Why White and Other?
I am aware that subtext to my conversation in Chapter One is the fact that I equate social justice with the struggle for racial equity. Privilege and power could be played out on many fronts – economic, choice, gender, preference. Without thought, I naturally play them out in the context of our struggle for racial equality. For a long time, I thought social justice was only about racial equality. Though I am more able to include a whole variety of issues within that general rubric now, when push comes to shove, the most important struggle for me is this one. Why is that? Well, there’s a reason.
My awareness of race as a dividing factor in our democracy first occurred for me when I was young. It was at a time when I wasn’t yet using the tens column to write my age. My awareness was fueled as much by a strong emotional event as it was by an intellectual understanding. In fact, I’d say my emotions led to my thoughts and that has been both a blessing and a burden. Maybe. Still working on that one. (Maybe it doesn’t have to be either or but rather both and. Remember the matrix? It’s all part of the now.)
I have this belief about the raw power of first impressions and the fact that once impressed, future occurrences that trigger the felt reaction of that first impression will be experienced through the emotional energy of that ancient first impression. I think that is the power of the amygdala. The fight/flight response is independent from cerebral processing. It comes from evolutionary times when if you thought about the saber tooth tiger just around the bend for any length of time, you were eaten.
Here’s an example. When I was about ten years old, Dana Walker and I were playing catch in front of Dana’s house. Dana was one of my few playmates growing up. I grew up “in the country” so 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. Dana’s Mom was a homemaker, his Dad worked at the local weekly newspaper. I had the impression their family struggled a bit, and the old farmhouse he lived in showed it. He had a great barn though for swinging and jumping and rough-housing. One reason I knew it was great was that my Mom always told me to stay out of it when I left to go up the road! I wasn’t there the day the swinging rope broke for Dana but my Mother didn’t have to say I told you so for that event. I knew. The generally un-mowed portions of his 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 American myth we happened to be playing out on that day. This day, it was baseball.
Dana had an old Beagle named Pal. Pal was always kept in the house because he had a bit of a mean streak so I never saw him much until this day. Dana’s younger brother – isn’t it always the younger brother? – let Pal 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 bit me 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. There was just enough damage done to scare us all so she called my Mom, my Mom picked me up, and down we went to see my father who was a doctor. He started whistling as he washed me off. I knew to beware whenever I heard that whistle. But that’s a story for another time. The point I’m getting to here is that even today, I don’t like Beagles, especially Beagles with graying whiskers. It could be the gentlest dog in the world but the amygdalic juices that associated that embarrassing dog bite with old beagles still fires today when first I see an older Beagle. I have to consciously stay present because a whole bunch of neural synapses are signaling, “Cover up and get the hell out of there”. The power of first impressions. I think the physiological reality of first impressions stay with us forever. And so it was with my first encounter with race.
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. 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.
I can see it now where I didn’t see it before, my fascination in the images that beamed out of the American south in the late fifties and early sixties was linked to my fascination with that image and that secret and the feelings of a kid who didn’t want to be found out that he was looking at something I would now call America’s dirty pictures.
In these early experiences, I gathered within a visceral fascination to elements of degradation and horror that we would now politely call “social justice.” These 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, eqyal 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.
This is one of the definitional moments for the beginnings of my social consciousness. It was definitional in the sense that social conscience, social justice, race were fused in that one image. What I understand now is that me predeliction to always define social justice in terms of race relations in this country began with that book and that image of the lynching.
There were other experiences, for sure. Mom was fair and good to most everyone she came in contact with and she expected that from me. Dad the kidney surgeon wasy paid in eggs at the front door or fishing rods for his hobby by patients who couldn’t afford to pay in money. And of course there were the ladies of the First Baptist Church who left no doubt that Christians were to be always good and kind to one, that we yo0ng ones should take up the golden rule (or else???). But these everyday occurrences were just that to me, everyday life. Nothing out of the ordinary. These images of death and celebration were wholly out of the ordinary. My viewing them threw down the glove, challenged by concept of America, brought me back again and again, silently voicing my growing sense of the presence of injustice in America’s history. My mind wanted to proclaim this cannot be, this isn’t right, not in America. This happens elsewhere but not here. And yet, this was here. 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.
It’s amazing how clear these images are to me today. They are icons that define to me why I do what I do. Even today, when my focus dims or gets fuzzy, or gets replaced by other inclinations, the luynchings will themselves in times of quiet. I can hear the voices. I hear the screams. They are always there, even now, in my 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. This is what we are trying to tell you. We die in vane if you fail us. This is our burden but your legacy. You have to end this. You.