Many thanks to all of you who wrote and shared heartfelt replies to my Independence Day blog last week, and please forgive my not responding personally to each and every one of you.
That was my first post of 2020, half way through this cataclysmic year, 4 months into the Covid-19 pandemic, and 6 weeks after the murder of George Floyd.
I had been bothered, frustrated and dismayed by my inability to articulate and share my reactions to first the pandemic (more on this next week), then to the blatant, unrepentant racism revealed in the death of George Floyd. As is my want, I turned to writing, sadly in fits and starts. But on July 3rd, a 3 minute writing prompt from one of my favorite creatives, Ann Randolph, at her new online Happy Cock Church, “What does the 4th of July or Independence Day mean to you?” opened a door.
And now, the dam has burst: I have started writing a new solo show about the intersection of racism and privilege in my life.
I had always known that, for whatever reason, unless they were social justice warriors, even good, kind, caring, smart and empathetic liberal and progressive friends could have blind spots.
But as the curtains have been pulled back these last weeks, many white friends, some lifelong, others newer, from every facet of my life, have expressed surprise and dismay at discovering what now seems to them 2 parallel universes: the one they inhabit, and the one in which we Black Americans live.
I used to think you were just supersensitive,” said one, “Until I began to see for myself.”
“I always though you couldn’t have experienced racism personally,” said another.
And I heard over and over, “How could I not have known?”
In the words of Rogers and Hammerstein, though used very differently, “You have to be taught.”
But we weren’t.
What we were taught in Black History month would make you believe the history of Black people began with the arrival of the first kidnapped Africans on American shores in 1619, ignoring the great kingdoms of Africa. That fits the narrative, that Blacks exist to be our working underclass, a narrative so old, it is built into our social contract.
How would white Americans know better? Or learn better?
Textbooks skip over slavery, insisting Blacks came from Africa for better job opportunities? Skip over the inconvenient truth that one cause of the US fight for liberation from the British was to preserve slavery. Skip over the compromise of 1850, with its fugitive slave act, that deputized any white person to confront any Black person to prove him or herself free while it paid judges double to declare any Black person a fugitive than to find he/she was free. Skip over the Compromise of 1877, where a contested race for President was settled in favor of Rutherford B. Hayes by the federal government agreeing to pull the last troops out of the South, and formally end the Reconstruction Era, paving the way for Jim Crow and disenfranchisement of Blacks. It is that compromise that lead to the saying, “The Union won the war, but the Confederates won the peace.” Textbooks skip over the origins of Confederate Monuments 40 years after the close of the Civil War as tools of intimidation. Skip over Woodrow Wilson’s firing every civil servant of color. Skip over the violence that greeted Black soldiers returning from World War 1, that lead to the destruction of many communities of color (see Tulsa below). Skip over that the GI bill limited benefits to whites, that the US government created “redlining” - refusing mortgage loans to communities of color thereby creating slums, and government policies of razing Black neighborhoods to create new freeways or parks, including New York’s Central Park.
In other words, radio silence on systemic policies of Black oppression, exploitation and denial of rights.
Not that whitewashing was limited to Black history. How much do most Americans (not of Native ancestry) know about the Trail of Tears? About the broken treaties that ended with the people who inhabited this country before Christopher Columbus arrived and claimed to have “discovered” it (how does one discover a fully inhabited continent?) crowded onto barren reservations, where in 2020, 40% have no access to running water? About the US Army policy of distributing small pox infected blankets to Native Americans to ensure their genocide? About the Mexican American War of 1846-8 that resulted in our annexation of Texas, incorporating lands inhabited by native Spanish speakers? How many know of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882? Or that the 1895 Supreme Court ruling upholding the birthright citizenship written into the 14th amendment was settled in favor of Wong Kim Ark, a San Francisco born Chinese who was denied reentry after visiting his parents in China? That Mount Rushmore was a sacred Sioux site called the Six Grandfathers, deeded to the Lakota in Perpetuity by Treaty in 1868, but seized by the US government, who proceeded to carve the faces of 4 Presidents who took Native land, and named it after a gold speculator instrumental in that seizure? And though many may know of the Japanese Internment Camps, proposed for “National Security”, how many know the Colonel who designed them intended anyone with “one drop” of Japanese Blood be interned?
Now I am not a student of history, but I know these things. These are facts. And without knowing facts, it may be hard to comprehend discrepant attitudes or discordant views. Certainly, the experiences of my family gave me familiarity with the peculiar ways in which our system failed Blacks. And perhaps, being part of America’s racial underclass made me more curious about how others fared. But in truth, none of us learned the history of this country, or her inhabitants. We were taught revisionist American History, stripped of unpleasant truths that did not serve the powers that be, or our national myths.
An open-hearted white friend learned only one month ago about the Tulsa Riot (more accurately known as the Tulsa race massacre) of 1921, which destroyed an area known as The Black Wall Street, only one of many acts of white mob violence that destroyed affluent black communities, murdering and displacing residents in that era, with the complicity of city officials, police and in some cases, the National Guard.
“But I grew up near Tulsa. I never heard about this,” she exclaimed. “Why can’t history be taught with facts, facts that might prevent the same horrible behaviors from being repeated?”
Why indeed? Educators and social justice warriors are working on that.
So, though the history of the United States is filled with injustices, her original sins, genocide of Native Americans and enslavement of African Americans have yet to be admitted, confronted or atoned for. And of course, it is the systemic racism that allowed the injustice of slavery with its festering aftermath that has caused the current reckoning. In the words of the author and Lincoln biographer, James Swanson, “Slavery and race are not at the periphery of the American experience. They’re at the very core of what America is.”
So white Americans, how do you understand enough about slavery and race to comprehend what is happening now? And how do you become an ally in the fight to make the promise of the United States, ‘with Liberty and Justice for All’ a reality?
Listen and learn.
I am heartened by my sentient white friends' great hunger to understand. Many have asked for resources. One of my book clubs bumped a previous choice, slotting in White Fragility: Why It's so Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin Diangelo PhD, instead. Another added the Netflix Ava DuVernay movie 13th. Yet another added Just Mercy (now a movie as well as a book) by Brian Stevenson, the social justice attorney.
After May 25th, I received a number of emails and phone calls checking on my well-being and asking about my experiences. But I was overwhelmed and as the mother of two black sons, needed my energy for my family. So I responded by sending the which, sadly, appeared as an anonymous post FB, so I cannot credit the author.
Your black friend is trying to be ok.
Your Black friend in the past 30 days has watched a Black man get shot dead while jogging (Ahmaud Arbery), a Black woman get shot dead while sleeping (Breonna Taylor), and the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. Your Black friend has also listened to the President of the United States use segregationist words as a veiled threat.
Your Black friend is trying to be ok.
Please don't ask us about the looting. Please don't chastise us about the rioting. Please don't tell us that all lives matter. Please don't minimalize our fear. Please don't bring up Black on Black crime. Please don't ask "What about Chicago?" Please don't say "if you'd just act like (A Wildly Successful Black Person... Usually Oprah, Obama, Colin Powell, Denzel or Will Smith)". Please don't judge us.
Your Black friend is trying to be ok.
Listen to your Black friend. Empathize with your Black friend. Support your Black friend. Pray for your Black friend. Pray with your Black friend.
Just let your Black friend know you really care.
Your Black friend will remember who truly had their back during this difficult time. They will remember who was more concerned about a looted Target. They will remember you posting a thinly veiled and racially offensive meme. They will remember you calling looters "Savages". They will remember your silence about their Black life and the Black Lives of others.
It's real easy.
Do whatever you can to help your Black friend out because your Black friend is trying to be ok.
(One poster added, and if you don't have a Black friend, better find one!)
But these times call on all of us to do more. Some speak of the current moment as the 3rd Reconstruction, the second having been the Civil Rights Movement and Civil Rights Act of 1964. I have been so gratified to see the white support for the Black Lives Matter movement. We need you. We need you to understand the system, to recognize the flip side of discrimination is privilege, and help dismantle systemic racism for once and for all, even recognizing it may cost you some privilege.
Just as education was denied to the enslaved, with the full understanding that knowledge is power, education now is the place to start. There is no shortage of suggested materials for beginning the remedial work of understanding racism in this country. But I share below some of the shorter form media I think most helpful, and next week, will add a few books. And though this list is no means exhaustive, any of these can be a jumping off point. Choose one, and take it from there.
If you read nothing else, start with the July 4 NYTimes Cover Story, America’s Enduring Racial Caste System, by Isabel Wilkerson, the first black woman to win a Pulitzer prize in Journalism, author of The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of the Great American Migration (A National Book Club Winner).
Watch any of the Jane Elliot videos. An educator, in response to the assassination of MLK in '68, she devised the Brown Eyes Blue Eyes experiment to confront racial prejudice in her Iowa classroom. The results changed her life and defined her life’s work. This one is 59 seconds, but I love the 100 minute one with Angela Davis.
If you’re a movie/video person, this lecture, The Truth About the Confederacy, was brought to my attention by my dear friend and social justice warrior, Irma Herrera. The speaker is Jeffrey Robinson, Director of the ACLU Racial Justice Project. Insightful and informative, it contains a hilarious interview given by young Muhammad Ali in England, very early into the talk (within the first five minutes).
The next few are NY Times Op Ed pieces:
America, This is Your Chance, by Michelle Alexander, Author of The New Jim Crow
“My Body is a Confederate Monument: Slavery, Rape and Reframing the Past” with a follow up piece answering selected reader questions, by Poet, Caroline Randall Williams.
As Mayor of Minneapolis, I Saw How White Liberals Block Change, by former Betsey Hodges.
The next few are essays:
On White Privilege, written by Lori Lakin Hutcherson, first published in 2016 and published in Good Black News, but since reprinted.
Dear White America , strident truth written by a friend of mine, Wanetta Doty, and published on the Lorraine Hansberry Theater’s web site.
Given how “protecting the virtue of white women” has lead to much violence against black men, this series of articles addresses role of white women in the struggle.
From Vanity Fair: How White Women can be Better Black Lives Matter Allies
Racism From Charles Blow, a NY Times columnist, has probably been the most consistently right on columnist on racism for years now.
An academic case study exploration, but something I have experienced on more than one occasion: When White Women Cry: How White Women’s Tears Oppress Women of Color
And if you’re up for a class, the American Bar Association offers a self directed 21-Day Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge ©
We really need you. We can not do this alone. We welcome your allyship with gratitude.