Friday, October 7, 2011

Do the Right Thing

Ronald and I went to a movie early this evening, a late matinee, so it was dusk when we left the theater. We were holding hands, just like always.  There were few people outside the theater. A car drove past us, and the white teen in the back seat turned and stared at us as the car passed. Then the white female driver cut the car hard right, pulled up just ahead of us, and slammed the breaks on. We didn’t quite know what to think, so we crossed the parking lot behind the car, still holding hands. Suddenly the car turned left, in our direction, and slammed the breaks again. We kept walking, but we heard the tires cut hard on the tarmac, and the car turned directly at us, speeding up, and missing us by inches from behind. I scooted forward but Ronald held his ground, as the teen in the backseat yelled some racial profanity as they drove off.
“People think that doesn’t happen anymore,” he said as we walked toward our car. But I know it does, and I was scared. It happened just weeks ago when some white teenagers decided they wanted to kill a nigger.
I keep asking myself why anyone would care that we are together. Or why people care if they see a gay couple. Or why they think Chaz Bono will corrupt family values because he went on Dancing with the Stars. How would any of that matter to someone else?
We had just talked about it last night when we went out to dinner. As the hostess seated us, we felt the eyes of the group of white people, who were sitting at a large table we had to pass, on us. Ronald said he was tired of it. Thirty-five years tired. Most days it doesn’t compute. We don’t waste a moment’s time caring what other people think, and then it slaps us silly one day when we aren’t paying attention. Like when that car veered toward us.
“I would have taken care of it,” he said to me in the car. He protects me. He’s always done that. He makes me feel safe, assures me he wouldn’t let anything happen to me. Not told me about the things that might scare me, like when he was inside a large apartment building that was engulfed in flames, and his air hose disconnected. He became disoriented. He would have gone down if one of the other men hadn’t slammed him up against the wall and reconnected his hose. I only found out because I heard him in the other room, weeks after the big fire, telling his dad. But he didn’t tell me. He didn’t want me to know he could die on the job.
I was staring out the passenger window as we pulled out of the theater parking lot, trying to calm my breathing, trying to stop my mind from imagining what might have happened. Knowing that he would have kept us safe, but wondering if that would have meant he or someone else would have gotten hurt.
“Don’t sweat the one that didn’t get you,” he said. My heart kept beating against my chest. I won’t ever get used to people who hate others and want to do something about it.  It scares the bejesus out of me. I don’t think of people that way, because I don’t think that way. But there they are, staring me in the face, threatening assault.
 (Excerpt from essay Keep Hope Alive)
I felt that same fear in the undercurrent of complaints about Obama. No one but a white supremacist could say his hatred was due to Obama being black. Ronald said, “It’s a good thing Michelle is black. Whites would think he overstepped his bounds if he married a white woman, and he wouldn’t have a chance of getting elected.” He still feels the disdain from some white men for his perceived overstepping of boundaries even though we’ve been together for thirty-five years.
Others claimed Obama was not qualified. Some said he could not understand the common man because of his Harvard education or the manner in which he spoke. They forgot that President George W. Bush was from one of the wealthiest families in America and graduated from both Yale and Harvard. Many of the people who complained Obama did not understand them, felt simpatico with Bush. Some said Obama was a Muslim, and that somehow made him unqualified in this country founded on religious freedom. Some said he was not born here. All lies.  They could not imagine a black man leading their country.
Obama would come to know the incredible pressure of being the first black president of the United States, a pressure that must come with the feeling that any personal failure is a failure for the whole race in other people’s eyes. I told Ronald that he did not want to be the first black officer on the Syracuse Fire Department.  A few of the top officers believed he had the skill and drive to be the first. I think he knew that first individual would face unprecedented tests of perseverance and resilience. His brother-in-law was that person, the first black lieutenant in the one-hundred-year history of the Syracuse Fire Department. The weariness in his face, the fatalism in his voice, spoke of the weight of carrying the future of black firefighters on his shoulders. I see it in Ronald’s face, too, as one of the first black firefighters on the force after the consent decree. He and his black brothers made the naming of the first black lieutenant possible. If they had failed, would any other black men or women ever have the opportunity to follow?

But on that day in Charlotte, waiting in line for hours [to see presidential candidate Obama], passing through the metal detectors, emptying my pockets, and getting wanded by security, I was excited, hopeful.  I wanted to believe all the struggles my husband had been through in his twenty-five years as a firefighter, and all the struggles millions of other black men and women had been through, had helped to change the way our country viewed people of color. I wanted to believe we were living in a post-racial society.
I was scared, too.  The one thing I worried about most, being married to a black man, was that some crazy, white cop would mistakenly identify him as a suspect just because he was a black male. Forget the height, weight and age description of the suspect; one black man looked like all others through some eyes. Poll black men, and most of them will tell you they have been arrested at least once.  Esteemed scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested at his own home on July 20, 2009 when police arrived to investigate a possible break-in. I understood and felt his disbelief and outrage: a man in his fifties who walked with a cane not recognized by his own neighbors in daylight and accosted by police at his own front door.
Ronald’s arrest was a misdemeanor for trespassing. (See post Tar Baby of Racial Discourse, August 3, 2011)
I was scared Senator Obama would face the same trials as my husband, but on a grander scale.  Would some crazy person, believing he was preserving the America he envisioned, do harm to Obama? “Your president” my husband would hear in the years after the election as if Obama only represented a portion of America.
“Who’s the leader of the white people?” I asked at a diversity training session back in the late 1990s when one of the white males in the group called Jesse Jackson “the black leader” as if there were only one capable and only one necessary.
“Bill Clinton,” he responded smugly.

I supported Jesse Jackson both times he ran as a Democratic primary candidate. I joined the Rainbow Coalition and passed out campaign literature. I saw him both times he appeared in Syracuse, the first time pregnant with my twins, holding my arms protectively out in front of me so the crowd could not crush them. “Pregnant woman, make way,” I said as I pushed my way to the front of the crowd.
The second time, the girls were around four and I wanted to take them, but Ronald thought the crowds would be too much for them. At the end of his speech Jackson asked all the children to join him on the stage. “Keep hope alive!” he called out over and over. I cried because Cara and Mackenzie were not there. I was in the front row with my union steward colleagues even though I had moved on to a management position.
Maybe the time was not right for Jesse Jackson. Maybe he was too militant for some. Maybe the history of black/white relations was still an open wound in America. But I thought he was a beacon of light for hope and change. I saw his opportunity pass, though, when he became a caricature of himself; his message sounding tired to the next generation who already believed racism was part of the past, a selective amnesia. Then, despite his “wide, deep, and unequivocal” support of Senator Obama, he was overheard saying Obama was talking down to black churchgoers.  Was Obama too white for some blacks and too black for some whites? How black is too black? How white is too white?
“You don’t sound black,” Ronald has been told over and over.
“How can I not sound black?” he responds. “I’m black. This is how I sound.”
American mainstream culture is indelibly and distinctively defined by the presence of black culture.  Rock and roll, jazz, zydeco, rap, tap, and modern dance are uniquely American and uniquely influenced by black culture. Why couldn’t Obama be judged as just an American? Why did people think of him as the black candidate?
“They’ll think of you as black,” Ronald told our daughters when they got accepted the spring before their senior year of high school to attend a predominately white dance conservatory located in the Southeast.  The faculty was all white except for the occasional visiting instructor. Ronald wanted to prepare them for their first contact with racist belief that was entwined tightly in common everyday occurrences and interactions. They had attended urban public schools that were fifty percent ethnic minority through the end of their junior year of high school. Their group of friends billed themselves the “beige girls” and the group consisted of mixed-race and mixed-ethnic girls, all light-skinned, but still brown.
Cara and Mackenzie hadn’t believed him. They thought he was describing how things were when he was young. But within a few months of arriving at the school, both were calling and complaining.
“One of the teachers told me I looked like an Ailey dancer,” Cara said. “So she was saying I look like a black dancer, not that I look like a dancer.”
“Some of the white students are afraid of us,” Mackenzie said. “They thought because we are black and from New York we must be carrying box cutters. I told them we are middle-class kids just like they are.”

The unofficial and exclusively American one-drop rule that defined anyone with African ancestry as a Negro was codified into law in the 1924 Racial Integrity Act in Virginia. Other states passed similar laws. In the 1940s the Registrar of Statistics in Virginia counted mixed-race families as black. His reasoning was "two races as materially divergent as the White and Negro, in morals, mental powers, and cultural fitness, cannot live in close contact without injury to the higher." He had his office recode people as colored without notifying them of the change. The effort drastically affected people’s ability to socialize, worship, earn a living or choose where to live.
The anti-miscegenation law banning interracial marriage, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 and the one-drop rule were all found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the case Loving vs. Virginia in 1967. Ronald and I met nine years later in 1976. South Carolina and Alabama would continue to carry anti-miscegenation laws on the books until 1998 and 2000 respectively.
Family, friends and strangers tried to convince Ronald and me our relationship was doomed for failure. They let us know their disdain, or told us having children was irresponsible, or that birds of a feather flocked together. Once when Ronald traveled with me on a business trip, we were walking down the sidewalk, our hands clasped, when a large white man leaned toward us, shaking his head in disgust, and said, “Shame on you.” Did he know we were together for more than twenty-five years at that time with two wonderfully smart and talented twin daughters? Did he know our marriage had beaten divorce statistics?
What if Obama’s parents had decided having children was irresponsible?

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