Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Steamboat Springs The unfamiliar figure appeared at my left shoulder Friday while I was sitting at my desk in the newsroom and contemplating the fact that I never, ever experience writer's block.
I did not hear him approach, so I was taken aback to see a tall, lanky man with shoulder-length hair extending below the brim of a Western hat. He had an appealing smile on his face, and I greeted him politely before asking if I could help him find someone in our building.
He explained that he was waiting for another newspaper employee to get off the phone. We were exchanging pleasantries when, suddenly, he leaned down to speak softly into my ear. His hair fell across my face, brushing my nose. I caught the scent of his shampoo, and it was strangely unnerving.
"I have a good one for you," the man said, and proceeded to tell me an inappropriate joke about people of color. He didn't utter any racial slurs, nor did the joke involve any implied violence. However, the whole thing spun on a racial stereotype, that, whether intended or not, alluded to President-elect Barack Obama's favorite participatory sport.
It has been a long time since I was shocked to hear someone tell an inappropriate joke, but the timing of this fellow's delivery left me nearly speechless. In three days, the nation was supposed to pause and reflect on the ideals that Martin Luther King Jr. stood for. And one more day later, we were all to bear witness to the inauguration of our first African American president.
I'm still trying to decide if through the perpetuation of a stereotype, the joke - all of two sentences in length - was racist or merely repugnant.
I'm quite certain the joke that hit me like a slam dunk on Friday, although clever in its construction, wasn't the least bit humorous.
Humor in our society is a funny thing. Many of the best comedians of our time were important because they were provocative and pushed the boundaries of what was acceptable. Chris Rock, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor and George Carlin come to mind.
Perhaps the comedic timing of my unexpected visitor was impeccable. Maybe Friday was the perfect day to be reminded that it will take the passing of my generation and perhaps several more before Dr. King's dream is realized fully.
Interviewed on CNN on Monday morning, Danyel Smith, executive editor of VIBE magazine, was asked if she believed the inauguration of Barack Obama is the manifestation of King's dream of racial harmony.
Paraphrasing now, Smith said: When that day comes, it will be a beautiful day, but I'm not sure it will come in my lifetime.
So, what was that dream that King shared with us 45 years ago?
He actually articulated five versions of the same dream during the speech he gave in front of the Lincoln Memorial on Aug. 28, 1963.
The dream that sticks with me most is this one:
"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character," King said in that impassioned voice that will reverberate through the generations.
At least we can claim today that America is taking an important step in that direction.
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