BEHIND public concern over drug abuse and teen-age pregnancy is a growing disillusionment with moral relativism, that way of thinking which attributes our social problems to sicknesses or neuroses rather than to wrong thoughts and actions. My own disillusionment with moral relativism came more than 15 years ago when I rented a room from a black woman. For the purposes of this discussion, I'll call her Patience Gromes. Mrs. Gromes was 83 years old, owner of a two-story frame house, and a stalwart of Rising Mt. Zion Baptist Church. She lived in Fulton, a run-down neighborhood of Richmond, Va.
Patience Gromes maintained an island of order against the decay of her neighborhood. She kept her flower beds weeded, her walk swept, the edges of her lawn trimmed. A white-picket fence enclosed her yard. And Patience maintained mental boundaries of equal precision. She knew the difference between good and evil.
I had attended college in the San Francisco Bay Area during the era of flower children and antiwar protests and had developed a tolerance for the new morality that evolved among the college crowd. My peers judged that consenting adults ought to be allowed to do what they wanted with their minds and bodies so long as no one else was harmed. They considered themselves free of the arbitrary moral dictums of the past. They had some good points, but Patience Gromes saw things differently.
In the evenings Patience cooked dinners of spiced potatoes, greens, and fried fish. Afterward she sat in her middle room, read the newspaper, then picked up her sewing. She made handbags from strips of burlap and sold them to supplement her income. Occasionally, later in the evening, she set aside her handbags and entered the kitchen, then turned suddenly to corner me between the refrigerator and the kitchen wall.
``When was the last time you went to church?'' she said. ``When was the last time you wrote your mother?''
I mumbled a reply, then she looked me full in the face. ``Don't forget your Maker, now. And don't forget your mother, either.''
Patience Gromes did not apologize for her views. To Patience the new morality was a delusion. Good was life giving and good actions were those that, in the long run, brought health, self-assurance, creativity. Evil was death and sickness and all things that tended in that direction. Evil actions might seem like a gay old time, but over the years the participants would find that they had hurt themselves, hurt others. In some way they would have hindered their own development.
I had a hard time understanding Patience Gromes until I learned that her grandfather had escaped from slavery at age 14. He brought with him a belief in absolutes. To his way of thinking, slavery was evil, whereas the elements of character that resisted the demeaning influence of slavery were good. He identified drunkenness and infidelity as the influence of slavery, and thought of sobriety and chastity as evidence of self-respect, a preparation for independence.
After Emancipation it was common for blacks to measure their advancement by ``improvement'' in morals. W. E. B. Du Bois (who founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) observed in a Virginia town a lower class whose ``besetting sins'' were whiskey and ``promiscuous sexual intercourse'' and applauded a higher class which was ``steadily advancing in education and morals.'' Booker T. Washington, the best-known black of the era, implored his followers, ``Get yourself right, and the world will be all right.''
Patience and her family used their understanding of good and evil to advance themselves. They lacked money, government help, or the sympathy of their white neighbors. But each individual did have control over his or her own character. They improved their own skills as a means of gaining power in the world. To Patience Gromes morals were not relative but constantly improving or declining on an absolute scale.
What can we learn from an elderly black woman who, after all, never had the benefit of a college education? I think we can learn to take a longer view. Fifteen years ago we had free love, now we have broken families. We had cheap marijuana, now we have rampant cocaine dependency. And we seem surprised to discover that our actions have consequences that may not surface until years later.
We would do well to listen to voices from traditional communities such as Fulton. They bear witness to their virtues of our past and can tell us how to reclaim them.
Scott C. Davis is a free-lance writer in Seattle.