Where White Racism is Really Nowhere
The Most Idiotic Neglect of All
I’m certain that my reaction at the end of today’s hideously obscene proceedings in the Tennessee State House was neither unique nor as solitary as it may have felt, burying my sobbing face within my dinner napkin, howling like an anguished baby.
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How can one attempt to process the turmoil of emotions that were provoked by that overt show of inverted morality and perverse justice? With a heavily lopsided Conservative majority, the Republican gentry decided to laugh in the face of all concern for needless, chronic and quite recent violent deaths of children (they’ve yet to be interred) and bring an authoritarian cudgel down in the most extreme way available to them. Why? To show that they could and would. To boot, lest there be any lingering uncertainty about whether racism played a crucial role in this gesture, they spared the one White among the Tennessee Three; two points were sharpened and followed by an impaling insidious third. It seemed almost too much to believe, and that is truly remarkable in this gas-lit age of psycho-indoctrinated Trumpism.
What remains to be inspected within the psychic reduction as the tears subside and the reality of this takes hold are a few encouraging sentiments and notions.
The first is that nowhere among these reactions is fear. I’m appalled, disgusted, repulsed and for the most part angry but, if there was any intent by those finger wagging, umbraged, spewing, steaming over pot bellied “not in here, boy” old guard to intimidate, foment regret or elicit self-doubt and fear of what more retaliation might be in store, their pageant of rude rebuke failed miserably— for themselves and their big-tent-of-torches party. No one was cowed.
The crystalline clarity and passionate fluidity with which undeniable and righteous points were expressed by the three “defendants” (especially Rep. Justins Pearce and Jones) answering for their “accused lack of decorum” was impressively indictive and obviously inarguable. As their eloquence rained down and about the chamber, I imagined malignant grumbling from dyspeptic bowels as cognitive shock recast misplaced hubris with haplessness that they had alas messed with the wrong people. A brazen smug tantrum of litigiousness was met head on by a smarter, more rational, more decent, more rightfully passionate and artfully convincing litany of hard truths than any of their donor class window dressers could ever pretend to be capable. And hundreds of thousands of the constituents of these now legislative martyrs are now all too aware of the untenable criminal travesty at their very doorsteps.
It is the Republicans in that State and throughout this Nation who are honestly becoming terrified. They are stingingly aware of the time, the numbers, the issues, the energy, the true power of the people (yes, it does surmount moneyed influence when all is put immediately “in the ring”) are all stacked against them. Hence, their only recourse are these merely transiently effective strong arm tactics.
But for a brief calm moment let’s put all that aside—the racism, the Critical Race Theories (put on abject display today more than anyone anywhere has recently managed), the hate, the privilege, the knee jerk greed, the back slapping good ol’ boy network. By the way, how sweet was that slap back from Sidney Poitier to the astonished patrician in In The Heat of the Night? We pretty much witnessed the verbal equivalent today, and we’ll continue to do so. A responding obverse judge’s FDA injunction, a lawsuit by the New York DA to meet an insolent congressional overreach; each instance will further replenish an ever more resolute democratic and law abiding populace fuel tank.
What to me is most egregious of all sins committed by the so-called privileged gentry in this nation hasn’t so much to do with persecution, victimization, social subjugation and all various forms of cruelty although all have informed our historical legacies within and without. It has to do with missed cues, misplaced egos and the clueless overlooking of a most profound gift.
The experience of every ethic/cultural diaspora in this land and throughout the world includes much adapting, resilience and courage. Read of immigrants’ plights, from any particular wave of relocation—the Irish, Jewish, Italian, Greek, Latin American, Indonesian, Asian, etc. you’ll surely appreciate the myriad obstacles, setbacks, dire circumstances and discouraging elements that were hopefully overcome through the confluence of human compassion, hard work and providence. You’ve perhaps heard the tales after they were handed down to you through multiple generations over many centuries. Perhaps. Maybe you’ve inferred what you’ve chosen into genetic records corresponding with municipal, federal or church ledgers and accounts. If one is inquisitive, the stories do reside somewhere along an epochal arch.
The Native tribes of this continent, albeit in the face of cultural erasure and systemic genocide can still find their ironically proximal parochial roots within cultural folklore as well as recorded history itself, as horribly rife with horror and tragedy as it may be.
These sagas often are at least meant to sing inspiration to us from the distant past.
The African American diaspora is, one the other huge hand, unique. The lineage back to the “old country” is now genetically available for some, as meager a resource as that may be, because the “American” branch of any particular tree can only reach back so far. The first African Americans were brought here in bondage, arriving as a commodity and sharing the same social status as livestock. That is mere fact. They were dispatched, against their informed will, and made the property of colonial landowners, farmers and proprietors. Although not unique to this continent, slavery has existed throughout history in many corners of the world, the system began here in the early 17th century (with the arrival of Europeans) and continued until the late 19th century. The social legacies are ingrained. The dynamic became manifest, and the transition from such a social paradigm to one of independence and coequal status is to this very day hobbled by understandable difficulties. One cannot abolish recriminatory sentiments overnight. One cannot relinquish the authority that subsumed the fear of the other as easily as clearing out a closet.
In Langston Hughes’ 1934 story collection The Ways of White Folks, ingenious portraits were drawn of the ridiculous dances of white largess, charitable accommodation displayed by ill-at-ease white people (and those too much at ease) in dealing with and participating in this particular “new society” which now “included” the free Black in “their” world. From side-show contextual framing to smug condescension, one squirmy uncomfortable scene after another creates a parade of clumsy attempts toward societal re-calibration rife with off-balance discomfort. We see and experience (and participate in) those nuanced situations regularly, wittingly or not. One of my favorite Hughes stories therein is The Blues I Play, a richly layered tale of social predicate and the bigotry of that wealth facilitated imperiousness that can lurk behind the guise of benefaction. I’ve encountered varying degrees of such a thing along my artistic path, but the most indelible encounter in my life was early and quite blessedly inverse to that social construct. I was lucky to have glimpsed true missionary work not only at my doorstep, but right beside me on the piano bench in the person of Marie Williams.
I grew up in a household in the relative South (Stafford County, Virginia) in the sixties. Through the eyes of friends, band-mates as well as those of a few housekeepers (yes, in the 60’s, most were “colored”, and we were, for the first 11 years of my life, middle class and “comfortable”. I also recall they were referred to as “maids”.) I beheld the changing cultural, societal, generational racial landscapes (See Minstrel Destinations in archives) in ways I still can only attempt to decipher and understand today.
Dorothy Washington came to our house on Fridays, and I would love to surprise her as she ran a vacuum downstairs in the early morning. Week after week, I’d leap out to see her smile and hear her laugh. I never visited her house, but I knew its neighborhood was called Mayfield and it lay east of downtown next to the race track and fairgrounds. I remember the morning after Robert Kennedy was killed (a mere 2 months after the assassination of Reverend King) her face appeared at our back door, not smiling and laughing but ashen and shaken. My mother looked up to see it, solemn and concerned. “Oh Mrs. Carroll”, she whimpered, “they’re gonna kill ‘em all”.
I still can’t touch what harsh setbacks those events delivered to Mrs. Washington and her family. I only saw it in a flash, as a momentary glimpse would be of an ever upbeat comedian sobbing backstage between shows. It was jarring and real, but at that moment, its origins and nature were foreign. I’ve later come to realize what an already unstable and slippery rug it was to be yanked from beneath Dorothy’s world during those months. I never knew if she had children.
I later became very close with Marie Williams, who came to our house after the death of my father that same year. A gospel pianist and singer, she and I would share joyful stories and enthused music at the keyboard when I returned from school on afternoons when it was just the two of us there. I’d play her some boogie-woogie, blues, an occasional classical piece I was learning with my white lady lessons, and she would play gospel hymns in black key signatures (I’d ask how she played so well in the then unthinkable key of Ab: “Oh, honey, I don’t know a G from a F to a H!”) and one day she played for the two of us—on the upstairs “good” stereo— a 45 rpm record she had made with another member of her congregation. I later learned that If I Can Help Somebody had recently become a hit by Mahalia Jackson, and they’d recorded a cover of it. She furthered the lesson by explaining that that was exactly what she was aiming to do for us in the wake of our recent loss. I certainly appreciated that, but I already loved her.
Marie then asked if I’d be interested in coming to her church and, after hearing the romping energy of her piano along with her friend’s Hammond organ underneath her beautifully soaring alto, I indeed was definitely so. She then frightened me a bit by sharing her plans to not only have me play piano but “then I want you to preach”. I halted. “Oh don’t worry, we have a minister that knows the scriptures. I would just like for you to play, then testify to the congregation that you’re grateful for the true gift that God has given to you, and that you’ll use it to help people.”
That all seemed pretty doable to me. She asked me before asking my mother, which she must have done on not the best of days, since I never again saw Marie Williams. Years later I asked my dying mother about her only to be told “Oh yeah…Marie…she had some crazy ideas.” I suppose those ideas sounded crazier to her than they did to me, but things were pretty adverse all over in 1968.
The music in the Catholic White churches of my youth was very different than the music in Marie’s Black Baptist one. There is soul in all sorts of music, but it’s Black gospel (like in Marie’s Baptist congregation) that’s stirred my heart and soul, and its subsequent incarnate forays into soul and R&B have always felt closest to my marrow. It’s liberating. It’s celebratory. It rises above and transcends the poisins that weigh my soul down. Things like hatred, subjugation, inequality, persecution and cruel obstacles that seem to have a certain aching permanence in this life. I know the textual history of Black America, but I’ll never…ever… know it first hand. What I do know first hand is the uplifting example of an outwardly ever-cheerful disposition that is coupled with a worldly awareness that there is not only evil and hardship in the world, but those things are ever close at hand, either within one’s memory or in one’s daily life. Yet, nevertheless…
Hypocrites come in all races, to be sure, but I’ve been blessed vicariously with the grace and ebullience I feel in the presence of gifted African-Americans. I’m lucky enough to know and spend creative time collaborating and celebrating our common humanity. The spiritual fortitude of the true faith I witness there can only render the lamentably fatigued and stale breathed midnight mass faux pageantry I shared in the pews of Anglo-American congregations as pathetic at worst and ridiculous at best. That the classic White evangelicalism has been successfully cultivated into hate-filled spiritual perversion is not confounding in light of the history of intellectually lazy fear-based mortal escapism. I know that first-hand, and endeavor in my own life to eschew it and seek, and accept, that which is true and undeniable—be it joy, pain and all else.
All I know is what I feel, and I know that thing is sometimes true grace. I’m inspired by its presence. It offers redemption within any moment. It bestows strength at times when I’d feared mine gone. It feels eternal, so I’m going with that.
That, finally, is the true travesty of White racist America. Don’t get it? I’m sorry. My words are inadequate, especially when compared to those fine young citizens who were given 20 minutes each today to bring their case to the state of grace.
I recall this, though, and I trust it may close a germane circle:
On June 17, 2015 in Charleston South Carolina, at a Bible study group at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, while the group began to pray, a man rose and opened fire on the people with whom he had just sat for nearly an hour. He killed 9 of them.
Later, at the jail, as the shooter faced the family of the victims, the daughter of Ethel Lance seized the opportunity. To renounce hate. She tearfully mourned how she will never see her Mother again, then stated wholeheartedly, honestly and gracefully, “I forgive you”.
The strength and spiritual resilience residing within the hearts and souls of folks such as she are all around us. We need only appreciate that for its essence, and accept it as truly profound inspiration.
Hateful racist whites have missed that boat, and choose to remain on a desolate island of fear and self-loathing. I reach for a well of forgiveness but it’s a challenge. This seems a season for passionate commitment and tenacious resolve. May we all remain open to the potential evolution of spirit. It will come eventually, inexorably. In the meanwhile, I choose to receive these gifts and in turn give what I can. To help people. And try and appreciate the African-American experience for the lessons of resilience it so generously and righteously displays. I hope to somehow instill it within and then pass it along. And I know with whom I’ll be standing. Keep the faith. Never quit.
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