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Tag: racism

If I had lived during the 1860s, I probably would’ve done exactly what my mother’s grandfather did. Cursing, I would’ve picked up a gun and left my Mississippi family to protect my homeland. I would’ve fully understood I was fighting for a cause I did not support—preserving the right to own people. But the irresistible love of home would’ve forced me to take on lice and rain and mud and cannon fire.  I would’ve tromped through land that so recently had been someone’s backyard, aiming to kill men I had no quarrel with.

When the war ended and my side was the glorious loser, would I have wanted to see monuments erected to the politicians and generals who’d gotten us into the war? Helllllll, no! Those fools forced me to fight a war I didn’t want to fight, and then the sons of bitches f**ing lost!

So I’m not surprised veterans didn’t erect the Confederate States of America statues strewn across the American South. Almost all were erected after 1900. Quick reminder: the American Civil War ended in 1865. Reconstruction—the post-war era of Southern occupation by Federal troops during which it might not have been prudent to erect statues—ended in 1877.

It wasn’t until 40 years after the war that CSA statues gained momentum. (You think we waited a long time to come to terms with the Vietnam War and erect a memorial? Saigon fell in 1975. The Vietnam Memorial Wall was fully completed by 1983). Those still seared by the heat of war didn’t erect the CSA statues. White people erected the statues in a cold, calculated move to assert white race dominance.

New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s speech, given as New Orleans removed four of its Confederate statues, explains the history:

The historic record is clear, the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means — to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity. . . . These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.

True, the statues are “historical.” But the only history they teach is about America’s continuing surges of white supremacy. If you can’t answer the question, what was happening in 1900, 1909, 1957, and 1962 that led Americans to erect statues of a war that ended in 1865?, we can’t begin to have a conversation about whether the statues should stay.

You might say, “My ancestor fought in the Civil War!” But, yeah, so did mine. It’s not enough. You have to ask yourself, would my great-grandfather really want me to peg my identity on the worse experience of his life? Isn’t it more likely that his fervent prayer would be that his children and grandchildren live good lives? To be better in all things than they were? If your ancestor didn’t fight to preserve slavery but to defend his homeland, allowing the war to take center stage offends the reason he served. So there’s your choice: my ancestor fought to own people (unacceptable) or my ancestor fought to defend his home and I’m gonna ignore that to focus on the war (unacceptable).

I know—there’s that sticky thing called pride. Listen, I absorbed my family’s story about a relative going overseas with a legislative committee to buy one of these damn statues. We were proud of our relative—he sailed across the ocean to France, mind you. Only with time did the glow fade as we collectively absorbed the fact that the honoree was one of the most virulent racists the state ever produced. Personal pride can’t trump maturing enlightenment.

We must stop loving the South for its war. We must love it for the same reason our ancestors did. For the ripe figs and pebble-bottomed creeks and the light calling us home at night. To do otherwise sells the South down the river. We can’t cling to our ancestral myths when we really do know better.

With the whole picture in front of you, what do you choose to focus on?

Small Things I Do FWIW

  • I shop at the Family Dollar or Dollar Tree or the downtown Walgreens rather than the ritzy Walgreens because one does not have to exercise class privilege just because one has it.
  • I choose to place myself in situations where I’m the only white person around—such as my Ob-gyn’s office—because I need to be constantly reminded of what it’s like for Black folks so much of their lives.
  • I always try to say “Yes, Sir” and “Yes, Ma’am” to African-American clerks in a vain attempt to make up for the decades of Southern “etiquette” that prohibited such a thing.
  • I look at the world through racial lens because I know from whence I came and awareness is necessary.

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An Outside Plant

He had one plant, small.

I had three hanging baskets and two big ferns, fat.

He’d been there when I arrived, he and his wife wandering among the plants. It was mid-day Wednesday, no one else at the nursery. A young, spring day. The swarms of eager Memphians hadn’t yet descended on the unsuspecting begonias and geraniums. No one in sight. Except me. Him. His wife.

When I’d wrangled my ferns onto the cart, I pulled them behind me toward the checkout. The clerk was watering the hanging baskets. Earlier, I’d asked him where his ferns might be. He directed me to the back. He’d been nice, polite. Absolutely fine.

I pointed my cart toward the clerk’s row. In the meantime, the man had separated from his wife. He approached the clerk in front of me. He was older. I’m older, but he was older than me. Slight. African American.

He asked the clerk a question. The clerk asked him to repeat his question. “Indoor or out?” he asked, holding his plant with both hands. “Outdoor,” the clerk answered, curt. He looked over the man’s head. At me. Behind the man. He asked, “Are you ready to check out?”

The man said yes.

The clerk said no, I meant her. He put down his hose and moved to the checkout. He bypassed the man standing there, holding his plant. A yellow flower. In a yellow pot. With delicate buds about to open. The clerk was white. I am white. I’ve already told you the man’s race. His wife, now waiting at the checkout, was African American.

The clerk positioned himself behind the counter. He waited for me to step forward.

I’ve been at such a moment before. Many times. Mostly when the white clerk looks into a sea of waiting customers and picks me, the white face, out of the crowd. That strikes me as colorblindness, by which I mean the inability to see the people of color waiting. Focusing instead on the “important” person in the group. The white person. When that happens and I step aside for those there first, the clerk seems genuinely surprised, as if she didn’t know others had been there before me.

This was different. It wasn’t an oversight. It was intentional. It was as if the clerk were angry at the man for something he had done to the clerk. Like showing up at the nursery wanting to buy his one small plant.

I said, “No.” I motioned to the couple. “They were here before me. Y’all go ahead.”

The man’s wife said, “Oh, no, that’s okay.” The man said, “We’re not in any hurry.” The clerk said nothing. The wife nodded at me to go ahead. 

I bought my expensive plants. The clerk yakked the whole time he rang me up. Nervous, it seemed to me, flustered maybe ’cause I refused his offer of priority. When he finished my order, he turned to the couple. “Let me get her packed in the car, and I’ll be right with you.” He said it to the man, but it was like he was saying it for me: See? You’re wrong—I didn’t mean a thing in the world by it. 

After the plants were securely in the car, I left. I did not see the clerk ring up the man’s flower. I hope the man went home and knelt in his yard and scooped up dirt and patted in his flower and now he’s sitting on his porch with his wife, waiting for it to grow. An outside plant. A tough plant. It’ll do fine in the Memphis sun, as long as the rest of us leave it alone.

What Can I Do?

I’m starting a new series here. I’m announcing this new series so you can skip over my followup posts if you want, ’cause I’m a polite Southern woman, and I sure don’t want to impose. But some of you want these posts. I know you do because I’ve been reading your comments and the question you’ve been asking as a result of the terrible murder of nine people in Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, SC. is, “What can I do?”

I don’t know what you can do. Well, that’s a confidence-inspiring beginning, isn’t it? But hang in there. What I do know is that some of the best news of the Good News is that we aren’t all feet. Or heads. Or ears. We each get to discern our own role in being God’s body on earth. I’m not gonna cite the Bible because, Lord, that gives me the willies, but it’s in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. (Sr. Simone Campbell on Krista Tippett‘s show On Being revealed herself to be stomach acid.) Paul’s “body of God” analogy is worth finding because—of all things—it has Paul, the king of interminable yadda, yadda, yadda, being funny.

So. You will need to figure out what you can do. But, if you’re like me and you love nothing more than being in community, MORE GOOD NEWS! You don’t have to figure it out alone. Nor, if you’re like me, do you have to discern correctly right out of the box. In fact, who’s to say I ever discern correctly? I may never know the true value of what I do. That’s okay. I do the best I can, and I trust others are doing the best they can. I duck my head and focus on my own little God wagon. And when I look up, I see the community that is supporting me in my trying. There’s a lot of comfort in that.

In this series, I’m gonna share names of groups, speakers, essays, events, columns, memoirs, paintings, classes, tweeters, pages, and other opportunities that have in function helped me answer the question: what can I do to fight racism?

I say “in function” because I did not begin this journey wondering how I could help combat racism. My feet first hit this path when I left my Mississippi home and moved to Memphis and, like Lot’s wife, I paused and looked over my shoulder. I, too, turned to salt. I stood transfixed by my ignorance. Ignorance of my state’s history. Of the country’s history. Of racial history. I read and read and read and read. Then, in one of those evolutionary dog-legs where sudden change occurs, my husband asked Evelyn Baker, what is this Memphis School of Servant Leadership I hear you speak of? He and I began taking classes, one of which was Racism to Reconciliation. I began facilitating the Door of Hope Writing Group, a group whose members have experienced homelessness and who published its first book last year, Writing Our Way Home: A Group Journey Out of Homelessness. And I kept reading.

Major disclaimer here: I’m still not sure I’m doing anything to end racism. If this confuses you, refer to paragraph 3 above.

With that out of the way, here’s my kick-off organization. Drum roll, please: the Memphis School of Servant Leadership!!! I know. If you were paying attention, you already guessed. It’s a dynamic organization. Things are happening all the time. Follow them on the FaceBook page. Or if you prefer a group, you can join here. The current inspiration asks us to create and post signs with the hashtag DontBurnOurBlackChurches. Here’s how MSSL arrived at that action:

Today we met at the table to discuss Racism to Reconciliation.
We met Black, White, young, old, weary, fresh, seeking and knowing—- all Beloved.
In the tension and in the tender moments we listened to each other, shared thoughts and frustrations and then we strategized.
We’re not finished but we ask you to join us.
White Brothers and Sisters please post a picture of yourself with a sign saying {{{Don’t Burn Our Black Churches}}} using the hashtag #DontBurnOurBlackChurches. OUR STATEMENT: 
Seven Black Churches have burned since Charleston. We, white people, stand in solidarity with the Black Christian community. Arsons are intended to intimidate, silence and disembody Black people.Not in our name, Community Friends of The Memphis School of Servant Leadership

Obviously, you can join this movement even if you’re not in Memphis. Or—this is so very important—this activity might not be for you. I’m making a big commitment here, but I truly promise to keep going and post about other avenues I’ve used in my path of discerning. Maybe a later post will strike a chord with you. Until then, I’ll throw out a few more options:

Worse Than Slavery: Parchman Farm and the Ordeal of Jim Crow, David M. Oshinsky. Because one day at Square Books in Oxford, during the time of my life when I automatically went first to the African American section of bookstores, I spied this book, unaware it would send me on a journey of discovery about my family’s racist past.

Let Your Life Speak, Parker Palmer. Because listening is a vital skill to bring with you on this path and, while I’m not altogether certain this is the best Parker Palmer book to learn his listening techniques, it will have to do.

White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, Peggy McIntosh. Because when I read on the list in this foundational essay the fact that “flesh tone” bandages match my skin, I mused, hunh–I already thought of that, and it always makes me feel smart to have my own observations confirmed.

Wendi C. Thomas‘s Facebook page. She’s a journalist who this fall will be a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University. Better jump on her bandwagon now. Seriously, she does so much of the work for you; all you have to do is read.

The Inward Journey, Howard Thurman. Because he spoke to me so completely, and he might to you too. Besides, I need something of beauty on this list.

 

First, There is Racism

When my husband and I built our house at Pickwick Lake, we built it into the high bluffs that circle the lake. In order for this to work, the architect had to take steel beams and drive them through the shifting mud until he hit bedrock. The house was thus anchored and then built around these beams.

I keep thinking of this image as I ponder the murders in Charleston, South Carolina. What I keep seeing is that the steel beams anchoring the house of America is racism. Yes, the house we’ve built around these beams has many wonderful things, particularly an impetus to help others during times of need. But the beams are there, firmly embedded in the rock, holding up the house.

I can’t wish away the beams. I can’t pretend they aren’t holding up the house. I have to say, hunh–look at that. Without these beams, we wouldn’t have the country we have. Slaves built the White House. Slaves built Wall Street. Leased convicts and sharecroppers and Jim Crow labor—our entire economy has segued from one racist exploitation to the next. The steel beams of racism have run through our American house since we laid the 3/5 brick then wearied of Southern complaint and let Reconstruction lapse into Jim Crow and then discovered the magic of mass incarceration. Was this racism necessary to build the house we chose? Could we have created a wonderful country without it? Sure, but that’s not what we chose. We white Americans chose where we wanted to go and we chose racism as the tool to get us there. We forged those beams and hammered them into the bedrock and never looked back.

Now what do I do? First, I own it. I quit crawfishing. I quit attributing our social problems to everything but our bedrock racism. When our racism erupts into view I do not automatically blame mental illness. Lack of gun control. Erosion of family values. Economic disparity. Too little God in our lives. When our leaders and those around me try to obfuscate, I say, well, first, there’s racism.

First, there’s racial hatred. When I’m unwilling to purely and cleanly condemn white culture’s jokes, name-calling, “Southern” pride, and revisionist history. When I deny the pain we’re causing with our racist statues and buildings and street names and flags and holidays. When I place other things above the pain we’re causing. When I cannot even admit we are causing pain, there’s racial hatred.

First, there’s obdurate racial blindness. When I believe I must somehow allow white people to be victims too; when I insist my white feelings be taken into account; when nine African-Americans have died at the hands of a racist white man and yet I must type all lives matter. When I cannot step off the stage, cannot keep from pushing myself into the forefront, cannot quit bleating about my own issues. When I feel the need to say, okay, but. When I don’t even realize it’s my white culture causing the problem, when I think the naming of pre-existing racism is divisive or hostile, there’s racial blindness.

First, there is racial denigration. When I refuse to acknowledge that we Americans have always used black lives to create our shelter, when I can’t see that we are still doing it. When I let state legislatures pass laws that place the burden of “progress” on black lives—balanced budgets, criminal reform, drug wars, voter ID: is there any social “problem” we haven’t asked blacks to bear the burden of solving?—then label it “politics” or “conservative” or “Southern” or “sound fiscal policies,” instead of calling it racism, there’s racial denigration. When I cannot admit the truth but keep adding stories to the racist house, then I must stop and say: first, there is racism.

First, there is racism.

First, there is racism.

What is the answer, what is the second thing? I don’t know. But I cannot go onto the second thing until I give up my vested interest in denying, until I give up any and all push-back against the reality, until I admit the first thing.

First, there is racism.

 

 

 

 

It’s Different

“Begin with yourself,” said several of the panelists at today’s Memphis United People’s Conference on Race and Equality. They were talking about racism. “Begin with yourself and ripple out from there: to your household, your family, your neighborhood, your community.” This ls a paraphrase, but the concept was repeated many times.

This is where I begin today:

We went to the Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum for a Door of Hope Writing Group outing. Every other month we go for lunch and a field trip. The site usually is picked by the group but, at the last minute, our site for this month’s trip proved unavailable. With a hasty substitute, we set off.

I was walking through the museum, noticing that all the initial voices on the tape leading us through the museum were white. I also noticed an exhibit describing crooked landowners cheating sharecroppers—I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an admission before. I listened as Rufus Thomas described sneaking into the WDIA control room to learn how to twist the knobs. He wanted to learn but WDIA—which I thought was a Black-owned radio station because its audience was African-American and the writers who wrote about playing for the baseball team were African American—was owned by white folks, hence the sneaking. All through the museum, I noticed Whites Only signs and other reminders of the times. I noticed these things because how we choose to tell the story—or not—is important to me.

The next day we wrote about our trip. I reminded the group they could write about any aspect of the trip, and sometimes what we experience in a place is not what the organizers intended. I said this because on the way home from the museum, one of the African-American writers told me how hurtful the initial exhibits on sharecropping were to her. Because she’d been in the fields with her grandmother. She remembered as a little girl what the words were describing. Others chose to write about this aspect of the museum as well. The pain caused by the Whites Only signs. How much these reminders hurt.

Earlier that week, I had mentioned to a friend that my husband and I visited Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum. I’d gone to the museum because I’m from Mississippi; I live in Memphis; race is an important issue to me that I’ve responded to by reading books, attending lectures, listening and learning, trying to educate myself. My friend told me the way she and I experienced Slave Haven would be different. “Because I am Black and you are white,” she said. “It’s different.”

I heard her then, but I did not understand until I went to the a museum that had nothing to do with race; experienced the museum, including its racial aspects; then heard African-Americans write about their experience of the same museum. Then I understood.

It’s different.

here’s to creative synthesis . . . .

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