Tag Archives: racism

Who Is Dangerous?

Current events have gotten me thinking. Or rather reflecting.IMG_0361

The most dangerous demographic in America are white, suburban, middle class, teenaged boys. A close second would be white, teenaged, farm boys in Southern Idaho- but they are mostly only dangerous to themselves, so the rest of the country need not concern themselves with young men attempting to water ski in the drainage canal next to a dirt road being pulled behind a pickup. Yes, that’s a thing.

Growing up I definitely thought the most dangerous demographic was black men in Compton. I didn’t really know any black men but there was Boyz ‘n the Hood, N.W.A., and pretty much any other late 80’s or early 90’s messaging, including the news, telling me so. Why would I think otherwise? I didn’t think the guys and I were dangerous, we were just normal. Maybe even a little sub-normal. Like not quite as cool or fun as normal since we did after all live in Utah and we all knew that Utah, while being great for skiing, was still mostly white, nerdy, and above all else- safe.IMG_0364

It wasn’t till I left the suburbs and subsequently really got to know some people who weren’t white, middle class, or from the suburbs, that I realized that what I saw or did growing up, was horrible.

To understand just how horrible let me qualify this by confessing that I myself have never tasted alcohol. Not a drop. I was a virgin when I got married, I never stole anything, and I never actually swung the bat. That last one always makes me cringe because it illustrates just the sort of faux moralistic chicken I was. While I never swung a bat at a mailbox I was present in a car when at least 250 mailboxes were destroyed by someone else. Not all in one night mind you, it took a lot of nights to run up that score. We also destroyed mailboxes with dry-ice bombs. We didn’t just destroy mailboxes but also trash cans, porch lights, garage doors, and if I remember right there was at least one windshield. But like I said, I never swung the bat. I only cheered. We were just having fun.

rockonprep

I never drank a beer, but a saw a lotta beer get drunk. I have been the guy who drives people home, who hoses someone down, but mostly just been the guy who everyone called a derogatory name for being too afraid, too weak, too uncool to have a beer. Or a Zima. Or a cigarette, or smoke cloves, or smoke weed, or hit acid, or snort coke, or do meth, or take steroids. But by the time I graduated high school I had been present when all of that was done. I was there, I saw what happened, I remember.

Just because I never had sex before marriage does not mean I am proud of my behavior back then. The guys I knew didn’t just talk about girls as objects, but we acted that way too. I blush when I remember the way we talked in middle school and am ashamed at many of the things we laughed about doing once we got just a little bit older. The stuff I knew about was legally consensual, but very little of it was respectful. While I declined when invited, by the girl, to a train, and I left the house before a planned rodeo (all the guys hide in a closet till a couple starts coupling on the bed, then everyone jumps out of the closet and times how long it takes the girl to buck the guy off) I still knew all the stories. Despite my non-participation I was still one of the guys. I was complicit. I had a number of girlfriends but was incapable of having actual relationships. This isn’t to say I didn’t ever talk to girls or treat them as people, but I didn’t know how to deal with girls as a whole person, both mind and body.  In my mind they were one or the other. I knew what it was to be physical, but not intimate. I didn’t know how to do that. I was somehow incapable.

My church and parents taught me how and where to draw physical lines or boundaries, but that was just prevention of personal disaster, not appreciation of the other. Or respect. Or simple humanity. Again, Incapable.

It was more than that, it was a lot of things. We drove cars recklessly, we were hazed in football and even hazed in choir. We took our turns hazing others. We fought. fist fights, fights with baseball bats, fights with friends and fights with strangers. There was shoplifting candy and snacks from 7-11 or that time we took the neighborhood park’s volleyball net home with us. I never took those things, but I did trade a used pair of cleats for a pair of Ray Bans that I knew someone else had stolen. I existed in a place where right and wrong were distant points at far ends of a spectrum and the grey area in between was vast and mushy. It is like we knew some things would be wrong later, but for now they were just questionable, and what mattered in the end was how we viewed ourselves. And we were safe and good.

We didn’t think we were bad, definitely not dangerous. We were mostly bored and hormonal. We drifted crashed and slurred our way through adolescence protected by parent’s money and the benefit of the doubt. We got grounded and suspended and pulled over, but we were also listened too, believed, and excused. None of us went on to become anyone you have heard of, we weren’t in those circles, but we did become mid-level managers, cops, firemen, teachers and citizens.

Since those days I have met others who because of their skin, their neighborhood, and their budget received none of the grace I was granted. None of them committed even a fraction of what I did and they got expelled, arrested, and banished from the professional realm. On the occasions when I have shared with them, stories from my youth there is always a certain level of disbelief. Those stories don’t sound like me, or the kind of guy that I am now, nor does it sound like where I was from. Beyond that the stories of my teenage years sound impossible to most who didn’t grow up suburban as such things should have never been allowed. But they were. And they are. And because it is who and where I was and that I completely understand what I watched this week in the senate. I understand it and am horrified. Not horrified in that I fear my own history hurting me now but horrified in how much I recognize all of it. I was not in the D.C. burbs nor do I know any of those people and hence can make no claim of knowing what “really” happened, but it is all strikingly familiar. Except the stakes are so much higher than the little burb outside Salt Lake and the marginal levels to which my cohort have achieved. I am horrified because I have met and know kids who were so much better than me, and better than what I just saw in the senate, and those kids will never be nominated to the Supreme Court. Not only will they never get nominated but those doing the nominating are more likely to send these kids away.

For any one of these kids, the ones I knew, or know, in Philly, or Atlanta, or anywhere, they have to be near perfect from front to back. Beginning to end. They live with zero tolerance which means zero grace, zero room for growth or forgiveness.

But then people like Kavanaugh, or like me, can be angry, be indignant, and rail at the world demanding a blind eye regarding their own indiscretions while meting out Justice on others. To be in a position to decide what Justice is for others, and be so blind to the grace, forgiveness, and mercy you have yourself received, makes you dangerous.

And that is why we, people like me, are dangerous. It starts with well-funded boredom fueled by hyper sexual masculinity, and then our corruption starts to metastasize more and more every time we get laughter at our stories, or we don’t get expelled, and don’t get arrested. Then years go by, we grow up, and others forget what we did, and we forget we were ever wrong at all.

And in our amnesia, we legislate, enforce, and systematize inequity.

 

Dangerous

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Astronomy isn’t About Race: unless there are people up there, then it is.

Race is not a thing. By that I mean it is not an event, an object, or even an adjective.

Race is a who.IMG_70891

Race is not the only thing a person “is”, but everyone has a race, and that race, because it is a social construct, affects how that person, all of us, interacts within a society. For most of America’s existence “race” or “race issues” really means things having to do with anyone who isn’t white. Otherwise those things are just plain old issues.

When the Declaration of Independence was written race was never mentioned but it wasn’t exactly ignored. White was assumed. So really, race wasn’t ignored, non-white people were ignored. The word race would only come up when “We the People” were being talked or written about in comparison to those who weren’t, or aren’t, considered white. So when it came to the constitution there was “we the people”, and then there were also Native Americans and those 3/5ths of persons held in servitude.

Remember that race is always a who.with flag

Because race is a who, making something about, or not about race, is really making it about, or not about, a person.

Knowing this is important, mostly for white people as we are the ones who are less used to our race being spoken of explicitly. We are used to just being people, not white people. We need to realize that when we say “this isn’t about race”, what that translates to is, “this isn’t about you.” Which is ironic because most of the times I hear someone say “this isn’t about race”, or “don’t make this a race issue”, it is being said by a white person who is referencing something involving non-white people whom they have never met.

For example when someone says college admissions should ignore race, what that really means is colleges should ignore that there are people who aren’t white. When a black person is killed by a police officer and our response is, this has nothing to do with race. What is really being said is that said instance wasn’t about the black person- though that is who was shot.IMG_1908

This gets real tricky, or troubling, when it really is about them. Or… maybe it is very telling when we white people talk this way.

As in I, a white person, looks at a situation in which I am not directly involved, and say to the black people involved, “this isn’t about race”, which would mean “this isn’t about black people”- then who is left for it to be about? What we are inadvertently saying is that it is about us. About white people. And if we white people are the ones saying such things we should probably think a little bit more about how we are at the heart of all these race issues.

This is the part, or the point, where we get very defensive and start “No. That isn’t what I said or what I meant.”

But it is. We just don’t like to deal with that. Because any issue or instance where people are involved- is a race issue.

You cannot un-race a person. Maybe one day skin color won’t hold real relevance, but even when that day comes, we will all still have a skin color, we will have simply shifted who “we” includes and the ways in which we value each other.

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The Attack on Manhood.

Do not confuse the righting of a sinking ship, or just a plain old sinking ship, with a war on men. Or a war on white people. Or Christians. While there are indeed acidic antagonists who hate all of those things (men, white people, and religion) we should not confuse current efforts, or movements toward equity as a war against {insert demographic here}.IM_A0148

The truth is that white Christian men currently, and have historically, wielded disproportionate power in America. This power has been gained and sustained by money, cultural norms, and quite often by violence.

For centuries white Christian men have been able to do as they (we) please, only having to consider anyone “other” than themselves as a consolation, or out of what they (we) have perceived as our magnanimous generosity. This is not to say that white Christian men have run amok completely unchecked, just ask anyone one of them as they (we) have felt continually put in check, but those external limits on our behavior and power have been put in place and enforced, primarily by other white Christian men. We have lived in a world so completely our own that we have grown accustomed to it like a fish grows accustomed to water, and by growing, I mean gestation, as we seem to feel it natural at birth.

Though unlike fish, we do not need this currently constructed environment to survive. But sometimes, or most times, we think we do.IMG_6345

As the world shrinks, access to information increases, and the true diversity of the world becomes so ever more apparent, and present, many people realize that white Christian men do not hold a monopoly on goodness and wisdom and “how it should be”, and in America, all of those “others”, those who aren’t white Christian men, those who have been here all along but have just never been the ones running the show, start asserting themselves- white Christian men start to freak out.

Let’s not freak out.

Let us be honest with ourselves in a way that goes beyond reactionary defensiveness and blind lashing out at those rallying for change. The truth is that there are ridiculously few of “them” out there who are opposed to, or truly against, who we are. No. That’s not quite right. I should be more precise here. There are plenty of people against who we are, but they aren’t necessarily against who we claim we are, or who we strive to be. There are plenty against a lot of the things we do or have done, which isn’t the same thing- unless we unnaturally peg our identity to those things. So, let’s take stock.

Is manhood based on the color blue or our selection of shoes? While I have no desire to wear high heels, I do not think my manhood, or my male-ness, is really attached to my wingtips. I know many men who wear long hair, some of them wear it from their chin, and while I have a slight understanding of facial hair being associated with androgens more prevalent in males, I have never believed that my beard makes me a man or that a pony tail is influenced in any way by my genitals. Now I know that there are those who disagree. There are many men who not only prefer, but believe, that men should not wear makeup or skirts. I get it. I don’t feel comfortable in those things either. I am also not aware of anyone who is trying to make me wear those things.

Neither am I aware of how someone else wearing those things changes my manhood. Nor do those things contradict my Christianity. Choice in clothing or grooming is not the same as choice in sexual activity- and absolutely no one is telling me I must have sex with someone other than whom I choose, so I fail to see the actual connection between gender norms and my religiously dictated sexual conduct. I am a heterosexual white Christian man and no one that I have met is asking me not to be these things. At least not in “real life”.

But there are changes, many of which are quite contentious. Let us take for example, the Boy Scouts of America.

What exactly is it in the Boy Scouts of America, that is truly gender based?

My mother is a better camper than most of the “manly” men I know. So was my grandmother. Sleeping in tents, tying knots, shooting arrows, or earning badges in a quasi-militaristic organization that casually imitates Native Americans without truly investigating their culture has very little to do with my genitalia, my sexual orientation, or even the qualities I believe make a good man. In fact, many, possibly even most, of the qualities that I would claim make a “good man” have nothing at all to do with anyone’s genitalia or sexual preferences. In other words, most of the things, at least in my mind, that make a good man are really just things that make a good person. Honesty, chastity, benevolence, moral steadfastness, kindness, service orientation, civic mindedness, leadership, preparedness and progression, pretty much everything built in to scouting to build good boys, are the same things I try to teach my daughters.

No one is fighting that.

But I do acknowledge that boys and girls are different. I acknowledge it enough, and here is me exposing my own needs or feelings, that I long for and appreciate male spaces in my life. Sometimes I like to hang out with other guys. I’m a cis gender heteronormative straight Christian white male and carry with me plenty of the social preferences that go along with those norms. Sometimes I wanna hang with the guys. I get it. That is me. And I am not being attacked.

What is under attack is the infrastructure that gives me, and those most strictly like me, disproportionate privileges.

The Boy Scouts have been in a long decline for a lot of reasons beyond American gender norms. While many of the principles of scouting are not, nor have ever been overtly race or class based, the delivery and socialization of scouting absolutely has (just like most things in America). Yes there is a push against gender exclusivity today, but we are also more urban, more international, more technological, less economically homogenous than in the past and more adults spend more time working, and children have more organized activities than existed when the Scouts were founded. All of those things have led to declining participation in the Boy Scouts.

There is at this same moment, as in all moment spast, a lack of true equity for girls. When it comes to what the Boy Scouts do (or have done), or the resources the Boy Scouts have on hand, there is no true female equivalent.

My daughter has no interest in selling cookies in front of Target (and I know the Girl Scouts do more than that) but she would probably love to get SCUBA certified at a huge discount like I did when I was a Boy Scout. But she doesn’t, nor do I as her parent, have access to that. In this case the only difference between the programs offered and the benefits involved, is that boys get to and girls do not. I am not opposed to boys SCUBA diving. Letting my daughter do the same would not constitute an attack and masculinity. Those two should not be confused. In addition, my church is one of, if not the, biggest supporters of the BSA and while I know my faith values my little girls, I also know that it does not offer anything for them that is quite as robust or well-funded (even with the current BSA decline).

Does this mean my girls should join the scouts? I don’t know. I don’t really have any interest in them doing so, but if someone else did, or does, that does not constitute an attack on me or who I am.

But it isn’t just the scouts, nor is it just my church, rather we are experiencing a broader nationwide shift in power. Or at least a shift in perception, as most of those who have historically held power still hold it, though I am not one of them, and many people who are the most like me- can feel it. But just like stepping on a nail with bare feet, we jerk our knees without having to think- because we feel it.

The only problem here is that we haven’t stepped on a nail but rather we have been shod in power our entire existence and suddenly now our boots are off and we are being made to feel the pricks and prods of those on whom we trod. We are not knee jerking at nails but rather reacting to women, black people, Hindus, non-English speakers, immigrants, and on, and on, and on. Our boots are off and our white Christian manly feet are tender. It is unfair that for centuries this country has been primarily, if not explicitly, just meant for me, and if I am in any way trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, or reverent, I will step up and adjust to what is right rather than kick barefoot against the pricks.

Because in the past, despite my lack of elite status or a well-stocked wallet, I have never had to struggle shoulder to shoulder with all those “others” but rather I have been wearing well insulated boots which allow me to stamp on top of all of “them” while competing against other white Christian men for my American dream.

Those boots are not “who I am” and being asked to take them off is not an attack. It is simply doing what’s right.

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An Under Examined Now: New Orleans

 

A friend told me New Orleans was exactly my kind of place. A different friend described New Orleans as completely debauched. I think one was referring to the city’s reputation for music history and food and the other was talking about drunken toplessness. He compared it to Vegas where too many people are trying too hard to do something regrettable. He did however give New Orleans credit in that while Vegas is a plaster imitation of a million other somewhere elses, New Orleans is in fact a real place all its own.

I had in my head, thanks to history books and too many movies, an image of a place a lot like Philly, having an old colonial feel topped off by a few decades of industrial decay, just with more of a swing than a beat- and wrought iron balconies. Maybe I was just seeing what I wanted to see, but I wasn’t completely wrong. I would have been all the way right if I hadn’t overestimated New Orlean’s ability to deliver filth. With everything I had heard about Katrina and Bourbon Street, combined with what I experienced in Philly, I expected a little bit more disaster than I got.  While there was plenty of graffiti accented by dead palm fronds, there were no piles of trash blowing down the sidewalk. Philly keeps its filthiest title.

The whole place looks like it used to be green, was then grown over in black mold, and finally scrubbed hard with bleach. The result is a faded green and white streaked with grey black echoing the Spanish moss that hangs from trees outside of town. There aren’t as many trees in town, and they are strung with beads not moss.

When I got there it was surprisingly quiet. There were people around, places were open, but I got the feeling the whole city was resting up, waiting for something to happen later. There were bright colored bits of cloth left torn and strewn over everything. Formely glossy green gold and purple beads hung from tree branches and balcony railings and rainbow flags mixed in regularly with the flour de li. It was like the whole city was experiencing a post drag show hangover. Like something wild and just a touch trashy had already happened, it was sure to happen again, but everyone needed a nap first.

Crossing a grassy median by the trolley tracks I stepped over a pile of discarded casino chips. It was a small pile of Harra’s disks in purple yellow and green. I am not now nor have I ever been a gambler, so as I kept walking past that stash I simultaneously wondered if I had just passed a pile of redeemable money, how one might redeem a pile of found chips, and how badly I would get mocked if I went to Harra’s and tried. Wondering if it was worth a try I noticed an old woman who looked like money walking a miniature dog past a homeless man, and just past the homeless man was a hipster.

Actually they were two, not one- a couple. He with his horn rimmed glasses and beanie, her with a lemon yellow bob and septum piercing, neither of which alone make a hipster, but I saw them navigating by phone, not taking pictures of pretty houses, which could only mean Yelp. I have made it a best practice to follow tattooed millennials who are navigating on foot via Yelp. It is how I have found some of my best meals. On this occasion they were right and so was I.

They were indeed finding food and it was better than good. My first instinct would be to say that the Turkey and the Wolf is not what would be considered New Orleans cuisine, but it is there, and I’ve never had buffalo sauce deviled eggs topped with chicken skin ‘cracklins’ anywhere else, so I would have to say my first instinct was wrong. My second instinct was to order said eggs as well as the shredded lamb gyro drowned in dill. My second instinct did not disappoint. I may have been the only one Instagramming the houses out on my walk but everyone at lunch posted their meal. That includes me.

There were no hipsters at Cochon, and the fact that Google maps had it listed as existing at all made me worry just a little. But it was the closest restaurant to the hotel that wasn’t a hotel restaurant and it was going completely ignored by the tourists who were in town for Wrestlemania, which I saw as a good sign so I went in. I sat at the chef’s counter right in front of the wood burning oven. The chef’s counter is where you sit so you can see your food being made and hear the chef yell unintelligible things to everyone in the kitchen and then they all shout back in unison “yes chef”. You see people scurrying about doing menial things like washing plates, hauling flour and stoking an oven till chef rings a little bell and slides a plate of edible art onto a counter where a less sweaty person picks up the plate for delivery. The waiter described dish Cochon as pulled pork that is formed into a patty, lightly breaded then pan seared. It was good but it was the eggplant soufflé that made me want to shout “yes chef”. I did not expect to like it but the waiter suggested it. and he was right.

Food is everywhere in New Orleans. It is in every little corner shop, in the balconies. In the river, the ocean- everywhere. I had stuffed flounder at Adolfo’s, oysters at Felix’s, boudin and meat pies at Bourree, lime seared chicken at Cane & Table, shrimp etouffee at Galatoire’s, beignet at Café Du Monde, and crawfish at some side of the road place where the guy at the register had to speak through one of those little devices throat cancer survivors use to sound like a robot. They were all worth it in all the ways that matter. No, they are all worth it in all the ways that exist. It is a city where- when it comes to food- no matter how you roll the dice you win. It is telling that in all the days I was there in all the miles I walked or drove, I only saw one McDonalds and never saw a Target. I did see a Bubba Gump, which made me remember that Office episode where Michael’s favorite NY pizza spot is Sbarro’s. Because I’m much more Dwight than Michael I kept walking.

 

Despite it being a Wednesday. I had to weave and squeeze my way around revelers and wanderers down the blocks off Jackson Square. In full disclosure those streets are quite narrow so they aren’t the hardest thing to fill, but the rows of second story balconies packed with people give those streets a gauntlet quality that could be either exciting or terrifying, depending on the person- or people I suppose if you consider both the walkers and the balconers. I enjoyed it. It is a place that feels like a place. The quiet from earlier in the day was gone replaced by jazz.

I’m calling it jazz despite my not really knowing a way to define that genre- but there were plenty of trumpets, tubas, clarinets, and upturned hats or buckets sitting on the curb waiting for tips. Whatever an actual authority might call it, it was mostly upbeat and made walking down a street of strangers feel a bit like a party. No. It felt like multiple parties all squished together. One party was being led by a slightly tubby 20 year old doing covers of 70’s funk songs accompanied by a weathered Al Green doppelganger. Next door, and this part was a surprise to me, was country music. Stepping into an almost empty bar I was initially disappointed to hear a twangy voice slowly whining over an acoustic guitar. I was a little intrigued when I looked on stage to see that noise coming from a black man. As I stared in wonder, a little bit in horror, I realized I knew the song. It was “pictures of You by the Cure. I was witness to a black man singing a country version of a Cure song.  I was amazed, a little impressed, but definitely didn’t want to stay to hear that. One more door down was a full swing band crammed into a very small corner. The sound was great, thumping bass line and quick fingered clarinet, but 20 year olds in fedoras and zuit suits made the place feel a little to costume party for my tastes. Which was fine because there was another bar with another band right next door. This one had a steel guitar and organ and a 40 year old white man singing about bringing a loaded gun to the door to chase off salesmen. I appreciated what he was doing but his voice sounded explainey more than singy and no where near whaling or soulful. The place that finally made me linger was an ensamble that looked like an “all ages” chess club, or maybe like a tech company kick ball team, but they played like I thought the city should sound without looking too kitschy.

Just about an hour’s drive up the Mississippi there is a row of preserved plantations popular with chartered tours and wedding receptions. Facing right up to the big river and backed by sprawling fields of sugar cane are the sorts of palaces fantasized about in Gone with the Wind or any other antebellum story. There you find the real life relics that inspired those post war un reconstructed ideas. Oak Alley aptly named with a long arched tunnel of Oak limbs flanking a path leading to bright white columns encasing a genteel two story wrap around porch is right off the road. One mile up river is another called Evergreen, and then there is Laura, and St. Joseph. They are all landscaped to photographic perfection with clean and quaint gift shops selling cook books and hoop skirts. Lousiana isn’t unique in this. After all, the real Terra is in Atlanta and Mt. Vernon is above all else, celebratory. I have been on house and ground tours in Virginia, Savannah, Charleston, Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and they all do things pretty much the same. They dress up like the white people who owned the place and tell wonderful stories of rags to riches mercantilism, explain the furniture, and then they laud the family’s contributions to the community through the 1930’s or 60’s when the last spinster descendent turned the estate over to a preservationist trust so we could all enjoy the rich history that lives in this beautiful place.

Then there is the Whitney.

Historically the Whitney is exactly like all the others. It too started with a colonists dream built into a business then handed down as a family palace. Its history is no different than Monticello, the Hermitage, or all its neighbors along the big river but it is fundamentally, foundationally, spiritually, different from all of them today.

I have been to Monticello and been told on the house tour that Mr. Jefferson had trouble getting a good cook to stay in the house. I was told a story of how Jefferson made a great investment in his chef’s French training only to have said chef skip town once back in America. There was no mention that this was because the chef was a slave and slaves didn’t like being slaves. Nor was there mention of this slave being related to the master’s family by blood and I was informed that this was scandalous rumor that couldn’t be proven- despite the fact that a Pulitzer prize winner had recently done just that.

I was told another tale at the home of Andrew Jackson where great honor is given to a grey haired old black man who when given his freedom, decided to stay on the plantation. The tour gave no room for questioning why.

But I have also been to Buchenwald in Germany.

Buchenwald was a concentration camp built by Nazi Germany as part of the final solution. After its liberation by Allied armies the local Germans were made to tour the facility. It was thought important that those who may not have been directly responsible, though perhaps complicit, be brought face to face with the realities of genocide and death. Today the camp is open as a museum and memorial to those who suffered and or died there.

That is the Whitney Plantation.

There was no talk there of confederate bravery or Nazi scientific precision, just honesty and reverence for the black people who suffered and or died-for the sole purpose of making some white people rich. It was not really about blame- though it was honest and fair in a way that those other houses have never been, nor was the prevailing feeling one of hate or revenge.

I have been to DC and stood at the Vietnam memorial, a large wall listing the names of the dead, and it feels sacred. At the Whitney there is a similar memorial listing names of black people who suffered-and or died-as slaves just in Louisiana. It lists double the number of names as the wall in DC (57,939 vs 109,200) and felt to me at least as powerful.

And then there are those statues.

In the little chapel, and out in the wooden shacks, are black children cast in bronze. Their visible presence is an unavoidable reminder of who lived in these homes and why. They are haunting. But they aren’t just blank recreations of what might have been, these children have names. And they have stories. In the 1930’s the federal government sent out employees with recording equipment to capture the stories of those old people who were alive back in slave times. The statues are those people, portrayed at the age they would have been when emancipated. The result is not just a bunch of kid statues, but real people whose stories you can know and stand and hear while looking at them standing or sitting in the location where they were born- meant to suffer and or die to make some white family rich. There is no such thing at other houses.

But what struck me the most, or hit me the hardest, was a bell.

Bells were normal on plantations and they were rung for several reasons. They rang to call everyone in from the field, or for lights out, or as a call to gather to witness someone being punished. The Whitney has such bells. The Whitney also has something else other plantations don’t really have- black visitors. I have stood in several crowds of German, Japanese, or French people at dozens of historic plantations- but what I had never done before was be in such a place standing next to black people. Outside of minors who were bussed to such places on field trips or the awkward bridesmaid whose white sorority sister opted for a genteel plantation wedding, I had not known black people to visit the location of their ancestor’s torture.

But at the Whitney I witnessed a tour guide tell of the old ringing of plantation bells with the explanation that now they choose to ring them in honor of the memory of black people who once lived there, and then I watched a young black mother send her little black son up to pull the rope. When the bell rang I lost my mind. My head stopped thinking and I started feeling. My eyes welled up, my breathing caught short and I had to walk away. I didn’t just see and know things right then, I felt them.

There is meaning in that.

And then I left that place and went a mile down the road to another such house where the guide proudly showed me the plantation owner’s signature on multiple loyalty pledges where he had duplicitously promised not to fight against the United States in the civil war any more. The guide chuckled when he also showed me the list of battles this plantation owner fought in after breaking those promises. There was no mention of black people other than to brag that after emancipation most of the slaves chose to stay. He had no answer as to who those black people were or why they made that so called “choice”.

 

And that is New Orleans.

It is an old city with much of its story sinking in mud both real and figurative. I t is a place where bad things happened and happen. It is the kind of place where despite all of those things or maybe because of them, people choose not to focus but drench themselves in bourbon and beads. The music swings loud, the food is full of flavor, and they dance at funerals.

The city is turning 300 years old this year which is “founding fathers” old in American years and all this time the crescent city has been its own kind of place with its own story. More than any other city this one is the story of France, Spain, the Huma and Choctaw- and Africa. And then the United States, Haiti, and the Confederacy. All the while Andrew Jackson waves his hat triumphantly in the square and goes mostly ignored. The crowds that mill around are more interested in Café Dumond’s beignets or the buskers on the corner. They are not really looking into the city’s history, unless maybe on a ghost tour, which is less about what happened then and more about what sort of then still haunts now. Which is appropriate because now is haunted by then so much more than the crowds appear to want to know. Though in all fairness the crowds only appear to want to know bourbon and brightly colored beads.

The party is so loud and constant that you sense it has and will always be going on and consequentially the place is celebrated but only shallowly considered. Maybe that is changing just a little, they did after all take down a statue or two,

but I don’t really know.

I don’t live here.

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Black Firefighters: Black History Month

America’s first firefighting company was founded in Philadelphia by good ol’ Ben Franklin in 1736.

The first “Black” firefighting company in Philadelphia was founded by a free Black man named James Forten 82 years later. Back then all firefighting was done by volunteers, no one was getting paid to extinguish flames. But still the white people protested against this new fire company and the city shut it down in less than a year.IMG_1297

The city started paying professional fire fighters in 1871, but none of those professionals were Black till they hired Isaac Jacobs in 1886. The catch was they didn’t actually let him fight fires, just clean the stables. Mr. Jacobs wasn’t satisfied being a stable boy, he wanted to fight fires, so he left the department after 4 years.

In 1905 Philadelphia hired its second Black fire fighter, Steven Presco. He insisted on fighting fires and was killed doing so 2 years later.IMG_1299

Twelve years later, in 1919 Philadelphia founded its first official Black fire station, Engine 11. Despite being designated as the Black station, Engine 11 was captained by white firefighters and not used to fight fires but was strictly restricted to city maintenance work. They were the city’s original pothole crew.

It was not until 1952 that Philadelphia officially integrated its fire department. That makes a full 134 years between the city’s first black firefighter and actual integration. What a long hard road full of death and humiliation to fight for the privilege of protecting people from fire.

Philly’s story is not unique and similar story lines played out in Virginia, New Orleans, and an especially interesting case in San Antonio.IMG_5303

The city of San Antonio formed a number of professional fire brigades immediately after the close of the civil war. Their cadre of companies included 2 engines run by freed Black men. The catch was the white brigades were paid by the city and the Black brigades were not paid at all. Yet they still functioned. That is until these two companies requested to be paid like the others and in response the city simply banned Black people from being in fire companies.

All of these stories illustrate a couple of different things. First, that there existed qualified and willing Black people since the very beginnings of American firefighting. Second, is that the obstacles to full Black participation in this form of professional, or public life, was not the Black people themselves but a combination of the general American population and the white people who ran city governments.

But despite the obstacles intentionally placed in their way, Black people continuously persisted and fought.

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My Support for Hyphenated Black People

Let me say up front that Black Americans have no need of my endorsement or recommendations in anything they might think or feel.

That being said, I am in full support of any Black American who prefers the identifier “African-American”, and here is why.

I often field questions, or rather suggestions, from various white people that “we” should all just be American with no hyphens or ethno-racial identifiers. This suggestion is normally given in the spirit, or with an expressed desire, that we should be a united, racist-free, nation. I appreciate this desire, share the hope of a day without racism, but reject the proposal, and here is why.

When the United States first formed as an independent country, those in power decided formally that to be “American”, or a citizen of the United States, a person had to be white. This is why the waves of immigrants over the years were able to shed their hyphens of Irish, English, German or otherwise and melt into that one word, American. Others had a tougher time.

This is why Arizona wasn’t allowed statehood till 1912. It had been “property” of the United States since 1848, with people living there for centuries previous, but the United States had a policy that there needed to be a critical mass of white people living in any given territory before it could be considered a state. The people living in Arizona were brown and it took a series of intentional settlements including land giveaways encouraging white immigration before white people had enough of a majority to be part of America. This critical mass of whiteness was attained around 1910, the application process took a couple years, and thanks to that ball getting started rolling, by 2010 Arizona had become 73% white.

As late as 1927, almost 60 years after the passing of the 14th amendment, the Supreme Court was still settling cases on who got to be considered white, which again, was a synonym for American. Lum v Rice decided that it was up to the individual states to decide who was and was not white (in this case it was a person from China suing to be white), in order to decide who got the full privileges of American citizenship. All because you had to be white to get those official privileges.

Most of us know the story of the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s where Black Americans had to not only win legal battles but also take beatings from police officers in order to be allowed the same rights as other Americans, aka white people. Now if we keep in mind that these Black people’s families had been on this continent and participating in the building of this country every bit as long, and even longer, than many Irish, German, Italian, French, or even Iranian- all of whom assimilated by becoming legally white, we should take a closer look at what we suggest anyone do in order to assimilate.

Because back when Irish were shedding their hyphens, Black Americans were not only forbidden from full assimilation but also systematically prevented from pursuing success. So they forged their own ways to prosper.

While Black Americans were raising white children, cleaning white houses and having their labor exploited without constitutional protection, those same Black people were inventing jazz, laying a foundation for the discipline of sociology, reciting poetry over drum machines, fighting in American wars, penning novels, and helping send astronauts into space. All this while not being allowed the title of American, but rather Negro- or other words connoting their color with an added measure of insult. Consequentially Black people have developed a distinct culture that is very much American but distinct from that of those who were accepted as white/American historically. That deserves respect, honor and appreciation.

In the past the “distinctness” brought along by immigrant groups (which is everyone other than indigenous peoples) was absorbed, or allowed, by letting these “others” be swallowed by whiteness. Some groups wanted to be white but still unique, and America said “yes” giving them St. Patrick’s and Columbus days. In response to things like Columbus Day, other white people founded things like the Daughters of The American Revolution, but all of them were united under the banner of American whiteness.

All of that is, quite literally, history. So when do we move past all that?

Fair question.

In 1967 a group of Black Americans attempted to get past it and exercise the 2nd amendment. They formed a militia and bore arms for their own protection. America responded by taking their guns and passing gun control laws. These Black people claimed the guns were to defend themselves, and that they had a right to do so, and America said they did not have that right.

The next year, sans militia, Martin Luther King Jr. was shot for advocating Black citizenship. So we know that the past wasn’t history 50 years ago.

How about 9 years ago?

The election of a bi-racial Black man to the presidency of the United States was heralded by many as the moment when we as a nation were finally over our racist past. How ironic then, that the most prominent and persistent accusation against our Black president, the accusation by which our current president made his political name, was that he was not born in America. He was accused of literally not being an American. Which was very much in line with the messages America has sent Black people all along. The past is obviously not gone yet. Was the 41 years between MLK and Obama enough to have both erased 192 years of racial division and then drive it all the way back into divisiveness due to some Black people preferring a hyphen?

Or maybe the term African-American isn’t exactly the cause, but rather just a hindrance?

Considering the contributions and struggles of Black people in this country, and knowing that all the other assimilated groups very literally shed their hyphenated status in favor of whiteness, makes the request that African-Americans only claim the title American, smack of condescending insult. I do not say this as an accusation that anyone who has forwarded such a suggestion did so from a dark and cruel place- but not all insults are intended.

Black people should be able to claim full American status without having to do so in a way that has always been a nod to whiteness. If the only way to do this is to bring back hyphens for everyone- great. Do it. But I will not be the one to tell any Black person that they should reject or ignore the African heritage that my country has so intentionally tried to dishonor all this time. For a Black person to be able to claim both their African descent, their Blackness, and their full American status simultaneously, is in my mind the best American dream. It is long past time that we, as Americans, accept that our country is, has been, and should be, a nation of people from many places, who don’t all look the same, who do not all act the same, and who can claim the fullness of who they are- while being fully American.

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Black History: It goes all the way back to day 1

At the beginning of Black History Month we should recognize that people of African descent have been on the American continent just as long as people from Europe.* There was never a time in the history of European colonization of America that did not include black people. Nor was there really a place or time in the Americas not touched by slavery.jumpingtherail

The Spanish had been in the American slavery business for more than 100 years before the Pilgrims got to Plymouth so it shouldn’t be surprising that by the 1620’s the boats full of New England settlers also brought along Black people as slaves.

At the same time the same thing was going on in Jamestown down in Virginia, and in Philadelphia, then Charleston too.DSC02518

Hereditary slavery dictated by skin color wasn’t codified at the start and things took different routes in different regions, but on February 1st, the start of the month when a greater focus is placed on the participation of Black people in America, we should know that Black people have been here the entire time. They were never an afterthought, nor were they simply forgotten, but the stories, contributions, and relevance have been intentionally pushed aside, covered up, and discarded.

Lets fix that.

 

*There are theories and some evidence that Africans visited and even settled on the American continent before Columbus.

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