Monday, January 02, 2012

Body and Soul

On January 14th, 2006, I published the first post on this blog site.  It read:

When I wrote the end of last September that I was going to start blogging only on the topic of what I call the "socially-constructed, political notion of 'race'," I really thought I meant a few days later. Apparently, I meant three months later. Regardless, I hope to have a book on race (the story of my life, actually) published this year. Then, I'd like to travel around and tell people what I've got on my mind. But in the meantime, while I work on a couple more books and teach and live my life and all, I'll do this, too.

I did my first piece of research on race in 1963 (I was sixteen) on racial discrimination in the area in which I lived with my college-educated, white-bred (pun intended) parents and four younger brothers and sisters. Years in the prison abolition movement, years on welfare, and years in college and grad school later, I am still learning about "race." And talking about it. Loudly. And writing about it. Passionately.

I hope you're not horrified. I'm pretty straight-forward, in general, and absolutely shocking to some folks when I'm communicating about institutionalized oppression against people of color and, most particularly, African-Americans. Most bloggers write: if you don't like what I write, don't read it. But you're not gonna read that here. I hope you're not horrified because I hope you have a clue and you'll be willing to admit it and maybe we can finally make some progress before it's too late. (Yeah. I think there's every possibility that we're already on the downhill slope with our brakes locked as a society and that race is the oil on the pavement.)

But, if you are horrified, don't freak out. Just read it. Then ask yourself, "What if she's right?" Because, dear reader, I am. I'm not here to bury you with statistics. I could, but I won't because people that do that much better than me are already doing it and too many people that need to aren't listening anyway.

No, I'm here to just point out the sights as we careen through our national evolution. I know you can't wake up somebody who's pretending to be asleep. So those of you who choose to snore may continue to do so. But I'm not alone in what I know. So don't think my perspectives are a "personal problem." If you're scared, holler "red rock." And if you believe that there's still hope for us as a nation, then clap your hands. But if you still want to ignore reality, just remember that the ball's still the ball, no matter what kind of spin somebody tries to put on it. And that'll be me you hear in the background, mumbling to myself, "Why am I not surprised?"

Six years later, I read this, amazed that it's six years later and disheartened that, six years later, I could have written the post yesterday.  Nothing so far as I can tell has even moved an inch in a positive direction.  In fact, some stuff has actually gotten worse where the "socially-constructed, political notion of 'race'," is concerned.  For one thing, White people have become so frustrated by the tanking economy, some of them have no problem whatsoever throwing Blacks overboard, just as they did when things got tricky on the Middle Passage.  "F' 'em!" they seem to say, sounding like the quixotic Capt. John Yossarian in Catch 22: "I know they're shooting at everybody, but they're shooting at me!"  So White people are crying bloody murder over a 9% unemployment rate, while Blacks are staggering under more than double that burden.

It would be an indicator of great naivete to imagine that anything is going to magically improve in the few decades I've been an anti-racist ally.  I mean, what kind of social change agent expects visible shift in so short a period when so many have spent the past four centuries in the ninth ring of hell?  I know that I can't stop pushing the envelope regardless.  It's just not in me.  So I'm not whining.  But things are complicated.  I don't know what to do.

On one hand, I just finished teaching a very effective course on Racial and Ethnic Relations last semester (to students at least half of whom were White criminal justice majors in rural Louisiana, for God's sake) and got to see real consciousness raising occur for a number of the students -- both Black and White (more about that in another post).  But on the other hand, walking around New York City with Boxer for a week over Christmas, I was made incredibly aware that a Black man and a White woman holding hands in public in the United States is still an anomaly even in one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world.  I actually felt uncomfortable when I paid attention to it (especially in Harlem, needless to say).  And it all gets a little wearing eventually.  I expect to feel like an odd ball in Louisiana, but in The Big Apple, filled with every different type of culture and face?

Things are complicated.

I remember some years ago, when I was still living in south Florida, I was contacted one day by a young White male former student of mine who had taken my Race course at a university down there.  He was student-teaching in a middle school and was horrified to discover that the Social Science teacher under which he was interning had chosen a text book presenting seventy pages of information about Ancient Greece and only seven pages total about the entire continent of Africa for all time.  He asked if I would come "do what I do" for a class of pre-teens.  Somewhat surprised by the request and not at all convinced that I knew how to approach "children" about the topic of "race,"  I ultimately agreed and put together a pair of presentations that attempted to explain very simply how the idea of race had evolved and how it works, ending on a positive note about what we can do to make things better.

Afterwards, he seemed truly pleased and appreciative, but I left without being sure what, if anything, the students actually got out of what I had said.

Two weeks later, the local newspaper reported that an African-American boy had shot and killed a White girl at the school.  A tragedy of this caliber is always stunning, of course.  But for me, it was downright garish.  I never had the nerve to ask whether or not the boy with the gun had been in the class I addressed.  I didn't recall his name as being listed, so I told myself the timing of the occurance was a coincidence.  Racial tensions at the school were one of the reasons my former student had contacted me in the first place.  But I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that, if I discovered that something I taught those children had resulted in the death of one of them at the hands of another, I would never be able to deal with it emotionally.

Like I said, things are complicated.

In Harlem, on Christmas Eve morning, Boxer and I came across a sidewalk display of crimes perpetrated against African-American victims by White oppressors.  It was a graphic display, indeed, with dozens of photos attached to draped cloth being viewed by passers-by.  Black men stood wounded and naked before cameras capturing their dignity in the face of what was intended to be humiliation.  Black bodies hung limp as rags from tree branches in picture after picture.  Photos of instruments of torture were presented without comment.  And White men and women wearing White hoods stared wordlessly and permanently at all who cared to consider them.

I had been using my daughter's camera all over Manhattan for days and started snapping the shutter instantly before I began hearing the voice of a Black man behind me.

"Do you know what the holocaust is?" he asked, sounding agitated.  "This is the Black holocaust!"

When I realized he was speaking directly to me, I stopped taking pictures, turned to him and replied in a tiny voice, "Yes, I know what the holocaust is and I know what this is."

"This is sacred to us," he went on, his face constricted with the pain I had caused him by entering his space, his sidewalk cathedral.  "This is sacred to us.  It's not just here for White tourists to take pictures of..."

Even in the sweep of the cold winter wind, I could feel my cheeks flush red.  I was sorry.  And I was ashamed of being insensitive.  And I was heartbroken for all those who have to deal with White insensitivity all day every day.  My always-ready voice stalled in my throat and I slunk away like a dog caught digging up a garden.

Like I said, things are complicated.

So here I am, six years after I began.  With no sense that what I'm doing is necessarily of any real and particular assistance in the process of working for racial justice.  I know that I started this blog to provide input for students, to write because I must write or die, to provide myself with a platform from which to cry "Wolf!" when there most definitely is one.  Yet, things are complicated.

After six years, I'm wondering if those reasons are still enough.  It takes great discipline to keep slogging along through the swamp water month after month if you're not sure where you're headed or whether you're going in circles or whether there is, in the end, any point to it, after all.

I started a new blog yesterday on In Your Face Women. The intention is for it to present daily postings for one year. I already have four months of it written, but it's still going to be yet another commitment.  I'm also on the verge of kicking off a blog talk radio show about spiritual (not religious) growth. And if I want to continue to pay my rent, I must keep my day job, too, which seems to demand ever so much more of me than it does of those who make easier peace with not being as available to students as I am. In addition, I'm thinking about self-publishing Reduced to Equality. And I'm starting to speak at conventions for an organization to which I belong.

Am I kidding myself?  Have I lost my mind?  Am I like a comet that has entered the atmosphere and become an incendiary spectacle as I approach the later years of my life?  I used to say years ago that my fourth twenty years would be my most productive.  At nearly six years in, that would certainly appear to be true.  But it has turned out to be complicated.  I'm not satisfied any more with just producing.  I want to be effective.  I want to be careful to do what is really helpful and not just satisfying to my ego.  And frankly, in a world full of anguish, I have finally reached a point where I want to be happy, as well.

The old song goes, "John Brown's body lies a moulderin' in the grave, but his soul goes marching on."  The things I care about are complicated and I don't have all the answers by a long shot.  I'm beginning to tire and I'm adding pieces to my life that get in the way of my posting here, but I can't imagine quitting.  So I guess my soul as expressed through this blog, for the predicable future at least, will go marching on into another year.  Thanks for marching with me.


Brotha Wolf said...

It is overwhelming at times. Sometimes you wonder why you've started or what good are you doing. But your blog alone has done a lot of good. It's moving in the right direction.

You could've been one of those people who try to avoid the subject matter or try to shift the blame on the victims, but you didn't. You faced it, acknowledged it, understood it, and responded accordingly. You've learned the best way on how to confront whiteness and racism and it shows in your writing.

I've said that in order for whites to truly be allies in the struggle against racism, they too have to struggle. Judging by your writing, you have struggled a lot and through that, you've seen the world in a different perspective. You weren't afraid of realizing your own privileges and inequalities in society, and that helped you greatly.

It can be stressful to the extreme. It can even be severely depressing, but somehow, you, I, and others have to find the strength to continue what we're doing.

Please don't stop doing what you're doing.

Changeseeker said...

My dear Brotha Wolf, I appreciate your on-going encouragement more than you can possibly imagine. It is manna from heaven in a dark, dark time. We will sustain each other until it is no longer necessary. I won't stop if you won't.

Brotha Wolf said...

It's a deal.