This may sound incongruous beyond enduring, but, while I never confuse an apple with an orange, it’s true that I make, almost habitually, apparently incongruous connections. For example, Yeats’ poem “For Anne Gregory” and racism. The young woman complains that men should love her for herself alone and not for her yellow hair. While the poem could be discussed at great length from a variety of perspectives, it’s not likely to bring to any saner mind than my own the notion of racism.
More than one African-American acquaintance has remarked to me that many white people in our church are racists without knowing it. I thought I knew what that meant only because in the distant past, I think I might have been “racist without knowing it.” What that means is not bigotry, prejudice, any kind of hate or ostracism, nor any concept of superiority, but simply seeing another person as a black person rather than as a person. I grew up in a segregated South, and like most white people in the South, I acknowledged that injustice and welcomed integration, but for quite a long time, when I encountered black people, I saw their color and not their personhood. My friends complained of the excessive politeness of some white people they encountered. Well, yes, maybe. But I have to say that I know these people. They are mostly good people, fair-minded, kind. They are courteous as a reflex that is inborn in southerners, and they just don’t know what you expect of them.
The despairing young woman in Yeats’ poem wants someone to love her for herself alone and not for her yellow hair. The fact that color is mentioned may be what caused the (mis)connection, but as I examine her yellow hair a little more closely, I think her expectations of her lover are a little out of line. Her yellow hair is a visible fact, and her demand that it be invisible to her lover is unreasonable. He replies that “Only God can love you for yourself alone, and not your yellow hair.” Maybe, while we aspire to be more like God, we must recognize that we are mere humans and, in the vernacular, cut each other a little slack. Her yellow hair cannot be made invisible and her lover cannot un-love it.
Her complaint (could we say her petulance?) might be understood in this way: If I make you think your love for me is false, I have virtue in rejecting it, thus insuring that my lack of love for you will be understood as your fault. I can just hold myself apart from you, righteous in my rejection of you and your shallow love. I don’t have to love you back. I don’t have to trust you.
After all, let’s face it: loving is so easy. Mass murderers can do it, Hitler did it, anybody can do it. Being loved, however, is damnably difficult. Only the most courageous can do it. Her yellow hair is armor, protection against the dangerous unknown territory of trusting, of being loved just as she is, not because of her yellow hair, nor in spite of it. It’s hard to accept your acceptance, but I can think of no endeavor more worthwhile.