Segregation Matters

My first summer in residence at the Akademie Schloss Solitude was the summer of Trayvon Martin. When I returned to the United States and was walking through the airport in Atlanta to catch my connecting flight, I noticed a middle-aged white woman wearing an “I am Trayvon Martin” hoodie. I was startled by this vision, but not frightened or intimidated by a white woman wearing a hoodie. She told me that she was wearing the hoodie to show solidarity with Trayvon Martin; she then said she understood completely what Trayvon Martin and every young black man goes through every day.

I said, “But you are white, right?”

She said: “Yes, but ‘we’ are all Trayvon Martin.”

I told her that I was not Trayvon Martin. I told her that he was a son, a real person, not simply a metaphor that you clicked liked for and went on with your life without changing how see you the lives of those who are living differently than the way we live our lives.

 She became agitated, called me a racist, and said that I should be ashamed of myself. I asked her if she had children, and she said that she didn’t. I told her I have three, a son and two daughters. I think of them every day. I miss them when I am not with them. I love them. But I do not worry about them every waking moment. I do not consciously worry about them being safe on their way home from school or from a friend’s house. I do not worry every waking moment of my life about them being stopped by a police officer, and replying in the wrong way. I do not worry about police stopping them for looking suspicious because they are wearing a hoodie or because they are walking through a neighborhood where people who are richer than us live. 

“Some things,” she told him, “just tear open at the seams.” And some things, Elgin thought to himself, tear you open at the seams, and where’s the needle for that? What can you do when the pieces themselves are all cracked? When each piece needs mending? (Here Lies Memory, Black Scat Books)

“Some things,” she told him, “just tear open at the seams.” And some things, Elgin thought to himself, tear you open at the seams, and where’s the needle for that? What can you do when the pieces themselves are all cracked? When each piece needs mending? (Here Lies Memory, Black Scat Books)

I cannot know the kind of worry that Trayvon Martin’s parents experienced every day of their lives. I have never experienced that kind of worry. I only imagine it would wear on a parent’s heart and soul. So, no, I am not Trayvon Martin. Nor am I Freddie Gray. Sandra Bland. Eric Gardner. And unfortunately this list goes on. And on. And on.

When I was a teenager I walked home after work from the Fox Trot Inn on Perry Highway in the suburbs north of Pittsburgh. At 2:30 AM nearly every morning, I walked from the Fox Trot to my parents’ house. Sometimes I would run home as one of my daily workouts for cross-country, so that I could sleep in the next day. I did this for years. I was never once stopped by the police. Police cruisers did occasionally drive past me, but they never bothered with me, even when I was running through the neighborhoods, sometimes taking shortcuts through people’s yards. Perhaps I was running so fast that I was invisible.

Occasionally white people tell me they feel threatened by the Black Lives Matter movement. (By the way, Black Lives Matter is more than a slogan, and it is more than a reaction to one incidence of violence. There is something very real at stake in this for Black people living their lives every day in America.) White friends of mine tell me that their white lives matter, too, and that they feel excluded when they hear people say Black Lives Matter, and they feel that by Black people saying that Black Lives Matter that Black people are disrespecting white lives. This is equivalent to people arguing that there should be a white history month because there is a Black (of African American) History Month.

Do this experiment: Walk outside. Stand on your front porch or stoop or in your yard. See what you see. Understand not everyone has the same view as you do each morning, every day. I lived in Oak Park, right off MLK for years. Every morning I sat on my porch, drinking coffee, seeing my neighborhood. One day, I woke up to a SWAT team removing a family in handcuffs, mother, father, children, with their riffles and so on pointed at them. I knew this family. I had spoken to them many times. The police were at the wrong address. Other mornings, evenings, police helicopters flew low overhead making announcements, police cars on street corners nearly every day. Now, I stand on my front porch, and I see trees, a river, coyotes and foxes. I hear silence. What we fill our eyes with everyday and the sounds that invade us each day, to a large extent make us who we are. These sounds and these sights are constant reminders.

Johnny looked over his grandfather’s shoulder, out the window onto Dinwiddie Street, out over the buildings to the city. There were more and more darkened houses on the street, abandoned and dilapidated houses that, at one time, had been homes. Broken door- ways. Boarded-up windows. Broken glass in what little yellowed and burned grass survived the humidity of the dry summers in Pittsburgh. (Here Lies Memory, Black Scat Books)

Johnny looked over his grandfather’s shoulder, out the window onto Dinwiddie Street, out over the buildings to the city. There were more and more darkened houses on the street, abandoned and dilapidated houses that, at one time, had been homes. Broken door- ways. Boarded-up windows. Broken glass in what little yellowed and burned grass survived the humidity of the dry summers in Pittsburgh. (Here Lies Memory, Black Scat Books)

My aim is not to provide excuses for black behavior or to absolve blacks of personal responsibility. But when the new black conservatives accent black behavior and responsibility in such a way that the cultural realities of black people are ignored, they are playing a deceptive and dangerous intellectual game with the lives and fortunes of disadvantaged people. We indeed must criticize and condemn immoral acts of black people, but we must do so cognizant of the circumstances into which people are born and under which they live. By overlooking these circumstances, the new black conservatives fall into the trap of blaming black poor people for their predicament. It is imperative to steer a course between the Scylla of environmental determinism and the Charybdis of a blaming-the-victims perspective.
— Cornell West

And now Black people are speaking out. Their pain is tearing apart their ribs, opening their skin, their wounds, their mouths. We must listen. No matter how progressive many of us whites feel we are; we never seem to get it that there are times when it is best to shut up and listen. To truly listen, not to simply be quiet, waiting for our turn to talk, but to listen with stillness, with patience, with a devotion to hear. To experience the words and the lives of those who speak to us. Too often the voices, the stories of Black people are silenced by well-intentioned, progressive whites speaking over the voices of the Black woman or the Black Man or the Black child. Other times, their voices are silenced in more direct and hostile ways. Claiming that “all lives matter” is a way of silencing the experiences of Black people who live differently than we do. Who laugh differently. Who love differently. Who celebrate differently. Who breath differently.

Yes, he had heard it all his life, but it was only now that his ears were opened to this sound that came from darkness, that could only come from darkness, that yet bore such sure witness to the glory of the light. And now in his moaning, and so far from any help, he heard it in himself—it rose from his bleeding, his cracked-open heart. It was a sound of rage and weeping which filled the grave, rage and weeping from time set free, but bound now in eternity; rage that had no language, weeping with no voice—which yet spoke now, to John’s startled soul, of boundless melancholy, of the bitterest patience, and the longest night; of the deepest water, the strongest chains, the most cruel lash; of humility most wretched, the dungeon most absolute, of love’s bed defiled, and birth dishonored, and most bloody, unspeakable, sudden death. Yes, the darkness hummed with murder: the body in the water, the body in the fire, the body on the tree. John looked down the line of these armies of darkness, army upon army, and his soul whispered: Who are these? Who are they? And wondered: Where shall I go?
— James Baldwin

The one thing I know (and I have known this since I was young and running around shooting hoops and other such things along Fifth Avenue in the Hill District of Pittsburgh and West North Avenue on the North Side of Pittsburgh) is that I am white, and being white, I will never know what it is like to wake up with black skin in America. I will never know that experience. I will never know that experience. I will never know that experience.

In grade school, elementary school, and high school, I had all white teachers. In college, I had all white professors and one Indian professor, in my first two Master’s programs, I had all white professors, and while studying for my PhD, I had nearly all white professors. How about you? This matters.

I once asked a class of my university students how many had friends of a different race over to their apartments or homes regularly? One student, a white student, came up to me after class and said she never realized that all of her friends were white until this discussion. It did not necessarily surprise me that she did not have any Black friends. It did, however, surprise me that she did not see that she did not have any. It is like an extreme case of color-blindness of the type where people say that they do not see skin color and that they do not care if someone is black or white or green or purple. After that same discussion, an African American student said that while she had friends on campus who were white, none of them, or any other white person, had ever come to her home.  How are we to see if we do not become conscious of our daily lives?

Walking with a Black friend down Valencia Street in the Mission one evening before a reading, a police siren went off behind us. He twitched a little and took a quick glimpse over his left shoulder. I have seen these reactions with Black friends on the North Side and in the lower Hill District of Pittsburgh as well. Reactions I have never experienced. And what is this hope that this moment, this experience, will change?

A Baltimore social worker, one who created a place for children and older boys and girls to play and to learn in East Baltimore, was asked: What is your curriculum?

She replied simply: To keep kids alive.

None of my teachers worked within such a curriculum.

We need to be conscious of difference. Celebrate difference. Be awake.

I want to be clear that I am not writing about any one incident of violence that we have seen happening.  I am writing about either our unwillingness, or our inability, to see how segregation, which continues today, affects our sense of our own identities and of the identities of others who are different from us. And this stretches out to much of what is happening today in terms of race.

I hope we begin to address this. Soon. 

My mother is 85 years old. Not one single Black person has ever been in her home. Not one. She has never had a meaningful conversation with a Black person in her life. Yet, she has a lot to say about Black people. We need to become conscious of the lives we are living, so we can begin to see and listen to people living lives differently than we do. And we need to act.

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