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Beyond the Obscenity of Hate

August 2016

Jesmyn Ward’s new anthology, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race[1] offers an array of contemporary black writers on the topic of what it means to be living in the wake of such losses as Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, and the Charleston Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church Nine. What does it mean to live in an era of bullets — the lynching ropes of the present? What does it mean to write history with the black point of view as Honorée Fanonne Jeffers does about Phillis Wheatley’s husband? What does fatherhood for black men mean, and how do black boys learn their masculinity, as Mitchell S. Jackson considers and Clint Smith (also in the anthology) has spoken?[2] These authors write about history and determination to turn the tide from victimized to the clear knowing that black lives belong, black lives do matter.

The rigorous power-filled writing in Ward’s anthology sent me back to James Baldwin’s original The Fire Next Time, which I first read 40 years ago. Therein are two essays, “My Dungeon Shook: Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” and “Down at the Cross: Letter from a Region in My Mind.”  “My Dungeon Shook” is ten lean, muscular pages; Baldwin was never a boxer or fighter, but his words take on all opponents. His clarion call to his nephew (and to all) is to live and thrive despite devastating odds. This 1962 epistle is as relevant today as it was then,

“…You were born where you faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. … You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”[3]

Plenty have aspired to and reached excellence since. This month we’re reminded of that with every Olympic headline as we celebrate American women Olympian athletes of color: Ibthihaj Muhammad, Simone Biles, Gabby Douglas, Simone Manuel, Laurie Hernandez, and Michelle Carter.

Yet on the same newsfeed, right along with these striking achievements were listed the latest deaths by gun violence.  Jesse Romero, Mexican-American 14-year-old middle school student shot in Los Angeles running from police. Kouren-Rodney Bernard Thomas, 20-year-old African American shot by white Chad Copley, neighborhood vigilante in Raleigh, North Carolina, while walking home from a party. Then, Imam Alauddin Akonjee and his assistant, Thara Miah, were gunned down near their mosque in Queens, New York. Then, Sylville Smith was killed by police in Milwaukee. Transwomen, Rae’Lynn Thomas and Erykah Tijerina were murdered this August too.[4]  Women, boys and men of color are particularly in the lines of fire. At a popular gay bar in June of 2016 in Orlando, Florida, 49 people died, 53 seriously injured, mostly Puerto Rican or African American, ages from 18-50.

We live in this complexity, this society where so many things are true at once; where black women break barriers and win gold at the same moment black men, women and children are losing their lives to violence.

In her 2016 re-release of Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities, Rebecca Solnit has this to say about these times,

…  ” ‘Revolutionary moments are carnivals in which the individual life celebrates its unification with a regenerated society,’ wrote Situationist Raoul Vaneigem. The question, then, is not so much how to create the world as how to keep alive the moment of creation, how to realize that Coyote world in which creation never ends and people participate in the power of being creators, a world whose hopefulness lies in its unfinishedness, its openness to improvisation and participation. The revolutionary days I have been outlining are days in which hope is no longer fixed on the future: it becomes an electrifying force in the present”.[5]

We live wanting results and a sense of completion; haven’t we ended racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia already? Solnit reminds us we will always be creating, participating, and we are the creators of change. This requires imagination and audacity, the kind Baldwin showed when he integrated a bar on the corner of MacDougal and Bleeker. He had been refused service on several occasions until he was escorted in with the president of Harper & Brothers publishing. He was never thrown out again. He writes, “They had fought me very hard to prevent this moment, but perhaps we were all much relieved to have got beyond the obscenity of color.”[6]

Just as Baldwin wrote to his nephew, and Daniel José Older writes to his wife, and Edwidge Danticat to her daughters in Ward’s The Fire This Time, I write to my own children in every bit of my work, teaching or writing. My work is my life, our lives, intertwined. What brought me to adopt an African American girl and then her brother? What has raising them meant every day of our lives? My children roll their eyes now at my concerns for their safety. They are tall enough to pat me on my shoulder, sigh and brush off my fears for their black lives in white America.

To my black children I say: We are in the world I dreamed of when I adopted you. I wanted to walk into the future, as the future would be: as diverse and complex as nature has made it. Brazilian Paulo Friere and American Myles Horton wrote We Make the Road By Walking[7] about their work as educators and social activists. If that is so, we’ve got a good path under our feet. We’ve laughed and talked, been to the beach, made S’mores at the fire pit, sledded on the hill behind the house. You’ve participated in dinner table conversations with all kinds of people and come to my college classes.  You volunteered to read to kids, guided small hands as they glued self-portraits in response to hearing It’s OK to Be Different by Todd Parr. Kindergarteners so happy to have your beaming smile flash their way. You are both off to college with as many skills as I could badger you into gaining, and you’ll always be learning more as you walk alone. But I did not imagine the dangers of 1962 would still be so prevalent in 2016.

The hardest thing as a mother is knowing I can’t protect you. Not really. Your adulthood slams you right into the societal tsunami of fears, disharmony, abuses of power and those all-pervasive obscenities of racism and sexism.  Dashiell and I used to read Bill Waterson’s Calvin & Hobbes endlessly. In one frame Hobbes asks, “How come we play war and not peace?” Calvin replies, “Too few role models.”[8]  Our family had no role models, we found our way each day. You both learned to respond to snide remarks about being gay (because I am) or about your brown hands being dirty. We learned to be educators to your white teachers who stammered at what language to use when talking about people of color.

Leaving the house one morning I called out, “I’m off to do Reading to End Racism with third graders. See you after school!”

“Ok Mom, why don’t you end homophobia and sexism while you’re at it? Hope it goes well,” Zora responded. Was she being sarcastic or wistful?

My work is unfinished.

In 2016, 587 people have been shot by police[9], and 401 have died in mass shooting events as of this writing, simply for being themselves[10]. Crossing the street, dancing while gay, driving while black, living while trans, walking while woman. Our history proves this non-stop legacy of hurt and grief and oceans of tears.

James Baldwin wrote to his nephew,

“The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them (white people). And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do no understand: and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. …”[11]

We, white people, people with power and privilege, must release ourselves. Our place in history is as immigrants, one and all. We stand upon the shoulders of others. Our history is filled with broken treaties, theft, and justices denied. Carelessly or not, we’ve stepped on the necks and hearts of Native Americans, Africans, and many immigrants since and still today. Our democracy will only thrive with our participation, and our understanding and compassion for one another: working together to build a nation free of gun violence, filled with economic and social justice, creating a place where happiness outwits shame and mental illness.[12]  Jesymn Ward only found three black authors writing about a hopeful future.  This could be the nation where she would find more. Solnit reminds us, “creation never ends and people participate in the power of being creators.” It’s a reality we have to embrace. Our work will never be “finished.”

Grief is relentless. Solnit says “…joy is a fine initial act of insurrection.[13]

Let’s start there, way beyond the obscenity of hate.

 

Footnotes

[1] The Fire Next Time. (1962/1991). New York: Vintage International, p. 7.

[2] “Queries of Unrest” is his essay in The Fire This Time.  Watch Smith’s TED talk: How to Raise a Black Son in America. March 2015:                    http://www.ted.com/talks/clint_smith_how_to_raise_a_black_son_in_america?

[3] The Fire Next Time, p. 7.

[4] http://www.advocate.com/transgender/2016/8/11/these-are-trans-people-killed-2016#slide-6

[5] After Ideology, or Alterations in Time in Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. (2004/2016). Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books, p. 95.

[6] James Baldwin, Here Be Dragons in The Price of a Ticket: Collected Non-Fiction 1948-1985. (1985). New York, St. Martin’s Press, p. 687.

[7] We Make the Road by Walking: Conversations on Education and Social Change. (1990). Myles Horton and Paulo Freire, edited by Brenda Bell, John Gaventa and John Peters. Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

[8] Google search. Calvin and Hobbes quotes. Bill Waterson, 1985.

[9] https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/national/police-shootings-2016/?tid=a_inl

[10] https://www.massshootingtracker.org/data

[11] The Fire Next Time, p8.

[12]  This is a complex ideal. People, who are happy and live fulfilled and meaningful lives, aren’t called to addiction and are eager to find help and services to stay healthy. Consumerism, commercialism, competition lead to dissatisfaction, shame, guilt and all the ingredients for violence and hate. Happiness is a radical concept for most Americans. All our efforts for social, economic, political, and educational justice could create more opportunity for more meaning, well-being, and happiness for all. This could change everything.

[13] Hope in the Dark, p.24.

“Run and Tell that!”

Reflecting on   Honky by Dalton Conley (2000).

 

The first time we watched the 2007 musical version of Hairspray, starring Nikki Blonsky and John Travolta, my kids were in fourth and fifth grade. After we stopped laughing over the scene where Seaweed  ( Elijah Kelley) reassures Link he’ll be safe in the black neighborhood and calls him “Cracker-boy,” I quietly suggested they not use the term in school the next day.  It just wouldn’t make sense to any of those white kids, I added.

 

Neither would “honky,” which is the moniker Dalton Conley uses to denote his whiteness growing up in the Masaryk Towers south of Avenue D in Manhattan. He describes the 21st floor apartment as having an outstanding view as fine as any upscale penthouse, as long as he didn’t look directly below, where the shattered glass and litter swirled on the sidewalks. Growing up in the 1980s, Conley was one of the only white boys in the public housing towers. In their neighborhood, hope could barely survive the destitution, and then the despicable flow of crack ravaged everything even further, deeper into despair.
Conley turns the tables on us. He is white and living in a predominantly poor Black, Hispanic and immigrant environment. Poverty was an equalizer for him there, though the middle and upper class backgrounds of his parents, their whiteness too, offered an escape hatch (hand me down clothing or cars) that few of his neighbors could count on. Conley’s mother dragged him by the ear on more than one occasion—to return stolen goods, get off the arcade game and get back to school. He saw how white and wealthy people could work things out between one another so small misdemeanors didn’t mean jail time—which was too often what happened for the Black kids.

 

His mother, Ellen Conley, was a force to be reckoned with as she steered her family through the mazes of city schools and housing. She had the agility (though not the financial resources) to figure out access—to managers or  better schools and safer housing. She also had tough rules: no lying, no riding on the outside of buses, and no playing on the streets on major holidays because those were the most dangerous days. This turned out to be true for Jerome that Fourth of July when the bullet hit his neck.

 

The world shifted for Dalton when his best friend, Jerome was paralyzed  by a ricocheting bullet as he walked down the block. “The old junkies never hurt anyone,” [Conley’s] mother said, pining for the days when heroin had dominated the local scene” (p. 185). After Jerome was shot, she started looking for a new place to live, and moved the family to an artists’ building in a neighborhood less prone to guns and violence.

 

Conley’s memoir offers insight into places I’ll never know, places that no longer exist, as his childhood was New York pre-crack and pre AIDS. Through his adult lens as a sociologist, he explains being in the minority as a white kid growing up in urban poverty, and learning how to be safe and cool in his neighborhood. His experiences as a kid with tattered clothes and scuffed sneakers were often embarrassing, but he learned there was more to school than cool. He describes a time he stood with the kids of color during a vote for music for a school dance. He stood with disco when the white kids wanted rock. His alliances often crossed this kind of line—boundaries other white people rarely realized even existed. 

 

What made Conley the man he is today? A white kid growing up in a tough neighborhood isn’t the whole story. This is also a tale of consequences. The kid whose best friend was Black and suddenly paralyzed acquires OCD behaviors. After Jerome was shot, Dalton kisses everything in the apartment before he leaves, kisses his family members two times on each cheek before he will let them go out the door. He takes that dual kissing into his adulthood.

 

By the end of the book we learn that Jerome goes to Hollywood and stars in a PBS film and settles in Oregon. Conley becomes an academic and administrator. His father played numbers on the racetrack and Dalton himself is running numbers too, but in a computer lab. He searches mathematical codes to understand “the leitmotif of race and class.”  Since Honky he has written on birth weight and health, sociology, and the impact of new technologies on individuality. But this memoir reaches beyond the academy. More readers may see what growing up in urban America is like, where bullets ricochet, kids play hide and seek in projects and parks, and the education system has to outwit the urge to drink and do drugs. Conley spins the tale so we see class and race vividly as part of white America too.

 

Seaweed, after the cracker-boy comment sings, “Run and Tell That!”

“I can’t see/Why people disagree/Each time I tell them what I know is true/And if you come/And see the world I’m from/I bet your heart is gonna feel it too.”  (Scott Wittman & Mark Shaiman)

 

Honky is about a white kid who loved his friends—Puerto Rican, Jewish, African American. Conley continues to search for the reasons for their differences.

 

I’m sure that the more we come and see the world we are each from, as the lyrics entreat, our minds will follow our hearts. This is not hyperbole or idyll romanticism. It requires extremely hard work. It is clear after reading Honky that as more white people tell their stories of race and class, the more we will understand that this  (landscapes of race and class, and gender too) is the world we are all from. The alliances are there for us all to join so the world can become a better place—if we dare.

Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape From the Crowd by Thomas Chatterton Williams (2010).

Thomas Chatterton Williams has written a memoir with a theme about losing his cool to be who he more honestly is. He had to give up some daunting style, break from peer pressure and brand named accessories. He had to give up hiding his talents. He came to realize he was living a media-induced style and he had taken it in hook, line, and sinker.

We all know the power of music and media. Consider the Sixties’ hippies grooving to Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane, The Beatles. The Graduate and Easy Rider, trying to make sense of the Republicans and Democrats, the first Moon Walk and the Vietnam War.

Young people are still trying to makes sense of Republicans and Democrats, the Moon Walk is a dance move perfected by Michael Jackson (may he rest in peace), military personnel are entrenched in Afghanistan and Iraq. Hip hop lyrics too often shun, shame and disparage women and gay people. The lyrics idealize violence, staying high, and money. Lots and lots of money.

Williams describes his middle class New Jersey neighborhood, his educated and working parents whose bi-racial marriage has lasted, the basketball, his first love, the sex at his prom party. He talks about his peers who get pregnant, peers who are abusers of women, other friends who are hooked on drugs. He writes about the white kid who is beaten for attitude on the basketball court. He writes about the kids who decide they are too cool for school; he even blew his first year at Georgetown University because he was. One day he realizes the white kids are listening to the same music he has been listening to and they hear the great rhythms and the incredible verbal agility. He recognizes those kids hear irony when he has been hearing a code to live by. But so many of the youth of his neighborhood were in jail, pregnant, or cared more about drugs than living.

This is a young black man’s memoir. He is the child of a white working mother and black intellectual father, middle class, great at sports and school.  He trades in his baggy pants and athletic clothes. His father buys him a suit, some shirts and ties. He finishes his undergraduate degree. The friend who studied with him and his father also graduated but no one else did. I hear the power of the media— black youth become caricatures of lyrics just as young women become anorexic embodiments of photo-shopped portraits of models. So much has been written about them—now we hear about the black kids who are equally bamboozled into buying into a self-defeating storyline.

Williams offers some powerful insight:

It is more accurate to say, however, that the mood of black culture doesn’t need to change into something wholly new so much as it must simply find a way to reclaim what it once had. One of the most fascinating paradoxes the student of black history ever observes, as well as a tremendous justification for black pride, is the extent to which this culture, against all likelihood, has customarily embodied a joyful, soulful, affirming approach to life and not a spiritually bankrupt or self-defeating one. It is only very recently–basically within my brother’s lifetime, which is to say, the three and a half decades of the hip-hop era or, roughly, the post-Civil Rights era–that this has, in the main, ceased to be the case. In other words, it is only after the tremendous civil-rights victories of the ’60s, only after desegregation, only after affirmative action that black America has become so militantly provincial and wildly nihilistic (214).

Williams found his way to freedom. We need to understand what he is saying, what he is daring to say, and get the word out to bring back beloved community and joy.

 

 

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