IT WILL ALWAYS BE ABOUT RACE…

 

march on wash. monu
Intelligence favors the truth

“Why does it always have to be about race?”

I was asked this question 25 years ago by one of my 10th grade English students. Classroom discussion had turned to the notorious O.J. Simpson case. Interest in this high-profile murder trial had found a willing population in this small-town, filled with the hero worship of football fanatics. To some students, Orenthal James Simpson was the hero they wished they could be. While for other students, regurgitating family dinner table comments from the night before, the trial became a low-road referendum on why beautiful white women should not marry black men.

For a split second, I felt trapped by the question. I knew, as the only African American teacher in the building, my usual faculty lounge equal opportunity to (my opinion) approach wasn’t going to work. I looked at my students, who were quiet and waiting for my response.

“Race relations, in this country,” I said, “are like a deep wound that scabs over too soon. Sometimes that scab is pulled off because the wound has not healed”.

My analogy held, at least – until the bell rang.  

The longer I live the more I’ve come to realize just how close to the truth I’d gotten with my off-the-cuff analogy of racism. The United States of America is a beautiful and large 50-part body. But it is a body that, when undressed, is blemished with many big and small bandages that have been hastily applied over the decades to staunch the bloody flow of recollection.

I grew up in a time of hope in spite of the assassinations of President Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X; flawed heroes to be sure but the flaws did not erase the passionate messages they left in their combined wakes. These messages offered a hope that sprung eternal in many African-American hearts. It certainly did in mine. In 1969 I marched across Compton High’s graduation stage to receive my diploma; a piece of paper weighted with hope for my future in college and beyond. I am the recipient of the economic infusion that came as reparation in the aftermath of black protests of the mid-60’s. I was twelve at the time of the Watts Rebellion. My speech at my 9th grade graduation was titled “Where do We Go From Here?” But by the time I had reached 12th grade I still had no idea what I wanted to do or be. I just knew I was moving forward. And with money made available through grants and low interest loans, I was going to college – with hope.  Hope propelled me through a time when it appeared this country had come face-to-face with its past inhumanity. When we made tracks from the back of the bus to the outer limits of space. Hope filled my heart when I looked closer at the pictures and the black and white faces of those marching across bridges and standing at the Lincoln Memorial listening to a man’s wish for his progeny and their ultimate place at the table of humanity. But my heart was never so full of hope as it was when I witnessed Barack Obama sworn in as the first African-American president of these United States.

For most of us, there was a collective hope in 2009. There was hope that this country could heal and become more than a culturally loose affiliation of wounded states. But all the hopes and dreams of those working to keep the conversation alive, could not survive the biggest blow to the empire – the resurrection, the reemergence of the bare-knuckled fist of America’s Manifest Destiny now dressed in the regalia of white supremacy. Manifest Destiny was the belief that early America was fated, ordained to expand her influence and supremacy no matter the land and lives of her indigenous people. This first and largest wound to America’s still young and vibrant body came from the lie that white European men were superior in intellect and desire. It was a lie supported by political attitude and weaponry. The spread of the propaganda of Manifest Destiny sowed the seeds of white supremacy into stolen soil.

It is true, history is written by the winner. That whites should reap the benefits of a stolen land and take on the virtues of an annihilated people is an idea hard-baked into 20th Century white supremacy.  Even today, the prevailing white power structure continues to gore the body of America in its failure to recognize the Native American as worthy, even human.

Growing a sturdy body, like building a durable nation, requires a strong and stable foundation. That this country began with land theft and the genocide of its native people should have been a dire warning to Jefferson and the other “founding fathers.”  But it wasn’t. And when the need arose for a larger labor force, African people were imported. Bought and sold like chattel, the African’s rich dark skin and foreign tongue further failed to invoke any humanity in their overseers.  That Hitler used the American institution of slavery as a blue print for his holocaust was not surprising. Slavery was profitable. It was the slave who enriched the new world beyond measure. And it was the white male who took credit for this young country’s elevated economic standing. Everyone profited from yet another gaping wound to America’s Body. Even those who refused to engage in the overt act of buying and selling human beings profited from the idea that some human beings are less worthy than others.

The lie of Manifest Destiny has grown and morphed into a hierarchy of lies ordained by God with the white man, unfettered by compassion, securely positioned at its peak. It is the lie that deems some humans of no value. The lie that continues to consume the U.S. body with a flesh-eating dishonesty. It is a lie made visible by the continuing protest for simple dignity.

The road is long. We are tired. And we have yet to reach our goal of a truly unified body of states. Reaching that goal means this country removes the knife that has been plunged into the Native American heart with its reverence for Indian Killers like Andrew Jackson – revered on the twenty-dollar bill for his Trail of Tears. We will be close to our goal when we understand that the installation of many Confederate memorial statues took place, not right after the Civil War, but during the 1920’s, an era suffused with Jim Crow violence against black people. We are told these statues are only to commemorate a more prosperous southern history. But these statues were being erected on the lawns of state buildings and county courthouses during a time of violent disenfranchisement of black people. And that tells a different, more murderous history.

 Today, it grieves me to know there are young people who feel hopeless. It grieves me to know that we still have to remind people that we are human and that our lives matter. It grieves me to know that the closer we get to that Table of Humanity the further away it seems. The body-US still suffers from severe wounds. Still writhes in hateful, violent spasms of white supremacy. Today’s protests are necessary to highlight that vulgarity of corruption within the body. We protest to break the bandages and scrape the scab from the wound to further allow the pus of hatred to drain. Only then can we proceed to wash clean the bloodstained fiber that should bind this country’s entire body.

Yes, it is about race and until we heal from the inside out by addressing white supremacy in all its forms, it will always be about race.

LINCOLN: The “Long Rough” History With Fairness

 Lincoln    One would be hard pressed to find a more educational, entertaining, and sensual two and a half hours of film than Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. That this movie comes to us at a time when an African-American sits in the white house seems prophetic. It is this information that provides the dramatic irony that streams throughout the arguments against abolition on the floor of congress and makes the viewer keenly aware of Lincoln’s moral courage even as Lincoln, played brilliantly by Daniel Day-Lewis, himself could not verbalize how

the effects of a 13th Amendment passage would manifest.

The 16th president was a driven man, an autodidact with a tremendous humility that tempered the tremendous power that comes with the Presidency. The movie, taken from Doris Kearns Goodwin’s biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, lays to rest the oft told tales of Lincoln’s moral ambivalence towards the idea of ending slavery. The central conflict in Lincoln deals with the opposition of the Democrats in the House of Representatives to the passage of the 13th Amendment and educates the viewer as it pulls apart the south’s argument for the continuation of slavery. The importance of this amendment passage is obvious. But, the rush of activity to pass this legislation in that particular month (January 1865) rather than wait for a new pro-Lincoln congress to be seated needs explanation.  The prevailing rationale was that Lincoln wanted to show cross-party approval to prove a national unity. But, hadn’t national unity been evident with Lincoln’s reelection in 1864? In his New York Times review of Lincoln, professor of history at the University of Virginia, Philip Zelikow, suggests Spielberg is the truer “historian” here because the movie’s explanation “that Lincoln and…Secretary of State William H. Seward,  realized that the war might end at any time and when it did, any prospect for passing the amendment as a means to win the war would end with it” (NYT Opinionator, 2012), provides a more persuasive argument.  Using this premise, Spielberg sets up the intrigue prompted by the parallel story of   Francis Preston Blair Sr. (played by the late Hal Holbrook) the well-respected, conservative Republican and his attempts to arrange secret peace talks between Confederate and Union envoys. It is plausible that had these talks actually taken place prior to the vote, and a peace agreement been signed, the argument for the passage of the 13th Amendment (the necessity of outlawing slavery forever to end the war) would have been found weak.  Spielberg’s movie pulls back the curtain on the workings of the House and the men who filled the air with jubilant applause or boos and hisses depending on the matter at hand. But even this frat-house atmosphere did not minimize the effect of the heightened language used to cut and rend its target with precise aim. The radical Republican (no oxymoron in this instance) Thaddeus Stevens, played beautifully by Tommy Lee Jones, spouted erudite rejoinders that made me wish I had a paper and pen to record his words for personal posterity (and usage).

The four-month period covered in the film represents the last four months of Lincoln’s life and serves to humanize Lincoln, his family and close friends. We hear Lincoln – before we see him – his dreams being recalled to his wife, Mary Todd, played by Sally Field. The sense that his wife is the vessel into which Lincoln’s hopes for the future of a whole country are poured is prominent from the very beginning. We are treated to Lincoln’s soft nurturing side as he spots his son Tad (played by Gulliver McGrath) asleep by the fireplace and proceeds to get down on the floor, lovingly stroking his son’s hair before hoisting him on his back for the trip to bed thus completing what we come to believe is this father and son’s bedtime ritual. It is hard to say who is responsible (director or actor) for the humanity that animates Lincoln. Maybe it is simply the collective elegance of Daniel Day-Lewis and Steven Spielberg that binds the audience to the film’s message. The same can be said for Mary Todd Lincoln. Sally Field lets us see the tormented Mrs. Lincoln who, after suffering a parent’s worst nightmare – the death of a child – continues to waver between fierce reality and a drain-circling melancholia. We see Mrs. Lincoln’s insight as she attempts to locate her place in history, suggesting that she will be forever seen as the hysterical wife and impediment to a famous husband.  Today, Mary Todd Lincoln would be treated with a well prescribed anti-depressant and expected to snap out of it for the sake of the country.  But parental torment is not hers alone. Both husband and wife do verbal battle in an argument laced with a combined, unresolved grief. It is Lincoln who acknowledges his grief, declaring it just as legitimate as his wife’s. The president’s outburst emotion underscores the enormous weight wrought by the his desire to pass legislation of great scale and the heart-deadening sadness of his child’s death.

The movie’s subtle lighting lends itself to the somber plot. The soft close lighting of the lair belonging to democratic party operative William Bilbo, played convincingly by James Spader, added to the intrigue of the Bilbo character who, now freed from prison by Lincoln, begins to lobby/politic for the passage of the 13th  Amendment.  The relationship between Lincoln and his Secretary of State, William Seward, played by David Strathairn, embodies John Hay’s (Assistant Private Secretary to Abraham Lincoln) description of a “friendship…so absolute and sincere…between these two magnanimous spirits.” Seward is by turns conscience and devil’s advocate assuring Lincoln of multiple perspectives on issues. But it is Day-Lewis’s Lincoln who commands the screen as he is shuttled around a muddy Washington in an open carriage and as he spurs then halts his horse through battlefields quiet but for the smoke and blood. We see the pain of a man, a husband, and a father as he sadly takes in the faces of the dead – young men the age of his oldest son Robert Todd Lincoln who desperately wants to fight for the Union cause. Lincoln’s calm demeanor is broken three times – once in his argument with his wife, and when he slaps his oldest son in parental frustration with his son’s military aims, and again when he pounds his fist on the desk yelling for his team to get the votes needed to pass the amendment.   This last outburst sets off a montage of activity detailing  perfectly calibrated cajoling, lobbying and the promising of all manner of perks to the congressional lame ducks. Lincoln’s insistence on getting the necessary votes rather than be satisfied with Blair’s peace arrangement with the south leaves one to shudder at the potential for disaster had the south been left to take care of its slave “problem.”  It is as if Lincoln knew this, knew of his limited time left and was quite willing to endure the long rough history with fairness.