VOICES: 1 day, 2 holidays, very different lessons

I have a rare two-topic column since today marks Father’s Day, enacted in 1972, and Juneteenth, which became a national holiday in 2021.

I’ll start with Father’s Day.

I don’t have many good memories of my father. He and my mother divorced when I was 8 years old — he had a litany of mental health issues — and died five years later after his seventh heart attack.

But I do remember one thing he did that shaped my life, and he never knew it.

He read several newspapers a day. He read El Diario, written in his native Spanish, and the New York Daily News for sports. When I saw him reading newspapers, I figured I should, too.

When I was young, I tended to be quiet because I had a stuttering problem, and kids in grade school ridiculed me. One day my father brought home the New York Times and I started reading it. As I read, I found something interesting — I wasn’t stuttering when I read.

The Times was so massive it would take me a week to go through one edition, but I didn’t care about the news. I cared about reading it, mouthing the words and seeing which ones I could say without stuttering. I still use “vitriol” instead of “anger,” “abrogate” instead of “revoke,” and “idiosyncratic” instead of “peculiar.”

I get my vocabulary from the Times. I have a habit of using big words when smaller ones will do because that’s how the Times wrote its stories.

Those readings also taught me words I couldn’t say, and I would replace them with ones I could. I still use “recall” because I can’t say “remember,” a word that’s clear in my head but jumbled out of my mouth. That’s just one example.

Those readings also indirectly led to my career. When I was in high school, a teacher suggested I try journalism and I remembered all the time I spent reading newspapers. In addition to the Times and Daily News, the Post and Newsday published dailies, and they weren’t hard to find. People would discard them on trains, busses, parks benches, you name it. Me being poor, I picked up every paper I could find. It didn’t matter if the paper was two days old.

And here I am, all these years later, still writing. I suppose the moral of this story is, if you look hard enough, you might find something good. Even life-changing.

Also today, we celebrate Juneteenth, and while I’m glad so many companies are trying to find ways to recognize the emancipation of enslaved people, they really need a lesson on the appropriate way to do it.

Walmart, bless its heart, thought it would be OK to sell swirled red velvet and cheesecake ice cream with an image of two Black hands giving each other high-fives, according to the Washington Post. After significant backlash, Walmart pulled the ice cream.

Then, the Indianapolis Children’s Museum offered, in its food court, pre-packaged Juneteenth watermelon salad for $10. For those that don’t know the history, recently freed people grew and sold watermelons, thereby gaining a measure of prosperity and independence. Some white people at the time didn’t like that, and they co-opted watermelons and turned them into a racist symbol of lazy, uneducated, and slovenly Black people.

Americans are really bad at history, but we all know what watermelon can mean in a certain context. The Children’s Museum pulled the item.

Other companies have made similar faux pas (another Times word!). I don’t look at this as a racial or racist issue. My guess (and it’s just that) is that someone in marketing figured it would be cool for Black hands to high-five like in the Superfly and Shaft era. For the life of me, I can’t come up with a coherent reason for the watermelon thing.

To me, Walmart and the museum show we have a long way to go to understand other cultures, what’s offensive and what’s not. I applaud all those who are trying. We just need to go from trying to understanding.

Ray Marcano’s column appears on these pages each Sunday. You can reach him with questions and comments at raymarcanoddn@gmail.com

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Ray Marcano

Ray Marcano

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Ray Marcano

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