One of the questions I often get asked is if I worry about running out of topics to write about. Nope. The fertile pastures of science are planted with such a wide array of seeds that the only question is which field to wander through and what to harvest for a fruitful discussion. Medicines? Personal care products? Agricultural chemicals? Plastics? The topics are endless, especially if we also pick the bitter fruit from the tree of pseudoscience.
Recently, though, I have run into a quandary. Because of the emergence of COVID-19, and its tentacles ensnaring every facet of our lives, it seems trite to discuss trace residues of glyphosate in oats, phenoxyethanol in cosmetics or the nonsense of alkaline water. That’s why I have been concentrating on trying to unravel the mysteries of the coronavirus plague that has descended on us. And there are mysteries aplenty! But most have defied solution, and there is only so much of this pestilence that one can talk about. In the meantime, while other issues have been relegated to the back burner, they have not disappeared. With COVID fatigue setting in, I thought it was time to return to addressing my usual subjects. I was just getting ready to take up the safety of hair dyes and look at some of the recent studies that have raised concern. Then George Floyd was killed.
How can one write about hair dyes after witnessing the last breath being squeezed out of a man in the most hideous fashion? How can one talk about hydrogen peroxide oxidizing para-phenylenediamine when millions are marching through the streets aiming to reform a society speckled with hatred and racism? You can’t!
I am no expert on racism, however, being the son of a Holocaust survivor, I am very sensitive to prejudice, intolerance and xenophobia of any kind. My mother was deported to Auschwitz in 1945 where she was actually saved from the gas chamber by Dr. Mengele. When the Jews who had been rounded up like animals were unloaded from the cattle cars, Mengele was there to direct them left or right. The old, the infirm and the very young went left to be eliminated, while those capable of work went to the right. My mother ended up as a slave labourer in a Nazi factory until liberated by the Russians, but my four grandparents met their end in the gas chambers. One of my mother’s sisters also was “saved” by Mengele, but only to be experimented upon. The Nazis carried out all sorts of vile experiments, often leaving the victims mutilated and in agony if they managed to survive. I don’t exactly know to what horrific experiment Dr. Mengele subjected my aunt because she never talked about it, but I know that she was never able to have children.
While I had been well educated about the unspeakable horrors of the Holocaust, growing up in Montreal I don’t remember any dialogue about racism against blacks. Being a baseball fan, I knew about the problems encountered by Jackie Robinson with the Brooklyn Dodgers, but I had also read that he did not face the same kind of prejudice when he had played for the Montreal Royals.
Then came an eye-opening road trip through the U.S in 1964 with a couple of friends. We had just gotten our driving licenses and one of my friends had bought a used car with his bar-mitzvah money. One evening, we somehow managed to end up on a back road in Alabama and our attention was drawn to what looked like a brush fire in a field. We stopped to look. It was an astounding sight. A large cross was aflame, surrounded by a bunch of men in white cloaks and hoods. We had chanced upon a KKK rally! I can still hear the speech ringing in my ear. “You can dress’em up, send them up North, give’em a college education and they will still….” We didn’t wait around to hear the rest, quickly deciding that this was not a place for us to be. I knew that the KKK existed, and I knew about slavery and the Civil War, but witnessing this organized exhibit of pure racism left an indelible mark.
My favourite subject in high school was actually history, and the Alabama experience prompted me to look more deeply into the saga of blacks in America and the rise of racism. It is a bitter story with a sweet angle. It was the appetite for sugar by white Europeans that spawned the slave trade and led to some twenty million Africans being ripped from their homeland and deposited in the Americas where they were often treated like animals, being whipped, beaten and branded. To the plantation owners who lived lavish lives, they were no more than property. Sickening.
The remnants of that dreadful era still haunt African Americans today, and while no longer literally enslaved, they still live with the yoke of discrimination around their neck. As we have seen, sometimes that yoke can literally squeeze out a last breath. Maybe this particular last breath will breathe life into a movement that does more than serve up pious platitudes about equality. The time has come to unleash and enforce laws against intolerance, bigotry and overzealous police actions. The U.S. Declaration of Independence got it right with “all men are created equal.” Those were just words. Forty-one of the men who signed the Declaration owned slaves! Words don’t mean much unless they are acted upon.