“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.” George Washington Carver
In some ways, we all share the same history. Histories are interwoven. No one person lives a solitary history, yet one person can claim a history as their own. Historians have called it a quilt, a melting pot, a cycle, a river, a tree, a labyrinth, a pathway. I’m not sure any of these have done it justice. I almost want to call my idea of history a garden. I believe this because in order for a garden to grow, it must grow together in the square patch it has been built. However, one drought, one “bad apple,” one certain pesticide, one rodent, can ruin that small, homely-built wealth that’s trying to be cultivated. And plants grow towards both light and voices. They lean with the life that surrounds them. If they’re given love, they’re watered, maybe even they listen to some soft classical; they thrive.
My own history is both wicked and profound.
At least two of my great-great-greats were confederate soldiers out of Georgia. Few people could read in their homes. One may have owned slaves.
While I can’t understand this history from just looking at documents, I do understand that this part of history is a part of my garden of history. My future existence depended on the people in that frame. I do not know them, I can only see army medical records and dig at Louisiana State University for love letters, I do not know if they fought to keep slavery alive, if they believed in the hoopla of the Southern way, if they followed a religiously democratic majority, if their brothers were fighting and they took up arms, if the choice was their own. I can’t even speculate.
What I can say is that I will never be silent about this part of my history.
In a recent survey out of NY Mag, Sean McElwee makes the claim that millennials may be just as intolerant as the older generations, but because they believe that racism no longer exists (to an extent of noticeability) in America, that they have no need to discuss race and race relations. In fact, Gene Demby, backed up this point on NPR this weekend by stating a few of the following statistics:
- [In a discussion about millennials thinking a color blind world would be a better one] “most of those respondents said they also grew up in homes where they didn’t talk about race at all.”
- “A big study from the Public Religion Research Institute from last year showed that three-quarters of white people had entirely white friend circles”
- “…Because they’re not interacting nearly as much as we would like to think that people are these days.”
I use the they because while I’m a millennial by definition, I believe something entirely different than these surveys show. I believe race should always be a discussion. I know that I will never understand or know the struggle of raising a young black man. I know that I will never be able to undo the fact that until the 1950s, African American people were not allowed to own houses, and were practically shunned from the business world. When my best friend, who is mixed (and was called an Oreo by his white friends, and a boy who “acted white” by his black friends in high school) watched a Katy Perry video he nonchalantly said, “she’s so cute with her insistence on promoting black culture,” but then when Nicki Minaj does a similar pop anthem, with just as much ass as Katy Perry displays boob (weapons) it is hated by the critic community, and by white parents who would gladly buy Katy’s pop-pink album off the Target shelf.
If you asked Taylor Swift (who I adore) who invented twerking (as she – most purposefully I believe – placed an African American woman at the head of the twerking line as she crawls beneath their legs in “Shake it Off”) would she claim Miley Cyrus as the winner or acknowledge that New Orleans is the first place that the word was heard.
There are so few television shows about African American families that Deadline wrote an article claiming that the “Ethnic casting trend has hit its peak in 2015” which I’m not sure is doing good by acknowledging the racial gap on television, while simultaneously using the word “ethnic” in a sentence which makes “ethnic” sound “non-american,” or “other.” The Daily Beast had to criticize Empire for showing blacks as criminals. Pink is the New Blog wrote a whole blog on whether or not white audiences would watch Black*ish calling into question the idea that a white girl who may watch every single other Housewives of, will refuse to watch Atlanta because the show features only black castmates.
Let me tell you what though, NeNe Leaks can rule the world.
Diane Rehm discussed racism, the confederate flag, and gun violence in America, on one of her shows this past week and it was one of the most educational radio hours that I’ve heard in a long time (in general). In the talks, it was determined that racism was not dead. One man called in claiming the confederate flag was a deeply rooted part of his heritage as a Southerner. However, this flag was used not once, but twice as a weapon of propaganda against African Americans. The first time, as a symbol of the confederacy during the Civil War, which if the South would have won, the entire existence of the United States would have failed to be a union and who knows where we would be as a developed country. Propoganda number two as a weapon against the Civil Rights Movement, popping up precisely after the horrifying deaths of the four Birmingham girls. Finally, finally, after not one single Republican candidate was able to openly state that they believe the confederate flag should be removed from the South Carolina capitol, the Senate in SC has called for removing the flag. They have a freaking confederate museum in Charleston anyway, just put the flag there.
But now, to me, this flag is a symbol of keeping a certain people down. It’s a hateful reminder of a past that no one is trying to erase, but people are trying to overcome, to do better, to be understanding, to acknowledge the importance and the struggle of African Americans in American culture, but not further this struggle by flying a cloth of propaganda.
Woo, got a little political there, sorry.
What I’m trying to say with all these links, and facts, and things that probably only two people will get through, is that racism has not ended. We can all, always do better. I taught for the last three years in a predominately African-American school and I will continue to do this at my new school. I can say honestly that I have loved my students regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, or views on the world. They are growing, learning, and understanding. I can honestly say that if a large black man is walking on my side of the road that I will not cross in fear, or in generalization, but I will wave and smile.
Does this mean that I don’t joke with my best friend Seth about black people time, or that he didn’t text me yesterday and tell me that USC is “100 years of white people money?” No, it doesn’t mean that. I have work to do and I’m willing to acknowledge it, but I think it starts with a conversation.
I think about what happened in Charleston, and I can’t deny that I felt that the city was racist just on principal. There’s a three-story Forever 21 on the curb of a street where cobblestones were laid by forced labor only one-hundred and fifty years ago. The lack of respect that this city has for its rich history and heritage kind of made me sick, but what makes me sicker is that a twenty-one year old boy was convinced of white power from a computer screen. What makes me the sickest is that he considered not killing those people because of their very kindness, a kindness that all races try to instill in their children and hope that it sticks, the way kindness is a honeysuckle stem.
In order to start the conversation (like those nine other paragraphs I just wrote weren’t heated starters), here are a few books in different categories that I believe really reach across racial gaps and made me look inside myself to see the ways that I needed to learn.
Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison: If anything, just read the first chapter. The phlegm disgust in your throat afterwards should teach you something.
- Native Son – Richard Wright: I just think this has to be on the list. Period.
- A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry: I never really understand the housing situation that faced African Americans across the US, but specifically Chicago in this play, until I read this book. It has so many race relations, gender, relations, and just a group of characters that are working on discovering where they fit in a culture that is constantly trying to shove them into a hole. Even within the family, there are relations that show how this discovery varies between genders, and varies between African-American cultural identity.
- There Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston: In our school library, Zora Neale Hurstons biography was labeled “Ethnic Section” and wasn’t removed from this category until she was being given away in the front of the library. I grabbed her up and kept the sticker because I think it’s important to see how ideas are changing and broadening. Please just read this book if only because it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read and Zora Neale Hurston was a character of a human being who died in utter poverty with an unmarked grave until her work was rediscovered later after her death.
Toni Morrison in general. Read everything the woman ever wrote. When you’re finished, read Sula again.
- Virgin Soul – Judy Juanita: This book is newer than most books on this list. It tells the story of a woman in the 1960s Black Panther Movement. She’s forced to the fringe of the movement due to her gender, but it’s a worthy read just for her interior struggle. It’s a good pairing with Malcolm X speeches.
- Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck: I think the most important storyline in this book is between Lennie and Crooks, because Lennie is mentally-impaired and he shows nothing but adoration towards Crooks, yet the other members of the Steinbeck tribe looked on Crooks as an other, all those, you know, mentally-average people.
- To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee: Because how can you discuss race without discussing this book.
- Salvage the Bones – Jesmyn Ward: The most tension I’ve ever felt in a book. The storms coming, the air is thick and ornery.
- Othello: Every book list needs a Shakespeare.
- White Teeth – Zadie Smith: Hated this book, love what it stands for, love Zadie Smith.
Brown Girl Dreaming – Jacqueline Woodson: It’s poetry that’s real, and current, and just won a Newberry Medal.
- Chains (Series) – Laurie Halse Anderson: It tells a story of slavery in a beautiful way. Laurie Halse Anderson is the Taylor Swift of YA. She can do no wrong in my eyes.
- The Bluford Series – Paul Langan: My students would hate it if I made this list without this series on it. They straight stole them off my bookshelf and devoured them.
- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – Betty Smith: It’s one of my Mom’s favorites.
- Black Boy – Richard Wright: This book literally hurt my heart. It was so hard to read. I would pick it up and read three pages and have to put it down. It took me WEEKS to read. Its importance in the discussion is outweighed by none.
A Lesson Before Dying – Ernest J. Gaines: I think this is nonfiction, but I’m not one hundred percent now that I think about it. Ernest Gaines could sell you a car that doesn’t even work. His writing is beautiful and meaningful and everything.
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander: Truth is sometimes hard to read, but it’s even harder when it’s not in the past and you’re living it.
The Essentials of Etheridge Knight– Etheridge Knight: Because he can tell you how he’s “feeling fucked up.”
- Blood Dazzler – Patricia Smith: Because even if she just watched the news from her comfortable home to write this collection, the feeling is a damn hurricane in your soul.
- Head Off and Split – Nikki Finney: It has nursery rhymes that you can’t even speak anymore after reading the poems.
- Langston Hughes – Whether you’re young or your old. He matters.
- Lucille Clifton – Because she has the first hips that I ever wanted.
Countee Cullen – This was the first poet that I ever used that had the n-word (and we say ninja in my classroom because I can’t handle much else) written on the page.
- Claude McKay – His name might be the most used name in textbooks for American Lit (that or Whitman, and what does that tell you).
- Natasha Tretheway – Poet Laureate 2012.
While I wish this battle was over, and I wish that each race in America, each race listed on the census and each person that has to bubble-in “other” and write their race out, was equal, I can’t actually say that and believe it. We have a world of work to do, and lucky for us, we have a lifetime, and the ability to teach the next generation. There is always power in knowledge, power in forgiveness, and power in discussion. Anyone who comes to my table with an open-mind, I will greet them likewise and we will begin both bare, and plain-spoken.