On MLK Day: Racism and Memory

There are a couple of things I would like to say on this Monday in 2020 as we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s day. Since MLK and I lived through the same times he loomed large in the news, and he still looms large in my memories of those days. So first I will tell you a little story and then I will tell you something I read in the newspaper today that would, if he were still alive, inspire MLK to fight on, because sadly discrimination is still all too real.

I was, as a young adult, a hippie. Weird word, hippie, I guess it was supposed to refer to how “hip” we were. I did not wear flowers in my hair, but I went to concerts in the park and danced to the music and I learned. I learned about the military-industrial complex, and about losing our guys in a war that was not our war. I learned that women were tired of being second class citizens and that from now on we wanted to have our needs and rights taken into consideration. And I learned about racism, which I knew of, but had not seen close up and ugly.

Martin Luther King was a bit older than me. By the time I was 20, he was 34, five years away from his death by assassination. America was in the midst of displaying racial ignorance all over our TVs for the whole world to see. I did not take a bus south. I had my own apartment and had to work. I did march in a demonstration or two. And no matter how much I wanted to I could not take my eyes off my TV when I was home from work.

Here are well-dressed, peaceful people just walking together in their dignity to ask for their rights as American citizens; not separate rights that were supposed to be separate but equal and weren’t equal at all, but just to be left alone to work, live, eat, and travel as freely as any other American. The difference between what America stands for and how America betrays its ideals was never as clear as when those powerful streams of water pouring from fire hoses hit those brave marchers, knocking them to the ground, ruining their best clothing, putting some in the hospital, and striking fear in my heart because something was happening in America that was incomprehensible.

In the midst of all this show of hate, one of my friends decided that we should spend a Sunday in a local storefront Pentecostal church. She was a braver girl than I was, I secretly felt we would be intruding and might not be welcome. But we were welcomed in that church. We were accepted and then petted and called out as “pretty flowers who wandered into the midst of the congregation.” We were blessed and encouraged to go forward and let the minister lay his blessed hands upon us. It was an enlightening experience, an experience that lives vividly still in my memory. And it was impossible not to contrast our warm welcome with the hate playing out daily on my TV. I mourned the sins of the white people in my nation, a nation I had always been proud of – until living in a diverse neighborhood as a hippie girl, opening up my mind to things that never impacted me growing up in my safe suburb. Perhaps we don’t all have these moments of revelation, but I did.

You would think that watching this racial hate play out would have given vent to all the negative prejudices arising out of nothing except the color of one’s skin and that we would have been left burned clean of hate and embracing our differences. That is not the case as we know. Here, at the beginning of the 21st century we see how deeply we have nourished the roots of our racism. We have watched black men killed for the thinnest of reasons and we have seen that there are Americans who must proclaim that ‘Black Lives Matter’. Why would an athlete who has achieved his dream of sports stardom, feel the need to take a knee when he hears the Star Spangled Banner? If racism were not alive and well there would be no need to face white derision by seemingly disrespecting America, when you are really just asking for what should already belong to you.

That’s the story I promised, and here is the news. In today’s New York Times is a story about what Ben Carson, as Trump’s head of Housing and Urban Development is doing these days. We have been made aware of redlining and how it was used to keep some neighborhoods white and some neighborhoods black, to keep us separate. But today my own city was mentioned in this national article as a city that has refused to reassess homes in black neighborhoods, that has left these houses with assessments that are too high and which have allowed the city to collect more tax dollars in this segregated neighborhood than they do in wealthier sections of the city where, inexplicably, assessments are lower.

Now Ben Carson plans to make it more difficult to fight these outdated assessments, to go before the city and present a case for reassessment. It is quite technical and diabolical. In order to make a case for reassessment you must present a list of every reason the city could give for turning you down and then you must refute each argument. In other words, you must now possess some kind of assessment ESP that, of course, does not exist. You must read the city’s mind, a city that can just invent new reasons for why they cannot offer you a reassessment. This directly affects the wealth that should accrue to black homeowners, and does accrue to white people every day from owning a house.

The article also discusses “balloon loans” which make an initial mortgage payment affordable and then raises it out of reach at a later date. All this creativity expended to keep black people from succeeding in America – no wonder we are becoming a decaying nation. We are putting our creative talents to use in the service of the wrong tasks. Martin Luther King, Jr., you left us way too soon, the battle not nearly done, and I’m sorry if your sadness at the evils in the world will not allow you unalloyed enjoyment of the joys of the afterlife. Click on the picture below for a link to the article.

 

Photo Credit: From a Google Image Search – WSFA.com

 

 

“In the Day” and Now/”Black Power”

 
 
When I was just beginning my career as a
teacher I was hired to work in a program that was designed to provide equal
opportunity to the poor and minorities. The program in NYS was called SEEK
(Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge). Later the name of the program
was changed to EOC or Educational Opportunity Center.  It was intended to serve as a sort of prep
school in New York’s city centers, similar to the Educational Opportunity
Programs on SUNY campuses, a program to boost the academic levels of poor and
minority adults who had left school before graduating or who had been
undereducated in inner city schools that tended to educate students to an
eighth grade level (or less) and then lose them. The SEEK program began in 1965
and was a direct result of the Civil Rights Movement in American and the Civil
Rights Act of 1964 and of what were actually relatively few violent
demonstrations in some densely populated African American communities where
citizens were emboldened by recent events such as the Black Power movement to
demand a share of the American dream.

So I began teaching as a very young person
with my little BA degree in Secondary English in the SEEK program and I was
hired by a tall, white bearded hippie to be part of this sort of harem of young
(white) women who he hired to assist him in what was basically, at that time, a
speed-reading program. Every student had a little speed reading machine and a
paperback novel. We, the sort of TA’s, would test each student to determine
their initial reading speed and we would stand in a line in the classroom and
peel off as needed to assist students who were ready to adjust their speed
upward. It was absurd, but I really needed a job. It went against everything I
had learned about good teaching and was miles away from being a good college
prep reading course, but it did give me time and perspective to think about
what I would do differently when I became the department chair, which I
eventually did.

For the first time in my life, at the very
beginning of my career,  I found myself
in an environment (except for the reading department) where I as a white person
was definitely in the minority. The SEEK program administrator was a graduate
of the University of Michigan, a powerfully energetic and ambitious young black man
(at that time it was the choice of African Americans to be called “black”) who
had pulled along with him into our small provincial city the cream of the crop
of his young black buddies also from the University of Michigan. These men were
educated, handsome, and very, very comfortable with each other. They were in
their element. This is what they trained for and it was obvious that they
wouldn’t be here long. These were guys (we called them “brothers) who could be
very funny. They could switch back and forth from professional language to
street within a single sentence. They were very smart and they were on their
way to much bigger careers. By 1973 most of these young “turks” had moved on.

It was intoxicating, as a young white women,
to share time in this energetic and testosterone-enhanced world with these
young men who were the first and most entitled generation of African American
men to benefit from the whole sad and heroic Civil Rights Movement in which
many of them had taken part. They were young warriors and they exuded “Black
Power” but did not make any attempt to be intimidating, although I’m sure they
were capable of it. I could have fallen in love with any one of them with their
giant afros and wonderful smiles, but that was not what we were all about and
they had plans to marry educated sisters and live well. What we were was colleagues
and we were establishing an alternative program which could funnel the poor and
minorities up from the projects and into the middle class. I have carried the
surprisingly vivid memories of those halcyon days with me during all of my
life. And happily, although these young ambitious men did eventually leave our
program and move up in the world, we were able to put together excellent
preparatory courses and to send hundreds of people to college who would
probably not have continued their education at all. We were able to give them
the skills they needed to do well in their college studies and this, in turn,
built their confidence in their ability to succeed.

It is no longer the sixties, but recent
events have made it clear that we are still working out our national
shortcomings in the Civil Rights arena. When George Zimmerman shot and killed
Trayvon Martin, an African American teenager taking an evening walk with his
cell phone to a convenient store, the wounds that remain on the American psyche
reopened and we were taken back to the sixties again. In fact there was a
direct connection; it was the 50th anniversary of a day when
Representative John Lewis from Georgia, who had been the Chairman of SNCC and one of
the “Big Six” leaders of the Civil Rights movement, helped plan the March on
Washington in August of 1963 and then led the March which was the occasion of MLK’s “I Have a Dream
Speech”. Fifty years later here he is on national television reacting to the
verdict in the George Zimmerman trial and sadly confronting the fact that the
work of winning equality for African Americans is not done.

In
fact television that week, after that hotly contested verdict, was chock full of
more African American men and women, with their intelligent, cogent, and very
professional discussions of the emotions being experienced by African Americans
and the historical context for these feelings. They were able to contain what
was probably some significant anger and discuss the ramifications of the trial
decision and to explain to the rest of America their problem with “Stand Your
Ground” laws and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. When John Lewis spoke out
we were reminded of the cosmic irony that this trial occurred on the
anniversary of the Martin Luther King speech that almost every American knows
by heart. The IRS hearings brought that wonderful
Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland to my attention, with his commonsense ability to
bring the soaring fiction of DarryI Issa back to earth. I also have to mention The Grio in
this mix because I was watching MSNBC much of the time and they have hired
Joy-Ann Reid as an adjunct to their staff. She has great connections in the
African American community and she expresses herself clearly and powerfully.
She is a real asset, as is her colleague Melissa Harris-Perry who has her own
show on MSNBC. What can beat two intelligent women who also happen to be
African American who can offer their sophisticated perceptions on politics in
these wacky political times we are living through since 2008.

So for a moment I was back in those
faculty/staff meetings at the old SEEK program with all those glowing African
American men, just ready to step off into their very distinguished futures. If
was good to see all those intelligent, highly educated black people who may
even have benefitted from the programs that were developed in the 60’s to
diversify the American middle class. It felt a bit like old home week. Too bad
it took one alleged scandal and one very sad event to hear from all these erudite black voices. Hopefully
they will continue to be consulted over other issues as we have seen on a few of the Sunday
shows.