Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A Tale of Two Henrys

When the first news stories about the arrest of world renowned scholar, author and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates appeared, I shook my head and swore that it was just too obvious for me to "waste my time on." I refused to even imagine writing a post on the situation because, for real now, what kind of moron would arrest a 58-year-old Harvard professor (regardless of skin tone) wearing an upscale polo shirt, standing on his own porch with his photo identification in his hand? (And yes, Sgt. Crowley, I called you a moron -- no matter what a nice guy you are -- and I don't drink alcohol, so I guess we're not gonna be talkin' about it all over a beer, are we?)

Then, as the days passed and I watched the mainstream media grapple with the "issues" of the case, I became increasingly mesmerized by the attempts -- from the President on down -- to make this incredible display of institutionalized White supremacy wearing a gun Gates' problem. How dare he, the media et al seemed to be saying, come home from abroad and unjam his own front door in broad daylight? How dare he ask his driver for assistance in doing this to protect the hip he's already had to have replaced once? How dare he run the risk of confusing some woman watching him do all this so that she winds up embarrassed for being a "good citizen?" And above all, how dare he become frustrated with and worse yet, berate a uniformed law enforcement officer who had treated him with no more than the same dismissive disdain reserved for all Black men in the United States? Didn't he realize he could've been Tasered or even shot? The media and everybody they talked to seemed to be saluting the cop for not really letting loose on this uppity old man with a cane who obviously didn't re-ca-nize who he was talkin' to. In fact, other than the President (for a hot minute) and a handful of bloggers*, nobody seemed to be taking Gates' side.

"He oughta know better," said one article, speaking of Gates rather than the policeman who, we are told teaches other cops how to resist racial profiling -- which would certainly explain why some of them are so good at it. They're being trained by a guy who's surely gotta be one of the best since he can profile even a guy like Henry Louis Gates. I mean, if Crowley is the standard, it's a wonder there are any Black men at all still out of jail.

After hashing our blogospheric outrage to death, some of us even finally got around to asking the harder questions. Like why the President of the United States, himself a Black man, only stepped up to defend his "brother" when his brother was also rich and famous. Like why what happened to Gates was horrific, but when it happens to other, poorer, less privileged Black men every few minutes day and night in this country, it bearly gets a mention and a shrug. And like how this experience might affect Dr. Gates' work now that he's discovered what poor African-Americans have always known: that Blacks are virtually helpless in the face of institutionalized racism in this country and most particularly when it's wearing a badge and a gun. He never seemed to get that before. I suspect he'll have much less trouble believing it now. What more could we hope for, right?

Of course, eventually, the charges were dropped and everything went back to business as...well...usual. Which is where I come in, I guess, now that everybody's tired of reading and thinking and talking about what the Governor of Massachusetts called "every Black man's nightmare". What could I possibly have to add that hasn't already been written?

Just one small anecdote about another Henry, a man I watched for two years before I recently made it a point to meet him.

This Henry is also an older man -- maybe in the same age bracket as Gates -- but he isn't a Ph.D. He's a much more ordinary person, a working man, a Vietnam veteran who still looks into space and wanders a bit when he recalls what it meant to be Black and a soldier at war.

This Henry doesn't sit at a big, fine desk in an ivory tower at Harvard. He sits on a curb on a bridge across from my building. And he sits out there a lot.

Being a sociologist and all, I knew I had to approach him and even went so far once as to lean out my car window when the light was red and call out to him my name and a request to talk with him. He was agreeable, he said. But months more slipped by before I finally got there.

I crossed the busy street and stuck out my hand, introducing myself.

"Mind if I sit down?" I asked.

He was steady and welcoming, though not effusive. And we spent a half hour or so comparing notes on life.

Henry feeds the ants and the birds and he sits on his throne in the kingdom he has created, watching his subjects go about their daily lives while the trees behind him and across the street grow and move in the Louisiana breeze. He used to work in a restaurant, but it moved to another town. And now, Henry works here and there as he can: an afternoon's yard work or a handyman job for a day or so. At night, he goes home to his step-brother's house, where neither has steady employment. One wonders how they eat.

"The student's call you 'The Bridge Man.'" I told him. "How do you feel about that?"

"'S'all right," Henry answered.

"This is kind of like your front porch, huh?" I pushed a little further. "You sit out here and watch the cars go by...?"

Here Henry reached back into Vietnam and brought me up through the decades of his existence to the present. He's seen the world. He's lived up north. And he came back to Louisiana -- a Black man in A-merry-ca. Then, he reached back even further into history and touched the bases that the White establishment made such a crucial part of the game.

"They enslaved us and they worked us and they sent us off to war. They brutalized us and put us in schools without books and locked us in jail even when we didn't break any laws. But we're still here..."

At this point, Henry turned his head and, looking me straight in the eye, said, "I sit out here day after day -- in the rain, in the sun, in the cold, year after year -- and every person that goes by has to see me whether they want to or not. I am the Black man and in spite of all they've done to break us down and try to wipe us out, I'm still here. And I make them know that -- every day."

That, as Paul Harvey used to say, is the rest of the story. The Powers-That-Be can arrest Henry Louis Gates, proving once again that they are the Powers-That-Be and even the President better be careful what he says about it, no matter what. But there is no power that can best the spirit of Henry the Bridge Man. However quickly the cars speed by, the drivers who pointedly keep their eyes on the road have to work hard to ignore Henry the Bridge Man. He's the Truth sitting there on the curb. And the truth, Dr. Gates, will set you free.


*See, for example, Nordette (who re-visited the highway trooper attack on the EMT in light of this newer situation), Carmen (who reminded us that the police -- ostensibly, at least --work for us), field (who shown a light on the way oppression uses language), and Macon D. (who wrote on how clueless White people are about what it's like to be Black in the USA).


Changeseeker said...

To the anonymous person who left a very long, off-topic comment on this post today: thank you for your warning, but this blog is pretty specific in its subject and I encourage commentators to stay on topic.

Rethabile said...

You say things very well. This is truth about the Gates case from a more revealing angle.

Changeseeker said...

Thanks for the kind words, Rethabile. I saw Henry the Bridge Man (who appears to be failing in health) yesterday and he told me he really liked the post himself (I had left a hardcopy with him after posting it). I assured him that it is being read around the world and that it will always serve as a reminder of his message. Thanks for doing your part to make that statement a reality.