| In Sanskrit — the oldest language in the Indo-European language group that includes languages like Spanish, English, Hindi,
Portuguese, Bengali, Russian, German, French, Italian, Punjab and Urdu — the word sanskara essentially means the subtle impressions
of past lives. Past lives can refer to previous incarnations, for those who believe in reincarnation, or earlier times during our present —
and as some believe, only — life. The belief system that you hold dear does not matter here. One question for today is how does the
concept of sanskara translate into terms we can understand? Another question is, of course, do we want to invest any energy in trying to
understand it at all? If the answer to the last question is yes, here is one example that may be of interest: I think the descendents of
Africans who were enslaved and transported to this continent in the hulls of ships retain the memories of those unspeakably wretched
ordeals. And the memory of which I speak is not limited to any particular knowledge of written or oral history or through knowledge of one’
s family tree. I’m talking about the kind of memory that goes beyond words. It is the unique knowledge that resides in between the fibers
of muscles. It is the stuff that scientists may one day be able to observe in DNA or even finer building blocks of our individual and
There are things that we “just know” and feel that defy description: the child who knows when his parents are arguing even though
they do it quietly and the child can’t hear their voices. The room that gives you an intense sense of foreboding even though you have no
conscious memory of anything bad that ever happened there. Vibrations that emanate from us linger for periods of time that eclipse our
normal perceptions of time and invade spaces that are vaster than the usual ways we think about space. The feeling that something is
wrong, that some of us get from time to time, might be connected to an event or series of events that unfolded long before we were even
born. And the opposite can be true. We can be overtaken with feelings of joy for no apparent reason.
Another very significant characteristic of sanskaras is that some believe they form the basis for what we do or don’t do in our present lives.
In other words, they shape the pieces that make up our individual worlds and we define ourselves by the ways in which we respond to
these invisible forces.
When I was a child, I connected myself to what I imagined my father was feeling. Maybe the connectors were the invisible threads
that tie us all together — some tightly, others loosely. I remember how excited my father was when he’d leave our tiny apartment every
morning in search of a job doing what he had been trained to do — what he had worked nights and gone to school during the day to get
the necessary credentials to do. I didn’t know all the particulars then, but I could feel his initial excitement then the waning of that
exuberance as he came home day after day without the sought-after job. I could feel the raw emotion of excitement slowly changing
into other emotions like disbelief, disheartenment, depression, another dose of manufactured excitement, followed by rage and then
contempt of the kinds of unfairness that had more heads than Methuselah. Black men were not hired as dental technicians (makers of
false teeth) in the ‘40s and ’50s. He had thought that he had paid his dues growing up poor and surviving the blatant racism of the south
in the latter years of the 1920s right through the ‘30s and the first half of the ‘40s. He had thought that serving his country during the
closing days of WWII would mitigate the racism he had become so accustomed to. But he was wrong. The facts did not come out in
family counseling, in part, because there was no family counseling. But I felt the ebb and flow of hope. I knew the meaning of resilience
even though it would be many years before I even heard the word.
After my father had gone through the range of emotions he had to go through regarding the dismantling of his dream to become a
dental technician (which was a watered-down aspiration because he had really wanted to be a dentist, but he was trying to be “realistic”
about what Black men were “allowed” to do during that time), he embarked on a new ambition. He decided that he wanted to be a New
York City police officer. This was not an easy road to travel and the New York City Police Department was not brimming over with Black
police officers in the early 1950s, but there were Black police officers. My family even knew a couple. One was named Lester. He was
the brother of a family friend and a sergeant at some precinct in Brooklyn. There was another Black police officer, whose name I don’t
remember, who used to stop by our apartment from time to time. I remember staring at the wooden handle of his service revolver during
I also remember staring at the barrel of a .38 service revolver and the smell of gun oil as a New York City cop, who was not a friend of
my family, pointed his gun in my face and dared me to run. I was about 8 years old. The offense? Setting off firecrackers. If there is
anything to the sanskara idea at all, I suspect that my early negative and potentially lethal experience with a police officer has been
passed on to my children as it will be transmitted to my children’s children – maybe in the form of words and most definitely in ways that
have nothing to do with words at all. Maybe sanskaras form the basis for instinct.
About 15 years after my encounter with the New York City police officer, I found myself living in Wisconsin. A convoluted series of
events found me as a City of Madison Police Department recruit in the summer of 1981. I graduated from the police academy and was
valedictorian of my class. Almost every week for the almost 10 years that I was a police officer, someone would say, “You know, you sure
don’t seem like a police officer.” I would thank them for their observation on the assumption that their opinions of police officers were
consistent with my childhood experience of the cop sticking a gun in my face. But the comment intrigued me. How did I come to be a
police officer? It had never occurred to me to pursue that vocation, not even during the days when my father was headed down that
path. I had never fantasized about being a cop the way some kids dream of being firefighters or cops or semi-truck drivers or astronauts. I
was never excited by the idea of wearing a gun every day, and even less taken with the idea that having one increased the possibility of
having to use it. But one day in the spring of 1982, I found myself delivering a speech to my police academy classmates, our instructors,
the chief of police and his administration, and family and friends at the Madison Police Department graduation ceremony after which
20 new police officers — including me — were sworn in and released to the streets of Madison to protect and serve.
I wonder if circumstances had arranged themselves in a way that gave me the opportunity or silent mandate to finish the work my
father had started even though I had no conscious aspirations in that regard. All this is to say that it might be a good idea to pay careful
attention to what we think, say and do because these acts may very well continue to create subtle ripples that last more lifetimes than
there are numbers to count.