RACE - MY VIEW
I am a 39 year old man, and yes, it's necessary to say that I am an African-American. It's nearly impossible to talk about my life, my views without it. It still puzzles many people that race is still a large part of America's daily existence. We talk casually about it, throwing it in has a reference to descriptions, or behavior, and it's a large part of comedy; you can laugh easier at the things that make you uncomfortable otherwise. Then there are times that I get tired of the fact that it affects the way people interact with me, you know, how I am regarded as a person before anyone gets to know me. I have talked to too many people by phone, at work and in personal affairs, that seem for lack of a better word, "surprised" that I am not the picture they may have imagined, once we meet face to face. The "dance" begins, as they try to pretend what we all pretend if we are asked about race....that it doesn't, or shouldn't matter. This, to me, is this great country's last frontier. The part of race that isn't funny, isn't merely descriptive. The part that makes us uncomfortable. There's a popular e-mail going around about people who are 18 years old this year. They were born in 1980, and it lists things they haven't experienced in their lifetimes. There were always CDs, and they never knew life without computers, cable TV, and a lot of other things. One very important thing to add is they do not remember racial tension when it was so thick in the air you could taste it. There is tension today, sure...but the real days of racial tension, the days of our country's greatest upheaval outside of an actual war, seems to be both too close and too far away for many people. In 1980, I was getting out of college. It amazes me that I now chat with many people that were just newborns at that time. I was born in the very last years of what is called the Baby Boom generation. I don't feel connected to it in the way it's promoted in popular media. The U.S. pulled out of Vietnam two yeras before I would have been eligible to be sent. I consider the Baby Boomers to be my older siblings' time. But really, many major events of the civil rights era did happen in my lifetime, and in the lifetimes of most adult Americans. I was a very small child, but I remember my older sister freaking out over the arrival of the Beatles in America. I remember my mother's reaction when the assassination of President Kennedy was announced. But that's for another page. My earliest experience with race was at about 2 years old. I was just big enough to be allowed near the TV, which was the prized luxury item in our house. I was so proud that I could reach the big knob and change the channels to my favorite cartoons.
I turned one day to a very strange "program". Remember this is through the eyes of a two year old: There were crowds of people screaming, throwing things, wanting to kill these other people that seemed to be just trying to walk down the street. Some were holding signs, but most were just walking, trying not to look frightened by the intense hostility being directed at them. There were police holding back the angry crowd, who were the people I usually saw on TV. But these people that were walking...the sign carrying people, a lot of them looked like me, you know, like my aunts and uncles, members of my family. It was the strangest show I had ever seen. I called for my Mom and asked her what this was. She came over and said, "Let's find your cartoons, sweetie, you gonna have plenty of time to learn what THAT'S all about...." That scene stayed with me, it became clear later that it was one of the many desegregation marches in the South. But it was one of the earliest memories I have that the world outside my window was not the Land of Oz. As a child, it was probably the first time I saw people of color on TV, and I was thinking "maybe that was the problem...they aren't supposed to be on TV ?" With perspective I can look back on it now. The main point I want to make is that, at the impressionable age that I was, it made a big impression. I believed at the time as all kids did in Santa Claus, magic, the Tooth Fairy, and the good guys were Roy Rogers, Superman, and John Wayne. The great writer James Baldwin once said "I always rooted for John Wayne when he played a cowboy, fighting against the indians until I realized I was one of the indians." As my childhood progressed, so did the saga of 60's civil rights struggles, and it all played out right on the TV. Very young black kids, no matter what positive input we are getting from our parents or teachers, have a nagging feeling haunting them. Maybe there is something wrong with me. OK, not wrong, but just not equal. All those white crowds on TV can't be angry for nothing, can they? They looked like the mom from "Leave it to Beaver", or Aunt Bea from Mayberry, people that are symbols of home-spun, small town charm and they just want US to leave THEM alone! Why would the "marchers" want to go where they are not wanted? A child's world is filled with imagination and fantasy. We would go out shopping, to my Dad's favorite store of stores, Sears (where America shops, by the way). It took us out of our own neighorhood, out into areas where we are surrounded by large crowds of white people. They walked around, minding their own business, but a child imagines that they could turn on us at any moment, just like on TV, like if it wasnt our day to be in Sears, or if I wasn't on my best behavior. I had to be extra careful to show that I was "one of the good ones", so they'll let us stay and take part in the shopping. This was the sowing of the seeds of "assimilation". It was their world, and we are only allowed to be a part of a small part of it. As loud and flamboyant as the late 60's and all of the 70's were, I credit the explosion of cultural pride, evident in fashion, music, and politics with instilling a feeling of self worth. It was engraved in my childhood psyche, and not so deep down, that I was at best, second best. A formula? I am not sure, but what worked for me to shake it was to be thrown out into the great society, to get out into the world and test your self on the so called "playing field" ASAP. We stay in our neighborhoods, tucked away from the fast lane, and get more influenced by the self-defeating distractions that further steal our ambition. In the meantime, as one of my favorite speakers, Tony Brown, put it:
"There is nothing more valuable than education. We fought and continue to fight for parity of opportunity, and we must be prepared to take advantage of that opportunity when it is won, because, if we don't show we are up for the task, it will be used against us, and against the laws that gave us these rights and opportunities. We have in this country what so few nations have in this world. Public Education. As flawed as it is, to the poorest of the poor it is free. We must learn to read, to speak, to write, and to do math very, very well. These are skills that are as essential as air and water to our culture's survival." I have always striven to excel on merit and not hold on to the resentment of a history I cannot go back and change. It really comes home though, in knowing my parents, a mother from rural Virginia, and a father with roots on the eastern shore of Maryland, lived the grand majority of their lives as second-class citizens. In the earlier times like the 30's and 40's, it must have seemed like there was never going to be an end to it. It was backed up by many laws that they could not vote on, or in most cases, familiar practices that remained after laws were passed. People still cling to opinions on race today that are wrapped in their interpretations of their religion, and in the influence of the ultimate role models, their parents. I was blessed that both of my parents were able to forge ahead against adversity. It was a common, everyday adversity. The nation had been running on it for all of it's existence. President after President left it alone. It is said that the years after World War II ended were the happiest for America in the 20th century. Many of the nation's G.I.s came home and got busy, starting the "Baby Boom" generation. They got low interest loans to build homes, which popped up so fast they had to just rubber stamp them out as whole towns at a time. It was a good ten years of patriotic, economic bliss for middle class America before the Negroes started "acting up".
It must have been downright puzzling to the average, middle of the road White American why Blacks were defying the laws of this great country. The citizen that had no reason to even think about race was forced to choose a side, to have an opinion. This opinion was likely to be based in fear, and based also in the anger that you are being affected, being intruded upon by news and images that upset the smooth, natural order of things.
The system that they were comfortable with was being shaken to the core. All over the nation, there was a growing rumble. The people that were laborers: shoe shines, maids and nannies, cooks, gardeners, the invisible help that had their "place", were all of a sudden asking...no, DEMANDING to sit at the table as an equal!
The lasting images are from news coverage that concentrated more in the Deep South. We were faced with bizarre pictures like this one:
This is from 1960. Just 20 years before today's 18 year old is born. I was 1 year old. Now, whether you are black or white or whatever race looking at this picture right now, doesn't this make you angry? What gets me is the white kids in this picture are so proud of what they're doing. There's a couple older men there too. This was a real happening in their town. They felt they are defending their homes from the "outsiders", the youth that came to lead sit-ins at segregated establishments to protest conditions that local blacks were under too much pressure to sacrifice themselves for. Nobody is hiding from the camera, there are clear shots of smiling faces. Also, don't forget that one, possibly two of the protesters getting soaked are white. Without the participation of whites in the protests themselves, there could have been bloodbaths. The white civil rights marchers were primarily Catholic, but also heavily Jewish. And they were up against some hardcore Southern Baptists. This was just a little while ago, folks!! Most people in this picture are still around. I wish there could be a way to research pictures like these to find the kids that are smiling and really enjoying doing this, to talk to them now, about what they thought then and what they think now. It would be therapy, a way of closing old wounds of the past so we can work on the wounds of the present. In one documentary, they tried to go back to talk to key people in the event that is credited with turning the tide of the civil rights struggle. The killing of three protesters in Mississippi. Mostly, all they got was slammed doors in their faces. The pain still runs deep in many parts, not just the South. The Civil War issues still haunt the social atmosphere, so I can imagine the civil rights era is still a fresh memory. Dr. Martin Luther King did not push to the forefront as the leader of this movement. He emerged as the symbol of it because people wanted a singular catalyst, someone to galvanize the emotion, to inspire the masses, and to point out the significance to those that watch from a distance. Civil rights activism ALWAYS existed. There is a popular conservative school of thought that there was a time when Blacks were not all that upset with the way things were. I've seen web pages that use quotes from the early 20th century, from elderly former slaves. These folks spoke of slavery as though it was not so bad at all....like it was a secure feeling being "taken care of" that way.... housed, fed and clothed in exchange for work. This is the kind of communication that I feel is the problem. This sanitized, scholarly study of race. Sure, there wasn't constant whippings and a slave that was born into this life could easily be as comfortable as the slave owners with the relationship. But it loses sight of the whole picture. And the fact that this was not an organized hate group's literature, this was out of the pages of an full fledged established magazine. There is always going to be a diversity of opinion, and if you want to make your point, you can always put a spin on it to suit your purposes. As it turns out, the great debate about race winds up being discussed among the people that have the least problem with it. I am usually in a conversation about race in the company of whites when I am at work. As much as they are unwilling to admit it, I am their only contact with Blacks, and at this point in my life, they fulfill that same role for me. I can pretty much sum up the whole discussion of racial issues at work as my trying to raise issues, and them trying to neutralize, or offset them. Its dizzying how it goes around in circles. It is like on the talk shows, where the guest speaker quotes facts and figures, histories and in-depth research statistics. And then ONE person stands up in the audience, talks of his/her one personal experience to the contrary and gets a rousing applause, like that one incident balances out the tons of info the speaker just gave. The audience was feeling uncomfortable, silly to say, but kind of embarrassed even, by the actions of other whites. When the chance comes to throw the tide the other way they jump on it. It's a sad way to discuss race, but it seems tobe the most popular one. The discussion of race or of rascism is not meant to make whites feel uncomfortable. That is a hallmark sentence of this page that bears repeating in different words. Every time an incident of racial discrimination is discussed, its not necessary to bring up an incident of "reverse discrimination" or "reverse racism" to balance it out. In fact, I dislike that term. Discrimination and racism is just that, no matter who is doing it. To separate it out, class it as "reverse", allows one to get more excited about one aspect over the other.
Addressing another popular arguement I hear, when someone tries to say, "you weren't there..." Just because I did not personally confront the barricades, the National Guard, the police dogs, etc... it does not mean I have no basis for speaking of it with a viseral emotion. Here I go with a trite, but necessary comparison: One does not need to have a direct link in their family tree to the Holocaust or to the Middle Passage to express outrage at "man's inhumanity to man". Here I am, a tax paying member of the middle class, a voter, a homeowner, and it's thought that I can't speak any longer as a member of a historically disadvantaged race. My beating the odds, my "making it" negates my rights to speak about it? This ridiculous view is held by a surprising number of blacks as well as whites. The vicious circle continues. We want our info simple and neatly packaged, so we have allowed the word "liberal" to be equated with a love of anarchy, and allowed the most ultra-conservative views to be equated with family values, and chaste, moral ideals. Does that sound like I lean more toward liberals? Maybe so...but I am interested in truth most of all, and only the wacky liberals like those in the ACLU seem crazy enough to defend free speech for the extremes of both sides. Everyone likes to point to the Constitution. The framework, the ideals set forth, even though by slaveowners at the time, are extremely liberal ideals. Such a document would never have passed both houses of Congress today.
But let's go back to the television set. That magic box that grabbed me as a child continues to influence the development of the mindsets of "little Andres and Andreas" of every race. It is very easy to gain perspective on the racial climate in America every time one of the TV networks airs one of those Hidden Camera news reports. You know the ones, where they send in a white person and a black person and see how each is treated. In the best of establishments, in the best of areas. Buying a car, trying to rent an apartment, dealing with the police, it goes on and on. Once again, the producers and reporters are still "surprised" at how closed minded many people still are.
As an African-American, race is woven into the history and heritage of my family, of my daily existence. I did not put in there, and I can't ignore it, pretend its not there.
Ellis Island holds memories for nearly a third of today's American population. A similar migration, that of people with direct African lineage, moved from South to North in the years following World War II. It weaves it's way into everyday life. Like the Norton or McAfee virus utility, it can lay there dormant for quite a while. I can completely forget it's existence. But then something happens, however subtle, or non-verbal, it's there to snap me back to reality. I don't have to run down a list of what those things were or are. I would hope that if you have read this far, you don't need to be convinced that race is an issue that the U.S.A. still struggles with. Race does matter. It may take some effort, but I think we owe it to our children to make sure they develop a diverse view of society. It just laid there for us...we met who we met in our schools, neighborhoods, etc... But we are in danger now of slipping back into that separate, closed society mentality, if we don't actively pursue diversity. At really young ages, this means purposely putting your children in cross-cultural environments. None in your neighborhood? How about that co-worker that claims to be as open minded as you. Have your kids met their kids yet? We are not all the same. Our cultures make us different. Admitting our differences and discussing the awkward, personal, conflicting parts openly, non-defensively, is still a work in progress.
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