Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Multiple Lenses of History

Photo from Lewisburg, West Virginia 

Tim Wise defined lynching as, "the extra judicial killing of any person". There was a period in this country where every 2 1/2 days a black man, woman, or child was hung from a tree. I write these words knowing that I'm the second of my parents children born without a legal challenge to my rights as a human being. My parents went to segregated schools. The history many of my patriotic friends want me to understand happened during the civil war; the history I can't get them to talk about is much closer. It took the south seventeen years to fully integrate schools after the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision.

I grew up in the south. We learned which houses weren't friendly at an early age. Black lawn jockeys, "porch monkeys", and rebel flags meant one thing: stay out. My childhood was full of interactions with people in Bath County who were less than nice to me. Fast forward 30 years and I've watched some of those people wither and die; while some are shells of their former selves: caught between sickness and death with no hope for life. A sad truth of their suffering was the enjoyment I got out of it. I know that's the worst kind of schadenfreude, but it's the truth. I pray that my heart will be softened.

I live in a county that employs one black person. I went to church and school with the black kids who scored the touchdowns, sang in the choirs, played in the bands, and eventually fought in the wars. How does our community thank them? When they come home from college or war they're cut off from opportunity and offered the same jobs on the plantation (a resort that will remain nameless) they had in high school. I know decorated war heroes who carried 75 lbs backpacks in a 110 degree heat in Iraq and Afghanistan while dodging bullets, only to come home and be denied opportunities to work in law enforcement and security.

The Confederate flag symbolizes all of these feelings for me. I understand phenomenology well enough to know the difference between projection and perception, so miss me with all of your how the flag makes you feel sentiments. I'm able to look someone in the eye and understand how proud they are of great-grandpappy's service to the south. I encourage all of my friends who want to wear their stars and bars to fly your flag proudly, just don't waste your time trying to explain to me how the flag doesn't have racist connotations.

Our culture places an emphasis on raising our kids with strong religious roots. If, you believe that teaching kids morality can sustain them throughout their lives, then is it a leap to think someone who was taught they were less than a person could harbor any of those feelings years later? I know black men who've never dated a black woman. Many of these brothers will tell you black women are beneath them. What kind of brainwashing does it take to make someone look at their own people as being less than? I know bourgeois middle-class black folks who have a deep disdain for their own people. How, in good faith, can a person on one side of their brain believe teaching a kid something good can shape their lives for the better, but disconnect the fact that the psychological scars of Jim Crow can last just as long?

Again, the Confederate flag doesn't bother me; with or without any external signifier: I know how to recognize a racist. We're at a point in race relations where a catastrophic terrorist attack by an external enemy might be the only thing that could unite us. The longer we're forced to focus on ourselves, our past, and its impact on the present the more likely it is we burst apart at the seams. We've gotten so good at denying reality that when the blinders are ripped off and we have to see what's around us we huddle protectively in our corners until the next senseless killing, riot, or incident of police brutality happens. It's saddens me to accept the reality that it's easier to refocus our hate than to get rid of it.

Monday, June 8, 2015

What Do We Do After Baltimore?

"We can also make reference to all of the illustrious Black kings, queens and warriors of the past, and cite everything that Black people have accomplished throughout history. But what's the purpose of having all that knowledge if we don't use it to move ourselves forward?"
Eric L. Wattree

This quote reminded me of Frantz Fanon. Six weeks after the riots in Baltimore what's changed? Modern day attempts at social movements end up being the equivalent of someone yelling in a quiet theater, sure the yelling snaps us to attention and forces us to focus on the disruption, but as soon as calm is restored we find ourselves fully immersed in the distraction on the screen. Likewise, as soon as the camera crews leave the epicenter of the hostilities we, as a nation, refocus on our individual distractions.

I've noticed a formula for quelling social unrest. First, conduct an investigation into the events that led up to the riots. Second, conduct an investigation into the policing habits of the municipality where said riot happened. Third, restructure the police department and/or local government through special appointments to appease the community. Lastly, take as many photos as possible with civic leaders and wait for the status quo to resume itself. 

One cruel irony of our generations push for social change is our inability to sustain momentum after the national media leaves. We have the benefit of technology, but it seems like we're wasting it posting twerk videos. Yes, We use Twitter and Facebook to organize events and circumvent the media's ability to dominate the narrative, but what do we do once people are on the ground? Our lack of central planning has resulted in a bag full of mixed demands. What's our modern program to capitalize on the nations attention once we have it? After the national media moves on who holds the politicians feet to the fire? There's a plethora of people willing to participate in televised interviews, debates, and forums, but how many of those same people are willing to do the hard work of developing a cogent set of demands? 

I'm glad more public intellectuals are focusing on these issues, but their ability to affect change seems diminished when compared to the past; likewise, the black church has seen membership shrink to the point that many pastors are literally preaching to (just) the choir. Academic journals and fiery sermons are important, but if their message doesn't reach beyond their walls it's like they didn't happen. This limitation is one area where the university and church have a lot in common, No matter how much you lecture, how many sermons you deliver, or how much work you publish, It's in vain if it doesn't improve the quality of a child's life. 

We have to avoid the trap of focusing too much on our past. We have to use the lessons learned from the past to help shape our future, but we can't be so focused on the accomplishments of yesterday that we neglect to do today's work. The reality we face is different than our parents and grandparents. Fifty years ago you could feed a family with one blue collar income, not so much these days. Many of the advances our predecessors made socially and politically have been negated by the harsh economic realities of our time. More Black men and women hold higher degrees now than fifty years ago, but too many of them are looking for work, if that's the reality of our talented tenth, what can the average brother or sister with a high school education look forward to? As long as the real economy doesn't work for minorities the underground economy will remain a vibrant, yet dangerous choice.