"How long? Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
~ Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Cold temperatures drive me inside my head. I lived in upstate NY for the first fifty years of my life, but I never liked the cold. I tolerated it, swearing or crying into my muffler as I pushed snow off my car or straining against the wind to get to my building’s door each morning for work, hoping the wind would not knock me off my feet as it had on other occasions. When Ronald bought me a remote car starter, my mood lightened considerably. I could open the door of my building, aim the remote at the car in the parking lot twenty-five yards away and start my car. Twenty minutes later, I would brave the wind and chill and jump into my warm car. I didn’t even have to scrape windows.
Down South I complain if I have to put socks on. This winter has been one of the coldest since we moved here, and it makes me want to hibernate. Up north we would have been cheering at how mild a winter it is.
Sometimes Ronald says we should move farther south to Florida, and I just stare at him blankly. Another state with bad politics, only Florida doesn’t have grand topography or the same brilliant blue sky of North Carolina, and there are too many people.
The chill makes me think of my writing life, too. It’s been harshly vacant like one of my mornings up north, walking to my building, the cold piercing and the wind pushing.
I have reasons or excuses. The world is overwhelming and too many bad things happen, whether it is a terrorist bombing in Paris or the murder of a young black man at the hands of the police.
Sometimes I want to shut down the newsfeeds and recycle the paper before reading it.
It’s happened with family, too. All the years of estrangement, the legacy of it carried from one generation to the next, the sameness in its execution, like it’s genetic. One day I stop thinking about it and then I stop thinking about them.
Our history seems genetically coded, too. Violence, oppression, hatred, distrust, greed, and racial bias – they are passed on as quietly as hair color and texture, eye color, height, body type, and skin color.
Greed and self-centeredness make us poor stewards of the earth and poor advocates of the greater good.
I am as guilty as anyone these days with my armchair activism. I write this blog and post my opinions on Facebook, but you won’t find me out marching anymore. There was a time I spoke up, lobbied, and protested. I made the effort to make effective change in my workplace, at my daughters’ school, in my community, and at the state and national level.
We knew we had to do something to make change back then. We knew we had to voice our concerns, not in a room filled with like minds, but in the room of minds least likely to agree.
Last evening we went to see Selma, and I was reminded why we felt that way. I would turn eight just a couple of months after the marches from Selma to Montgomery. I remember watching the news about it, but I don’t ever remember discussing it in school. Even though it would change our history, it apparently did not affect us in my mostly white school up north.
Something in me knew that omission was wrong. Somehow I knew this was important, even though it would be years before I understood racial bias and just how insidious and pervasive institutional and systemic racism is in our country.
But something else happened, too. Dr. King taught the country about the necessity of protest to make change.
Here’s a quote from Dr. King’s speech delivered in Montgomery after the march:
If it may be said of the slavery era that the white man took the world and gave the Negro Jesus, then it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. (Yes, sir) He gave him Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, (Yes, sir) he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. (Right sir) And he ate Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. (Yes, sir) And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, (Speak) their last outpost of psychological oblivion. (Yes, sir)
I still feel the relevance of this speech. The lie of superiority is still being peddled.
My emotions were on high before we even arrived at the theater. Ronald was unsure he wanted to see it. As he has often said, “I live this.”
“I want to see it as an adult,” I countered.
He relented. I feel guilty that he shares my journey to understand what racism is. After thirty-nine years, I cannot say that I know what it is like to be black in America. White Americans may think I’m daft, but black Americans know what I mean.
At the theater, there were very few white people in the audience. Why didn’t they come to learn about our collective history of America?
I knew the girls walking down the stairs in the church would die, but I leaped and gasped aloud when the blast decimated those innocent souls who each had all the potential but none of the opportunities to reach it.
When Jimmie Lee Jackson, church deacon and civil rights activist, was gunned down by a police officer during a non-violent protest, I began to cry.
Jimmie Lee Jackson (Wikipedia)
I continued crying all the way through the movie credits.
I cried for the valor displayed by people who knew they might die but showed up anyway. I cried for the injustices perpetrated by the very people who are supposed to protect and serve us, the peace officers, who chose instead to uphold Jim Crow. I cried because I fully understood the symbolism of the Confederate flag. I cried because what happened then is not so different from what is happening now. I cried because this was a story that we all share, told finally from the perspective of the people oppressed by Jim Crow.
In 1965 the police galloped into the marchers on horses and wielded bats and tear gas. In Ferguson, they arrived in tanks, wore riot gear, and used rubber bullets and tear gas.
Today protests are mostly done from inside the comfort of one’s home on social media where most “friends” are in agreement. Though I am guilty of it, I don’t think it changes a single thing. When people do take to the streets, they are not organized as they were during the Civil Rights marches. Dr. King and those close advisors and collaborators around him had direction, concrete demands, and strategies. The protestors were trained and understood what to expect (some protesters in Ferguson were trained in this tradition). Little was left to chance.
Today someone tweets to meet up at Times Square, and thousands show up, but what is the plan, what are the demands, what are the strategies?
While we gather in aimless groups and lament and commiserate on social media, others are working hard to implement their agendas of privilege and power.
It scares me. I wonder what I could have done differently, what my generation could have done differently. I hope the younger generations figure it out.
I think we’ve failed as liberals and activists in the last fifty years.
Part of our failure was the complacency that comes from success. When we believed we had achieved all we set out to do, we stopped being vigilant, and Jim Crow gained ground again.
The other part of failure is that white liberals still live with privilege and still view the world through the lens of privilege.
I recently watched Chris Matthews, a man I have great respect for, get his underwear in a twist because he didn’t feel President Johnson was respectfully and truthfully portrayed in the film. His reaction to the film says to me white liberals want to be liberal but keep the old order.
They still like to be the ones in control (the power brokers) and the ones in the know. It is damaging in the quest for racial equality. As soon as a white liberal tells a person of color “I get it” or “You don’t understand what needs to be done,” he or she is being patronizing and racist.
When a white person says “I get it,” it is like telling Samaria Rice you know how she felt when Tamir was gunned down by a police officer less than two seconds after the officers pulled up to him while he played with a toy gun in the park. No, the fuck, we don’t know.
When Chris Matthews laments about LBJ’s reputation, it is stealing the story from black Americans who were tired of the oppression and ready to demand change and giving it to a "white savior" who sweeps in to save the day for the poor black fools who couldn’t save themselves without his assistance.
That’s not the story Ava Duvernay chose to tell nor was it the truth or the story we needed to hear. Certainly, LBJ was a wealthy white man with a Southern affiliation, and he was blatant in his use of the N-word. He enacted both the Civil Rights Act and the Voters Rights Act, but it is doubtful he would have acted alone. He did what was right politically and right for the country, and there is no doubt his decision to act was in direct reaction to Dr. King’s persuasiveness and the powerful microscope of the news media focused on the South.
I’ve had family and friends alike tell Ronald they get it or that the experience he is telling them couldn’t possibly have happened. His story made them uncomfortable, and their privilege ephemeral, and instead of expressing those feelings, they attack his credibility. I’ve stopped talking to family members and friends or they’ve stopped talking to me. I’ve been un-friended on Facebook because they do not want to allow that my experience is different from theirs. Estrangement is the easy way out for both of us. The other person doesn’t have to endure uncomfortable moments, and I don’t have to feel offended by their inability to accept a different experience.
We, who look at the world from the safe haven of privilege, cannot ever know what it is to be unprivileged and targeted in America. Part of the privilege is the assuredness often displayed when telling people who are not privileged that you know more about their lives than they do.
Even though I gave up “whiteness” when I entered into an interracial relationship thirty-nine years ago, I am not black. I cannot know what my husband and daughters experience as black and mixed race Americans. The experiences I relate are my narratives, not theirs, even when they star in them.
I regain my “white” status in the eyes of others as soon as I am alone.
What I can do is demonstrate my outrage at the perpetrators of racism, give an empathic ear when things happen, speak up when it matters, and continue my journey to learn about race in America and my role in perpetuating racism. Thirty-nine years is not long enough because it’s already been proven that fifty years or even one hundred-fifty years cannot undo our history.
That is what we, the people defined as white in our racially constructed society, need to do. Listen. Acknowledge privilege. Speak up instead of choosing silence. Express outrage. Collaborate to work toward a solution.
Are we capable of accepting another societal construct, one that eliminates racial divides and gives every citizen equal opportunity and equality under the law?
Can we change our inherent need for tribalism by redefining our tribes?
Can we agree that equality is more desirable than privilege, which assumes a construct of haves and have-nots?
I need a remote starter to defrost my heart because I don’t trust we can achieve this.
Aside from watching Selma, two moments this week helped me toward that end.
Ronald turned to me as we were driving home the other night and he said, “Your looks change, and today you look like that photo I took of you on my parent’s porch.”
I knew the one he meant, taken one warm, spring day in college. “In my sleeveless sweater,” I said.
The photo was taken in 1977, a time when my parents, particularly my mother, railed against my relationship with Ronald. In one argument that summer, she would accuse me of causing my father’s second heart attack. It was also when Ronald and I knew we would spend our lives together, because neither of us could imagine a different future.
Back then (1977), no matter how cold it got, my heart remained warm
The second was yesterday morning. After writing for a bit, I climbed back into bed and shaped my body around Ronald’s contours. Our combined body heat was tropical. Soon we turned in unison, and, lying side-by-side, his left hand holding my right hand above our heads, we talked about everything and nothing. It was the most meaningful hour of my day.
Those moments are my remote starter. They warm me up and keep me going, no matter how cold it gets.