Sunday, October 31, 2010

Trick-or-tre... never mind

So the Mrs. and our daughter are handing out candy. A lady and her kids skip our house.
Our daughter calls after them that we do have candy for them. They ignore her. Our blonde neighbor hears the shouting, comes outside (our doors are less than 1 foot away from each other)and shouts after them that she has candy.

The lady came back, took candy from our neighbor, silently looked at my wife and daughter, then silently ushered her kid away... still not taking candy from my wife.

My neighbor was in shock with none of her usual excuse making and explaining things away.

Happy Halloween.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Brohammas Goes into the Fields to Find the “Angry Black Man” and Instead Finds Wayne Bennett
There is a blog out there in the digital landscape where race is discussed openly. Names are called, fingers are pointed, and oft times naughty words are written. Sounds like my kind of place, except for the naughty words of course.

One should know that this is not the normal race baiting sort of forum. It is not the land of David Duke or even Farrakhan, but a place where things are looked at logically, pragmatically, frankly, and sometimes surprisingly fairly. What sets this place apart is that punches are never pulled, no matter who is getting punched. White, black, cops, lawyers, accused, and acquitted, all may find themselves targeted if the author deems it justified. This brings us to the author.

Any writer who will entertain my inserting Bob Marley quotes where they don’t belong merits my affection and this blogger not only allowed but occasionally encouraged them. Interesting. Through repeated reading I realized this blogger was local to myself, or possibly the other way around, so I decided to pull back the curtain and see who was running the machine.

I embarked on this fact finding venture unsure of what I might find, or rather, how my inquiries would be received. I, a devoutly religious white man raised in the heart of Republicanism, was arranging to sit down with a man who titles his blog in homage to a Malcolm X quote, and regularly rants against religion itself in his writings. This could go very badly… if I were meeting with someone else. I found the “Field Negro” to be decidedly friendly.

We met at Moriarty’s, an Irish Pub downtown, for lunch. He chose the place, possibly as a nod to my pastiness, but more likely due to proximity to his place of employ. You see, Wayne Bennett is not a professional blogger, he is a lawyer. He works for the Family Division of Philadelphia’s First Judicial District, “Support Master” being his official title. To the uninitiated this is pretty much a family court judge. He has the pleasure of listening to cases of child support, custody, and any other sort of domestic disagreement that progresses to litigation. How fun. He explained all this to me while waiting for the waitress to bring him his salad. I had some sort of meat sandwich that was decidedly less healthy. Our meal was not large, nor hard to eat, yet the time it took us to finish lunch was impressive. I would say how long but I would hate to cast doubt on Mr. Bennett’s dedication to the people of Philadelphia.

He, like I, is not a native of this fine city. He was raised in a respected Jamaican family where the likes of Mr. Marley were not simply listened to, but met; hence his allowing my itations to be entertained. He left the island to attend the University of Alabama on a track scholarship. Upon graduation he took a good job in California and began to enjoy life. As can often be the case when one is enjoying themselves, family stepped in to shake things up. Mr. Bennett’s uncle, a barrister, thought his nephew should be more like himself, and told him to attend law school. Which he did, at LSU. (I am thinking of convincing Bennett to attend my alma matter so we can get a national football championship, they seem to follow him.) Graduation, a job fair in Atlanta, and a phone call from a politician, landed Wayne Bennett in Philadelphia. Now we knew each other, our meals had arrived and been half eaten, and then we began to talk.

I was not present at Obama’s beer summit with Professor Gates and Officer Crowley, but I have no doubt it was not as productive as was ours at the pub. The two of us, assumed to be polar opposites, both love this city. He loves that it is close to both NYC and DC, has a small town feel in a big city, and that he can visit a neighborhood and know he will find black people, white people, Italians or Poles.

I like that I can eat somewhere other than Applebee’s.

I tend to talk too much.

When I asked him to tell me the one best reggae song ever, he gave me a list of eight.
His wife does not read his blog; neither does mine.

We were into some ground breaking stuff here. Lunches like ours are not completely unheard of, but lunches with those of our respective demographics do not discuss the topic I brought up next. I asked him why he blogs about race.

“People are dishonest about race. I wanted to have the real conversation,” was his answer. He believes that thanks to the computer, and people’s propensity to hide behind them, individuals finally feel they can speak freely. He has created a forum where they do.

He sees the black community as running in place. “Things are surely not as bad as they were 20 years ago, but we aren’t going anywhere. It’s the same old, same old.” I expressed a more dour view. I asked him why it seemed so many young black men were falling behind in Philadelphia.

In his animated way he told me a story along these lines:

“When I first started hearing cases I would get all these divorced families where Mom works some fast food job, dad works construction, and they spend thousands of dollars a month to send their kids to private school (I knew exactly of what he spoke as he described perfectly my whole neighborhood). The Dad would consistently be unable to keep up the child support payments and hence find himself standing before the bench. I used to think all these folks were sending their kids to private catholic schools to keep them away from black people (which knowing these people would not surprise me). But when I started to look more into it I saw how bad the schools were and realized that maybe this wasn’t racism but that these folks simply cared about their child’s education. Racism wasn’t the issue; it was that we need to do something about these schools.”

He contrasted this with how many limos he sees at high school graduations. “Since when was graduating from high school such a big deal? You haven’t done anything yet? Why is the bar so low?”

I asked him if race still matters. He said, “of course, but its class too. Hey, even rich black people hate poor black people.”

We talked well past the check. I was sitting at the table of a black man who blogs about racism as a way to unwind and relax from the work day, (what a way to relax, right?) and he made me feel completely comfortable. He was not angry; not even grumpy. In fact I rather liked the guy and he had the sort of demeanor that whether true or not, would make others think he liked them too.

He insisted on picking up the tab and we wrapped up lunch with the conversation feeling unfinished. Funny that as a reader of his blog, one might think the world of race relations spinning into a black hole, but having lunch with the author was the bright spot of my week.
There is hope for us yet.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Robert E' Lee's Slave

I once wrote, on another blog, a short piece that was slightly critical of Robert E. Lee and his fighting to defend slavery. Turns out even insinuating any flaw in Mr. Lee is almost as dangerous as me writing about black women’s hair.

A comment responding to my blog disturbed me to the point that I did not reply. Not till now at least. The commenter told a story about Robert E. Lee’s manservant who even after the surrender at Appomattox, stayed faithfully by Lee’s side.

The story of Lee’s slave was new to me, but the type of story was not. It is the sort of tale, or detail rather, that has led me to detest “Gone with the Wind” and made me almost incapable of having a reasonable discussion with most armchair historians displaying a southern lean.

If I may, let me respond now.

Tales of faithful slaves or loyal black people dot the landscape of southern histories. Some are true, some are not. One cannot say two words relating the War of Northern Aggression to slavery, or criticize the Confederate flag, without one of these tales, most likely a tale of a black confederate soldier, being immediately thrown back in defense. To this I simply say, “Are you serious?”

Sadly that is completely rhetorical and a bit inflammatory, as I know good and well that they are. These stories, or even historical accounts, of the happy Negro exist and most white people take them at face value as proof that we cannot judge historical values through our modern lenses. The stories are used to show that things weren’t really all that bad, and in some ways were even better. You see, the races, black and white, got along better back then. We even loved and cared for each other. Our children played together, black women nursed white children, and soldiers of each race even fought and died together. Obviously the “peculiar institution” was not as bad as we may think, and historical figures like Lee should not be judged so harshly.

How short sighted.

To read these accounts and come to these conclusions is to make simpletons of all black people and displays a complete ignorance of black realities. These tales do not show that things weren’t as bad as we think but rather display how much worse they really were.

Let’s look at the example of Lee’s manservant, Rev William Mack Lee. A short history of his life was published in 1918.

Rev Lee, who was by this time quite old, was touring the countryside to raise money to fund the building of his church. In his story he tells how he was born on the General’s plantation and stayed loyally by his side throughout the war. He told how all the slaves on Lee’s plantation were freed ten years before the war but all stayed put till after the fighting ended. The autobiography goes on to tell how the Rev. stayed by Lee’s side till the old General passed away, at which time Lee left $360 for the Rev. to “educate himself.”

William wrote: “At the close of the war I did not know A from B…I went to school. I studied hard at the letter, but my greatest learning came from Jesus Christ”.

So, at face value we have a former slave who was freed by his master but stayed with him. Years after his old masters death he is still singing his praises. Not only singing, but thanks to the generosity of the old master he is also writing and preaching. What a great man this master must have been.

Or maybe he was just great in comparison to all the other white people William knew. An oft ignored aspect of life in the mid 1800’s and earlier, is that just because a state, or a group, opposed slavery, one cannot assume those states or groups actually liked or accepted black people. In fact the popular proposal of those who opposed slavery was that black people should all be shipped back to Africa. Some even did just that, founding the country of Liberia.
A black person, who somehow attained freedom, was in no way guaranteed rest and peace. More likely a freed slave was now tossed into an open market that did not want and often would not allow, black participation. An appreciation for the difficulty and outright persecution faced by free black people would lead us to look closer at the choices historical black characters made.
Some chose to stay put, like those on Lee’s plantation. A benevolent master, who didn’t beat you, at least not that much, may have been a safer bet than the rabble beyond the plantation gates. More telling yet, was that knowing the scorn the outside society held in store, many, many, chose to risk life and try for freedom.

General Lee appreciated William's education so much that he financed it. How nice. But then again, if it was truly important, why didn't he educate Mr. William Lee himself rather than through a gift in his will? It seems many a gracious slave owner was mostly only gracious after his death.

The Civil War, with its Northern Armies marching through the heart of the south gave the biggest opportunity for slaves to flee the farm for freedom. Rev. William Lee did not. It may have been his loyalty to that great man, or could it also have possibly been that to stand next to Robert E. Lee was also to stand next to the very military might of the confederacy. There is a famous tale, the one retold to me by the commenter, of how directly following the surrender at Appomattox, Gen. Lee retired to his tent and did not reemerge for the space of a day. All the while William Lee sat loyal watch outside the tent without moving.

Might I inquire where he would have gone?

If I were a black man standing in the middle of 8,000 armed soldiers who had just been in the business of killing others to defend their right to own a black person, many of their closest friends having died in the process, and who have just received notice that they lost the war; I might just sit still on a stool counting the seconds till one of these men finds a convenient target on whom to express his frustration. I could either run out into the midst of these heart broken sharp shooters, or I could stick close to the side of the one who may protect me or at least someone who appreciated my services. One may think I could run to the Union troops, they aren’t so far away; but then again how am I to know that those Union soldiers like black people? Truth is many union soldiers resented black people due to the fact that they saw themselves fighting and dying for a whole race of people they saw as inferior and best kept away from themselves and their women. To automatically assume that I would stay put simply out of devotion is to ignore everyone else and everything around me.

Of course I was not there. I did not know either of the Lees in question. Maybe we should just stick with what was in Rev. Lee’s book.

Like the following:
“Still limping from a Yankee bullet, an old darkey, with a grizzled beard and an honest face, hobbled into the office of the World-News at a busy hour yesterday.
"Kin you white folks gimme a little money fur my church?" he asked, doffing his tattered hat as he bowed.
Typewriters tickled their hurried denial.
The aged negro cocked his head on one side. "What, I ain't gwine ter turn away Ole Marse Robert's nigger is yer? You didn't know dat I was Gen. Robert Lee's cook all through de wah, did yer?" Every reporter in the office considered that introduction sufficient, and listened for half an hour to William Mack Lee, who followed General Robert E. Lee as body guard and cook throughout the Civil War. When the Negro lifted his bent and broken figure from a chair to take his leave every man in the office reached into his pocket, for a contribution.”

Before you send me more stories of the happy slave, do me a big favor and go look up the term “shuck-n-jive” first.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Are They Called Negroes?

She was by far the oldest person at the family reunion. She shuffled around and everyone stooped down to explain, help, and give reverence to the reigning matriarch of the occasion. I’m not really sure how we are related, great aunt, great cousin in-law, I have never been all that close with this side of the family.

I found myself sitting next to her at a banquet table one evening. “what nationality is she?” she asked me, referring to my daughter, who was sitting near us.

“Her Mom is African-American.”

“Afro what? African? Amrination?” she struggled.

“Her Mom, my wife, is black,” I simplified.

“Oh. Well ya never know. Sometimes they adopt ya know. Now where exactly is Philadelphia? What is it near?”

I thought about how to answer her question and took the easy way out. “Its near New York.” I was not prepared for what she asked next.

“Now, there’s lots of Negroes in New York right?”

I don’t recall exactly how I answered. I think I stammered some sort of affirmation trying to be respectful to both an old lady and a whole race of people.

“Nancy says I’m not supposed to say Negro. Is it Colored? I just don’t know what to say. What was it you said earlier? AfreeMerin?”

She doesn’t hear all that well, so I thought it best to just stay simple, “just say black.”

“They used to be really mean to them I think. Wouldn’t let them sit on the busses, go to school. I just don’t know, but I think that wasn’t right. I just think it was mean. But it’s better now, right? That’s all done now isn’t it.”

I could have answered her a million ways. I could have been upset, could have just dismissed her entirely, or climbed high up on my horse and lectured my senior. I imagined what my wife’s face would have looked like had she been here to hear the whole exchange; mouth open, one eyebrow arched higher than the other, head slightly to the side.

“It was worse than mean. It was more than wrong. Things can still get better.” Is all I said.

I should explain something about this woman.
Earlier that same day the whole family had taken a trip to not only where this woman grew up, but where she has spent nearly all her life; Lyman Wyoming. I stood in front of a small wood home, looked right, looked left, turned all the way around and saw nothing but that house. Not a tree, not a building, nothing. Nothing all the way to the horizon in all directions. For most of her life she had to travel just to see another person. I think she may have met a total of 2.5 black people in her whole life. It has been a long life. Lest one think this isolation would amplify the affects of media, I should mention that for most of this woman’s life, they had no power. They had no power, as in influence, but mostly just in that they had no electricity. They lived “off the grid” as the hipsters would say today, but they did it in the 60’s.

What should I expect from a woman who lived in Wyoming with no TV during the 60’s? She is the equivalent of the average American today and our awareness of the state of indigenous tribes in Central America.

She is the generation of my grandmother. What should I expect her to have taught her children about race? Should I have expected her to address such an abstract in her world at all? We learn what we know through teaching and experience. On this subject she neither had, nor could give either.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Bishop William Henderson

See this post with pictures at

The door to the Michigan Street Baptist Church was closed, but it wasn’t locked. As I stepped inside I heard a voice from downstairs call, “hello?”

The voice belonged to a middle aged black man who introduced himself as Bishop Montgomery. I chuckled a little and introduced myself the same way. “Well aren’t we something? That over there is Bishop Henderson,” Bishop Montgomery said, pointing to a grey bearded man seated at the table.

Bishop Montgomery showed me around the small chapel. The pulpit is original. It is where Montgomery speaks on Sundays, and where Dubois spoke long ago. He showed me the progress of current renovations to the stained glass windows, and directed my attention to a small door leading to the attic. “That up there used to hide runaway slaves.” I was told about how hiding runaways was risky, even in a free state. If caught, the church would be shut down. But the church hid them still the same. We talked for a bit as we, walked back downstairs.

“This old guy here is the one to answer your history questions,” Montgomery said as Bishop Henderson slowly pulled himself up to his feet.

I haven’t met anyone quite like Bishop Henderson.

He took me to the back of the basement and into the bathroom. Here he pulled aside a curtain to show a small compartment, smaller than coat closet. He told me that people being ushered along the Underground Railroad would crouch here, hiding from slave catchers. He told me the place was special and he wouldn’t let the workers patch up the hole in the wall when they modernized the building. He told me how no one ever liked slave catchers, even people who didn’t like black people still didn’t like slave catchers. These holders of negative opinion included the city judge, the one the slave catchers would have to go to get warrants. This judge would start proceedings, excuse himself to use the restroom, and never come back, abandoning the court while in session. He told of how those running away had to rely completely on the goodness of others, others meaning white people, to usher them to freedom. Black people could only conduct at night. It was up to whites to open houses, drive wagons, row boats, as black people would all be targets of capture themselves. He told the stories with energy, conviction, and surprising detail.

I let him talk, he likes to talk, but one question started to distract me from all the rest. Finally I asked, “You are a Baptist Bishop, you were the pastor of this very church, why do you wear a star of David?”

He smiled as his hand moved up to the pendant around his neck. You see, my mother was African-American, but my Dad was a Jew. I used to hate my Dad, but as time has gone along, I have grown to appreciate him and the culture he came from. “So it’s an ethnic rather than religious symbol for you?” I continued. “Yes.”

Now I had a whole new set of questions.
“You are, shall we say from a generation before my own,” I began; “More like two,” he interrupted. “Was it difficult being raised the product of mixed parentage?”

He told me the following story:
“I wasn’t raised mixed. I wasn’t raised by my parents. A black family adopted me when I was very little and black was all I ever knew. My family was black, everyone at school was black, and everyone in church was black. I never knew of anything like prejudice till high school when I became best friends with a boy, six foot three and dark skinned… looked just like me. Wherever we went, people would say, there go salt n’ pepper. As I got older I would occasionally guest pastor at some other churches, black churches. I would stand up in front of them and watch as they started whispering around to each other, who is this guy and what does he have to say to US? I would just smile and say, my mom was black and my dad was a Jew. I’m not black or white, I’m a whole new creature created by God to preach of Christ! He said this always went over well.

I knew my Dad growing up; I just didn’t know he was my Dad. Our neighborhood was mixed back then, we had some of everybody. We used to watch the Jewish people walk to church on Saturdays. They wouldn’t drive, that was work, and they observed the Sabbath.
I had a dog, I loved that dog like little boys do; he was my best friend. One day the dog was hit in the road and I remember sitting there in the street holding my dog as it died, tears flowing as I cried. People were all gathered round, just watching, not doing anything. Then, through the crowd, came this man. He bent down and put his arms around me and held me, comforted me. No one else moved, just this white, Jewish man, and I felt a special bond with him from that day on. We all used to play in the streets and I would see him from time to time, watching from a distance. I didn’t know till much later that he was my Dad, just as I didn’t appreciate till much later that my father had no choice.
I was a child born out of wedlock and as such had to be cast out. It didn’t matter my race, I wasn’t allowed.”

He showed me a picture of his mother, who died while he was a child. He showed me a picture of his wife and grown daughter. I told him about my daughters. I told him about how my six year old was confused when told about segregation, with special places for white and black. She wanted to know where the tan kids sat. He smiled; he does that easily.

“Talk to your kids. You don’t have to tell them more than they are ready for, they learn bit by bit, but answer the questions as they come.”
“I warned you he liked to talk,” Bishop Montgomery interjected as he walked through the room. It was time for me to go.

I think Bishop Henderson would have sat and talked with me all day had I kept asking questions. I would have liked that. But the parking meter was still running, I had a schedule to keep, and wisdom does no good if we never step back into the real world.
I shook his hand, took his card, and he showed me to the door.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Al Allen

One Easter season Al Allen, a man from a previous generation, took pity on a young couple with no family in town, and invited us over for an Easter dinner. As we made our way down his stairs to where a larger than normal table was set up to accommodate us, we stepped into what could have been a Greenville County black history museum.

Every inch of wall space in the finished basement was covered with photographs, certificates, and various nostalgic paraphernalia. There was a young Al with a football team, with some man in a suit, with a group of men in suits, pictures of buildings I had never seen, and some pictures of buildings I had seen. The images were all in black and white, but the people were all black. He told me tales of when he met with so and so, or worked on a commission with you know who, none of who's names I knew then or can remember now; except Sterling Field.

I played rugby on Sterling Field three times a week. It was in the less attractive part of town, we had to share the field with local little league football teams, but it was the cheapest field around for a low budget sports club. "Used to be a great field," Mr. Allen told me matter of factly. "Yeah? What happened to it?" I asked, not really caring as I was more interested in the images on the wall than his list of unrecognized names. His answer to my half hearted question got my full attention.

He told me how Sterling High school used to have the best football team around. It was the county's black school and the pride of all who went there. The kids got a top notch education, the community loved the place, and to top it all off, they won football games. Then came integration.

Integration didn't happen all at once. Like most things, first rumors started, then meetings were held, and finally maybe a couple years later, something would happen. It was the late 60's and the writing was on the wall, the whole state knew it was coming. Word came that Sterling would not be closed, sending their students off to other schools, but rather white kids were to be sent there. This was a top performing school both in academics and on the field; it was going to be a great example and the Sterling community was guardedly excited. Then, the year before it was to integrate...

It burned to the ground.

It caught fire the night of prom and burned down to stubble. The school was never rebuilt, and in 1970 all the kids were bussed off to other schools.

As he told the story there was no anger or resentment in his voice. He was just an older guy telling a "back in the day" story. He moved right from that story to showing me his collection of R&B records. The rest of the night consisted of great food, his wife chiding him for trying to smoke in doors when a baby was in the house, and him later giving that baby a stuffed rabbit the size of a live horse. I've never been the best at keeping in touch and I have no idea how Al Allen is today. I wonder how he is, but I never do anything.

Travelers and visitors to Greenville would never know stories like this, and that is just fine. Everywhere has its ghosts; they need not be put on constant display. So if you ever find yourself half way between Atlanta and Charlotte, enjoy it. Visit the Reedy River with its stunning bridge, get some jewelry at the Beaded Frog, and as you look at the confederate flags. know that Sterling field used to be nice.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Tuskegee Airmen

An oft ignored or unknown aspect of post emancipation America is the systematic crushing of black dreams. Those of my generation have always known, or been taught, of the first black this, or first black that. The initial astronaut, millionaire, Oscar winner, or president, have been praised. They have been praised to such an extent that the significance and relevance of such achievements have been lost, rendering the names trivial. Those cynical, young, or simply white, oft find it difficult to not drift towards the all encompassing, “so what.”

I turned off my prescribed path to follow a sign announcing a Tuskegee Airmen Memorial. I was nowhere near Alabama, North Africa, or even a military base. I was intrigued. I found myself at an isolated South Carolina field that had at one time, just a short time, served as an airstrip servicing the squadron of black airmen while in training. There was a small statue under a tree, a couple of plaques explaining some history, and an old searchlight.
The plaques explained that in an effort to squelch the new squadron, officials required all applicants to have a college degree and flight experience. Those same officials were astounded at the number of men who qualified. To that surprise is where my thoughts wandered.

We have been taught, indoctrinated, with the ideal of the American dream. We have been raised with the expectation that in America if you work hard, if you try, you will achieve. I was told by my teachers, my parents, my politics, by my very culture, that I must learn, work, and try. If I did, my goals would be realized. All these African-American firsts helped to prove this. A memorial to the Airmen helped me realize otherwise.

Those surprised officials believed the dream. These Americans had misjudged their culture’s ability to elevate the able. They saw the lack of black doctors, professors, lawyers, and black professionals as proof that black people lacked qualifications. In the land of meritocracy it was assumed that the disparity in achievement was a direct result of who had, or did not have, merit. They were proved wrong. How did they get it so wrong?

Slaves were not allowed to read or write, yet there was still a Frederick Douglass. After Emancipation schools were opened and quickly flooded with students. Most of our books or lessons plot this point on the timeline and chart a vertical trajectory in dramatic fashion. The subsequent glossing over of all that transpired between then and the civil rights movement has left us blind to things we still don’t want to see. All those firsts were not the first qualified, they were the first allowed.

For every one who achieved there were many who had previously learned and worked hard only to be thwarted. They were not held back by inadequacy but by America. W.E.B. Dubois, the first black man to graduate with a PhD from Harvard, a man now considered one of the United States greatest sociologists, was commissioned by the University of Pennsylvania to do research and teach their students, but was denied a seat as professor. He could teach the students, but not be recognized as a teacher. Fisk, Howard, Morehouse, and even Harvard and Yale, produced black graduates long before the greater society produced black professionals. It seems the speed of work, education, and legislation, were outpaced by locked doors, hard heads, and burnt crosses.

America is the land of dreams, the land of opportunity? Yes, but it is, and has also been, a land littered with the remnants of crushed dreams and dashed aspirations. Our country has created for itself a dual past and a checkered present. Some were elevated and rewarded, others filled full of hope only to have it pushed back into the ground from which it sprung. Things were not fair. Things were never meant to be completely fair. That is true no matter one's race just as it is true that any man or woman stands a better chance of progress in America than any other land. We can hold our heads high but should never do so with eyes closed. If America is to pride herself in all the firsts she helped create, she must also admit that she is the one who stopped many other firsts from happening.

But the firsts have come. As I looked at the bronze bust of a brown pilot looking up at the sky, I smiled cynically. I smiled because it made perfect sense why these pilots showed no fear of German planes. It was obvious why they proved so adept at avoiding enemy flak. These were men who had a lifetime of having their dreams being shot down. They had previously been trained under ‘friendly fire.’ That is the real triumph of these airmen. I cannot, nor do I know anyone who can, tell me the name of any of these heroes. I can find no real record of any of them later reaching some notable milestone. They weren’t remarkable for any one event or battle. What made them special is that they existed and despite the anti-aircraft fire from home, they still had wings and flew.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Black People Are More Racist; Part 1 of Many

My wife and I were once asked to describe ourselves in five words or less. Mine went something like Mormon, husband, artist, blah, blah, blah, hers went black, woman, something, something, something.
If this would have been a few years earlier her answer would have worried me. It may have even upset me.

Race was not just on her list but at the top. Race? Black? Really? I had not even thought to list my color. In my own mind color had absolutely nothing to do with who I was as a person. Race shouldn't’t even matter right? Listing that as the top thing on your list is a problem right? Was it wrong?

I should back up a bit.

Growing up I felt I had absolutely no culture. I looked at my Hawaiian friend with envy as his family performed traditional dances and sang songs in another language. I spent considerable time with a group of American Indian dancers and always secretly, or not so secretly, wished I would one day be adopted into one of their tribes. My family name is Scottish and with little to no real knowledge of the foggy isle, I developed an appreciation for bagpipes that I maintain to the present day. I loved and appreciated everyone’s culture mostly because I felt I didn’t have one of my own.

Then I left Utah.

I went to a place where I looked like everyone else, but I was nothing like them. We spoke the same language but the accent was new. The people were every bit as religious as I, we even worshiped using the same words, but the meanings were no where near the same. I knew songs these new people did not. I even celebrated a holiday in July they knew nothing about. I discovered something. I discovered I had a culture all along, I simply did not recognize it when I was in that culture’s cradle. I hadn’t recognized my culture because it helped me blend in with everyone else rather than making me stand out.

As I spent more time outside my native place I became more comfortable. I learned my way and place with new groups, still I found myself more comfortable more quickly, with those who came from the same place I did. I found I could relate quicker to those who went snowboarding not out of some X Games adrenaline quest, but simply because it was what we always did. It was what everyone did. I am very in tune with my own mortality, so much so that while I snowboard, I avoid the half pipe at all costs. Those who only know of snowboarding from the movies or ESPN2 have trouble understanding this, or even believing it. I related to people who went camping for fun, because it was what we all did for fun. I was, and still am to some point, comfortable around others with this shared culture because they are more likely to understand little things about me. They are more likely to get past what I am to understand who I am.

At work I quickly became “the Mormon guy”, and rarely became anything more than that. I paint, read, write, travel, love to talk politics, love football, and love movies, but if my work associates ever tried to talk with me one on one, they never got much past “so you don’t drink at all? How many wives do you really have?”

Sometimes my culture brings me in direct conflict with the culture I live in. I will not eat at Hooters, I will not go to your bachelor party if it includes certain activities or locations, and sports or parties are not part of my Sunday. I find most people are respectful of who I am and what I believe, but they don’t understand it.

I have a deep and all encompassing culture and all throughout my youth I didn’t know it. I never saw it because it blended with everyone else. No one had to point out my culture because it was theirs as well.

That’s why it did not, nor does it upset me, that my wife wrote black on her list.

We white people don’t think our whiteness is part of who we are.

It is.

We don’t see it because largely, every one else we see is white too. Try going somewhere whites don’t go. A club, a neighborhood, an island, or even continent and see how long your whiteness remains a non-factor. It’s O.K., its part of who you are. Do it your whole life and see if it doesn’t begin to shape you.
See if you don’t begin to feel comfortable with those who also relate to being white when no one else is. See if you don’t enjoy the comfort of being with those who don’t need you to explain yourself. See if your color makes it’s way onto your list.

I know this now. Because I know this I am not upset or offended, nor am I afraid of or alienated by, a black person declaring they are black. I do not mind black kids sitting together at lunch, or mind that there is a channel or a caucus where race matters. I do not mind it and it is not inherently racist.

It’s O.K. To some point, I get it.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Robert E. Lee

(post with photographs can be viewed at
I once had a small handbook titled “How to Speak Southern.” Under the heading Robert E. Lee, the book had the definition, “The finest gentlemen to ever walk the face of the earth and greatest example of what it means to be Southern.” I believe it was the only part of the book not written in jest.

Robert E. Lee was born in 1807 at Stratford Hall, only a few miles from where George Washington was born, on the Chesapeake Bay. Lee was the product of Colonial gentry and his father was a revolutionary hero (Light horse Harry). Built in the 1730’s, the home remains enviable to this day. It is everything you would expect for the original Governor of Virginia and the very definition of “landed gentry.”

There is a fee to enter the grounds and when you do so they take some general information for their visitor’s log. When I told the man in the little booth my zip code he paused, “that’s Philadelphia isn’t it?”
Turns out he grew up 3 blocks from where I now live. He asked if the area has gotten any better to which I had to reply, “not really.” He knocked ten dollars off my admission.

The place is closed for winter renovations and I could see carpenters at work through the frosted windows. The brochures talk of how the estate was a self sustained village and center for colonial life. That looked as if it was true, with the palace in the center and village shacks surrounding it. Upon closer inspection all the small shacks were labeled “slave quarters.” The larger shacks or buildings were the stables and barn, or the detached, large, kitchen that served the main house.

I have often read of the struggle Lee had at the outbreak of the war, as to which side he would join. He was invited to lead the Union forces but declined in order to serve Virginia and become the most storied General in the Civil War. Looking at the grandeur of his childhood I wonder how much of an internal struggle he may have really had. Here, before me was a level of comfort I would never aspire to gain, but it was his heritage. Here I saw a way of life that anyone would hope to one day gain, but he had it before he entered this world. It was who he was.

It would have taken a remarkable person to join and fight for a side in which victory meant the destruction of the world from which he came. If the North prevailed, places like Stratford Hall would be unsustainable.

Then again, Lee would have had a front row seat to the horrors of slavery. Lee would have seen what it looked like to degrade another person for your own benefit. He would have sat at the table being served by people who were good enough to raise your children, but then beaten when displaying independent thought. How could someone who saw this first hand pick up the sword in order to defend the right to kill and maim another person without punishment?

Many will think me unfair in my thought process and wondering here. Many will say I cannot judge a man in history by present standards. Many will tell me to relax and temper my zeal.

None of those leveling that criticism will be black people. The ones descended from those who truly had the most at stake in Lee’s decision.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Booker T. and Perspective

Booker T. Washington
(see photos with this post at

I had driven an hour out of my way through winding country roads not passing any other motorists and finally reached the National Park around 7am. The sign announced the park would open at 8 and the gate wore a thick chain with matching padlock. It took a little bit of effort to crawl under the gate but I did so and started the mile walk up the road to the historic site.

Booker T. Washington was born a slave in 1856. He knew nothing of his father other than that he was a white man, a slave master from somewhere else. The plantation he worked was not the genteel manor like Monticello, but rather a simple and lonely tobacco farm some miles outside of Roanoke. Roanoke is closer to West Virginia than D.C. but not near anything.

On these sorts of plantations the owner and his family labor alongside the slaves. Booker tells of the day he heard the Emancipation Proclamation read from the porch of the “big house”; the one the master lived in. Booker did not stay but left to work in West Virginia that same year.

It had snowed earlier in the week and it crunched under my feet as I guided myself around the farm. It was not crisp, it was cold. The recreated cabin built on the foundation of Booker’s actual birthplace was small. Not small as in quaint but small in that the doors were shorter than I am.

I looked around at my surroundings. I could see no one or nothing other than the small collection of slave cabins, a ramshackle barn, the foundation of the “big house”, and the visitor center at the op of the hill. It was miserable.

Booker T. Washington was no descendent of our first president. He impulsively gave himself that last name once he finally attended school and realized everyone else had two names. I have read his works, thought about his philosophy and even lightly participated in the still ongoing debate between his and Du Bois’s ideas. I have usually sided with Du Bois. I have read and listened as he was criticized for being on the payroll of large white organizations while preaching concessions. I have disagreed with his “let’s just do the best we can with how things are,” leaning. I have always been in the Du Bois camp.

Standing in front of the building he lived in I was ashamed that I even had an opinion. I was tired having driven from West Virginia in bad weather, Washington had walked it.
I was born the child of parents who both had masters’ degrees, I coasted through school, and find some pride in that I worked my own way through college. That pride is gone.

Sometimes you have an intellectual knowledge of something. You read. Listen, and learn about history and ideas. You think critically and strain to come up with new ideas, better ideas, and progress. You can gain all this knowledge and learning and still not know anything. Standing there alone in the snow I felt something. I looked at a place that was worse than humble even in its own time period, and yet I have studied his writings 200 years later. What have I, or anyone I know, done worth studying 200 years from now? What would be expected from me if raised in this place? What would we expect from anyone? What were others able to do who came up similarly?
Mr. Washington turned schools into Universities. Mr. Washington stood up and spoke when others were content to listen. He thought and taught, and better yet, he did.

It doesn’t matter what I think of his ideas because 200 years later my kids, like him, have a white father and a black mother. But in some way thanks to him, my children’s lives and the circumstances of their creation are absolutely nothing alike.

I drove away without the radio on. I was still feeling things. I came to that place because of proximity to where I was and a sense of historical responsibility. I went there not as a real fan of the man. I left there touched. I, a person largely in control of my own emotions, was moved unexpectedly. I went, looked around, and left with a little perspective. That is what is missing in the debates of today, perspective. Not just the kind of perspective where one looks at things from all angles, but the kind that comes from feeling something. The kind that comes from the chest and not from text.

Happy Black History Month.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Kids and Race

“Mom. Who was Martin Lu… Martin Luf… Who was Martin…”

“Who was Martin Luther King?” Kay asked, anticipating the name our 5 year old was having trouble with. After having just had time off from school, lots of big dinners, presents, and decorations, our daughter is very interested in holidays. She knows she has a holiday coming up but she doesn’t know anything about it.

Kay told her that a long time ago black kids weren’t allowed to go to school with white kids and they couldn’t play together. My daughter stared at her Mom with mouth open and eyes wide.

Kay continued that white people could sit in the front of the bus, black people in back, white people anywhere in the movies, black kids only in the balcony. At this my little girl looked concerned and with pleading eyes asked, “where did the tan kids have to sit?”

Studies show that white people don’t talk to their kids about race. A group of parents signed their kids up for a study on children’s attitudes about race. Parents were asked their views on race, and black people in particular. All said their opinions were favorable. The kids of these same parents were asked if their folks liked black people. More than half said they didn’t know, the rest said ,”no”.

Turns out kids can see the difference in skin color, they don’t have to be told about it. At the same time kids figure out that we don’t talk about things that are bad.

The prevailing idea among many white people is that race does not matter. Not only does it not matter but it is best to ignore race as if it does not exist. Consequentially we talk to kids about candy, making their bed, home work, dreams, movies, crayons, friends, the difference between boys and girls, all sorts of good stuff.
We don’t talk to them about bad grown up stuff like death and sex. We don’t let them see scary movies and we cover their eyes when bad stuff comes on TV. We don’t talk about war and we don’t talk about black people.

Kay told how Martin Luther King gave a big speech that helped people realize that keeping everyone separate was wrong. She told how he helped get bad laws changed. Our little girl said, “oh, O.K.”, and went off to play.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Justice and it's system

I was in court again today, this time with the prosecution.

Before everything got started, the public defender addressed the crowd sitting with me in the gallery, “I am the court appointed defender. I am by myself today so please be patient. Do not worry if we have not spoken yet, I will get to you, and the court will give us time to talk before your case is heard. Though your case may be new to me, I am not new to this, and you will get a good defense.” He looked to be all of 25 years old.

The prosecutor who called me last night, to make sure I was still coming, was nervous. As we waited through the two hour roll call of cases she explained that this was her first theft case. Her bulldog of a partner was not nervous at all but rather in her element.
She rolled her eyes at the defense attorneys, exchanged knowing looks with all the police officers, and whatever she did, she did it abruptly.

The court made myself and all who were to testify in this case leave the room till it was their turn to take the stand. I found myself in a small waiting room with the three cops who caught the guy breaking into my car back in September.
“This guys gonna get off”, said the young, blonde, officer who had originally offered to let me have some “alone time” with the captive in the back of his squad car. “Why”, I responded.

He explained how he had seen it a million times. They catch people and always end up right back on the street for him to pick up again. “That’s why I always tell people that if they catch someone, to handle business themselves. We will say they fell down, or say whatever we have to, but if you want justice you need do it yourself. Besides, this judge is an @#$... they all are; lawyers and all”. At this last remark Officer Ramos looked over at him, then over at the fidgety prosecutor, and suggested, “present company excluded of course.” The blonde guy just stared back silently. “You’re an --- ----,” Ramos finished.

This disillusioned cop reminisced about a poster a Sr. officer once had in his office showing a picture of Commissioner Rizzo and a quote that read “No judge can administer justice as well as the end of a nightstick.” At this all three officers began to tell tales of how they miss the tool they are no longer allowed to carry. One even told of how once, while pursuing a suspect, another officer with one swipe of his wand, shattered both the suspect’s legs.

“Seriously?!” I inquired. “Tell me you have to be absolutely sure you have the right guy before doing something like that.” At this they all laughed out loud. The third officer, who had not previously spoken, told a story of how he had once joined a pursuit while off duty and in civilian clothes. He was ahead of the other cops, who quickly caught and beat him. He told the story while chuckling.
I asked What about catching the wrong guy? I asked if he had ever caught the wrong guy. After looking down at the desk for a moment, as if reflecting, he answered,”no”. He was serious.

The case was tried and the thief was found guilty of attempted theft and reckless conduct (he kicked out the tail light of the car while being arrested). As this was the defendant’s 33rd arrest and fifth conviction, he was given 2 years jail time. He was also ordered to pay restitution. When I asked the experienced lawyer how this restitution thing works she replied, “with this guy, he will probably leave a stolen radio on your porch every other month.” I don’t plan on seeing a dime.