Other Than Myself, by John Ostrander
I remember the morning after the primary election where Harold Washington won the Democratic nomination for Mayor of Chicago, becoming the first African-American man to do so. It was February 22, 1983 – 25 years ago. The white voters were split between then incumbent mayor Jane Byrne and Richard M. Daley, son of long-time mayor Richard J. Daley and who is currently mayor of Chicago.
Whoever wins the Democratic mayoral primary is de facto mayor of Chicago. That’s a given. The last Republican mayor, William Hale Thompson, left that office in 1931.
There is no two-party system in Chicago. At best, it’s a party and a half. As a result, Washington was going to be the new mayor of Chicago and, oh, how the white establishment cried! One white Democratic politician actually considered switching parties to oppose Washington in the mayoral election rather than have Chicago face the terrible possibility of a Negro mayor. The fact that he didn’t simply means that he realized that the habit of voting Democratic was too ingrained.
I learned exactly what it meant on my way to work that day. I used the “L” at that time – Chicago’s rail transit line. My neighborhood was “iffy” – right on the borderline between an okay area and a slum and was gradually slipping downwards. That meant you walked around with your ‘spider-sense” definitely on. That was especially true of the L station.
I paid my fare and walk up the stairs to wait for the train. There was only one other person up there – a “Negro.”
I’m aware of the parts in me that are racist, bigoted, prejudiced. I am a product of my environment as much as anyone else is and the Chicago of my most formative years was very segregated and very racist. The route for the Dan Ryan Expressway was charted and designed to create an impassable barrier between the black South Side and the White South Side of Chicago.
It was not an attitude that my parents fostered. Far from it, in fact. Nonetheless, it was part of the environment and the culture in which I was raised and I don’t think you escape that kind of cultural pollution any more than you can escape pollution that may be in the air. I’ve worked against it most of my life but I still find vestiges of it within me.
This is all by way of explanation for saying that, when I stepped out onto that platform and saw it was me and one other male and that male was “Negro,” my “spider sense” tingled. It was assisted by the (white) media coverage the night before and in the Chicago Tribune that morning (the Trib had the better funnies section so it was my newspaper of choice). Nobody knew what would happen now that Washington had won the nomination but the tone was apprehensive. So, despite my better nature, was I at that moment.
The “Negro” turned and saw me and his face lit up in a big smile, “Good morning!” he shouted, “Great day! Great! Day!” He beamed. I nodded that it was.
Suddenly, I got it. His guy, his candidate, had won. After centuries on the outside, someone who looked like him was going to be mayor of Chicago. That made the guy on the station a part of the city in a way that, 24 hours earlier, he hadn’t been.
He was no longer someone “other.” He was “me.” It was what I would feel. Amidst all the great, massive differences between us, important differences of race, color, and culture, there were areas where we were no different.
Last Sunday, I went to Adult Forum at my church. I go most weeks, despite being a self-professed agnostic, and the Adult Forum is the major reason. It challenges me, it makes me question, it makes me think. Sometimes the topics are questions of faith but just as often they are not.
Last Sunday was a case in point. There are a fair number of transsexuals, male into female, who attend our church, and some were talking that week on what it meant to be transsexual, why they made that choice, try to dispel preconceptions. I’ll admit that here, too, I have a comfort level problem. As members of my church, I certainly accept them but I don’t necessarily feel easy around them. That’s my problem rather than theirs but it was something that I wanted to confront in myself. The best way to deal with it, I felt, was to go and listen to what they had to say, to listen to their stories. I wanted to see if I could find a place where our lives intersected, as it did with that man on the train station.
For me, dealing with transsexuals means dealing with wider topics of gender and gender choice. The differences between what it means to be male or female and what society decrees is acceptable and appropriate male or female behavior. I can’t say that I have ever felt like I was a female trapped within a male body but I have been trapped, more than once, by male expectations – what it supposedly meant to be male.
This forms the thematic core of my writing. What unites us, what makes us the same, what brings us together is greater and more important than that which separates us. Nothing that is human is alien to me. I can and must find within myself the places where we meet and that can be unpleasant, given some of the characters that I write. If I do my work correctly, then it means there are places that I as the writer and you as the reader will connect. That’s my job as I understand it. Find the places where we all connect via story.
That’s the lesson I realized on that L platform. It’s the lesson I’m trying to apply at the Adult Forum at church. It’s what I’m trying to do every time I write.
Let me know if it’s working.
These days John Ostrander writes GrimJack, much of Munden’s Bar, Star Wars: Legends, and the just-yesterday-completed Suicide Squad mini-series. As well as this column.