I wrote this piece in the early days after Michael Brown was shot and killed and left in the street for four and a half hours. Today, in the wake of the Eric Garner grand jury’s failure to indict the officer who the New York City Medical Examiner reported was responsible for Garner’s HOMICIDE I decided its time to post it.
“What you believe about a story depends largely on where you believe it begins.” — Goldie Taylor, journalist, addressing the controversy over Michael Brown’s death in Ferguson Missouri, Twitter 8/18/2014.
We all bring our personal stories to our understanding of the world, for better or worse. These past ten days have caused me to reflect upon, or as we Quakers like to say, to “witness” my own and others’ views about race, equality, justice, peace and the systems of authority which determine their intersection. After thirty years of teaching and studying U.S. History I think I understand the role of collective memory in shaping the way people react to the events of the present. But I am also highly aware that my personal story weaves itself into the fabric of my group identity. I am who I am and believe what I believe because of the knitting together of my personal yarn and the skein of events that shaped my forbears, from William Penn’s arrival in the sylvan countryside that bears his name to the minutia of my childhood and adolescent experiences in a blended, dysfunctional family at a particular moment in time. I have lived through and been deeply affected by events from the Brown v. Board of Education decision of 1954 to the death of Michael Brown on August 9th. I have protested what I perceived to be injustice and been beaten by police. Most importantly, despite my skin color and gender, I have felt like an outsider for most of my life, unsure that fairness applied to me or that authorities were there to “protect and serve,” be they family members or public officials. I have worked hard to trust, and this past week has reminded how hard that truly is.
I don’t remember exactly when I discovered that there was such a thing as “colored people” and “white people” — as the terms were used by the less bigoted in my youth. I do remember, and have confirmed with my father, that the black maid Sarah who my young southern mother hired to help with the housework and my brother and me was one of the most important and consistent figures in my life between the crucial ages of two and about five or six. After my mother’s tragic death Sarah called me her motherless angel baby, and, with my father’s blessing, took me everywhere with her, including the local black church, of which I have a dim but buttery warm memory. I can still feel the softness of her large bosom and the safety of her embrace, the ripple of her deep chuckle through my tiny body as she brushed back the hair from my face with those marvelous carmine tipped fingers, the resonance of her gospel lullaby easing me when anxiety washed over me like a dam releasing the sorrow and fear I had no words for. I loved her. And she loved me. And then she was gone.
When I was in kindergarten I invited my best friend from school to my birthday party, along with ten or so other little girls. I was confused when my new stepmother told me that some of my friends weren’t allowed to come to my party because of something I couldn’t quite fathom — my best friend was from “the other side of the tracks.” My stepmother suggested that I disinvite her so that the party could go on, but I refused. Mind you, this was 1954 in New Jersey, the year of the Brown decision, of which naturally I was completely unaware. But, clearly, “the other side of the tracks” meant something quite specific in my town, often accompanied by an eye roll. Somerville was not large enough to have truly segregated schools, merely de facto segregated neighborhoods. When more than a decade later northern communities staged protests against “forced busing,” also known as desegregation, it wasn’t a surprise to me.
I don’t remember my family speaking at all in the next few years about the killing of Emmett Till, the Montgomery Bus Boycott or the integration of Little Rock High School. I do remember my Quaker papa and my grandmother watching the nightly news, although my interest was usually fleeting, not surprising for a by then seven- or eight- year- old. Nonetheless I already knew that members of my own family took different views. My grandfather was an early member of the NAACP. He and my grandmother were staunchly in favor of equality for blacks and women. Going to Quaker Meeting with him as a child I heard passionate civil rights speeches and borrowed biographies of famous African Americans and women from the Meeting’s library.
My Southern relatives were a different story. 1950s visits to Hopkinsville, Kentucky, my mother’s birthplace, allowed me to experience real segregation and even sharecropping first hand on my grandparents’ tobacco and beef cattle farm. While my cousins and I played with the “pickaninnies” housed in shacks down a dirt road on the farm, I also understood that this frolicking wasn’t something that could persist beyond puberty. And I was a bit mystified at being called Miss by much older people who at home I would have addressed not by their given names but by an honorific and a last name. I was gently corrected when I misread the local norms by inviting a colored playmate into my grandma’s kitchen. I’ve often reflected on how my cultural dissonance wasn’t that different from Chicago teen Emmett Till’s, but he was beaten bloody, roped to an old cotton gin and dumped in the river for failing to observe the correct protocol toward a white woman in 1955 Money, Mississippi.
Between these two poles lay most of my immediate family, and today I have difficulty relating beyond the superficial to some of them over issues of equity, voice, fairness, civic responsibility. As nice as they might be in their own world, people like some of my relatives have no real friends different in income, skin color, religion, ethnicity or values from themselves. While living in bubbles of reinforcing stereotypes, they have the certainty that there is a right way to live, and it is theirs, and it is also usually Republican. As an overwhelmingly older, white, and/or well off demographic, many of today’s Republicans think of people of color — especially if they are poor — as dangerous, thuggish, freeloaders sucking at the government teat and ruining perfectly good neighborhoods and institutions, if not the country as a whole.
I’ve often wondered whether political persuasion and worldview are as much a matter of personality as of upbringing, the old nature/nurture controversy brought into the public square. That would be part of the explanation for my singularity in a large family, none of whom shared the same parents with me. Studies have shown that there is a correlation between tolerance of ambiguity and tendencies toward liberal or conservative views.
My whole childhood was ambiguous, and I was always watching for the subtle markers of belonging or alienation in my interaction with my stepmother and those she deemed truly part of her tribe. I was never to speak or to behave as if we were anything other than “real family” despite knowing clearly and being told regularly when she had downed too many glasses of gin that I was “that woman’s” child and not hers. And that I better keep my mouth shut and not go around indicating that anyone was treating me as “less than.” I know what it feels like to have my reality defined away by someone with great power over me. I know what it feels like to be told that I am imagining my own feelings. I know what it feels like to be abused and then expected the next morning to act as if nothing at all out of the ordinary happened. I know what it feels like to have those who should be protecting me tell me to “go along to get along.” I know what it feels like to have my oppressor claim victimhood when I dare to speak up. This is why, when I hear white people talking about a post-racial America and blaming black people for continuing to demand equality, accusing them of playing the race card and stirring up the pot, I am filled with a simmering fury.
I understand why the African Americans of Ferguson feel disrespected, marginalized, erased. I expected the characterization of Michael Brown as a drug using, rapping, belligerent, disrespectful thug. I was surprised only by the ham handedness and ineptitude of the Ferguson authorities, not their strategy to play to stereotypes about not just Brown, but the entire Ferguson community of color. And I wasn’t surprised that within days different audiences would interpret the story, as Goldie Taylor suggested, through the filter of their own sense of its beginning. Fifteen minutes from Ferguson white suburbanites filling a Starbucks, not a Quicky Mart, told a reporter from the New Republic that it is the news media that is giving voice to “those people” who just want to be on TV, to loot and to get free stuff. In today’s Pew Research poll nearly half of whites say that race is getting too much attention in Ferguson. Many white citizens in the St. Louis area (and I might add, the nation) have transformed themselves into the victims — of the national media, of people of color, of “outside agitators,” of forces that heretofore were not part of their cultural landscape and which challenged their impunity as well as their complacency.
When I feel this amount of anger punctuated by the intermittent desire to weep buckets of tears over an unjust world, I try to remember the wise advice that Mr. Rogers got from his mother:
When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
I have seen pictures of many Ferguson residents cleaning up, serving food and water, offering shelter, trying to protect businesses, and so on. And some of them are white. Help from the white world can come in many forms, but it must start by allowing those whose voices have been suppressed the right and the space to claim their own stories, and to begin them where they wish.