Lessons from My Uncle James
Beyond Skin Color to the Content of Our Character
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As America at last seems to be “getting beyond race,” we face a dilemma. If, as Martin Luther King Jr. “dreamed” in his great 1963 speech at the Washington Monument, the color of our skin seems to matter less with each passing day, the content of our character becomes ever more important. The more we see ourselves as individuals rather than as members of some racial or ethnic group struggling for advantage in a zero-sum political game, the more we must think about the moral guidelines we use in building our individual lives.” This is how Ward Connerly phrases the problem that he believes lies ahead for America as we move beyond affirmative action and attempt to grapple with equality. His solution, or part of it, comes from an unexpected source: his Uncle James. James Louis helped raise Connerly after his father deserted the family and his mother died early. But he did more than put food on the table and a roof over Connerly’s head. Although he didn’t get past the third grade, Uncle James also stood very consciously for manliness, religion, hard work, personal loyalty and other virtues we have been told are obsolete in our postmodern world. Uncle James begged to differ. His wisdom was expressed in folk maxims—”Don’t Stand There Waiting for Somebody to Give You Something” (a lesson about work); “The Smallest Pancake Has Two Sides” (a lesson about perspective); “Don’t bite the Hand That Feeds You (a lesson about patriotism); etc.—but it amounted to a moral curriculum that formed Ward Connerly and gave him the courage to pick up Martin Luther King’s fallen standard of colorblindness and make it an active principle again in our national life. And Connerly believes that what this simple but profound man believed might also be the starting point for a discussion about character that American desperately needs to have. One part memoir, one part moral guide, Lessons from my Uncle James is touching and funny and ultimately a profound book about living a principled and productive life. It is another challenge from Ward Connerly, who has spent more than a decade prodding America to throw off the shackles of race and to embrace the summons to freedom.