Saturday, June 24, 2006

Saving My Soul

All my childhood and up into my teens, I lived in a family with a profound commitment to the kinds of church settings that are deeply concerned with saving people's souls. Until my parents joined a church with slightly less dramatic overtones, I was treated on a regular basis as far back as I can remember to a steady diet of mind-bendingly emotional appeals known as "altar calls." If you grew up Episcopalian or Catholic, you may have no idea what I'm talking about. But if you've ever sat (or stood--sometimes interminably) through a really full-tilt boogie altar call, just the mention of the term will bring back a graphic memory. If you've experienced as many of them as I have, you may have mixed feelings about the memory: the backdrop of organ music intended to stir the hapless sinners, the singing of hymns about coming home (verse after verse, over and over), the bowed heads of an entire congregation, and the pleading entreaties of a preacher or evangelist who would often come down from the pulpit, mopping his brow with a big white handkerchief, to stand in front of the listeners and meet the men, women, and children who stumble, weeping, down the aisle.

I was an altar call retread. My parents were at best, horrifyingly critical, and at worst, criminal in the various types of attention they showed me and my four younger brothers and sisters. They did the best they could, I know, given the nightmare childhoods they survived themselves. And I don't fault them any more. Hell, the more people I meet and the more students I have, the more I'm not sure anybody in the U.S. had an Ozzie and Harriet family life. But regardless of the factors involved, I was more easily moved than the average kid--or maybe I just needed to be comforted--but over those years before I could opt out of the church-going (which I largely did at my earliest opportunity), I "went down the aisle" like someone who was trying to make the Guinness Book of World Records. I was seeking redemption from my sin, my wrongdoings, my badness (whatever I perceived that to be at the age of ten). I was trying to get my soul saved.

This is not a minor issue for one spoon-fed hell-fire and brimstone from birth (I guess it was) and suffering enough in this life to be infinitely sure that I did not want to suffer for eternity, as well. I didn't want to leave any stone unturned or run the risk of accidently forgetting to confess a "sin" that might cost me my mansion in Heaven.

By the time I left home, however, I was more ambivilent about the process and, will just have to trust that the multiple times I answered the call as a child did the trick because my spiritual development has taken on a different tone these days. And I think of my soul in terms less likely to be savable with a quick trip down the aisle on a Sunday evening and more likely to require some day-to-day effort on my part.

Now, I don't mean to disparage anyone's practice of religion, but most of these posts just kind of write themselves with me along for the ride (and to punch the letters on the keyboard). Besides, I'm given to long introductions sometimes and when I thought about the topic I'm about to discuss, this is just the way it began.

I am a sociologist. Which makes it sound a little like I'm introducing myself at a twelve-step group: "My name is Changeseeker and I'm a sociologist." But I'm not only a sociologist. And it could be (and I'm sure would be, by many sociologist's standards) that I'm not primarily a sociologist. A sociologist is a scholar, right? A highly trained individual committed to publishing their research in peer-reviewed scientific journals. A person with a broader view than the average. A person who takes things everybody already knows and puts them into language nobody can understand. And that isn't me. I am highly trained, no question about that. And I have a broader view--some people think too broad. But while I never turn off my radar and I suck observations out of the air everywhere I go and while I've finished one book and am simultaneously working on three others even as we speak, I'm not one of those "objective" social scientists who works so hard at not having a perspective, they miss noticing that they already have one.

And sometimes that confuses folks. So I think I should probably set the record straight.

To do so, I will first have to write a little bit about William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison was born in Massachusetts in the early 1800's, and according to Wikipedia, was an abolitionist, journalist, and social reformer. Garrison had my skin tone, but he was early and utterly committed to the abolition of slavery and across the board justice for people of color. When he established his own newspaper, The Liberator, at the age of 26, Garrison wrote, referring to his stance against slavery:

"I am aware that many object to the severity of my language, but is there not cause for severity? I will be harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire to sound a moderate alarm...but urge me not to use moderation on a cause like the present...I am in earnest--I will not equivocate--I will not excuse--I will not retreat a single inch--AND I WILL BE HEARD."

Four years later, he was very nearly lynched in the streets of Massachusetts, and after he was arrested to protect him from the mob, he wrote on the wall of his jail cell:

Wm Lloyd Garrison was put into this cell Wednesday afternoon, October 21, 1835, to save him from the violence of a 'respectable and influential' mob, who sought to destroy him for preaching the abominable and dangerous doctrine that 'all men are created equal.'"

For twenty more years, Garrison continued his war on the immorality and injustice of White supremacy, with little support. But eventually he developed enough of a following that more than 3000 people in Framingham, Massachusetts, cheered him on at a 4th of July celebration when he burned a copy of the Declaration of Independence as a protest against the peculiar institution he had fought for so long.

Ultimately, speaking at a celebration honoring the passage of the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution (which officially freed all slaves in 1865), Garrison was received by a standing ovation that lasted several minutes and then he said: "I am unspeakably happy to believe that the great mass of my countrymen are now heartily disposed to admit that I have not acted the part of a madman, fanatic, incendiary or traitor." It must have been a satisfying moment for Garrison. How could he have imagined that 141 years later, I would still be seen by many as a nut case for saying nothing more than that White supremacy is an unnatural, unmitigated attack on the dignity of human beings everywhere, regardless of their skin tone? Can you imagine what would happen if I burned a copy of the Declaration of Independence a week from Tuesday? They'd send me to Guantanamo, if I lived through the riot.

How sad for the memory of Garrison. How his memory drives me on! But I'm not committed because I'm trying to save Black folks, any more than Garrison was. I am, like all my spiritual forbears, simply trying to save my soul. And convinced that it takes more than a prayer and a promise to do so.

See, the bottom line is that I believe my mission in life (yes) is to grow spiritually and be useful. Growing spiritually, you'll note, comes first in that sentence. And to the best of my understanding so far, if I grow spiritually, I'll be useful. So I'm not trying to beat out anybody else and win (whatever that would look like). I'm not trying to fix anything per se and most certainly not the entire world system--all on my lonesome. I am simply doing my little part, whatever that is at a given moment, to move myself in a more healthy, more responsible, more conscious direction, recognizing that others may or may not fully appreciate my process or even, God help us, their own.

My teaching, my books, my speaking, my counseling, my meditation, my conversation, my swimming laps--whatever I do is about that process for me and I'm just following my gut and seeing where it leads. That's the reason I tend not to argue. What would be the point? I'm not trying to force my will on anybody else. I'm just telling the truth, like Garrison, loudly and without apology. We all have our little roles to play. I'm playing mine.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Credit Where Credit Is Due*

While browsing my usual blog-reads this week-end, I stopped by Hysterical Blackness, as I often do (here) and read an account of a U.S. Senate resolution a year ago that apologized for that body's failure to enact federal anti-lynching legislation even when seven Presidents requested specifically that they do so (see this site.) Apparently, the good Senators of previous decades preferred to filibuster rather than risk their constituents not having the freedom to attack and even murder African-Americans (and most particularly African-American men) at will without risk of legal consequences. I would most certainly have known about this when the resolution passed had I not been seriously ill and awaiting surgery last June, but even a year later, I'm grateful to find out about it now.

On the surface, it might not be immediately apparent to some folks why lynching needed to be prosecuted as a federal crime. But the fact is that, as long as states got to decide whether or not a "crime" had been committed, they seemed to keep deciding that it had not. And it wasn't just in the South either. One photograph most of us have seen, for example, was taken at a lynching in Marion, Indiana (remember?). It seems bizarre to most of us now, but it was often standard practice to take photos, turn them into postcards, and mail them out to all your relatives and friends to brag about your presence at the event in question, scrawling across the back of the card statements like "we know how to treat 'em here!"

So you can see how inconvenient it would have been for ordinary White folks to have to worry about some big time federal agents nosing around what just wasn't any of their business.

When Harry T. and Harriette Moore died in their beds as a result of their house in central Florida being bombed on Christmas eve in 1951, everybody knew the Klan did it in retaliation for Harry's work with the NAACP. And everybody knew who the Klan members were. Susan Carol McCarthy, who spent her girlhood around many of the principals, including Moore, recently authored a very intriguing novel about the occurrence entitled "Lay That Trumpet In Our Hands." Still, while the feds were chomping at the bit to do something about it, they couldn't--because murder isn't a federal crime and the state just didn't feel it could make an adequate case against the very important (and very powerful) "gentlemen" who formed the leadership of the local Klan implicated. You get the picture.

Anyway, so the Senate's long-standing unwillingness to intervene in this process on behalf of their constituents of color finally became more or less moot with the establishment of the concept of the "hate crime," but not before thousands and thousands of African-American men were horrifically and sometimes publically tortured to death, generally without any repercussions of any kind for the perpetrators. The official statistics are more than 4700 between 1882 and 1968 (keeping in mind that where no body was found, no lynching could be declared; lynchings are still occurring; and sometimes, such as in the case of Malcolm X's father, the death might be called a "suicide" in spite of the fact that his head had been bashed in and his body placed on a railroad track). Still, using even the very conservative figure of 4700, it averages out to about one per week for 86 years, with incidents appearing in all but four of the states in the union.

So an apology--at the least--was overdue and in order. And while many of the Senators didn't care enough to be present for the voice vote, for which there are no records as to who voted how, 89 out of the 100 of them eventually decided to go on record as co-sponsoring the resolution with Republican Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana. I thought it only appropriate that the ten who decided not to go on record as co-sponsoring the resolution, under those circumstances, ought to get recognition for we say "oversight?"

It is true, of course, that it was a voice vote (and how very convenient of the Senators to give their brothers the option of an "out"--something the victims of lynchings did not receive). Consequently, we can't prove the following Senators voted against the resolution, which passed, in any case. But we know for a fact (thanks to this site.) that they were the only ones out of 100 that chose not to co-sponsor the Senate resolution apologizing to lynching victims and their descendents for not enacting legislation that might have saved at least some of their lives by establishing a clear expectation of sanctions for the egregious crimes committed against them. In alphabetical order, then, the Senators who do not appear on the list of co-sponsors are Lamar Alexander (R-TN), Robert Bennett (R-UT), Thad Cochran (R-MS), John Cornyn (R-TX), Michael Enzi (R-WY), Judd Gregg (R-NH), Trent Lott (R-MS), Richard Shelby (R-AL), John E. Sununu (R-NH), and Craig Thomas (R-WY). Just thought you should know.

*This post is dedicated to the memory of those unfortunate souls of color who died in terror at the hands of White murderers and to the victims' descendents who will ever bear the sorrow of that horrifying experience.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Ya Can't Win For Losin'

When I was small and something didn't go the way my parents wanted it to, they would shake their heads sadly and say to each other: "Ya can't win for losin'." I basically understood them to mean that no matter how hard you try and no matter how things look as if they're going in a positive direction, they never, in the end, turn out well.

Now, obviously, this wasn't true for them and eventually, I knew it. I mean, we started out in the mountains of Kentucky in a house across a vacant lot from a coal mine. And by the time I was in high school, we were in northern Illinois, living in a three-story house with a working fireplace and wall-to-wall carpeting (not minor accoutrements in the early 1960's).

But the saying stuck in my mind and I thought of it again today as I opened my new Jet magazine and saw the stunning young Togolese beauty queen who was named Miss World Cup in Germany the first of this month (see this.) Weird, huh? During World Cup matches, footballers of color are spit on, while "fans" make monkey noises and throw bananas onto the field. But Miss World Cup is a warm caramel color with a broad nose and large, dark brown eyes.

I'm sure that there are some who read my last post who would find this a wonderful thing. "See?" I can just hear them saying. "Things are getting better!" And that might be true for Togolese student Edwige Madze Badakou, who beat out 31 other contestants to win $2,500 and the use of a convertible for a year. But one can't help but wonder what this might or might not mean to a world class soccer player who's wiping some stranger's spit off the side of his face as he takes his position during a crucial moment in the game.

I know that this is going to make me look like somebody who can't see the positive even when it has a big red neon arrow pointed at it, blinking on and off. But the problem is, in my opinion, that White folks feel guilty about letting Black folks get brutalized, so they do things to make themselves feel better and give themselves an excuse to look the other way when the Hitler banners are unfurled. Like voting for a Black beauty queen.

Don't get me wrong. She's gorgeous. But that's not my point.

People of color (Africans, African-Americans, Asians, and a whole raft of other indigenous peoples, such as the Native Americans) have always earned their share of the awards, distinctions, and accolades, even when they didn't get them. The first thing you notice when you start studying real history (and herstory?) is that since White males had the power to decide what got published and disseminated, then White males got all the credit for everything, even if they didn't actually do it. Or it just didn't get reported at all. Tidy, huh? And, over time, in the United States, at least, people of color actually began to believe the hype themselves, waiting to "someday" be "allowed" to achieve something, when people just like them have been achieving all along.

Anyway, so here's this lovely young woman who had just as much right to win as anybody else, but there's no real way to know how many votes were cast "in solidarity" with people of color in the face of the vicious racism that blights the World Cup competition or because some White voter feels guilty about not doing anything else about it. The point isn't whether or not she should be or deserves to be Miss World Cup. She has as much right to be in that position, certainly, as any White queen who ever served because she met the Euro-centric standards of beauty that held such contests in their thrall for so long. The point is that her election can be used to placate White guilt that footballers of color still have to deal with violent attacks on themselves by White people during soccer matches. And that puts a whole new spin on "Ya can't win for losin'," huh?

I'll bet if the officials shut down the match the second a banana hit the field, that crap would cease. I'll bet if the officials had to pay 5000 Euros to every footballer that got spit on, the Hitler youth would stop being allowed into the games. But while on the one hand, Miss Badakou is enjoying (and rightfully so) her moment in the sun, official responses that would be strong enough to stop demonstrations of oppression against people of color at the event over which she ostensibly "reigns" are unlikely to occur. I wonder if it's hard to maintain her regal smile from time to time, watching her brothers continue to suffer because of their skin tone when it's the same as hers.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

A World Cup...of Hate?

I first heard about this when France's Thierry Henry, arguably one of the best soccer players in the world, got international accolades for talking Nike into bank-rolling a Stand Up/Speak Up campaign against rampant racism at the matches. But I was totally unprepared for the recent rash of news media discussions about the extent and boldness of the activities--still common--that made the campaign necessary.

It's World Cup time, from what I can gather. God knows I'm not tuned into or turned on by sports of any kind really, but the competition began last Friday and will continue until July 9th, with matches in multiple European countries featuring the best "footballers" in the world (including some from the U.S.). The reason I know this information is that I have actually read a couple of lengthy pieces on it, but you know by now, of course, that if I'm writing about it, the subject is not sports--it's race.

Apparently, soccer (called "football" outside the U.S., hence the reference to "footballers" above) has a history of drawing hyper-emotional fans (remember the bloody free-for-alls they finally had to crack down on a couple of decades ago in England?). Well, the powers-that-be finally got the fisticuffs under control more or less, but over the past couple of years, they've begun to admit that there's another little problem they probably should deal with. Racist groups and individuals make the matches hellish for footballers of color. Simon Kuper, a British sports columnist, says "It was seen as all good fun and part of football culture and accepted for a long time." Hmmm. Let's take a look at the good fun he's talking about.

Thousands of fans screaming monkey noises and throwing bananas onto the field when a Black player is trying to make a kick. Entire groups unfurling pro-Hitler banners, complete with swastikas, and using intricate choreography to form human swastikas or even the face of Der Fuhrer in the stands. Teaming up to spit on Black players. Sounds like a barrel of laughs to me. And keep in mind: we're not talking about occasional instances here or certain countries or a few particular people. We're talking about routine attacks.

"In a stadium of 60,000, it's easy to be anonymous," says Jerome Champagne of the Federation Internationale de Football Association. But I've seen photos of young men being allowed to hang a big swastika banner by the fans seated behind them--and their faces in full view. What's up with that? Champagne knows. "The main issue," he goes on, "is not racism within soccer, but racism around soccer." No lie.

So the footballers organize in groups with names like "Kick It Out" (in Britain) and the "Never Again Association" (in Poland), both part of a network called Football Against Racism in Europe (FARE). And there are fans--such as those who formed "Arsenal Against Racism"--who have joined them. Thierry's Stand Up/Speak Up campaign sold four and one-half million black and white wrist bands, raising five million Euros (more than six million dollars!) for anti-racist projects in eleven countries.

Nevertheless, Kuper tells us: "You can still hear people say, 'Oh, it's all good fun." Being spit on is good fun? Hitler is good fun? Gee, and all this time, I liked reading. Just look what I've been missing!

My point is that the Hitler youth and the spitters may represent a relatively small group, comparatively speaking. But they're not the ones calling it fun. They're not doing it for fun. They're doing it to spread an agenda of racist hatred. I understand them. They're sick and, if they're allowed to, they will bring us to mayhem, at least, and destruction, if they can. But the ones that scare me are the "ordinary" people who call it "fun." Would they laugh at being spit on or called an animal? Would they find these situations "fun" if they were happening to their children? Of course not. So what is their agenda?

We still have Nazi's in the U.S. They leaflet campuses on a regular basis in this country. But overall, many European-Americans purport to believe that all that bold and ugly racist stuff is behind us. They might watch the craziness at the soccer matches and pat themselves on the back as being from a nation where that isn't currently happening. But most of them still wink at racist jokes, look away from racist activities in the work place, and would not consider seeing themselves as allies of people of color. So they are probably not much different, in the end, from the Europeans (who look like them) and ignore the "fun" while people of color continue to have their spirits lynched in the name of a sport.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Passing and Crossing (Oh, My!)

A few weeks ago, I backed into an interesting dialogue here. It started with a post by Rachel S., who's also a sociologist and also blogs often on race at Rachel's Tavern. And part of what the discussion was about had to do with "transracialing," a concept I had never heard of before.

Actually, there was considerable back and forth about what transracialing is. One comment suggested that it was just what they call it when an individual or couple adopt a child of a "race" different from their own. But a more expansive view suggested that transracialing might be similar to transgendering, that is, when a person crosses the gender divide and "becomes" (either literally by surgery or to some lesser extent) the "opposite" of the category in which they originated. Now the point was made that people are born biologically gendered, but the point was also made that society does apply--with a heavy hand--characteristics and expectations related to the perception of each gender. And then, of course, there are, in fact, a healthy handful of folks convinced enough that sometimes biology errs that they have surgery to change their bodies, if they can afford to.

"Race," on the other hand, is only as biological as it can be physically perceived. That is to say, many African-Americans have "passed for" White, sometimes for their entire lives. And one Californian writer who had been raised as and married Black, discovered in his fifties a few years ago when he had a DNA test that his family actually had only some Native American blood and no African-American heritage at all. He was not pleased. Apparently, his people (located in Louisiana where he was raised) just didn't like White folks and had features and skin tone that allowed them to pull off living on the "colored" side of town--so they did, with all the attendant difficulties accompanying that decision.

So, after reading everything the others had to say, I started mulling over what I think about the idea of transracialing. "If 'passing,' 'Watermelon Man,' and 'Black.White.' (the recent television show) are all transracial in nature," I commented, throwing in my two cents. "What about European-Americans who wear oversized clothes low on the hips, speak various Black vernaculars, and/or dred-lock their hair? Or to get even more subtle, what about European-Americans who prefer rap, jazz, or R&B or who go to Black clubs and maybe hang out with Black friends (primarily)? And certainly 'transracial' might be construed to include European-Americans who have reached a point of being bicultural in every area of their lives, even to the point of blending their families and birthing biracial children?" Am I, then, I wonder, "transracial" rather than "bicultural" as I have typically referred to myself in the past?

I can affect with great facility what is often perceived as typical Black speech patterns and body language. I have an African mask in my living room and buy mixed c.d.'s and shea butter soap from guys that sell their products from card tables. I own 150 books on racial issues, most of them written by people of color. And I performed in a spoken word event two weeks ago, for goodness' sake. I have been laughingly referred to by Black friends and students from time to time as the "Blackest person I know." But what does all that mean, in the end? I don't know yet.

Anyway, I was still mulling over these questions when I made a trip to another city to see a play this past week-end and wound up spending Saturday afternoon with an African-American extended family that was celebrating the youngest grandchild graduating from high school. It was a fair-sized group, with people coming and going all afternoon, a mother-lode of the most wonderful food in the old guard Black southern tradition, and just enough bottle-tipping going on to appropriately oil those with a mind to get oiled.

Before going to the celebration site, however, I had the pleasure of spending an hour or so privately with the 72-year-old matriarch of the family, who happened to be White--German, in fact (rather than European-American)--a woman who married an African-American soldier while he was in her country and then eventually returned here with him in 1959. They had a family. He eventually left the military and joined the post office. They built a beautiful little home on a good-sized hunk of land and basically lived the "American Dream." Except, of course, that it took them so long to get the Army to let them wed that they wound up with two children before they could finalize the matter. And even then, they had to sign a paper promising never to try to live in Florida as man and wife...!?

She had plenty to say about adventures such as having to travel separately--him in the car with the children and her with the baby on the train--whenever they needed to pass through the southern United States. But overall, it all sounded less dramatic than it might have, given some of the stories I've heard or read. Nevertheless, it was truly fascinating to me to be sitting in her house, filled with Black family photographs, with African artifacts here and there, and with a large painting of African-Americans picking cotton on the wall over her head--while she herself is not a person of color. Seventy-two-years-old, with her German accent still readily apparent, and with her husband passed on now for some years, she would fit handily in any European or European-American setting, but she has surely become transracial, if anyone has.

She doesn't speak Black vernacular. She doesn't affect Black mannerisms. Yet, when I commented on the painting of the cotton-pickers, she only replied with the name of the one who had given it to her, rather than making any attempt to explain it. It is part of her world now, no matter what she looks like. And it's as simple as that. No matter what word we put on it.

Perhaps, as one of the commentors to Rachel's post suggested, "The act of 'trans-'ing is an attempt to insert agency and self-definition into categories which socially don’t seem to be founded on these." In other words, people through the ages and into the present, however hard the attempt is made to squash them into socially-constructed categories, will, like water, seek their own level. They will, without apology, define themselves, even if they put themselves in harm's way for doing so.

And Les, who can be found here, wrote, "Being black is therefore not just a skin color but also an ethnic identity. I think this is an important distinction. A person who is visually black is recognized as such whenever [he or] she deals with anyone. A black-looking person is identifiable as such before [they] move or open [their] mouth. It is not an invisible identity. However, somebody who has been accepted into the black community may have black ethnicity." Hmmm.

*nods slowly and thoughtfully*