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Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Song and the Silence and Not Screwing This Up

I thought for a minute that I wouldn't write a single word of my own this time, because I pulled enough quotes from the book I read that it could be a post in itself. That's how I justify writing about all the stuff I write about anyway. I make my jokes and metaphors and airtight arguments, but it's all in service of the book I read, right? Like this is definitely not about me, because I mean haha like we need another white guy telling everyone what to think about race and sexism and domestic abuse. Really I'm like read this book.

Right? I definitely don't expend the vast majority of every post telling stories about me and explaining how much I get it and if you guys had only read the books I've read we'd agree about everything. And certainly, certainly, have I never just kind of shoehorned the book in at the end because the point I was trying to make was only tangentially related to it anyway.

Boosting the voices of women and people of color, that's what a good ally does. Not making it about him. Not wasting paragraph after paragraph justifying my existence in a world in which the majority of voices look just like me except usually with hair. O the eternal plight of the white man! To be told all his life that he is special by every TV show, school teacher, and video game but faced daily with his own mediocrity! Why does my blog not have more views, our heroic white man says. Is not my voice unique? Is it not noteworthy? Should I not be praised simply for existing?

Honestly I kind of just talked myself out of writing a blog ever again just then. Oof. This is really awkward. Is this journey of mine of constantly learning and hoping that what I'm learning is of value to someone, and especially hoping that someone will read the book I read, reach out to me and say, "Hey Howie. You exist and I exist and this book exists and isn't it nice to just say that out loud sometimes?" Answer: maybe? I don't know.

Here's what I do know: the more I read about the history of Blacks in the United State of America the more overwhelmed I get. It's really something, this society we've built on the backs of at least one entire race (after stealing it from another). And when they didn't work hard and fast enough we whipped and beat them. And when they fell in love we separated them. And when they had children and were instantly smitten with their babies and thought what love is this? I hardly knew it was possible we took their babies from their arms forever.

They thought about their babies, obviously, because that's what human beings do. But instead of imagining what phenomenal things they would accomplish and make them proud, instead they thought about them slaving in a field at 8 years old. Already knowing the sting of a whip and the fear of death.

I imagine a lot of people don't want to talk about this anymore. There's a history of that. Let's get to the book so I can talk about it. So. Because Yvette Johnson--author of The Song and the Silence--had an NFL football player for a dad, she grew up in a wealthy white neighborhood. Her friends were all White and they were the token Black family. Her dad played for the Chargers, so everyone loved him. Johnson's mom grew up dirt poor in Greenwood, MS, and was hyper aware of race, but Yvette consciously chose not to acknowledge it.

When she learned about the civil rights era at school, it was with a similar kind of distance that I did. Which is kind of an acknowledgment that the time before it was probably pretty bad, but also that things were OK now and it's probably not worth dwelling on it anymore. Remember Remember the Titans? But now there are lots of Black football players so yay!

When Yvette was ignored by the woman at the makeup counter who offered a makeover to every other woman who entered, she assumed it was because she wasn't dressed as nicely as the other women there. At this point she would sometimes spend $1,000 on a single outfit. So one day she dressed up just to prove her point.
I moved closer to the woman at the counter so I'd be ready to accept her offer when she made it. But she didn't offer me anything. Instead, she awkwardly adjusted her body so she could look past me and then motioned to another woman, "Free makeover." I wanted to believe the best. This was not about race. Somehow she just wasn't noticing that I was interested. 
I stood in front of her, smiled, and said, "Hi, I'd like a makeover."
Her persona of crisp excellence and warmth fell away in an instant. She let her shoulders sag, rolled her eyes, and said, "If I give you a makeover, you're going to have to buy something.
She got a makeover, bought a ton of makeup, and walked away proud. "My mom would've made that interaction about race. I refused to do so." She starts to blame her mom every time something comes up that makes her think that racism still exists. "I could be free from whatever ailed my mother and the rest of my family because I wasn't going to wear my race like a martyr's cloak. I was beyond race."

So that's the background. That's the status quo. And with good literature something is going to happen to Yvette that upsets that status quo and sets her on a path from which there is no return. That inciting event comes about when she talks to her grandmother while researching for a family history course in college. She learns about Booker Wright, her grandfather, a man who owned a restaurant during the day, and worked in a whites-only restaurant at night. Booker, it turns out, had a part in the civil rights movement himself, but a unique one.

That clip was part of a documentary called Mississippi: A Self Portrait, by Frank DeFellita. It aired only once, but that clip stuck with people. Because it was never re-broadcast, it disappeared and was only known by its reviews, the majority of which talked about this scene.
When Booker appeared in Frank's documentary, he set alight a fire of compassion in the souls of complete strangers throughout the nation. He didn't speak about voting rights or access to public spaces, as important as those issues were--instead he won them over with his vulnerability. He stood in front of a camera and revealed the deepest parts of himself as if he believed that if people could really see him, really understand what it felt like to be Black in his world, that it would arouse in them not just sorrow but indignation and a commitment to action as well.
Only after Johnson blogged about it did the clip come back to light. The filmmaker's son reached out to her and asked if she wanted to make a new documentary about her grandfather, which brought her back to the Mississippi Delta, specifically the town of Greenwood.

This is the most synopsis I've ever written for a blog post. I got carried away. It's such an interesting story. Johnson goes back and forth between her own life and her telling of Booker's. This might be a huge surprise to you, but it turns out that there are parallels.
Maybe if they'd been living in a different time, the Whites of Greenwood might have been able to better connect with the national conversation on race. Unfortunately the message Greenwood Whites received from this national fervor was not one of compassion for Blacks and concern for their civil rights. Instead, filtered through local leaders with segregationist agendas, the message impressed on many Whites living in the Delta was that it was once again time to fight. Just like in the war for Southern Independence lost less than a century before, outsiders from the North were once again trying to change the South. Only this time, it was hippies and communists who were coming into their towns to recklessly rip away and destroy the sense of magic and community they'd labored to create.

When describing the Blacks who were determined to integrate the Lefore Theater and the Whites who didn't want it integrated at all, Sara referred to them as two "groups who were trying to stir up trouble," making life difficult for the "decent respectable citizens" of Greenwood. 
Sara loved her family, wanted to protect it, and had dreams for her children. Like many others in her community, she seemed blind to the simple fact that Blacks had the same dream.
Sara Miller is a local woman who wrote a journal in 1990 for her family that Johnson quotes often. Her experience as a white woman in Greenwood tells the story of an idyllic, near perfect town of her childhood and a roiling, dangerous one during the civil rights movement.
"Every year," Sara Miller wrote in her memoir, [Fountain's] would put a large curtain over the side window until Thankgiving afternoon, when they opened it for everyone to see what the new toys were that year."
Her daughter, who decided to publish Miller's memoirs, added her own take:
"Greenwood and the Mississippi Delta, in the 1920s, was a harsh and brutal place for many of its inhabitants, white and black, but... for Sara, looking back from 1990 to her childhood, Greenwood was a magical town, set squarely in the center of the universe, and peopled by kind and quirky characters."
Let's go back to that first quote: in it she says that Blacks who wanted to go to a movie and the ones who used violence to stop them were both "groups who were trying to stir up trouble." This was a situation so volatile that when one white family decided they didn't care that the theater was not integrated, they'd watch a movie anyway, their house was shot at. I feel like I've heard talk like that somewhere recently. If only I could place it.

Greenwood, like many towns in the South, was a great place to live, if you were white. Mississippi southerners liked it that way. In DeFillita's documentary, and unnamed white man puts it this way:
"And this thing became a moral issue... Now this was quite a traumatic experience for us in the South, and I think it was for the rest of the nation, to be told all of a sudden that what you've been doing, what you've been believing in, the way you've been living all your life, and the way your parents lived before you and forebears, is not only wrong but immoral is quite a shock, and unfortunately it's easy to understand why the attitude of Mississippi to this new order of the day, this new change, was one of inflexibility and one of defiance."
For Blacks, Greenwood was a very different place. In Greenwood a 14-year-old boy named Emmett Till was visiting family. He was falsely accused of making lewd gestures and remarks to a white woman in a candy store. His mother had told him that in the South it was dangerous to be black. She said "to be very careful… to humble himself to the extent of getting down on his knees." But Till was from Chicago, and a teen, and visiting family. Maybe he didn't act as humble as the locals thought he should. We'll never know what set them off, but man.
The teenager was abducted at gunpoint from his great-uncle’s home on this day, Aug. 28, 60 years ago, by two white men who accused him of having whistled at a white woman in a grocery store. His body was found in the Tallahatchie River three days later. He had been brutally beaten and shot in the head. 
An all-white jury acquitted the defendants (the husband and brother-in-law of the woman who complained about Till), who later confessed to the killing in a raw, unremorseful interview with Look magazine. One said that they had intended only to beat the teen, but decided to kill him when he showed no fear — and refused to grovel. 
“Well, what else could we do? He was hopeless,” J.W. Milam, the woman’s brother-in-law, is quoted as saying. “I'm no bully; I never hurt a [n-----] in my life. I like [n-----s] — in their place — I know how to work 'em. But I just decided it was time a few people got put on notice. As long as I live and can do anything about it, [n-----s] are gonna stay in their place.” - Time Magazine
Greenwood got so bad, Martin Luther King, Jr. sent a telegram to John F. Kennedy specifically to address the growing tension.

A man from Greenwood's local White Citizen's Council murdered a civil rights activist 100 miles south in Jackson.
Medgar Evers was getting out of his car and preparing to walk into his Jackson, Mississippi home. His wife and children were heading toward the front door to greet him when Byron De La Beckwith, a prominent member of the Greenwood community, shot Evers in the back in his driveway while his children were on their way out to greet him. 
The following year, De La Beckwith was tried twice for the murder of Medgar Evers, with both efforts ending in hung juries. Mississippi's White community continued to support him. His bond and legal defense were funded by the White Citizens' Council, the group that was determined to stop integration, and the former governor of Mississippi interrupted one of the trials to shake De La Beckwith's hand.
When Johnson returns to Greenwood in 2012, she finds it still almost completely segregated. As schools integrated, Whites fled to private schools, leaving the public schools unfunded and ignored. Blacks flocked to White businesses they'd always wanted to frequent, but Whites did not return the favor, leading to economic collapse of Black industry. As more and more horrible stories emerge, she starts to feel her mother's anger. "...there were times when I felt as if I was drowning," she says. "I didn't want to read anymore, I didn't want to see even one more photo of a Black person being beaten, but I couldn't stop."
Their lives were compounded by one trauma after another: the daily trauma of racial abuse, and the physical trauma of being beaten without cause. I stumbled upon an article about the long-term effects of trauma and how repeated emotionally traumatic events can influence an individual's biochemistry, causing not only psychological scars but also chemical changes that influence how someone interacts with their environment. These chemical changes can imprint themselves on genetic code, allowing the remnants of trauma to be passed down from generation to generation. 
My head was spinning.
The study she references could be this one, in which traumatic experiences altered the DNA of mice. Or it could be this one, in which 32 holocaust victims' DNA linked increased stress disorders to their children. The point is that even if racism was completely eliminated from everyday life (which it totally hasn't been), even then the effects would continue for multiple generations.
Creating new laws was only the beginning. Civil rights legislation couldn't keep one group from devaluing another; it couldn't stop them from maintaining distance and nurturing ideas that only served to deepen division. No law is complex enough to address the myriad, nuanced ways in which a group of people can be systematically held back, degraded, and quietly denied the right to a life of respect, safety, prosperity, and peace.
I hope I boosted Yvette Johnson's message a little. Sorry this post didn't have as much me in it. I'm just so sick of this. I'm sick of racists thinking that they are winning and feel brave enough to openly declare themselves. And I'm sick of presidents who say that the people who are fighting for equal rights and those who are using phrasing, symbology, and hand signals that were used by a political party that murdered 6 million people just because of their race are both to blame when a young woman and two police officers lose their lives.

We're all going to remember this time. It feels big. Will it be an annoyance? Will it make us uncomfortable when players who have experienced racism first hand for their whole life kneel during the national anthem? Do our children hear us complain and say, "Why don't they just play football like the good white people pay them to do?" Will we wring our hands, like the citizens of Greenwood, and say they are making life difficult for "the respectable citizens?" Will our grandkids say that we were products of our time and did the best we could? I bet they won't. We have way too much evidence that we should have known better. The memes alone will damn us.

Good night everybody. Let's not screw this up.