Who We Are, Who We Want to Be

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In the aftermath of the Charlottesville tragedy, amid the outrage and grief and disbelief, I had to re-learn a painful lesson for a white American.

Most of the people I follow on Twitter are African-American journalists, politicians and activitists: Charles Blow, Bree Newsome, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Vann R. Newkirk II, Jamelle Bouie.

Ms. Newsome, the woman who climbed the flagpole in front of the South Carolina statehouse and took down the flag, put what the others were saying in one form or another most succinctly.

As white Americans cried, “This is not who we are!”, in fact, this is exactly who you are and have been and all black people know it, she said.

I know it too; I’ve been writing about it for some time now, but it hasn’t stayed at the forefront of my attention. White America is a racist society and has been since the first white European stepped foot on this continent and had the arrogance to claim it as a white man’s (and I do mean man’s, not human’s) paradise.

To make that paradise, however, meant neutralizing one way or another the indigenous peoples. Usually by slaughter, often by treaties that were never meant to be kept and to this day are not honored.

Then came the importation of Africans to actually do the work of building an economy. Next came the battles to seize land from the indigenous Mexicans, Polynesians and Inuits and Aleuts.

In every era, white “Americans” have taken something away from someone else, right up to the present time. Now, it’s not only enough to take something away, but white American society wants to bar others from coming in, based solely on religion. And even the liberal arguments in favor of immigrants more often than not points out their economic worth rather than their worth as human beings.

What happened in Charlottesville is not new to its black citizenry; Mr. Newkirk’s most recent article in The Atlantic spells it out briefly and powerfully.

We cannot say, “This is not who we are!” We can, and must, say, “This is not who we want to be,” but only if we’re willing to follow up words with action. Mr. Newkirk quotes Charlottesville-Albemarle NAACP President Emeritus M. Rick Turner: “People want to have a conversation . . . But see we’ve had conservations, ever since the Civil War, every time something happens. That’s why nothing ever gets done beyond that, because the courage stops right there.”

I could say that the counter-protestors in Boston and other cities this weekend prove this thesis wrong. But we have not heard the last from the white supremacists. Do we, who consider ourselves non-racist, have the courage to go beyond the conversations?

Heather Heyer did.

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Innocent/Guilty “Until”

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Having just heard the verdict about the policeman who murdered Philando Castile, seeing Nick Cave’s exhibit “Until” at Mass MOCA was not only timely but even more devastating.

Cave’s installation was mounted in September 2016 and remains until September 2017. “Until” refers to “innocent until proven guilty.” Or does it? Guilty until proven innocent is what is really implied, because Cave’s art is built on, and haunted by, the ghosts of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Oscar Grant, Yvette Smith and more.

The program says that the installation began with Cave asking himself, “Is there racism in heaven?” His answer is an experience rather than just a matter of looking at one art piece. One is confronted by masses of glittery mobiles twisting and turning. They are mostly beautiful and mesmerizing; then one sees that many of the mobiles depict guns, bullets, and targets.

One walks through this maze of glitter to a crystal cloud atop which is a huge garden of ceramic birds, gramophone horns, and, startlingly, black-face lawn jockeys. One has to climb a very tall ladder to see this site of mainly found objects.

After passing through and around a wall of plastic beads that look like netting, from far away, you enter a dark room with a giant lifeguard chair in the center and a frenetic video that plays on the walls. While my sister and I were there, we were the only museum-goers who stayed to watch the whole video, which is unsettling and somewhat sinister at times. It ends with a chorus of black-face tap dancers; all the while, a video of swirling shallow water is cast on the floor, so you feel off-balance anyway.

IMG_20170621_123518488The last part of the installation is a metaphorical wall of water meant to seem cleansing. It is only the last part, though, physically. I promise that if you go, or have a chance to see it elsewhere, you will carry the installation in your mind and heart for a while.

To see a slo-mo video of the mobiles, go to Nick Cave installation.

 

Pauli Murray: Activist, Lawyer, Priest, Prophet

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Like many people who commented on the Pauli Murray Project page, I wonder how I got to this age without knowing about her.

And I only know about her because I came upon Patricia Bell-Scott’s book The Firebrand and the First Lady, at Val-Kill, Eleanor Roosevelt’s home.

Pauli Murray had a hard row to hoe, but the scrappy, chronically underweight woman beat the odds and achieved her dreams of becoming a lawyer and then one of the very first women priests in the Episcopal Church of America, all the while fighting tenaciously for civil rights.

She was organizing sit-ins at Washington, DC, lunch counters years before SNCC existed. She wrote letters to just about everyone of authority in the white-dominated world about indignities visited upon African-Americans beginning in the 1930s.

Her first sight of Eleanor Roosevelt, called “ER” throughout the book, was at a Depression-era work camp for homeless women where Murray was resident. At the time, she refused to acknowledge ER, but wrote to her a few years later and thus a deep friendship began.

Murray fought her way into the “club” that included Thurgood Marshall, Howard Thurman, and Bayard Rustin. Thurman in particular she considered a mentor. She and Marshall often disagreed on ways and means of fighting for civil rights, but they respected and admired each other.

So why is Pauli Murray so little known? Well, she was black, she was a woman, and she was a lesbian. Hmmm, three strikes against her and still she persevered, all the while dealing with ill health and being the mainstay of her extended family.

So I invite you, if you do not know her, to get to know Pauli Murray better now. She herself published several books. The wonderful thing about Bell-Scott’s book is that diehard Eleanor Roosevelt admirers like me get to see another side of her all the while learning something new.

You can see Pauli Murray’s bibliography, extended biography and more at www.paulimurrayproject.org.

 

 

Everything New is Old Again

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I was not aware of Claude McKay, a founder of the Harlem Renaissance, until The New York Times announced recently that an unpublished manuscript of his had been found in 2009 and was about to be published.

I thought that Amiable with Big Lips sounded like a satirical romp and immediately read it. While satire is among McKay’s writing tools, it was anything but a romp. It was a deadly serious look at 1930s Harlem, which McKay described basically as a colony in a nation even back then (I was listening to Chris Hayes’ book at the same time).

The plot involves an Africamerican (McKay’s term) organization created to raise money for Ethiopia after Mussolini’s invasion. A Communist-led group of white people also create an organization, ostensibly to help Ethiopia, but also with the aim of luring Africamericans into the Popular Front because it is believed that they will be easy to manipulate.

There were so many points in the book at which I was amazed by how the story mirrored our world today, especially in light of the Trump regime, that I lost track of counting them.

I am now flinging myself into McKay’s oeuvre; Banana Bottom is the second novel I have read. It takes place in his homeland, Jamaica, at the turn of the century. A young peasant girl, Bita Plant, is taken in by English missionaries. It is Mrs. Craig’s experiment to show that she can take the “wild” out of the peasant by raising her as a young Englishwoman.

When Bita returns to Jamaica after seven years being “finished” in England, she exerts her own mind and upsets all of Mrs. Craig’s plans. Mrs. Craig thinks she’s reverting to type, when in fact, Bita decides that she is her own person and will choose how she will live.

There is a lot more beside, including the racism with which slavery and colonialism infect non-white populations. McKay’s description of every character includes skin tone. Peasants are dark; the emerging middle class is light-skinned. Enough said.

An in-depth look at the politics of Amiable with Big Teeth and more scholarly discussion can be found in The Atlantic magazine’s article by Jennifer Wilson: Forgotten Harlem The article also includes a bibliography of McKay’s work.

 

Let Them Rest in Peace, But We Must Not

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I am sick, sick, sick of having to pray for the families of black victims of police What are we white people going to do about it? How the hell can we feel patriotic about a country that values life so little?

I would like to suggest that all white policemen in the United States be pulled from duty immediately and given this test, Project Implicit, as well as a psychiatric evaluation before being allowed back on duty or yanked off the force.

You can’t fudge this Harvard-based test for prejudices. It’s not intuitive, and even if you think you’re giving the “correct” answers, it doesn’t work that way. I took it a few years ago, and I’m pretty good at spotting how to “play” a test.

Both Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were said to be carrying guns. So? Both of the states they died in allow anyone to carry a gun. Louisiana probably allows 3 year olds to carry guns. They were not using the guns, they were not aiming the guns, they were doing nothing that could ever justify the kangaroo court of idiotic, racist policemen who took their lives.

I hope that no white person ever says in front of me that they couldn’t bear to watch the videos of their murders. We MUST watch them; we MUST bear witness to what white policemen are doing – and probably think they’re doing in our names.

On Saturday, I attended a symposium on the subject of “Driving While Black.” Two black men narrated their experiences of being stopped and the heavy-handedness of the police involved. Thank God Jerome and Jermaine are alive. It broke my heart to listen to them talk about the steps they have to take to try NOT to be killed by a policeman. They talked about their mothers’ fears whenever they left the house. Now they have children, and they talked about their fear for them.

What century is this again? As my friend and activist Maximo Anguiano posted today, don’t forget to set your clocks back 300 years tonight. And tomorrow you’d damn well better start speaking out or you are as complicit as the police in these murders.

 

 

Yuri and Malcolm

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Truth really is stranger than fiction. Take the case of a Japanese-American woman and an African-American man.

May 19 was the birthdate of two people whose improbable lives crossed paths in the battle for civil rights.

Yuri Kochiyama was four years older than Malcolm X and lived 53 more years.

Born in California in 1921 and thus an American citizen, Mary Yuriko Nakahara and her family were imprisoned in Arkansas (“interned,”?? I think not) with the tens of thousands of other Japanese-Americans after Pearl Harbor.

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Yuri speaks at an anti-war demonstration in NYC

After marrying Bill Kochiyama after World War II, she moved to New York City where she shared the experiences of her black and Puerto Rican neighbors in housing projects. There aren’t too many more dots to connect to her civil rights activism. Her home became a gathering place for activists where it “felt like it was the movement 24/7,” her eldest daughter, Audee Kochiyama-Holman, is quoted as saying in Yuri’s obituary.

 

She met Malcolm X, former small-time hoodlum and jailhouse convert to Islam, in 1963. She learned a radical activism from him and began focusing on black nationalism. The brief relationship ended with his assassination, at which she cradled his head while others tried to revive him with artificial respiration.

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Yuri, in glasses, holds the dying Malcolm X’s head

Yuri’s activism did not end with Malcolm X’s death. Shutting down the war in Vietnam, reparations for Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned and more inspired a new generation of activists and even a rap song by Blue Scholars. It can be found at this link: Blue Scholars sing “Yuri” live

Malcolm X was 39 when he was murdered; Yuri lived to be 93. Both used their life experiences, alone and together,  to try to set right the wrongs in a troubled country. Both were born on the same day. You just can’t make this stuff up.