The Moment I Realized I Am Black: Token Confession Entry 4

My first memory of being keenly aware of my black body, and that it meant something more than Jesus loving all the children of the world, “Red, brown, yellow, black and white. They are precious in his sight.” was while watching television.

In January 1987 the landmark PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize debuted. I watched it with my family. Across the thick glass screen of our television set—classic eighties version big wooden box with knobs for turning the channel and bunny ears attena—I had my first exposure to porn. Black trauma porn. There lying on the brown carpet of the family room I watched horrifying black and white images of black folks in the 50s and 60s getting beaten by white civilians and law enforcement, hosed down with fire hydrants, and attacked by police dogs during the Civil Rights Movement.  For the first time I can recall I saw moving images that chronicled part of the history of race in America. For the first time I saw images of Emmet Til’s mutilated body. For the first time I saw moving images of the Klan marching through the streets and burning crosses in a vacant field or someone’s yard. For the first time I saw moving images of black folks marching, singing, and being beaten for having the audacity to take a stand for their dignity as human beings. Sacrificing their bodies for a prize that should not be elusive. For the first time I saw images of white Americans enraged at the audacity of black folks peacefully protesting against the tyranny of white supremacy in all its social forms in the public square. For the first time I saw the steely resolve of Rosa Parks. For the first time I heard the power of Martin’s voice.

I don’t think I had a sense then for how traumatic it was to watch that documentary. To see those images. It’s only in the last few years of seeing videos of the last moments of Eric Garner, Tamar Rice, and Philando Castile, that I’ve gone back in my mind’s eye and dusted off the footage of moments from my youth as I try to make sense of it all, and endeavor to be a conduit towards conciliation. Reflection has led me to ask questions like, “when is the first time I was aware of my blackness?” Watching that documentary at school is what stood out despite, upon further thought, investigation and mining my memory, realizing I saw it at home in the safe company of my family first. So what was it about watching parts of it again at school that stood out? The awkward collective awakening we had as kids I suppose. It was as though nothing was the same again. To say that our innocence was taken from us as we watched these images from America’s second Civil War would be a slight over exaggeration. Accurately put it was our ignorance that was taken from us. We had been formally initiated into the reality that America to its core is a nation that was established on a racial hierarchy. I had been awakened to my place in it. And for the first time it started to make sense.

What started to make sense you ask?

Certainly I was aware that there wasn’t a lot of people who looked like me around unless I was surrounded by family. I had the feeling of being “the other” for as long as I could remember, but at times it went deeper than just being “the other”. Previously I couldn’t articulate it. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. That is until I saw Eyes on the Prize. Then I knew exactly what it was. It all started to make sense. Mostly gone was the overt forms of racial violence. Racism in America had made adjustments in response to the Civil Rights movement. It had undergone a master class in subtlety. So subtle that often those who wielded it did so unwittingly. Subtle like the strangely disapproving looks I sometimes received from strangers. Keep in mind I was not more than ten years old and I already knew “the look”. Before I just thought it was odd. After seeing Eyes on the Prize I had context. Context for how some people saw me even as a young black boy. Context for despite a quelling of racial violence, the belief in inherent racial superiority, or more specifically to me, racial inferiority was still very much the air we breathed in America. White Supremacy and Black Inferiority had endured. Context for my presence in the incomplete reckoning of America’s original sin.

 

Token Confessions Entry 2: My Daughter Doesn’t Think She Looks Like A Princess

Many have a hard time accepting that White Supremacy exists in modern day America beyond the pockets of robe wearing hate groups, tiki torch carrying white nationalists, and other extremists who give the ideology of white supremacy agency. At it’s core the ideology of White Supremacy is not about hatred. It’s about who and what is inherently superior and therefore who and what is inherently inferior.

My seven year old daughter loves nothing more than wearing a pretty dress and being told she is beautiful. She’ll put it on underneath her bathrobe and come skipping up to me or her mother with that larger than life grin on her face, unveil the dress she has adorned herself in and ask the same question, “How do I look?”, hoping to be told she looks beautiful.

Just the other morning this routine unfolded. She first came to me in the den reading the mornings news. I paused for a moment to gaze into the eyes of my daughter and told her in my understated way, “You look beautiful”. She then proceeded to the office to present herself to her mother and ask the same question to which Emma said, “You look like a princess.” At this Isla replied…

“I can’t look like a princess mummy. Princesses don’t have brown skin like me. They have light skin like you mummy, and blonde hair like you.”

Emma was quick to not simply tell Isla that her brown skin doesn’t render her unworthy or unfit of being a princess, but to also go to google. She typed in “black princess” and scrolled through numerous images of princesses with brown skin and dark hair like Isla. One day Isla will truly be able to appreciate and understand how fortunate she is to have HER pale skinned Scottish mummy as HER mother. In the meanwhile she, freshly seven years old, has already received the message.

It is a message that no one told her. No one has had to articulate it to her. She knows little to nothing about racism nor the history of white supremacy in shaping her native land long before she was born. But she has received the message that white is right, and black is well… less than. Inferior.

My daughter’s response to being told she looks like a princess is an example of how white supremacy works in 2018.

No one told her that black is inferior.

No one told her that black isn’t beautiful.

No one told her that white skin or blonde hair is better than brown skin and thick black hair.

But simply by living in this culture and society she has received the message that whiteness is superior, and black is inferior. That white is the image of true beauty, beauty that she will never be able to attain.

No matter how extravagant the dress, it is on brown skin.

No matter how fabulous the hair is styled, it’s thick black and resting on a brown canvas.

And she has been seven years old for a month.

That is how white supremacy works in 2018.

It is so woven into the fabric of our society and culture. It was a core principle and driving factor fueling colonization and European Imperialism. Due to its central role in shaping the world for nearly six hundred years (see the Papal Bull Statement of 1452) it no longer requires personal agency to ensure its ideology, its tenets, its principles are passed on. It is a well oiled machine that has learned to adapt to new times and challenges.

In America we consistently make the mistake of thinking the Emancipation Proclamation abolished the idea of inherent white superiority. It only abolished slavery while leaving the ideology that birthed it intact. Unchecked and unquestioned it has enormous power to shape how we think without us being aware it has taken hold. Even with the recent increase in white nationalism white supremacy is most effective in and insidious in its subtle forms.

Removing the Flag Is Good But Does Little to Create Real Community

“Where common memory is lacking, where people do not share in the same past, there can be no real community” Georges Erasmus

 

I first heard the above quote during a presentation done by Mark Charles at Q Conference in Boston this past April. Mark was making the case that Americans will continue to have racial tension as long as we all continue to operate from a different a memory and different pasts. It’s really sad to think that it required 9 people being murdered by a racist white supremacist for us to finally reach a point where are beginning to take the steps necessary to have a common memory of our history as Americans, black, white, and everything in between.

 

While I fully support the removal of the Confederate/Rebel Flag from the grounds of state capitals, I fear this will cause us to prematurely think our work is done. Those flags will be removed from our public places, but our real problem is not that flag although the debate surrounding it is indicative of our true problem. One symbol stirs feelings of pride from a shared heritage for one group of people stirs feelings of trauma from a shared suffrage for another.

 

We do not have a common memory and we do not share in the same past. For White Americans their collective memory and past is one of conquest, colonization, freedom, and “God’s blessing”. For ethnic minorities, particularly Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans, collective memory and past is one filled with trauma from the struggle to be recognized as human and treated with dignity and equality. Our collective memory is filled with dehumanization, enslavement, mass genocide, demonization and marginalization. For white peoples in this country it has truly been a dream. For black and brown peoples in this country that dream has almost always been a nightmare over the 400 plus years since the early colonies. “Manifest Destiny” destined those deemed savages and beasts to destruction and to the margins of our country.

 

 

As difficult as it might be, white people need to start listening to the memories and the past of the ethnic minorities in America. It won’t be easy. It will be hard to believe for no other reason than so much of it is omitted from the majority of our history books. History has always been written by and representative of those who are one of the majority and elite. If we want real healing then the parallel narrative of the marginalized must be heard. It must be written. It must be taught. It will expose the blind-spots you didn’t know were there in our past as a nation. Black people, Hispanics, and Native-Americans need to remember that white people are hearing these stories, memories and past for the first time. They are being asked to look at parts of our history through our eyes, and if they really see it it will strike at their heart. Hearing about it for the first time will be traumatic for them and we need to extend them grace. We need to assure them of our sincerity in informing them is not to guilt or shame them, not to demand an apology, not to seek reparations. We need to show them the compassion we’ve so desperately needed to heal. In this way we can all heal together, and truly have community without losing ethnic and cultural identities.

 

The debate raging on social media over the Confederate/Rebel Flag and its possible removal caused one of my white friends to do some research into the history of the flag.  She described having a traumatic experience. She grew up in the south with that flag being flown everywhere, and was told the same as so many others of it being a symbol of their heritage as southerners. What she found was a gapping blind spot into the history of how that flag quickly became a symbol of white supremacy and hate as its re-designer William T Thompson intended. Her words to me over the phone illustrate what so many are experiencing, “I have been grieved to my heart since finding out the history around that flag.” If I had responded with a flippant “well duh, where have you been” attitude it wouldn’t have been helpful. No more or less helpful than when I’ve shared more stories and memories of what it’s like to be black in America and it is met with accusations of playing the race card, or attempts to explain it away.

 

The flag should be removed from the grounds of state capitals, and states who integrated it into their state flag need to get it out.  However, if that is all we do then we will fall desperately short of what is necessary for real community to happen that transcends race and ethnicity. We need to teach both narratives in our history books in our schools and places of higher learning. The history of our nation needs to be taught through the eyes of both the elite and the marginalized. I am not suggesting that we throw out one narrative and replace it with the other. Rather they should be part of one comprehensive telling of our history, of our past, and shape a shared memory, so we can move forward into the future not separate but together.