Category Archives: history

Buffalo Soldiers

Bob Marley’s song Buffalo Soldier was played at every youth dance I ever attended. I’m not exactly sure why that song, out of Bob’s hundreds, was such a mainstay on the dance circuit, right alongside Alphaville’s Forever Young, but without fail you would hear that brass prelude, duuuuuuuh- duh dah. Duh-duh, dah-dah, duuh da-da! Then we would all start bouncing and singing along.​

​They didn’t play that song at the National Buffalo Soldier Museum grand opening in Houston Texas this Veteran’s Day. It was noticeably absent. My brother and I on the other hand, were present. So were a grand assembly of 10th Cavalry reenactors. Formed in 1866, the 10th Cavalry, while not being the United States’s first black regiment, they were the first black regiment formed during peacetime. Now of course “peacetime” is a bit of a misnomer since the U.S. was indeed engaged in a number of armed conflicts with various Native American nations, and also Spain, and then Mexico, and also with a bunch ranchers, miners, and farmers intent on putting the “wild” descriptor solidly into the Wild West.

From 1866 through 1918 the Buffalo Soldiers fought against all of them. They fought well enough that over that time 26 of these soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor. All those medal winners are notable for a number of different reasons, but the biggest one, is that despite those hard to earn honors, officials in the United States government, the military, and white Americans in general repeatedly withdrew praise or sanction whenever things got anywhere near complicated. And by complicated I mean whenever white people complained.

This makes sense when considering the relationship between black people and the United States overall. It has always been this sort of “complicated”. Let me offer a few examples that illustrate what I mean by complicated, and remember, these guys earned 26 Medals of Honor.

After the civil war, where black units like the Massachusetts 54th earned high praise, the ever striving Armstrong Custer accepted a demotion rather than accept command of the Buffalo Soldier’s 9th Cavalry. With a lower rank he took command of the 7th and headed for Little Bighorn.

John J. Pershing, before he became the commander of all American forces on the western front of World War 1, was the commander of the 10th. He sang the unit’s praises and in return was mocked by the rest of the army who gave him the derogatory nickname “N—-r Jack”.  When Woodrow Wilson, the president who re-segregated the Whitehouse staff and held screenings of the film Birth of a Nation, placed Pershing in command of the whole army, Pershing abandoned the black units, handing their command over to the French. He refused to allow any other American units to integrate with, or be commanded by, anyone but other Americans.

In 1897 the Buffalo Soldiers were considered the best equestrians in the armed services and it was proposed they take over the riding instruction at West Point. This proposal was ignored or declined for ten years till 1907 when West Point’s cavalry unit was designated as a colored unit. It remained so till Harry Truman desegregated the Army.

It should be remembered that this period in United States history, let’s say 1866 through 1920, encompasses a number of different era’s ie. Reconstruction, Industrialization, the Gilded Age, the Nadir, Westward Expansion etc. I call that entire time “White People Gone Wild”. Those were the days where defeated confederate soldiers burned down black neighborhoods to regain political office. That was back when live ammunition was used to break up steel worker strikes. This was when prospectors got military backing to kick Sioux of their designated homelands, bison nearly went extinct due to recreational slaughter, and Chinese immigrants were encouraged to help build railroads after which they became the target of our countries first immigration law aka the Chinese Exclusion Act. This was an era where America decided, officially on paper, that it was going to not only stretch from sea to shining sea but that it would also continue to be explicitly the home of white people. And the government was more than happy to wield black soldiers in the fight against brown people in order to establish national whiteness.

That is what I mean by complicated.

All history is messy. American history around race is especially so. Things aren’t all that clear cut today either.

But what was clear on Memorial Day in Houston Texas, is that there exists a strong tradition of African-American military service and a well-earned pride in the history of that service. A pride that despite its complications was fought for and claimed, and it is a history that should be preserved.

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Kicks, Cars, and the Green Book: Route 66

I first knew the song thanks to Depeche Mode, my Dad probably knows it thanks to Chuck Berry, most kids today probably know it from Pixar’s movie Cars, but the song Route 66 first hit the charts in 1946 thanks to Nat King Cole.

I live on Route 66.

I get both my kicks and my groceries there.IMG_0374

Touted as Americas first interstate, Route 66 stretches from Chicago to
Santa Monica. Oddly enough, for a road that stretches across so much of the country, most of that road goes through nowhere.IMG_6160 My particular stretch of that old road is the kind of no where that filled up with people yet never quite became a place. There isn’t a solid there here.

When driving through nowhere you best mind the gas gauge.IMG_6165

Back before the Prius cars needed lots of gallons for very few miles and this meant pulling over and filling up in places like Cucamonga California- or Barstow. Because of that long gone need, or maybe somehow in honor of it, my little stretch of this road is frequented by all sorts of cars you don’t see every day in other places.

I live where old cars go after they die.IMG_1699

When me and my little one stopped by the only museum in my city, they had one artifact that surprised me. They had a Green Book. I had heard of it, known what it is, but never seen one. It wasn’t in great shape and was framed.IMG_6153

The Green Book was something like a AAA travel guide for Black people. This was necessary because, much like planning out where to plug in a Prius, in those days you had to plan out your pit stops, and only certain pits would do business with Black people. The Green Book listed the places a Black family could fill up, eat, or stay the night.

Which I knew but didn’t really think about in California. Not that California is immune to that sort of thing entirely, but sometimes in my mind, back when stuff like that was in its hey-day, California didn’t even exist.

Sometimes my mind is wrong.IMG_3176

Anyone out there know where I can get my hands on a copy of the Green Book? That little museum (which has the friendliest docents I’ve ever met) could use a better copy.

Green Book

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James Brown was Rich

In 1964 when James Brown went on the T.A.M.I. show, he had already earned more than a million dollars. He was rich. He wasn’t only rich, but he was so universally popular that on that show he shared the stage with the Beach Boys and Rolling Stones. A lot of white people loved James Brown- in 1964. That’s kind of a big deal.

The very next year John Lewis’s skull was fractured by a police officer when Lewis attempted to walk across the Edmond Pettus Bridge. The year after that, James Meredith was shot for trying to help black people register to vote. Then, another year later, a song by four black singers, The Four Tops, sat solidly at #2 on the Billboard Top 100 chart. By this time Berry Gordy had been rich for a decade.

All of this, the success of black people and the extreme violent oppression of black people, were happening in the same country at the same time. On the grand timeline of history James Brown and James Meredith are on the same dot. This reality is worth some extra consideration, especially considering where we are right now.

Colin Kaepernick made millions of dollars for playing quarterback better than Alex Smith, in the same year that unarmed Chavis Carter allegedly shot himself while handcuffed in the back of a police car. This is the same year that Wiz Khalifa was featured on a song that hit #4. Same time.

While we are not living in the same America that existed in the 1960’s and plenty of things have changed- some things haven’t.  Human nature doesn’t change. That is why history’s lessons are applicable. It is why, despite retrospect, we sometimes repeat ourselves. We think we do, or have, evolved, but we are really still the same types of people as Nathan Bedford Forest or Frederick Douglass. Or maybe James Brown, James Meredith and Bull Connor.

We cannot simply look in the rear view mirror and assume we are safe from whatever it is that’s back there. It is why when solving the problems of today we must persuade ourselves to do what is right, while simultaneously building protections against those who do, or will, choose otherwise. Because our children will be just like us.

In 2008 people started using the word post-racial to describe a supposed new America. They pointed to the elected leader as proof that the struggles of the 60’s had born good fruit and we were now past the season of labor and into the time of harvest. White America looked around and saw LeBron James or Beyonce just like we might have seen James Brown or Jim Brown, but in 2008 we didn’t see, or we ignored, George Wallace.

Perhaps a part of the reason racism hasn’t been solved, why Dubois’s color line remains, is because we white Americans both forget and deny Bull Connor. Some of us might learn about James Meredith integrating Ol’ Miss, but we don’t linger on the lessons inherent in the fact that it was the local Sheriffs who started the ensuing riot. We just rest on the idea that those who fought Meredith were wrong, but we spend no real time wondering why back then they thought they were right. We could ask Trent Lott, he was there, but instead we march forward with pride believing we are past that and thinking we are now somehow individually better. And we aren’t. And because no humans are magically better than all of the humans that came before we will still fall for the same traps as our predecessors unless we look back and learn. And understand. And own. Then grow. And change. And work. Then teach.

I wonder if Hazel Massery, the white girl seen screaming in that iconic photo of Arkansas school integration, liked James Brown and thought this meant she wasn’t racist. I wonder if the man who shot James Meredith resented Meredith’s college education and saw that as proof that people like Meredith were just snowflake complainers. Maybe most of us don’t wonder this because we have no intentions of shooting anyone. So they are nothing like us now, not really, and I guess there is some truth there. But the people back then, the ones who didn’t shoot anyone, who just went about their lives, but thought it was all a ruse by the commies or who dismissed Martin Luther King as an adulterer, might be just like me. Maybe an unemployed and struggling white man back then, marveled that a bunch of black college kids could find the time and money to spend a summer just riding the Greyhound around starting trouble, and he just knew this meant black life wasn’t so bad. Maybe he thought that their time wasting bus stunt earned them the beatings and burnings they received. Maybe the father who simply loved his children and had never even thought the word n****r, only moved away when the black people arrived because his family’s stability hinged on real estate value. What if the PTA president who watched the Watts riots loved the Four Tops, but simply loved following the law even more?

What if today we are all just like them?

And so the color line remains.

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What the Police Told Me: “they will kill you for being white”

Back in 1995 I lived in an apartment on Bankhead Highway in Atlanta. My roommate and I were the only white people in our complex, on our street, and as far as I could tell, on that whole side of the city. We got a lot of funny looks, were the subjects of quite a lot of loud jokes, but no one ever gave us any real trouble- but then there were the police.

12thecity

They never gave us any real trouble either, but they surely gave us a lot of attention. We used to ride the subway and I could tell every time the transit police changed assignments, because the new officers would without fail, ask us if we missed our stop once we passed the Georgia Dome. They were trying to be helpful, they usually looked concerned. The regular officers knew better, we were easily recognized in that we were Mormon missionaries in white shirts and name tags in addition to our whiteness. There was one instance where a veteran interrupted a new cop mid inquiry, by hitting his shoulder and rolling his eyes, waving the new guy to move on down the train. But always, there was a well-defined line which when the train crossed, the white people needed protection. They never asked the black kids if they missed their stop.13bball

There was that other time when a cop car pulled over to us as we were walking down our block. “Hey! You guys lost?” the officer asked. “No we are fine. Thank you.” Was my reply. “No. I mean what are you doing here?” He followed up. When I explained to him that we live “right over there,” the officer responded by calling me stupid. That is the word he used. I had at this point lived in that apartment for 7 months, and as a 19 year old I probably was in many ways stupid, but I remember clearly what the police officer said, “You are stupid. You shouldn’t live here. These people will kill you just for being white. Don’t call us when you are in trouble for being stupid because we won’t come help you. It is your own fault.” Then he drove away. I never did call the police and no one ever killed me for being white.

Since that time I have heard countless stories from white people, who were at one time in their personal history functioning in a majority black or brown environment (school, work, neighborhood) and were warned, sometimes by school officials, that they would be the target of violence. These stories are almost always told as a means to build the story tellers credibility or first-hand authority in matters of American race relations. There is normally an implied, though sometimes spoken, statement of the teller’s toughness for having endured the dangerous circumstances of being a white minority and the warning of how race really works in the world. These stories happen after a driver takes a wrong turn and finds themselves driving through an area full of brown people, or that time when they were 12 and had to go to a mostly black school and every time the point is that the white person was in real danger.

Yet none of the stories ever include a white person dying. I can recall about three stories (out of 30) where the school kid got in a fight, though none of them required medical attention. The black people on Bankhead never hurt me and none of those I have met who took the dangerous wrong turn, were ever actually assaulted. Where are the dead white bodies? By the persistence of these stories there should be graveyards filled with white victims of racial oppression. I suspect that white people reading this are simultaneously searching their memories to find their examples of actual black on white violence to refute my question. They (we) are looking for their anecdote to support this idea, that a brown or black majority is synonymous with anti-white violence. But it isn’t really necessary because the idea that it could have happened, because it is perceived as a possibility, is always enough to prove the point.

Why?

Is it true that white people in black spaces are in danger, so these stories are simply a practical warning? The data does not bear this out.11church

Does the data not back the lore because the warnings have been heeded? If the white folks had not fled when black people moved into their neighborhoods would there have been great rashes of black on white beatings? Are white people not accosted while driving through “bad”, aka black, neighborhoods at significant numbers only because the white people are listening and driving the long way home? Perhaps the myth is only a myth because it is effectively serving its purpose. Maybe.

I have wondered this quite a bit since 1995 and it led me to do a lot of looking. I have looked all the way back to the 1600’s and I will admit, I found some stories. There was that time in 1675 when a bunch of white people found themselves settling in a brown neighborhood called Plymouth and the brown people started burning villages and killing people for 3 years before they were permanently defeated and almost completely, exterminated. There was that time in 1831 when Nat Turner tried to kill all the white people in his neighborhood, or 1859 when John Brown riled up some black people and they killed 5 white people, injured 9, but were then themselves crushed by Robert E Lee. There was that time after the civil war in 1898 when the whole state of North Carolina, including Wilmington, was a black neighborhood. Violence broke out on voting day- and 100 black people were killed, black homes were burned, yet strangely no white people died.

There have been race riots in Atlanta (1906), St. Louis (1917), Chicago (1919), Tulsa (1921), Harlem (1935), Detroit (1943), Watts (1965), and on and on up till today there has been violence when black and white collide. Yet in every single one of those situations, including the ones back in the beginning, the primary casualty has always been the brown or black people. The white people win every time so why in all the stories people tell me, are the white people the ones in danger?

Maybe the persistence of this story, this trope, grows from the collective suppressed white awareness of how truly mistreated brown people have been, and the logic that says that this violence will inevitably be reciprocated whenever the opportunity is presented. Perhaps that is it, though that would be some seriously collective subconscious logic at work, but I think individuals should spend some time thinking through this logic and all of its implications and lessons.

But whatever the cause or origin of this line of story telling, that white people in brown or black places are in physical danger, what concerns me most, is when this idea is perpetuated or enforced, by those in authority- like cops. Or teachers. This concerns me because I have yet to find any tangible set of facts or events that bear out this widespread idea, in fact I have at least 20 years of first hand experience refuting it, but we as a society are trained to believe and trust police and cops. Or maybe I should just say white people are trained to trust these authorities.

Maybe thinking about this sort of storytelling can help us understand why there is a gap between who trusts the authorities and who does not.

When my white body moved into black Atlanta spaces, the police felt I needed protection. Their actions and inquiries made this obvious. Maybe those officers really did have information I do not, or had direct experience that I did not (surely both are true in many respects), but what was clear in those moments, and in all of those stories, was that the authorities believed that black and brown people posed a physical danger to white people.

That is the whole point of these stories. And it makes me fear for those black and brown people when I consider that people with badges, or run schools, are the ones who believe and tell that tale. In this sort of reality who are the ones being hurt?

It isn’t the white people.

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What the Kerner Commission Said About Ferguson: Nostradamus

I was having a relatively ineffectual day, the kind where your efforts come to naught, so I did what a reasonable person would do in such a situation- I went home and re-read the Kerner Commission Report.

One of the scholars interviewed in the study reported, “I read the report of the 1919 riot in Chicago, and it is as if I were reading the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’35, the report of the investigating committee on the Harlem riot of ’43, the report of the McCone Commission on the Watts riot.

I must again in candor say to you members of this commission- it is a kind of Alice in Wonderland- with the same moving picture re-shown over and over again, the same analysis, the same recommendations, and the same inaction.”

When Dr. Kenneth B. Clark wrote this, there had been no O.J. riot, no Ferguson, no police body cams, and no Facebook streaming, no Charlottesville- and yet his statement and words ring true today. This man was frustrated by the persistence and repetition of race violence and the associated causes, and 50 years and a black president later, things are still-the-same.

And we don’t need to wonder why.

And we don’t really need another commission to explore the issue.

Because the causes and problems are eerily, creepily, frustratingly- the same.

The problem is that we have never actually taken the actions the study proposed, compounded with a glaring gap where the report made no proposal at all.

The report gives plenty of advice, mostly in re-training the police and National Guard. It also suggested an investment in supporting poor black communities on a scale never before seen- proportionate to the centuries of devastation imposed on the American black population.

What it did not do was prescribe anything to change the cause of the disparity and grief in the first place- white racism and the pervasive and profound lack of white understanding. It pointed a stern finger of blame in one direction (white America), then pointed the finger in the opposite direction moving forward.

Why should any of us be surprised that things have not changed?

The report has this big blind spot, ironically in line with the report’s own conclusions, in that it warns of an impending fracture between black and white- as if the two were ever together. When were we one? The report urges integration, but when it describes what integration is, it lays out abandoning the city and inserting black people into the white suburban community with its associated opportunities. It does so as if those white communities will magically accept these black interlopers, an action they had never done collectively. Why would they-we- change now?

The answer is pretty easy. In large part we haven’t.

We haven’t because, as the report clearly stated in 1967, we white people still don’t understand what it was all about in the first place. I was once taught, and I have seen hundreds of kids taught since, that the original problem was treating people differently because of skin color. That the problem was calling people that N-word. That the problem was the indignity of making people sit in the back of the bus. That the problem was a drinking fountain or entering a business through a separate door.

We were and are taught that the solution, as proposed by the undisputed leader and solution provider Dr. Martin Luther King, was to simply stop judging individuals by their skin, despite Dr. King having never taught that as a solution but rather a goal, but our lessons skipped the work in between. And I will say with confidence, despite the critics, that so many in my generation took the bait. We did it. We listened to our teachers, we followed the king, and we worked to not judge black people.  We idolized Michael Jordan, we listened to Snoop Dog, and we voted for Obama. We did what our teachers and our parents and our churches told us we needed to do to make the world better, we cheered for, and were nice to, black people.

And still Ferguson. We shouldn’t be surprised. The Moynihan Report (196-) and the Kerner Commission (1967) both, explained exactly how and why Ferguson and Baltimore would happen. It stated plain as day that racial violence breaks out in cities because the environment created by white policy makers and power brokers stifles black pursuit of happiness- that jobs were too scarce, that housing was too expensive and run down, that education was underutilized and underfunded, that life was too hard, and that unchecked police brutality in this environment touches off the powder keg- and that the general white population, the ones making major policy decisions and holding the collective purse strings, has absolutely no understanding of how hard life really is in what the report calls the ghetto.

It does not suggest that the solution is to stop saying the N-word out loud. It does not suggest that the problem was interpersonal rudeness and insensitivity. Yet that is where we white folks worked he hardest.

The report suggested monumental increased welfare support of poor black communities. Our investment was not monumental- but our resistance has been. I have been told by many people, in many instances, that this report warns of, and blames, the disintegration of the traditional black family as a cause of welfare dependence and community degeneration. Yet none of these people also explained to me that what this report really claims is that black men, black father’s, were and are being driven from their families by lack of opportunity and a system that prevents them from being able to both stay home and provide. No one told me that the problems with the welfare system were that it didn’t go far enough or last long enough to support any family from doing what they all wanted to do, which was to progress and become self-sufficient. Never once did the report state that government assistance generated laziness or lack of will to move on. What it did say is that the meager scraps provided through assistance were the best options available and were meted out in a manner that trapped individuals into dependence- and it stated outright that the only way out was a major tax funded increase on a majestic scale.

Yet I have heard so many cite the report as a justification for decreasing public assistance. I doubt those who told me this ever actually read the report.

The commission stated that violent and militaristic overreaction of law enforcement sparked the race riots of the 60’s and suggested substantial retraining and accountability of police. The current administration has stated outright it wants to reverse any efforts to do so. I have been told today that saying “black lives matter” is racist against white people and antagonistic to police. I am told that after watching videos of a handcuffed black kid in Oakland being shot by a cop on a subway platform, or a 12 year old black child being shot by officers when the 911 call suggested he had a toy gun, or when I watch a police officer shoot a mental health worker who was lying on his back with his hands in the air, or when I question how a handcuffed black kid gets his neck broken while in the back of a police van, that I should withhold judgement or emotion because the cop was afraid. I think of this argument and read it plastered across my Facebook feed, and then I read the report of Newark 50 years ago.

I read about how the National Guard had taken cover on corners and behind cars, lying flat for safety, because they were under sniper fire from a housing project. The local Director of Police arrived on the scene and walked boldly upright through the middle of this scene and no shots were fired. Eventually, as the officer finished surveying the scene, a gunshot finally came, sending the already hunkered Guardsmen scrambling. The officer, who knew this place, didn’t scramble but walked over to one of the soldiers and asked him if he was the one that fired. He said that he had. He had seen someone near a window and shot at them. The local officer stayed on the scene for several hours with no incident. Upon his departure two additional columns of Guardsmen were called to these scene and directed mass fire into the projects in response to reported snipers. And then I watch footage from Ferguson.

Or Charlottesville. And I wonder when we will follow the advice and recommendations we have been giving ourselves since before violence in Baltimore, L.A., Charlottesville, or anywhere going all the way back through reconstruction? When will WE, the white people who explicitly or implicitly control so much of what happens with our taxes, our public policy, our society, change? Change in a way that will help. Change in a way that will work. Get better in the big way, not just the one-on-one easy way.

Maybe more of us should start by simply reading, not reading about, the Kerner Commission report. Or the Ferguson Report Maybe even that one from Moynihan too.

https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/Digitization/8073NCJRS.pdf

https://www.justice.gov/sites/default/files/opa/press-releases/attachments/2015/03/04/ferguson_police_department_report.pdf

https://www.dol.gov/oasam/programs/history/moynchapter5.htm

 

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Statues are Not About Yesterday, They are About Right Now

Let me state up front that I have indeed, seen Confederate monuments that I feel are appropriate. I admit they exist.

I have seen a lot of statues in a lot of places over the years. While standing in front of them and looking, I have learned that statues are much less about then, than they are about right now.

You can see it when you look at them.DV IMAGE

Some are majestic, others are humble. Some mark a spot, others glorify an ideal or occurrence. But what almost all have in common is that they appear to be built to communicate something. They tell those before them something about where they are. They address the viewer and try to make tangible through stone or bronze something the artist, or community, or someone, feels that person standing there right then needs to know.

They communicate. That is their job.

So, to me, they key is in discerning what it is they are saying.

Some spell it right out. Others are more subtle.

 

carthage

I have stood at the feet of a giant Abe Lincoln and considered the “most fearful ordeal”. In that spot I turned around and looked at the marks in the marble spelling “I have a Dream”. Both of those things were put there for me to consider in that moment.

As a Seventeen year old I stood outside a jail in Carthage Illinois where Joseph Smith was murdered. That statue of Joseph and his brother Hyrum, together, in the place where they both died helped me feel something. It was more than a text could provide.

I have read some make similar statements about when they first saw the statue of liberty from the deck of a ship.

I have been to the battle fields of Gettysburg and Antietam. There in those grassy peaceful places I looked up at pillars marking where soldiers stood, fired, and violently died. I would not have experienced those places the same way without the aid of monuments. I am glad they were there.IM001537

But I have seen some others too.

We once lived in a charming small town called Greenville. It had an accessible downtown with shops and a square. At one end, the official side with the courthouse, there was this.confederatepoem

Up top was a confederate soldier and down below was this message.

“All lost but by the graves

Where  martyred heroes rest

He wins the most who honor saves

Success is not the test

The world shall yet decide

In truth’s clear far off light

That the soldiers

Who wore the gray and died

With Lee were in the right.”

The statue was of no specific person and nothing remarkable in history happened there. I read the inscription and looked over at the official government building and thought, “Wait… Lee was right? How was the Confederacy right? I realized I was standing in a place where those in charge wanted it to be quite clear, to me, that they believed that those who died with Lee were right. Not Grant. Not Lincoln. Lee.

It made me feel I didn’t belong in this place, and that was the point. I am just me and my words are hot air- these words were stone.CIMG0415Charleston is a gorgeous city. The food and architecture are both worth the trip. Colonial era homes line the shore with manicured grass and mossy oaks between their columned front porches and the water. Multiple eras of history happened here and the monuments reflect that. There is a marble plaque explaining that here they hung pirates. There is also a statue of George Washington. But the tallest of all and the grandest, is the one built for confederates.

I know enough to know that they did not use shields or fight naked. I also knew that there was no event that included a Greek Goddess. Yet that is what was built. Here on the spot where America’s bloodiest war’s first shots were fired, the biggest monument is a celebration of the ones who started it.

This was not about history, it was about glory. I found that idea disappointing.yalenathanhaleOn the campus of Yale, right next to a dorm, stands a statue of a young man about to die. Nathan Hale, once a student at Yale, was executed by the British for spying. He is depicted standing tall and proud, not whimpering or afraid. It was meant to inspire a respect for ideals, possibly learned in this place, worth dying to uphold. I was inspired, maybe a tad bit intimidated, and that was the point.monk statueAt Boston College, in front of some classrooms, is Saint Ignacius. I am not Catholic but this depiction was contemplative and reached down to me. As if he intended to lift me up. It was both inspiring and inviting. And that was the point.roberteleeAt the center of Duke’s campus stands a cathedral. It was built in 1930 and its entrance is flanked by statues. Martin Luther, John Wycliffe, and Robert E Lee. No matter my denomination, I understand the religious reverence expected of any figure placed at the front of a church. I also understand what Lee fought for. He did not just own black people as slaves but he led a war to keep doing it. He did not fight that war on campus, or in this church, and by 1930 the war was long over, but standing there in that moment- I understood how the officials here felt about him. And I understood how he felt about black humans. In that moment I knew this place was not meant for me.

The point.

In looking at the statues we need to consider what they are saying and to whom. We need to know that these figures and plaques make statements that last and have meaning. They are indeed endorsements. what are we collectively endorsing?

I despise the confederate flag like I would a swastika. It has no place in my life. But there was one time, while visiting a graveyard in Greenville, that I saw that flag as okay. There lay buried the remains of men who had died in a war. Those flags marked both who they were and where they are in a way that had meaning. I endorse that.

I also endorse that the ideology of that war, that a whole segment of humanity is inferior, should be laid to rest in those graves with those men and that flag.

So let Mr. Lee come down.

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The Problem With “White” as a Culture.

Current events and some recent conversations, give cause for more explanation. So here goes.

The problem with “white” as a culture, is that it was manufactured at the expense of others. What I mean by this, is that white, as a race or a “culture” has only existed as a means to restrict those deemed non-white from certain rights or privileges.montgomerymen

For example there were once, English, Irish, Quaker, or Puritan. French were French via geographical origin and Catholics were such by baptism. These people only became white after Africans began demanding rights or intermingling too closely with English, Irish, Quaker or Puritan. In the American colonies, where people came from various nations with differing religions and motivations, to settle a land already populated with people who already had ideas of their own, these immigrants looked for ways to group themselves for protection, or to assert power. The French teamed up with the Iroquois, the Irish and Scots were lumped in with England, and Spain decided they were with the Pope. When the dust settled and the Colonies had a chance to be whatever they wanted, they decided that they were white.sideview

I wasn’t there but the records they left seem to indicate they chose to be white in large part to make sure they weren’t obligated to share or serve anyone who was something else. So money, courts, votes, property, rights, all the things under the umbrella of “American”, could be held by those who were once Irish or English, Puritan or Anglican, but not Black or Indian. There was of course the whole issue with women, which was easily solved by saying women could have access to those things if they married a white man, and then they made it illegal for a white man to marry anyone not deemed white. Because of this manufactured umbrella, many people were maybe still a little bit Scottish, perhaps a whole lot Presbyterian, but also white- AKA American.IMG_7571

Over time, many, like my family, became less of one thing and picked up some others, but kept the white all the while. It was synonymous with American. My ancestors who shared my last name, came to the Americas as Scotch-Irish, were here when it became the United States, but by the time I came around all the Scottish was gone. No haggis, no Gaelic, I found myself Mormon not Presbyterian, but I was, and am, still-and-also white. For my people specifically, white needed to be named and claimed till after 1979. Things have changed since then, but you don’t drop off a part of your culture and identity in an instant, and you don’t drop it by simply shifting your vocabulary- though words do help.

But that whiteness only had to drop off once I no longer needed to prove I wasn’t black so I could have the full fellowship of my faith. Sometimes we didn’t call it white, we called it Ephraim or Joseph, but it played the same role. Whiteness meant one had rights and to get those rights, whiteness had to be claimed.

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Mural of former Philadelphia mayor Frank Rizzo in Philadelphia’s Italian Market

Through American history there have been waves of people, or groups of people, Irish, Jewish, even those from India or Iran, who have had to assert and fight, to be called white- so they could be considered American. In 1923 a “High Caste Hindu” from India took his case to the Supreme Court and argued that he should be considered white- so he could be American. He lost. A few years earlier, 1915, a man from Syria sued to be considered white and won. His skin was brown but “white” meant American so he had to claim and become it. He did not become Syrian-American, and the previous man wasn’t arguing to be Indian-American, and there were no English-American, because they didn’t need those hyphens- because they had the word white.

So again, whiteness only existed to separate people from blackness and brownness, to claim power. In the days of Jim Crow, because laws on the books allowed some Black people to be technically American, policy and practice were put in place to make sure power was protected, and it centered on the word white. Public schools were funded by all, but public college was only for white people. The draft for war was open to all, but the GI Bill was only to be claimed by those who were white. HUD provided affordable housing- as long as you were white. You can sit on a jury, hold an office, pursue life and liberty, no matter your Irish, or French, or Russian, or Persian roots, as long as you could claim you were white.

I am white.IMG_8456

There is no need for me to deny it. I was born this way and that is fine. It is my experience, I do not hate it. I do not hate my white family, or my white coworkers, or the white people I meet in the street. Due to my ancestors, geography, history, and some biology, I am American, male, straight, and thanks to my experience, I am also white. I cannot deny my whiteness because it has granted me protection and rights and assimilation without being challenged and without having to claim it. All that was just naturally gifted.

But not so for those who are born black or brown. They have and still do, need to claim those rights so naturally enjoyed by myself. Those who were and are legally deemed Black, who then came to celebrate their skin, were and are not doing so to crush anyone else. They are reclaiming their rights and their joys that whiteness was created to steal. Black is beautiful, Black and proud, Black power- none of them were created to oppress or condemn whites as people, but very much a response to why the race “white” was created and the effects it has caused. Despite what laws are written or what words some might say, Black and Brown people still have to wrench and grip and rip their unalienable rights from the historical and sociological grasp of whiteness.

And that is not God’s plan. That is not what the American Declaration says. And that is why I don’t shout white pride, yet can support black power without hypocrisy. That is why I feel no need to say “all lives matter”, when reminded that Black lives matter too. This is why I am fine with myself and all the good that I am, skin included- but will not elevate the word white.

Because that idea and that construct- must be undone.

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