I’ve been thinking about this idea of being a “hero” lately.
(I think the one word “hero” should stand for either men or women or any other being who performs heroic acts, but I’ll use the conventional terms just to keep it understandable).
The kind of hero or heroine that impresses me most are the ones who risk their life for a total stranger with no upside except saving the stranger’s’ life.
Like Wesley Autrey, the man who jumped onto the subway tracks and held that person down under the train until it passed over. He didn’t have time to consider anything other than trying to save a stranger’s life and maybe lose his in the doing.
Unfortunately for a lot of these kinds of heroes and heroines, I don’t remember their names and often to the world in general their names are forgotten as well.
And then there’s the kind of heroes and heroines who stand up for the oppressed, for those who have no voice, who take on the powers that be because it is the right thing to do and who inspire others to overcome their fears or cynicism to stand up to power and fight for those who have been ignored or left out or kept down or attempted to be wiped out, like my latest hero in that regard—Barack Obama.
So for my falling-back-to-sleep-inducing-list-making last night, I tried to come up with people who have been heroes and heroines to me, not from the history books (though many are in them now, and many still left out), but only those who were still alive in my lifetime, even if only my childhood (I couldn’t get anywhere near a full alphabet, maybe you can help me remember those I’ve forgotten):
AUTREY, WESLEY (the subway hero)
CHANEY, GOODMAN AND SCHWERNER (as they were known to my generation, the three young civil rights workers who were killed in Mississippi in 1964), CESAR CHAVEZ (who gave voice to the mostly immigrant farm laborers who are still being oppressed by corporate and large family farms (a teenage girl recently died on one in California after eight hours of picking in the hot sun with almost no breaks and little access to water), JIMMY CARTER (for his peace making efforts during and after his presidency, giving voice to all those in the Middle East who want peace and for his peacemaking efforts throughout the world, often successfully helping avoid armed conflicts and thereby saving hundreds of thousands or more of innocent lives)
DYLAN, BOB (the young version, for giving a voice to his generation), BERNADETTE DEVLIN (who gave voice to the Northern Ireland Catholic population that, though a majority, were treated as second-class citizens or worse up until the movement she helped inspire and lead in the 1960s), and ALEXANDER DUBCEK (and all the freedom fighters of the “Prague Spring” in Chzeckoslovakia in 1968 and their resistance to the Soviet Union)
EBADI, SHIRIN (the Iraqi woman who won the Nobel peace Prize for her work on behalf of Muslim women)
FREEDOM RIDERS, THE (the “black” and “white” civil rights activists who integrated interstate buses in the early 1960s and were beaten and jailed and worse for it)
HITLER’S WOULD BE ASSASSINS (they failed, but what a noble attempt) and THE HUNGARIAN FREEDOM FIGHTERS (who were encouraged and egged on by the Eisenhower administration to enact an armed rebellion against their Soviet oppressors but were than left to fend for themselves when they did)
JOHN THE XXIII (the Pope who tried to return the Catholic Church to its original principles and move it toward being more responsive and more representative of the unheard multitudes of worldwide Catholics rather than just the church hierarchy)
KELLER, HELEN (my first real hero(ine)), MARTIN LUTHER KING JR., JFK (not even counting his WWII heroism, but just his breaking the Catholic, as well as specifically the Irish-Catholic glass ceiling that still existed in this country when I was a boy), RFK (the hero he became in his last years, standing up for the disenfranchised and unrepresented)
LAMA, THE DALAI (not sure if he’s under “D” or “L” but for the obvious reasons)
OBAMA, BARACK (giving voice not just to mixed race “Americans,” but to the young, the left out and left behind, but maybe most importantly, to those who have grown cynical or despondent over the ways in which recent elections have seemed skewed toward, or even stolen by, the powerful rightwing forces that have come to control so much of not just our political life and discourse, but of the corporations that impact our lives so thoroughly in these times)
ROOSEVELT, ELEANOR, JACKIE ROBINSON, YITZHAK RABIN (who risked his political power and reputation and ultimately his life on making peace with the Palestinians), and RUSSIAN JOURNALISTS (too many to even list, who have given their lives for reporting the truth about Putin’s brutal oppression of any opposition)
SANDS, BOBBY (the Northern Irish hunger striker who took a stand for the oppressed multitudes of unrepresented Irish Catholics and was elected their representative to the English parliament while he was dying in a British prison), WILLIAM SAROYAN (for giving voice to immigrant Americans in general in his novels and plays and short stories, specifically Armenian immigrants, but many other unrepresented and unheard at that time ethnic minorities) and ANWAR SADAT (for risking his power and his life for peace with Israel)
TEINEMAN SQUARE, THE MAN WHO STOOD UP TO THE TANKS IN. MOTHER TERESA and RIGOBERTA MENCHU TUM (the South American woman who won the Nobel peace Prize for her work giving voice to the indigenous people of Latin America)
UNDERGROUND, THE (starting with WWII, but the underground resistance to all totalitarian regimes and brutal dictators anywhere)
WILLIAMS, ARLAND DEAN (the passenger who kept helping others to the rescue line in that plane crash in the freezing Potomac River back in the early ‘80s), and WILLIAM CARLOS WILLIAMS (not just for his elevation of everyday “American” speech and ordinary Americans’ language usage to the level of great poetry, but for his service to the poor and working-class families of Rutherford and Paterson and Manhattan etc. as a lifelong doctor whose patients were those most in need and who he often gave a voice to in his poetry and prose)