Timeless power of language: nonviolence and violence

Nonviolence: using peaceful means rather than force, especially to bring about political or social change

Nonviolence, in Dr. King’s words, Letter from Birmingham Jail, 1963:

Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and establish such creative tension that a community that has consistently refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored…I have earnestly worked and preached against violent tension, but there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension that is necessary for growth… So the purpose of direct action is to create a situation so crisis-packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation.

 

Dr. King’s death was widely reported as an assassination, carried out by a sniper, a lone gunman, who was a white man (or men, if you follow one of many conspiracy theories, as did King’s family.)

In the shadow of the death of Dr. King, who had unparalleled command of language, voice, and delivery, I feel called upon to simply place the following words and their definitions in proximity to one another.

We may identify these words with quite different historical periods. Let time collapse into this historical moment. This moment. Today. As you reflect, let these words talk to one another:

Violence: behaviour involving physical force intended to hurt, damage, or kill someone or something. In law: the unlawful exercise of physical force or intimidation by the exhibition of such force

Sniper: a person who shoots from a hiding place, especially accurately and at long range

Assassination: the murder of an important person in a surprise attack for political or religious reasons.

Terrorism: the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims.

Lynching: kill (someone) for an alleged offense without a legal trial, especially by hanging

Segregation: the act or policy of separating people of different races, religions or sexes and treating them in a different way

Mass incarceration: the imprisonment of a large proportion of a population, used in particular with reference to the significant increase in the rate.

Slavery: the practice or system of owning persons as legal property who are forced to obey their owners.

Institutional racism: racial discrimination that has become established as normal behaviour within a society or organization

White supremacy: the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races, especially the black race, and should therefore dominate society

Jim Crow: the former practice of segregating black people in the US; an implement for straightening iron bars or bending rails by screw pressure.

Redlining: refusal to give loans or insurance to people in an area that is considered to be a bad financial risk

White privilege: inherent advantages possessed by a white person on the basis of their race in a society characterized by racial inequality and injustice

(Note: definitions according to the Oxford English Dictionary)

For myself, I find the significance of each word 

is illumined by the others.

I am better able to take in each word as

the timeless/time-bound piece of reality it is, 

when amongst the others.

I take these words together to be the still 

unaddressed lineage of our country.

It is long past time to own up to our long history

of behaviors intended to hurt, damage, or kill.

May our reflections open us to insight and inspire us to action.

         

P. S. Historical note on the concept of race

IMG_1554THE HISTORY OF THE IDEA OF RACE… AND WHY IT MATTERS Audrey Smedley, Professor of Anthropology Emerita Virginia Commonwealth University, 2007, American Anthropological Association.

“In the middle of the 20th century, a new generation of historians began to take another look at the beginnings of the American experience. They spent decades exploring all of the original documents relating to the establishment of colonies in America. What these scholars discovered was to transform the writing of American history forever. Their research revealed that our 19th and 20th century ideas and beliefs about races did not in fact exist in the 17th century. Race originated as a folk idea and ideology about human differences; it was a social invention, not a product of science. Historians have documented when, and to a great extent, how race as an ideology came into our culture and our consciousness.” 

http://www.understandingrace.org/resources/pdf/disease/smedley.pdf

 


 

Photo of segregated drinking fountain taken at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, October, 2016

Growing up racist in Post-World War II America

Banner photo: Girl holding a child  Arkansas, ca 1855, at the National Museum of African American History and Culture

I am grateful to white historian Charles B. Dew for The Making of a Racist, a stark and insightful guide to his personal acculturation to the Southern story of slavery and the civil war, and to his profound cognitive dissonance on waking up to it. His primary sources, documents of the slave trade in Richmond, Virginia, chill Dew and the reader alike with what was their obviously pedestrian nature at the time.

 

Raised in the industrial midwest, I have my own version of growing up racist.

When I saw the banner photo above, I immediately recognized its personal significance. Somewhere in my family album was a picture of a dark-skinned Fannie Mae holding a white baby – my older sister. It would have been taken in Cleveland, late in 1938, 83 years after Girl Holding a Child. By my birth in 1944, someone replaced Fannie Mae, and I think she was white.

I was in 11th grade before I met Paul, the first black student I ever went to school with – seven years after Brown v. the Board of Education.  The only other direct contact I had with African-Americans growing up was with Gertrude, the cleaning woman who worked for us for many years. She was kind, friendly, reliable, and just about as distant from my world as any other adult. My mother referred to her as “the Woman,” which even as a kid I thought was strange. And the feeling of how I remember this is that my mother also seemed to make a point of fixing lunch for Gertrude, same as she would for me, an act that carried some unspecified moral weight.

 

And somehow I imbibed that by weekly proximity to my white family, Gertrude was blessed to have escaped a fate of poor character or bad luck.

A few years ago, I wrote the following vignette:

According to Historic District documents,  I grew up at an aspirational address. My parents had been among “newly married couples of social prominence” drawn more to “the street of the brides” than to any other real estate in late 1920s Cleveland. The Winslow Road house stood on a prominent corner, one convenient block from the Lynnfield Rapid Transit stop. Convenient also for the Shaker Heights police, whose black and white cruiser regularly sat for hours just past our driveway, ready to spring right or left onto the nearby boulevard in chase of – something. It was the 1950s, suburbia: segregated from despair, violence, and color.

Loudly enough to be shushed, I used to ask my mother about the poor people as the Rapid took us through trash-strewn gullies and neighborhoods of shabby, grey, tilted homes. I hit a rust spot in my imagination when I try to recall, or reconstruct, her answer.

The civil rights movement was in full swing, heady and terrible, by the time my own children were born, and I can note only these tiny incremental changes, and with the same unspecified moral weight I had sensed from my mother: It was always Mrs. Bond. And we often sat down to lunch together.

Not surprisingly, Dew is never quite able to reconcile his love of his parents and his admiration of his mother’s kindness with the stories he was fed (including the same Little Black Sambo of my childhood) and the way his father treated the black gardener for coming to the front door. Over and over again he asks, “How could they?”

I understand his dilemma. They” could and my mother could, because they didn’t question. For way too long I didn’t either.

What did you take in about race while you were growing up?


More on our cultural stories:

http://alifeofpractice.com/daily-practices/stories-to-heal-what-ails-me-what-ails-america/

http://alifeofpractice.com/bend-the-arc/getting-to-justice-stories-that-heal-me-heal-america-part-2/

FULL DISCLOSURE in the face of recent events

Version 2

The bumblebee I have been eyeing is having a hard time of it with the evening primroses, whose petals at high noon have mostly collapsed into soft mush. Every 3rd or 4th wilting bloom she lands on, she manages to work her way in to where the nectar is. Soon she gives up and goes for the easily accessible stalks of liatrus.

This morning, I am working at having a FULL DISCLOSURE heart and soul with myself. Because that collapsing evening primrose bloom is the body-mind of my country, spent, folding in on itself, and ready to fall to the ground. And I am the bee who insists: there is still nectar here, there is still something important to be gathered here. Don’t move on just yet.

To stay here, stay here, stay here long enough to weep, that is the challenge.

Last week I was full up with working against multiple deadlines. So when I came off an involuntary news fast the news from Baton Rouge was 3 days old, from Falcon Heights 2 days old, from Dallas, 18 hours old – an eternity in social media time. My heart rose to my throat and dropped to my feet all at once. My body went into its default state: dissociation.

Sorrow and determination, the same two words now rise in me again as they first did after the Freddie Gray Uprising in my home town, and then a few months later after the Charleston church shooting.

And something else, a fierce love for Baltimore.

A Mason-Dixon line city. A gritty city.

The-park-bench-with slogan-at-bus-stops-city: The City That Reads. Believe. Charm City.

Home of Shake and Bake Family Fun Center and HONfest.

The city of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Lenny Moore, Thurgood Marshall, Henrietta Lacks, Eubie Blake, Billie Holiday. And the city of Francis Scott Key, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Enoch Pratt, Philip Berrigan, Wild Bill Hagy, Barry Levinson, John Waters.

The history of my city and the goodness of its people are both rising up.

Native Americans have lived in this area since the 10th Millennium BCE, but were probably not inhabiting the land when David Jones settled a claim in 1661 on what is now the East Side. Thomas Cole settled the West Side in 1665, then sold it to Jones 14 years later. East and West Bawlamer remain vital cultural distinctions to this day, with Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland “Health Systems” the respective dominant land-holders.

We became the Port of Baltimore in 1706 and Baltimore Town in 1729.  By the early 19th century we were a major port for the slave trade, attracting  slave dealers from Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia and Tennessee. They built slave pens – yes, pens – near Pratt Street, now the major east-west thoroughfare that passes the Inner Harbor, a commercial development and community event and gathering place with a modern history of being inhospitable to groups of black youth.

I get the feeling that most any place I might step in the city I am obliviously treading on history, even holy ground, ground sanctified by suffering.

As individuals, we heal when we come out of memory into the present moment. We do this when we remember. When we bring into awareness our forgotten, suppressed, and frozen griefs and rages. When we feel them in our bodies. When we permit them entry and integration into our psyches and lives instead of acting them out.

This is the journey we seem on the verge of beginning as a nation. Towards naming our disappeared, both owned and owner.  Towards feeling slavery and all its repercussions in the civic body. Towards FULL DISCLOSURE. 

How can safety, justice, freedom,  reconciliation, possibly be realized in its absence? 

And this is likely to be a rough road, given how difficult it is to agree on “facts.” Given how poor we adults are at listening. Given our tendency to make the world over in our preferred image. Given the ways our tribal bonds have taught us to see the “other” as suspect if not outright dangerous.

I sit here, watch the bumblebees, hope the sunshine will thaw me into weeping.

Meantime, in this thirst to know my city, I sip bittersweet nectar, begin to gather historical facts to dignify some few drops of the lifeblood of all those who have been erased from my city’s narrative and living memory.


A wealth of historical facts is available through The Maryland State Archives’ Legacy of Slavery in Maryland – case studies, interactive maps, and a searchable database: http://slavery.msa.maryland.gov