While flipping through the channels last night I came across a replaying of the eulogy Oprah Winfrey delivered at Rosa Parks’ funeral. In her speech Oprah said that she owed it to Ms. Parks to succeed. Basically what she meant was that Rosa Parks risked a lot in order to take a stand, not just for her own rights, but for the rights of all African Americans. She sacrificed for us and we now have an obligation to her and all those who struggled for racial equality to make something of ourselves. We need to make sure we live a life that makes us worthy of the blood, sweat and tears that were shed on our behalf.
I’ll admit that I’ve never really thought about it in that way but I think Oprah has a point. My great-grandparents came over here from Eastern Europe for one reason and one reason only, they thought that this was a country in which Jews could live a life that was fulfilling and happy. It is always a difficult decision to leave your country of origin even if conditions in that country are truly horrible. Moving to a place that is completely foreign, without a job lined up, where you don’t speak the language…well let’s face it, it’s scary and it takes a lot of courage. In some respects it’s easier to sit back and be oppressed. And of course the process of immigrating to the States is in and of itself a difficult one, particularly when immigration means taking a long and often treacherous boat ride. And then, in the case of my family, there was the problem of being able to leave Russia. Of course my great-grandparents left well before the Soviet Union was formed but that didn’t mean it was easy for Russians to just pick up and travel around. My great-grandfather was actually kidnapped by the Russian army when he was just a child and forced to serve. When he grew to be an (apparently extremely attractive) young man he decided that he didn’t want to spend his entire life as an indentured servant while being subjected to extreme anti-Semitism so he took a major risk: he seduced a few of the officers wives and then convinced them to talk and/or manipulate their husbands into letting him go free. Obviously that plan could have backfired on him in a very big way but I guess he must have picked his targets wisely because he was granted his freedom. He then walked across Russia until he got back to his family. It was at that point that he married my great-grandmother who he had known in his childhood and together they decided to get the hell out of dodge.
Naturally there were others in our family who stayed in the old country. They had children and raised their families there and for a long time they stayed in touch with their American relatives. But there is no longer any contact between my family in the States and those in Easter Europe. That would be impossible because my relatives in Eastern Europe have all been killed. Several died during the pogroms and the rest (who were living in Latvia and Lithuania) were victims of the holocaust. My great-grandparents decision to leave Russia made my life possible. I owe it to them to make sure that I take advantage of the opportunities that are afforded me as an American citizen.
My grandfather on my father’s side (Charles Trammell) was a DJ for a major radio station. That may not seem like a very big deal and maybe it wouldn’t have been if he hadn’t started his career in 1950 and if he wasn’t an African American. Black DJs were virtually unheard of at that time. Furthermore, while the music on the radio during the 50's was heavily influenced by Black music, it was being performed by Whites. Yet my grandfather did a lot to promote and further the careers of several Black musicians and through his radio show helped many become successful. This was before the civil rights movement had really taken off. He was a pioneer. Unfortunately for my father he wasn’t a very good family man but he was a man with a vision and he helped to pave the way for other minorities to take jobs and pursue endeavors that were traditionally reserved for Caucasians. In a way it would be a betrayal of him if I were to neglect my own artistic pursuits.
America is a nation of immigrants. If you look far enough back you will undoubtedly find someone in your ancestry who fought to raise their family in a place that was free from severe oppression. I think we owe it to them not to waste our lives. We need to strive to be ethical and compassionate people and do our best to fulfill our potential. To do otherwise is kind of an insult to those who worked so hard to give us the opportunity to be happy.
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