Eating Whose Crackers?
Rudy S. Apodaca
Keynote Address At Black Programs-Sponsored
Copyright 2003 (all rights reserved)
Martin Luther King Breakfast
Corbett Center, NMSU, January 14, 2000
I am indeed privileged to have been asked to
participate in this event honoring a great American, the Reverend Martin Luther
near my final years on the appellate bench, I find a bit of irony in the fact
that I was asked to be the guest speaker at this breakfast. I say that because in January of 1987, 13
years ago, the first month of my tenure on the Court of Appeals, I spoke at a
similar event honoring Reverend King at the Albuquerque Convention Center. The theme on that occasion was “The Youth of
Today Are Our Future of Tomorrow.” I
consider that theme appropriate for this occasion, in light of the students of
this fine university we are honoring. It
is fitting that I share with you my own perception of the legacies left to us
by Reverend King—what he meant to me.
can’t pay any better tribute to Martin Luther King than what has already been
done by others before me, probably more eloquently. The mere fact that he is only one of a
handful for which a special holiday has been set aside, is proof enough that
his legacies are indeed worthy of being honored. Only in that way, can we be reminded that it
is possible to overcome inequities and injustice in this great country of ours. Mr. King truly believed yesterday, as I do
today, that the justice in a society is measured not by how it treats its best
citizen, but by how it treats its worst.
The man we pay homage to today lived his short life with a definite
awareness of what the great philosopher, Santayana, once said: “Those who forget history are condemned to
is a saying in Spanish I once heard while attending law school in Washington,
D.C. in the early 60s, shortly after President Kennedy was assassinated. That saying, I think, applies to the memory
of Mr. King. Nadie sabe lo que tiene,
hasta quando lo ha perdido. Roughly
translated, that means: No one realizes
what he has until he has lost it.
have often wondered how Reverend King would view our country and world today if
he were to appear suddenly before us some 30-plus years after his death. Would he praise God in jubilation for the
advances we’ve made respecting the dignity of the human race? Or would he hide his face in shame upon
witnessing what indignities and inequities still prevail? What do you think? I myself think he would do both. We have taken big steps to improve the
quality of life in our world for which he would be jubilant. Yet, he would be saddened, I think, that
despite these improvements, we still have a long way to go in how some of us
are treated by others. You know it. I know it.
And by now, everyone else should know it.
said something about the man, let me address greatness in general. Great people do not wake up every morning
reminding themselves of their laurels. Instead, they are much like you and I
are—proceeding throughout the day, often stumbling through confusing times,
each day learning more of life and of those around us.
we often fall into a way of thinking that leads us to take greatness for
granted. We see or hear of a great
ballplayer, for example, assuming that particular person was somewhat magically
gifted with talents and the way was easy for him or her—it was a snap, we may
assume. We fail to realize that
sometimes those great athletes overcame overwhelming odds. Often,
greatness goes unheralded—unnoticed.
Recognition for greatness is not only fleeting but can prove to be
elusive as well. The great Dutch
painter, Vincent Van Gogh, for example, whose works are today worth millions of
dollars, was not recognized by his contemporaries. Art historians tell us that he sold only one
of his many paintings during his lifetime.
And that, it is believed by some, was secretly purchased by the artist’s
brother, who apparently wanted to bolster his brother’s sagging morale.
us, however, not mistake greatness or public recognition with a successful
life. I submit to you that the most meaningful measure of success is the kind
of success that has absolutely nothing to do with money or accumulation of
property in determining the worth of an individual. I have known many materially poor who are
must learn not to make the mistake of judging our fellow beings by taking one
episode in their lives and using it either to crucify or to praise. We must accept the whole person—the bad with
the good and the weakness with the strength.
I recall reading a true account involving a U.S. Senator long ago. It seems that while campaigning in a small
town, he came across an angry constituent who told him he was not going to vote
for him. It seems he disagreed with the
senator on a particular bill he had voted on.
The senator asked the man whether he was a hunter, to which the man
replied that he was. He then asked the
man if he had ever hunted with a rifle that he had always trusted and on seeing
his game, had aimed, and the weapon misfired.
The man admitted that had happened to him. The senator asked whether he had thrown away
the rifle he had trusted for so many years, or whether he had given it another
chance. The man answered he had indeed
given it another chance. Well then, the
senator said, and so I wish that you do with me.
of us develop our own perception of events taking place around us and assign
different priorities to them. An
old-time comedian-actor, W.C. Fields, once said while inebriated—“And there we
were, stranded without any provisions—all we had was food and water!”
years ago, I spoke at the annual dinner of the New Mexico Hispanic Bar Association. The subject of my talk dealt with a common
habit in today’s world—stereotyping. I
claimed then and I claim now that the habit is so common that at times we
aren’t even aware we’re doing it.
question I posed then and pose to you today is whether we, as human beings,
guided by our upbringing, our habits, biases, and our own special belief
system, sometimes paint people with too broad a brush. Do we compartmentalize persons of different
races, religions, or ethnic groups as being alike, simply because they may have
certain common traits?
submit to you that all of us have done it at one time or another. Not being perfect, we are inclined to carry
preconceived notions about those around us that can cause us to falsely
perceive them. Especially those who are
different or whose ideas are foreign or alien to us. I don’t know whether psychologists would
agree with me or not, but I have a theory.
My theory is that all of us have a basic human instinct to rebel against
anything foreign to us. We only differ
in the degree that we do it.
must all strive to admit that susceptibility.
Instead of obscuring the truth around us with a wide paint brush, we
should use one with a finer point—one that will allow us to refine our vision
and see persons with greater definition—as they really are. By using a narrower brush, we can succeed in
truly understanding the world around us.
We would then make decisions based on truth and reality, not
misconceptions and prejudices.
concept is vividly shown in a story told by Alexander Sanders, a former chief
judge of the South Carolina Court of Appeals.
I was captivated by the message of his story, which I would like to
relate to you as a parable of my remarks today.
I could paraphrase Alex Sanders’ story, I believe much would be lost in my
rendition. And so I will tell it to you,
with Alex’s blessing, exactly as it was told by him. Here is that story.
University of Virginia is located in Charlottesville. When my daughter was in school, her mother
and I often visited her there. On one
such visit, a memorable thing happened.
Charlottesville, they have turned Main street into a little mall. They have a drugstore there with an
old-fashioned soda fountain.
in front of the drugstore, there were twelve of these little round tables. You know the kind I mean. Little round tables about two feet in
diameter, with two of those wire-backed chairs at each table.
was the middle of the afternoon, and I had some time on my hands. So, I went
into the drugstore, bought a newspaper, a Pepsi-Cola and a package of peanut
butter crackers. Then I went outside and
sat down at one of the little tables.
All the others were vacant. I was
the only one there. Have you got the picture?
sooner had I sat down and arranged myself, a man came out of the drugstore
carrying a cup of coffee, and he sat down opposite me. He sat at my table, although there were at
least eleven other tables with no one sitting at them. Naturally, I thought it a little odd. The man was a black man, an African American.
here I was seated two feet from this man.
I looked at him. He looked at
me. Neither of us spoke. I ate a cracker, took a sip of Pepsi-Cola, I
ate another cracker, and went back to reading my paper. Then he did it. He reached over, took a cracker and ate
it. Now, what exactly is the proper
response to that?
big a deal should you make of a peanut butter cracker? On the other hand, should you ever allow
yourself to be taken advantage of—intimidated?
I glared at him. He glared back
at me. I ate another cracker, never
taking my eyes off him. He ate another
cracker. Now what? There was one cracker left. Our eyes were locked. I was glaring at him, two feet away. He was glaring back at me, two feet away. Now
without a word, without a gesture, without so much as a flicker of the eye, he
looked away. He looked back, then looked
down and gently pushed the last cracker over to me. Needless to say, I ate it. He got up and hurried away, leaving me with
my newspaper and my Pepsi-Cola.
silently congratulated myself for not having been the first to blink, so to
speak. And I was still congratulating
myself a few minutes later when I picked up my newspaper, and there under it, I
saw for the first time, unopened, untouched, my package of
crackers. I had been eating his
do you suppose the man thought?
Undoubtedly, the same thing I thought, and the same thing you thought as
you listened to the story. Probably, he
is somewhere, as we speak, telling the same story. I never saw him again. I verily hope I never do.
seems to me that the story of the African American and the crackers illustrates
a profound misunderstanding that exists in the world. It is the matter that divides the Croatian
and the Serb. It is the matter that
divides the Russian and the Chechen. It
is the matter that divides the Catholic and the Protestant in Northern
Ireland. It is the matter that divides
the Palestinian and the Jew. It is the
matter of ‘who is eating whose crackers.’
America, the question divides white people and black people. Whites see themselves living in an America
where blacks feed off them through welfare subsidies and affirmative action
programs. Black people, on the other
hand, see an entirely different America.
They see an America where they are still foreclosed from the American
one of the verdicts in the Rodney King cases, we saw on television blacks in
Los Angeles looting everything in sight.
Everything, that is, but savings and loans. White people had already looted those. The looting by blacks cost millions of
dollars. The looting by whites cost a
is eating whose crackers?
the verdict in the O. J. Simpson case, the division between the races was even
more apparent—this time nationwide.
people can’t understand the anger of black people. Black people can’t understand the resentment
of white people.
is eating whose crackers?”
of story. I suggested to Alex Sanders that his story about the crackers carried
a hidden message; one he probably wasn’t aware of. “What was that?” he asked me with obvious
from the south,” I explained, “especially natives with deep roots there, lose
sight of the fact that people from other parts of the country may have certain
preconceived ideas about southerners.
Unfortunately, people with no connection to southern people hold certain
misconceptions of what you’re like. They
tend to think of you as still living in the past, and images of past slavery
and Ku Klux Klansmen riding in the night are still vividly imprinted in their
minds. More recent images also come to
mind: George Wallace in Alabama—Governor Faubus in Arkansas—”Mississippi
Burning.” These people may fail to
realize that, with the years, many changes have come about—changes in people’s
beliefs and thinking.”
message in your story about the crackers,” I told Alex, “in a strong way
emphasizes that people’s troubles often come about as a result of the different
views or perspectives that they possess.
It definitely is a question of ‘who is eating whose crackers?’ As your speech demonstrated, an African American
or Chicano may see the same facts differently than someone of a different
ethnic background. “The way I see it,” I continued, “the
message of your story about the crackers is actually reinforced by the person
doing the telling. The fact that it was you,
a native Southerner, and not me, a Mexican American, or an African American who
told your story, strengthened the message you conveyed. People from elsewhere, deep down in their
souls, don’t really expect a person of your upbringing, a Southerner, to tell
the story you told with such conviction and genuine sincerity. You, after all, have not escaped the
stereotyping. Although bigotry is
everywhere, some of us seem to think it is especially entrenched in the south,
which I now admit is not necessarily the case.
After all, ‘some of my best friends are Southerners.’”
final story. Several years ago, I had a
law clerk who was a native of Sacramento, California. Before he began clerking for me, he had never
been to New Mexico and so had never been exposed to the culture of a small New
Mexico town. Soon after his arrival
here, though, he went out of his way to learn more about the place he was
living in. He loved to run and bike, and
so he took advantage of our warm climate and open countryside in the Las Cruces
area. When indoors, he spent his time
doing a lot of reading. One of the books
I recommended to him was John Nichols’ The Milagro Beanfield War. I thought it would convey to him some of the
flavor of the native New Mexican—the common folk.
read the novel and enjoyed it immensely.
Although he found the book vastly entertaining, he explained that what
he enjoyed most was how his perception of the characters developed as the story
progressed. In the beginning of the
book, he found the stories of the simple, uneducated townspeople amusing, but
by the end of the book he had gained an insight into the community and a
profound respect for the natives’ integrity, loyalty, camaraderie, and
culture. The journey through the novel,
he explained to me, enabled him to see things from an entirely different
perspective—a perspective in which successes in life are measured by a
different measuring stick than that used by most people in the world today.
message in The Milagro Beanfield War, and the one I am conveying to you
today, is similar to the one Harper Lee professed in her novel, To Kill A
Mockingbird. In one part of the
book, Atticus Finch explained to his daughter, Scout, “You never really
understand a person until you consider things from his point of view—until you
climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
Or, as Alex Sanders would say, until we all realize that perhaps the
crackers we have been eating are not our own.
morning, I have given you only one perspective of the legacies of the Reverend
Martin Luther King—my own. There are, of
course, other points of view. I hope I
myself have not been guilty of painting with too broad a brush.
Thank you again, Mike, for asking me to be with you on this
special occasion. God bless all of you.