Wednesday, August 26, 2009

When Your Hero Dies

At the end
of June, I blogged about the death of Michael Jackson and how it wasn't a crisis. About three seconds after I posted it, I got my first inkling that I had perhaps not taken the correct tone in my post. It's not that Jackson's death, for most of us, was truly traumatic, but my tone trivialized what he meant to so many people. Over the summer that point has been driven home to me over and over.

What I now understand is that, as a white woman with no particular love of pop music, I had no particular attachment to Michael Jackson, and I failed to realize that trivializing his death wasn't just trivializing people's grief, it was trivializing the racial and cultural experience in this country. I want to truly apologize for that. A death that is not traumatic is nonetheless a death, and grief is grief. I have been struggling for several weeks to figure out how best to bring this up, and today seems like the right day.

I say that because I was born and raised in a staunch liberal household in Massachusetts. Senator Edward Kennedy was an icon of my childhood. In 1980, I was old enough to be active in politics, and I supported Kennedy. My older brother worked in his Boston office one summer. He was what I understood a great politician was supposed to be. I was absolutely stunned, when I went away to college, to learn that Kennedy was not as revered elsewhere and that people used him as the joking example of liberalism gone too far. I never did.

Senator Kennedy wasn't perfect, by any means. I also grew up in a milieu where "Chappaquiddick" held the same sort of ominous tone as "Watergate." I was very confused when we spent summers on Martha's Vineyard and a youth swim meet was held in Chappaquiddick -- why would you hold it someplace bad? I knew that Kennedy was a drinker and that he had been kicked out of Harvard for cheating. Later on, I was appalled by his architecture of the No Child Left Behind Act, which in my mind was the worst law ever to come out of pure intentions.

Ted Kennedy also exemplified being able to go on with life despite traumatic loss, which he certainly suffered all too often, and despite the guilt of having caused traumatic death. Some would say that he never felt appropriately guilty about the death of Mary Jo Kopechne. That isn't for me to judge. But he certainly showed that that awful night was not the sum total of who he was, and he did not let it end his hopes for doing good in his life.

Anais Nin once said, "We don't see things as they are, we see them as we are." As a white liberal from Massachusetts, I cried when I heard that Kennedy had died. As African-American males growing up in the 80's, several of my friends cried for Michael Jackson. Neither are traumatic, both are sad. I should know better than to judge others' outpouring of emotion just because I don't see things the same way. I am imperfect, just like Kennedy and Jackson were. I hope that I can show that isn't the full measure of who I am, either.

The work goes on.
The cause endures.
The Hope still lives,
and the dream will never die.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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