Happy MLK Day

From The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr.:

From the age of three I had a white playmate who was about my age. We always felt free to play our childhood games together. He did not live in our community, but was usually around every day; his father owned a store across the street from our home. At the age of six we both entered school – separate schools, of course. I remember how our friendship began to break as soon as we entered school; this was not my desire but his. The climax came when he told me one day that his father had demanded that he would play with me no more. I never will forget what a great shock this was to me. I immediately asked my parents about the motive behind such a statement.

We were at the dinner table when the situation was discussed, and here for the first time I was made aware of the existence of a race problem. I had never been conscious of it before. As my parents discussed some of the tragedies that had resulted from this problem and some of the insults they themselves had confronted on account of it, I was greatly shocked, and from that moment on I was determined to hate every white person. As I grew older and older this feeling continued to grow.

My parents would always tell me that I should not hate the white man, but that it was my duty as a Christian to love him. The question arose in my mind: How could I love a race of people who hated me and who had been responsible for breaking me up with one of my best childhood friends? This was a great question in my mind for a number of years.

 

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If Beale Street Could Talk

Yesterday morning there was a man in the lobby of my office building talking into his phone at an obscene volume. As we rode up in the elevator together – four or five of us – it became obvious that he was not like the rest of us and did not want to be. He yelled into his phone, “Why don’t you make yourself useful and lock up some of the bastards running this city.” As he got off he grunted something disparaging about “civilians” and as the doors closed behind him the woman in the elevator with me could only say “Wow.” 
Maybe he was off his meds.
But on my way to work I was reading If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin and it wasn’t hard to see the loud-talking non-civilian in the elevator as the villain lurking behind a passage like this:
“The same passion which saved Fonny got him into trouble and put him in jail. For, you see, he had found his center, his own center, inside him: and it showed. He wasn’t anybody’s nigger. And that’s a crime, in this fucking free county. You’re suppose to be somebody’s nigger. And if you’re nobody’s nigger, you’re a bad nigger: and that’s what the cops decided when Fonny moved downtown.”
Some of us are sickened by the daily news reports of the takeover of our government by white supremacists but others might take it as a hopeful sign that we are finally waking up to a situation that has been festering in this country since colonial times.

“Of course, I must say that I don’t think America is God’s gift to anybody – if it is, God’s days have gotto be numbered. That God these people say they serve – and do serve, in ways that they don’t know – has got a very nasty sense of humor. Like you’d beat the shit out of Him, if He was a man. Or: if you were.”
There are people – Virginia Woolf is one, so is James Joyce – whose work makes me feel like they did me a personal favor by becoming writers. James Baldwin is another.

I’m not good at retaining novels. Certain scenes and characters make an impression but most of them fade from my memory soon after I read them. I sink into the dream that is a good book and turning the last page of one is like opening my eyes after a long night’s sleep, grasping at dreams that I can’t keep from evaporating.

So I fold back the corners of pages that I want to re-read even after I’ve re-read them. So I can type up the words and let them skip across the keyboard and my fingertips, so I can feel what it’s like to write this kind of passage:


“I thought of Fonny’s touch, of Fonny, in my arms, his breath, his touch, his odor, his weight, that terrible and beautiful presence riding into me and his breath being snarled, as if by a golden thread, deeper and deeper in his throat as he rode – as he rode deeper and deeper not so much into me as into a kingdom which lay just behind his eyes. He worked on wood that way. He worked on stone that way. If I had never seen him work, I might never have known he loved me.

It’s a miracle to realize that somebody loves you.”

Respect Others

Go Slowly
The sign says “Respect Others.”
It sounds easy enough 
but that all depends on how you define “others.”
This is not the first time a direction that sounds easy in theory 
becomes difficult in practice.
Do you feel disrespected?
A lot of us do, for a simple reason:
We are disrespected.
Most of us, as individuals, deserve disrespect sometimes but none of us do as members of a group.
A gentle reminder.
 

Go Slow

The Fire Next Time


Anger has its uses. It can be a spur to confronting injustice or a vent for righteous frustration. Anger is like lust: it’s an honest emotion. There’s no time to overthink the impulse. The best you can do is control it and try to deny how insanely good it feels to let it off the leash. But for the most part anger sucks. In my experience it is a spur to self-indulgence and a vent for self-loathing. I felt a lot of anger reading James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. What kind of monster doesn’t feel anger at lines like these:

I was thirteen and crossing Fifth Avenue on my way to the Forty-second Street library, and the cop in the middle of the street muttered as I passed him, “Why don’t you niggers stay uptown where you belong?” When I was ten, and didn’t look, certainly, any older, two policemen amused themselves with me by frisking me, making comic (and terrifying) speculations concerning my ancestry and probable sexual prowess, and for good measure, leaving me flat on my back in one of Harlem’s empty lots.
My anger isn’t focused on Baldwin’s experiences from the 1930s. It feeds on the knowledge of what hasn’t changed, on how black parents still need to warn their children about the dangers of police officers, and on how my contribution to confronting this injustice consists of voting for people who will try to do something and in scribbling these pathetic words. Reading Baldwin’s more considered words help steer me from anger toward something more useful and long-lasting.
I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know – we see it around us every day – the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others is debasing himself. That is not a mystical statement but a most realistic one, which is proved by the eyes of any Alabama sheriff – and I would not like to see Negroes ever arrive at so wretched a condition.

I sometimes wonder why every black man who sees me doesn’t walk up and punch me in the face. I wonder why a woman I pass on the sidewalk offers me a sweet smile instead of running in fear from a potential sexual predator. That absence of punching and running gives me one of the only know cures for anger: hope. It also offers a chance to learn and to realize that my knowledge is different from others. Mine keeps me from believing that my position in society was achieved by my own merits. Maybe theirs keeps them from believing I am their enemy.

The American Negro has the great advantage of having never believed that collection of myths to which white Americans cling: that their ancestors were all freedom-loving heroes, that they were born in the greatest country the world has ever seen, or that Americans are invincible in battle and wise in peace, that Americans have always dealt honorably with Mexicans and Indians and all other neighbors or inferiors, that American men are the world’s most direct and virile, that American women are pure. Negroes know far more about white Americans than that; it can almost be said, in fact, that they know about white Americans what parents – or, anyway, mothers – know about their children, and that they very often regard white Americans that way. And perhaps this attitude, held in spite of what they have endured, helps to explain why Negroes, on the whole, and until lately, have allowed themselves to feel so little hatred.

A large and fascinating section of The Fire Next Time concerns a dinner party that Baldwin attends at the invitation of Elijah Muhammad, founder of The Nation of Islam. Muhammad witnessed three lynchings before turning 20. That’s the kind of thing that can make you believe white people are devils.
Most Negroes cannot risk assuming that the humanity of white people is more real to them than their color. The brutality with which Negroes are treated in this country simply cannot be overstated, however unwilling white men may be to hear it. In the beginning – and neither can this be overstated – a Negro just cannot believe that white people are treating him as they do; he does not realize what he has done to merit it. And when he realizes that the treatment accorded him has nothing to do with anything he has done, that the attempt of white people to destroy him – for that is what it is – is utterly gratuitous, it is not hard for him to think of white people as devils.
I told Elijah that I did not care if white and black peo
ple married, and that I had many white friends. I would have no choice, if it came to it, but to perish with them, for (I said to myself, but not to Elijah), “I love a few people and they love me and some of them are white, and isn’t love more important than color?”

I knew two or three people, white, whom I would trust with my life, and I knew a few others, white, who were struggling as hard as they knew how, and with great effort and sweat and risk, to make the world more human. But how could I say this? One cannot argue with anyone’s experience or decision or belief. All my evidence would be thrown out of court as irrelevant to the main body of the case, for I could cite only exceptions.

I don’t know if other white Americans share my experience that something changed with the election of Barack Obama. In ordinary interactions with strangers who are black – passing on the sidewalk, holding a door, asking directions – I felt a more relaxed communication, more like what I would experience with strangers who are white. I can only hope that the tragedy of Trump’s election hasn’t caused too much harm to our common humanity until we can again find a president who represents the better angels of our nature.
Therefore, a vast amount of the energy that goes into what we call the Negro problem is produced by the white man’s profound desire not to be judged by those who are not white, not to be seen as he is, and at the same time a vast amount of the white anguish is rooted in the white man’s equally profound need to be seen as he is, to be released from the tyranny of his mirror. All of us know, whether or not we are able to admit it, that mirrors can only lie, that death by drowning is all that awaits one there. It is for this reason that love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and we know we cannot live within.

In short, we, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women. To create one nation has proved to be a hideously difficult task; there is certainly no need now to create two, one black and one white.

Like all of Baldwin’s writing The Fire Next Time transcends the beauty and genius of his words, to share his unique insight into our common hopes, fears, and mortal lives.
Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death – ought to decide, indeed, to earnone’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return.

Justice For All

Birthdays are a good time to look back, to look forward, and to take stock of who and what we are. We turn 241 today. There are many good and bad qualities about America and one of the worst is the blind eye we turn to the fact that we live in an unjust society. 

The scales of justice are weighted toward me. I am white, male, and straight. I grew up in a comfortable middle-class suburb and went to good schools from kindergarten to college. The laws of the country I live in are designed to protect me, my family, and my property. All that would be great if the protection and opportunities I have were afforded to all Americans. They are not.

We have the largest prison population in the world at over 2 million of our citizens. When you include those on probation and parole the number comes close to 7 million. The epidemic of mass incarceration has disproportionately affected black families. Forty percent of prisoners are black, even though they are only thirteen percentage of our citizens.


One of the reasons we have the sad excuse for a president we do is because so many of our fellow citizens refuse to believe we live in an unjust society. For many of them the fact that such a large percentage of our prison population is black reveals racial inferiority not injustice. 

Another generation of black men is being decimated, like every other one since this country was founded, by a criminal justice system that permits their abuse and murder. I am not a black man and I am not a police officer. There are people I consider friends in both groups and some are friends with each other. Twelve percent of police officers are themselves black. The solution to our common problem will benefit both groups and it begins with the most basic principle of justice: equal treatment of all people.

After 241 years it is long past time we lived up to our belief in the self-evident truth that all men are created equal.

Racist Friend

“If you have a racist friend
Now is the time for that friendship to end.” The Special AKA

I ran across this picture and it got me thinking about the false logic behind racism and the type of bigotry that likes to think of itself as rational, as even a type of common sense. It’s a false syllogism. You could say how did we go from this to being afraid of offending Al Queda, but nobody’s afraid of offending Al Queda. The logic behind this quote would be the same as “How did we go from the holocaust to being afraid of offending Christians?” or “How did we go from Dylann Roof to being afraid of offending white people?” Basically, it’s a way to feel good about hating millions or even billions of human beings by equating them all with a few homicidal maniacs who share their race, gender, nationality, or religion. Exploiting tragedy to gin up anger is in keeping with the time-honored tradition of bigotry and fomenting hate.

The Specials were a 2 Tone/Ska band formed in 1977 as a fusion of ska and punk. Their melodies and instrumentation were fun, infectious, and pretty damn danceable. Their lyrics were often about things like drinking, dancing, dating, love and sex, but in songs like Free Nelson Mandela and Racist Friend they tackled some meatier subjects. 

I have mixed feelings about ending a friendship with a racist friend. On the one hand, it’s a repudiation of that diseased mind-set but on the other hand it only isolates the disease, allowing it to fester in the bubble of like-minded hatred. It also ignores the idea that maybe we’re all racists, to varying degrees, and the best way to eliminate ignorance is to confront it, even in ourselves.

Anyway, it’s a great tune. And check out Jerry Dammers’ fancy footwork in the video:

If you have a racist friend
Now is the time, now is the time for your friendship to end

Be it your sister
Be it your brother
Be it your cousin or your, uncle or your lover

If you have a racist friend
now is the time, now is the time for your friendship to end

Be it your best friend
Or any other
Is it your husband or your father or your mother?

Tell them to change their views
Or change their friends
Now is the time, now is the time, for your friendship to end

So if you know a racist who thinks he is your friend
Now is the time, now is the time for your friendship to end

Call yourself my friend?
Now is the time to make up your mind, don’t try to pretend

Be it your sister
Be it your brother
Be it your cousin or your uncle or your lover

So if you are a racist
Our friendship has got to end
And if your friends are racists don’t pretend to be my friend

So if you have a racist friend
Now is the time, now is the time for our friendship to end

GOODBYE