged my parents to see the Mississippi River, and my 6th Grade teacher once commented on my report card, "if Brian could study Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn every day he'd be a straight A student
." I was obviously moved by, uhmmm...uncommon curiosities.
It didn't take long before Huck Finn wasn't the only quality literature that I ingested. Two of the most life changing moments of my then young life occurred when I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X
, and The Trumpet of Conscience
. The latter being a compilation of three Martin Luther King lectures from Massey Hall in Toronto in 1967. Heady reading for a young man, but important, I think. Soon after I discovered an Angela Davis speech in which she spoke about the legacy of Dr. King and I was even further smitten. The struggle for civil rights soon fascinated me, and I spent an enormous chunk of high school chasing information, and understanding. To look back now it seems impossible that those years, and all of that chasing didn't shape me profoundly. To this day I am embarrassingly moved by any written or recorded words by Dr. King. I am moved to an awestruck place of quiet reverence. I was convinced then, just as I am now, that his ideas were quite impossible to ingest and then remain unchanged. His impact on my young life, less than fifteen years after his death, was profound.
Strange perhaps for a young white male from rural Ontario to somehow latch himself on to some pretty heady ideas and values at such a young age, I'm sure. It was enough to confuse my mother...her teenage son with a copy of The Trumpet of Conscience
on his bedstand, amidst tattered copies of The Hockey News and Sports Illustrated, but prominent nonetheless. That kind of fascination changes a person, and you don't forget the ideas that change your life. Dr. Martin Luther King changed mine.
Flash forward to my freshman year of college. I was a long way from home...Missouri, and I was alone...homesick...unfamiliar with the workings of that part of the planet. I was at school early, to meet with coaches, and begin workouts, in a place I had never been before in my life, with a coach I had only spoken with on the telephone. I was the lone white face amidst many black ones. My friends looked very different from me, and grew up in a very different world...I was naive. I thought nothing of who it was that I made friends with...to say that I was color blind would have been an understatement...and then came the slow realizations...there were white fraternities and black fraternities...there were moments in the company of others that my new friends faded away and disappeared. I was largely oblivious, until one half-drunken night when race became impossible to ignore and I found myself in a fight alongside a friend that looked very different than I. I punched and took punches all because of who I chose to call friend and it changed me. I called home that night, in tears, begging to come home. I just wanted to go home. Never before had race been an issue in my life. In Missouri it was, and I was unprepared for it. In the long, empty months that followed I worked through my feelings about it. It was difficult, and may have been something that a lot of other young men brushed away and moved on from. I could not. It lingered and affected me in significant ways. Shortly afterward I was home and mired in regret and confusion and uncertainty, and do you know what was waiting for me on my night stand? The Trumpet of Conscience
It's difficult to fathom what Dr. King meant to many people, and how his death impacted the world, but in the Fall of 1991 I was as close as I've ever been to understanding.