Chapter Two. Race Becomes The Window

Chapter Two.

Images In My Brain

Questions Out Of My Heart.

Race Becomes The Window

There are many ways I could have come at this issue of privilege, many positions I could have taken to deconstruct the privilege I embody in my teaching role as a white male. I could have looked at privilege in terms of economic privilege. In my early years of teaching, my seventh and eighth graders “came from nothing,” as I might even have said at that point in my life. I was educated into teaching at a time when poverty equated with cultural deprivation. Thus with Ray and Bobby, Moses and Christine, Mary, Della, Mart, and others, I could easily have spoken from my teacher self said they came from very little with respect to worthwhile prior experience. I accepted that framing of their lives.

I could have looked at my maleness and the power that carried with it as I worked my way into school systems. After a scant three years of teaching in the schools of my first and only city school system, the director of personnel told me I was in line for an assistant principalship. What was that all about? I think my gender had something to do with it although at the time, I just figured it was because I was a good teacher. Being a good teacher naturally meant I’d make a good principal. Easy equation. It didn’t dawn on me that there might be some additional preparation necessary to be a good assistant principal! It was all about perceived competence and being able to control kids and gender had a lot to do with all of that. Voice, size, ability to challenge, threaten, back it up. But I was blind to any of that analysis at the time. It was just as natural that my elementary teachers were all female and my secondary math and science teachers, male. Likewise, it was natural that my high school administrators were male and my elementary principal was female. It was natural to me that all my college professors were male. Men were wise. Men were smart. Men held the keys to the kingdom. Women “manned’ the offices and postal rooms and food courts and dining hall kitchens. Clearly, knowledge about gender bias in social institutions was unknown to me. Gender was not a window through which I connected inequality and privilege.

My first sighting of the relationship between privilege and inequalities happened through a very different window and happened when I was quite young. Even now I can remember that at the time what I felt was profound, and filled with dissonance. What I did not know at the time is that the particular window that worked for me would be the window that would eventually take hold of my consciousness as the single most important nexus of inequality, power, and privilege our nation could offer. That inequity is the inequity bred from racial prejudice. Race became the social justice lynchpin for me and the narrow conceptual window through which privilege and power and control and oppression all began to make sense.

My awareness of race prejudice as the most divisive issue tearing at the fabric of our democracy occurred for me when I wasn’t yet using the tens column to write my age. My awareness was enflamed as much by strong emotions as it was by intellectual understanding. I believe this event held such power for me for so many years is because my introduction to racial prejudice was an visual event of 9.4 on the Richter scale. What I saw and simultaneously concluded was seared into my cognitive apparatus where it remains almost as powerfully entrenched to this day.

First occurrences can be like that. First occurrences when they are accompanied by powerful emotions get burned into the psyche. Chemically, the connections are made in a way that any future occurrences, similar enough to recall the first, will trigger the felt emotions of the first impression. Thus, the new event is experienced with close to the same high emotional energy of the ancient first impression.

Recent unpacking of the physiology of emotions in the cognitive processing of information suggests this is the case. The fight or flight response happens deep in the mid brain in a place called the amygdala formation. The amygdala is responsible for sending emergency warning signals to other parts of the brain that demand immediate reaction. Like the startle reaction from a fire alarm ringing three feet from your ear, when the amygdala calls, you go. Only milliseconds later does cognition mediate what’s going on. The first impression is reaction. Thought comes later. Fleeing the reach of a famished saber tooth tiger is more important to our specie’s survival than thinking, “Now what should I do here with this large tiger who appears to be looking at me as if I’d make a nice meal?” By the time we’d taken a reflective pause to answer that question, the tiger would have her fill.

Here’s one Rathbone example of what I mean.

When I was nine years old, Dana Walker and I were playing “Catch” in front of Dana’s house. Growing up, Dana was one of my few playmates whose home I could walk to. I grew up “in the country” as we said. The only boys I played with were Dana, who lived a quarter mile up the dirt road, and Stuart, who lived a half mile over the hill that rose from the dirt road just behind my home. I crossed the same small spring fed stream on my way to either house. Dana’s Mom was a homemaker, his Dad worked at the local weekly newspaper. I held the impression their family struggled a bit. Their old farmhouse showed it. Dana had absolutely the best hay barn for swinging and jumping and rough-housing. I knew it was a great barn because my Mom told me to stay out of it whenever I left to journey up the road to Dana’s house, without exception! I wasn’t there the day the swinging rope broke and Dana broke his arm but my Mother didn’t have to say, “I told you so!” for that event to register. I knew. The generally un-mowed portions of Dana’s property, replete with ancient climbable apple trees, meant there were great spots for two active boys to play cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, or whatever good guy/bad guy American myth we happened to be playing out on that day. This day, it was baseball. Of course it was also part of my ongoing education about how privilege operated and who had power and who didn’t, but like the lessons on gender, it was years before I’d even have a clue as to the social positioning that was happening in that barn and in and among the apple trees. Even more so, between Dana and myself.

Dana had an old Beagle named Pal. Pal was always kept in the house because he occasionally decided to be a mean old Beagle so I never saw him much until this day. Dana’s younger brother Robby – isn’t it always the younger brother? – let Pal out of the house, unbeknownst to Dana and I. Dana knocked one past me and as I was bending over to pick it up, Pal charged me from behind and nailed me good right in my goodie locker. It hurt, I was bleeding, and I was mightily embarrassed when his Mom ordered me to drop my pants so she could see the damage done. Well, if blood spent and damage done were somehow equal, there was enough damage done to scare us all! Dana’s Mom called my Mom, my Mom jumped in our ’41 gray Plymouth coupe and picked me up, and down we went to see my father, the doctor. He was a kidney specialist but at this point in his career he was mostly the university physician at Colgate University. Same routine with the pants. He took one look, went for the smelly antiseptic liquid green soap, and simultaneously started to whistle and wash me off. By this time in my life, I knew to beware whenever I heard that whistle. But that’s a story for another time. Oh how I hated that dog. As the burning of that soap ebbed and flowed, my hate for Pal only increased.

The point I’m getting to here is that even today, I am shall we say, “unfond” of Beagles, especially Beagles with graying whiskers. I can smell them coming! It could be the gentlest dog in the world but the amygdalic juices that seared the dogbite/old beagle/embarrassment/burning soap connection into my cognitive structure still fires up today when a Beagle and I meet eye to eye. I have to consciously stay present because a whole bunch of hard wired neural synapses flash, “Cover up and get the hell out of there”. The power of first impressions. The hard wired, emotion seared physiological reality of dramatic first impressions stay with us forever. That’s why my first encounter with race is so present in my life over fifty years later.

Reconstructing Why

I keep coming back to these images. All are experienced. All are “felt.” They effect emotional impact in my heart, my viscera, my breathing, all together at one time.

This picture of police, uniformed and plain clothes, a trained German Shepard, and a “colored man from the South” is one of them (Figure One). There are many more. Americans beaten, set upon by animals trained to kill, fire hosed, screamed at, gestured to. This was the time of the civil rights movement in the United States. It was my high school and college years. 1955 through 1968. From thirteen years old to twenty-six years of age. These were my formative years. My social consciousness, begun by my Mom, provided for by my Dad, augmented by my first church, placed in perspective by Prof. Lindley, was forged by the searing intensity of these images.

This morning I woke up at 339am. And the images started reeling through my head, once again. I lived about a mile and a half from town. We didn’t have a television until somewhat late in my growing up life. Maybe 1957. It was a steel black and white “portable” with a long, slender chrome handle on top. Two tone. Cream and some kind of redish brown. Another thing Dad brought home late one on his return from the biweekly sojourn to his NYC upper west side office. I never saw it enter our home. It was just there when I got up the next day. It sat in the living room protected by its protective plastic wrap for weeks. It was there I watched the flickering images of an unfolding American history that didn’t make sense to me.

There was another source of images in my young life, images that didn’t make sense to me that I cannot forget. One particular image haunts me to this day. That image was in an oversized, illustrated book of American history : pictures, woodcuts, broadsides, and drawings and text from colonial times onward that my parents had on our “library” bookshelf. Lest this word “library” conjure up visions of oak paneled sitting rooms, smoking jackets, and cigars, our library was really a small sitting room that tied the old and new parts of our converted country farmhouse. The room had two easy chairs, a huge window that faced south, and was shelved on the bottom half of the walls and the adjacent walls that framed that window. The oversized red book sat on its side on one of those lower shelves hidden and almost purposely out of the way. I would take it out and leaf through it, reading the text and reading the pictures. It was a surprisingly comprehensive documentary of America’s history. My brother has it now. And though a little jealous, I’m glad it remains within the family. My memory tells me that in that book, somewhere was a picture of a lynching.

This may be the one. As an even younger child, I kept returning to this picture. Staring at it. Fascinated with the horror of it and wondering, how could this be. How could people do this to one another. What had these black me done. Look at the faces of those white people. How could they be there, do that. They look happy. How was that possible. This is a scene of obscenity, horror. It was awful. I couldn’t stop looking at what they had done. And the evidence of this picture would indicate neither could they.

I remember distinctly having the same feeling that I did later on in life when I would look at what we used to call “scantily clothed women,” a phrase used before Lenny Bruce and the courts began the unfinished journey of defining what we now call “pornography”. I literally felt that I wasn’t supposed to be looking at this. I remember having to remember to breathe while looking at the lynching. I felt guilty. There was something wrong with what I was doing. My mother and father, for that matter, wouldn’t like me leafing through that book. I felt like there were pictures and words in there that I wasn’t supposed to see. They would be angry at me for viewing what must have been something like a secret. A horrible secret. A horrible secret best left shut away in the red oversized book that lay on one of the lower shelves in that small sitting room we called a library.

In these early experiences of peeking through that book, I gathered within a visceral fascination to the elements of degradation and horror and power and oppression that we now fit ever so neatly into a concept called politely “social justice.” These two words roll so effortlessly off our tongues. Social justice. The impulse to right the wrongs of society, to make our lives better for everyone, equal protection before the law, equal opportunity, ensuring high outcomes for all students no exceptions, no excuses. It seems to me now the impulse was so much more primal and basic than that. No more terrorizing and mutilation and killing of human beings and no more police actions that put dogs on people to keep them in line.

The first moments my eyes gazed upon those hangings were definitional for me. This is why social justice work for me is first and foremost anti-racism work. This is why I still believe that everyone in this country has to understand the deep, deep rooting that racism, personal and institutional, has in this country. This is why I believe all the other reasons we do social justice work must originate in the struggle for racial equality in this country. My social conscience, my sense of social justice, my understanding of the absurdity of race as a biological concept are entirely fused together because of the impact that one image had on me. What I understand now is that the red book and its attendant image of the lynching became the window through which my concept and definition of social justice originated.

I can see it now where I didn’t see it before. My fascination with the images that beamed out of the American south in the late fifties and early sixties, the images of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the burning buses of the Freedom Riders, the pictures of the Black college students sitting at the Woolworth lunch counters, the iconic photos of the hundreds who marched from Selma to Montgomery, the pictures of King speaking at the great Washington Rally, the tilted black and whites of the kids standing down Bull Connor’s fire hoses in Birmingham, Alabama, Malcolm X sprawled on the floor of that Harlem Ballroom, I stared at them all, all because of my fascination with that original image of the two tortured souls swinging in the tree, dangling above the white mob. I stared at them all despite the fact that this little kid didn’t want to be found out that he was looking at something I would now call America’s dirty pictures.

There were other early experiences that affected my particular reaction to these pictures, for sure. Mom was fair and good to most everyone she came in contact with and she clearly expected that from me. Dad the kidney surgeon was paid in collections of eggs left at our front door or hand made seven-piece bamboo fly fishing rods given to him by patients who couldn’t afford to pay for his services in money. And of course there were the ladies of the First Baptist Church who left no doubt on Sunday morning or Wednesday afternoon Church School that Christians were to be always good and kind to everyone, and that we young ones should take up and live the golden rule or for sure there would be hell to pay.

These occurrences in my life were just everyday life. Nothing out of the ordinary. But the images of unnatural, undeserved, and most certainly horrible and excruciatingly painful death and juxtaposed celebration were wholly unordinary to me. My viewing of them was like the historical record had smacked me across the face and dropped a symbolic leather glove of challenge. My eyesight caused my concept of America to shift, and kept bringing me back again and again to those two bodies swinging in the tree, silently voicing my growing sense that injustice was present and alive and very much a part of America’s history. No one said it better than Billy Holiday.

Strange Fruit

Southern trees bear a strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black body swinging in the Southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees

Pastoral scene of the gallant South

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh

And the sudden smell of burning flesh!

Here is a fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for a tree to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop.

Music and lyrics by Lewis Allan (Abel Meeropol), @1940.

My mind wanted to proclaim this cannot be, this isn’t right, not in America. This happens elsewhere, not here. And yet, this was here. These photos are not from South Africa or Brazil or even those places that existed for me only as photo essays in the National Geographic Magazine, places like Madagascar or Tahiti or Brazil or Timbuktu. In seventh grade we’d memorized the Preamble to the Constitution and the beginning of the Bill of Rights. These pictures, these images gave lie to those words. It didn’t make sense to me. It wasn’t right. I don’t remember talking about it at all in school. My friends didn’t talk about it. My dialogue was an inner dialogue. My family never spoke about the Civil Rights struggle in America, or anyplace else for that matter. The only peace advocate who’s name I ever heard mentioned was Mahatma Ghandi, and then it was just that my mother had strong feelings about his simple white wraps. And though it was years before I finally figured out what my response to those pictures needed to be, the die had clearly been cast, and significantly for me, the die was a visual die, the die was pictures, not words.

Privilege, and its attendant capacity to have power and influence and control, even to death, of those without it, first emerged as an idea worth taking apart through the window of understanding provided by those images. Race and privilege were related. If you were of the Black race (“race” wouldn’t achieve its rightful place as a socially constructed concept for another fifteen years), then white people had power and control over all aspects of your life. That power and control was grounded in white privilege, something I clearly possessed but something I didn’t know I possessed and if I had known it, I surely wouldn’t have wanted it. But at the time, I didn’t know that just because I didn’t want something didn’t mean I wasn’t to have it. Like it or not, I had it. I couldn’t get rid of it. The trick was to figure out what to do with it. But it took me another forty years and many much more experience that I had to learn from and many people who know it or not, served as my teachers and helped me figure that one out.

It’s amazing how clear these very same images are to me even today. Damn. It’s almost fifty years since the Boycott. They are icons that define to me why I do what I do. Even today, when my focus on the purpose of my work dims or gets fuzzy, or gets replaced by other inclinations, or just gets buried under a pile of committee driven, multi-tasked responsibilities, the lynchings will themselves into my consciousness at the oddest times: on a run, on the walk to work, in the middle of a class, while someone else is talking. I can hear the voices. I see the gathering, I hear the screams of torture. They are always there, even now, in my cognitive matrix, quietly insistent, urging my attention. Don’t forget. Don’t forget us. Do something about this. Everyone White in America should do something about this. We cannot do this alone. Don’t you see. This is the power we have. We are dead. This is what we are trying to tell you. We die in vane if you fail us. This is our burden and your legacy. You have to end this. You.

It took me a long time to find my place in the movement, and even longer to understand what my place should be, and the longest time of all to know what I could change, what I couldn’t, and what I wanted to do about all that.

Published by

Charles Rathbone

Retired. Emeritus. Conducts a seminar on university teaching to doctoral students in the Rubenstein School of Natural Resources once a year. Board Member Vermont Interfaith Action, volunteer and advocate Burlington Bike Project, UDL consultant VSA Vermont, photographer, married, four children, five grandchildren, and one Golden Doodle. Embracing life, all of it. "Today is tomorrow's past."

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