“Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees. . .”
(from the song “Strange Fruit”, written by Dwayne P. Wiggins, Maurice Pearl, Lewis Allan)
I was not intending to write about racism in America, but it reared its head and I’m thinking about it. Don’t quite know how to clear the air, clear my conscience.
The trigger was tonight’s episode of “Criminal Minds.” This program is almost always excellent, but tonight the situation involved the digging up of bodies in the back yard of a middle class black family in Virginia. The parents are my age or a little older and their adult son lives with them. As they are separated for interrogation, they stand their ground. Take the position that they are being profiled because they are black. They alternate between pride and arrogance, submission, humanity, challenging the white cops to come up with something real. The police hammer the son until he admits to one murder and then another. But it turns out he is not the culprit and is released. In the end the murderer is discovered to have been lynched and mutilated by the Ku Klux Klan in the ‘60’s on the word of a white woman. She “ruined his life” as he put it, all based on a lie. He sought revenge.
But what was telling were some of the things the characters said. Things like: “Slaves didn’t have Prozac. They had to push through. So do we.” Things like: “Yes, massah, I mow the lawn sir. Shall I mow your lawn, massah?” Things like: “What do you know about black rage?” The chill with which the people related to the white cops seemed almost too real. I was brought back to the 1950s when lynchings were still happening in the South. I remember some of these. What hurts me now, is that I did not feel bad or wrong about them then.
~ Our baby sitter at my grandmother’s place in New Jersey was a black grandmother. What I didn’t realized until a lot later, was that while she was a college graduate, she earned her living cleaning houses for my grandmother and my grandmother’s sisters (and others). She was trained as a teacher, but never got to teach. When I think back, they talked to and about her as if she were a lesser person, a child. What were the sisters teaching?
~ My sister met her first black child when she went to camp at about age 7 or 8. She went up to the little girl and asked her if she really was black or if her skin was painted on. I think about that event now and then and wonder what was going on in our house that my sister didn’t know about differences in race? I don’t think she ever liked people who were not white even though she tried to be race neutral all of her short life.
~ As the Civil Rights Movement developed through the early 60’s, I could never really understand what the big deal was. As a teenager, “separate but equal” seemed OK to me. Only later did I learn that separate was not equal.
~ In 1968, I did an internship in the United States Senate. I worked for Edward W. Brooke, who was then a freshman Senator from Massachusetts, and a black person. Pretty much his whole staff was white. I lived in Washington in a black middle class neighborhood with a black college classmate and her family. I took the bus into downtown Washington every day for work. There was a distinct line where the black neighborhoods ended and the white ones started. The government was predominantly and prominently white. The government buildings glowed white and from the steps of the Capitol I could look into the slums of the surrounding black neighborhoods. I have visited Washington from time to time since then and stood on the Capitol steps. Nothing much has changed except that the slums have been gentrified. I don’t know where the black people have gone who used to live in the shadow of the Capitol.
~ For ten years, I lived in West Hill in Albany, a completely integrated neighborhood. For many of those ten years, I walked to work in downtown, walking through the black neighborhood of Arbor Hill. Many of my work colleagues urged me not to take this walk, concerned that I would be mugged, or worse, because everything was so dangerous. There were times when I felt unsafe, but mostly not. Mostly I just interacted with people who were trying to live their lives, just as I was.
~ I look at our “all volunteer” armed forces these days. It looks as if a great many of volunteers are black people and other people of color. The big white cats in Washington make wars and conflicts and send the lesser, expendable people to go and fight those wars for them. Why don’t we just admit that we don’t care to accept “colored” people into our society as equals, as people worthy of not being gun fodder.
~ And there is today’s political picture. I don’t believe for a moment that the deadlock in our federal government is anything more than veiled racism. Our President is a black person and that has made him and everything he has tried to accomplish a target. Not because the things he wants are good or bad – but because he is inherently bad/evil because he is black. This is what I believe.
The hardest thing for me to deal with is my own conditioned reaction to black people and other people of color. I don’t know where I learned this, but I wish I could shake it. At least for the last 40 years if I walk down the street and a black person comes towards me, I feel uneasy. If the person sitting or standing next to me at concert is a black person, I feel uneasy. If the person behind me in line at the grocery store is black, I feel uneasy. I even feel uneasy and looking over my shoulder when I am spending time with my friends who are not white. In every situation that involves interactions with people of color, I feel uneasy. I have a dear friend who is a musician and who happens to be black. I love him with my whole soul, but when I am around him, even through the love, I feel this dis-ease.
The “Criminal Minds” episode tonight reminded me that we still have a long way to go in dealing with and conquering this racism. People are people. We all have the same hopes and dreams. We bleed the same color blood. We are born in the same pain. We all die at the end of our days. The sad thing, the wrong thing, that the way we live, the way our dreams are realized or not, still often depends on the color of our skin. Even after 50 years, the “content of [our] character” is not the foundation for most decisions made to determine whether a person reaches the goals of their lifetimes.
I think we as a nation need to learn to live outside our comfort zones. I embrace the unease I feel, know it for the irrational thing that it is, and look beyond it to the person walking towards me, sitting next to me, standing behind me. “Hello, how are you today?” I might say, and wait to hear what they have to say. We ALL need to do that.
Today is the anniversary of the Gettysburg Address. Here’s a link to all five versions of the speech: http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/gettysburg.htm
And here’s a link to an article that I enjoyed published on Martin Luther King day this past winter: http://bigstory.ap.org/article/king-content-character-quote-inspires-debate.
Let’s do it, Friends. Let’s make a new and better world on our watch.