The Hope for Change
A couple of weeks ago, I closed the book on “The Vanishing Half,” Brit Bennet’s compelling story of a pair of black twins, one who passes as a white woman in Los Angeles. The other returns after years away to their childhood home in Mallard, Louisiana.
A few hours later, I opened the first page of Isabel Wilkerson’s “The Warmth of Other Suns,” the Pulitzer-prize winning masterpiece about the black migration from South to North through much of the 20th century.
So much in “The Warmth of Other Suns” was previously unknown to me, and I am ashamed of that. But I am learning, and I am grateful. Saddened too. At times horrified. At other times, I find myself unable to pick up the book for the overwhelming weight of helplessness and grief that envelops me when I read it.
The book club that is reading “The Warmth of Other Suns” met this past Saturday. One of our members recently moved from the town where I live to another town, one she feels is less racist. I’m not sure where she’s getting her information, and that is a looming question these days: where are the people we know getting their information? But a quick scan of newspaper stories would have told her that the town where she now resides landed on a list of eight towns in the greater Hartford area whose rates of police stops of black motorists was unusually high.
The police in her new town said they made those stops for equipment failures. But another officer from another town chimed in to say that these traffic stops only hurt people who are impoverished and can’t afford to pay the tickets. “They are trying to get to work, they are trying to do the right thing, they are trying to pay their taxes, and giving them a ticket for two-three-four hundred dollars is not right,” he said.
Is her newly adopted police force guilty of racial profiling? I don’t know. But I believe this: if you see racism where you live, don’t run and hide. Stay put and fight it.
I live in a small town in Connecticut. It has, as much as any suburb of this state, a long history of using zoning to keep out people who cannot afford the $300,000 to multimillion-dollar houses and one-acre zoning. Because brown and black people have been victims of oppression – simply because of the distribution of melanin in their bodies – they have a harder time securing well-paying jobs. They have a harder time moving into good neighborhoods with good schools. They have a harder time accumulating wealth. Why? Because white people in the United States have made it harder for them.
Racism is a part of American history. I’d like that it no longer be so, but racism is so ingrained in sections of this country’s belief system that Southern politicians are even to this day limiting voting rights. In the 19th and 20th centuries, Jim Crow and lynchings worked to suppress black voters; lynchings reached record highs before elections. Then Southern politicians legitimized their oppression. They passed laws that restricted the black vote. The Supreme Court helped, gutting parts of the Voting Rights Act and supporting other means of restrictive voting.
How is this possible? Why are we not changing?
And what am I doing about it?
“You don’t make progress by standing on the sidelines, whimpering and complaining. You make progress by implementing ideas,” said Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American and first female candidate from one of the two major political parties to run for president of the United States.
And long before Jesus was quoted in Leviticus 19:18 as saying, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” the ancient Egyptian goddess Ma’at was quoted in a story thousands of years earlier, “Now this is the command: Do to the doer to make him do.”
Racists do not read non-fiction about black history. Racists do not read novels about the challenges of being black in America. Racists nurture their hatreds and now, in this age of the Internet, find others to help voice them.
Are they capable of change?
I have no idea.
But I’m willing to help by fighting the zoning fight. If moral suasion doesn’t work – and it hasn’t – laws and ordinances and zoning changes are a start.
“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another,” Charles Dickens wrote.
Let’s start now.
After you read the following poem, and for the purposes of this blog, I encourage you to write a story about an encounter you’ve had with racism. Be the protagonist, the antagonist, or a witness. This is not about heroism, but about honesty; we are in a no-judgement zone. As always, have an animate – human, dog, cat, gerbil – or inanimate object listen to your story. The toaster, microwave, or a mirror will do. If you are a participant in the Candlelight Writing Workshops, send your story to me. I’d like to read it.
“Let America be America Again”
by Langston Hughes
(The brilliant black poet, born in Joplin, Missouri, was an important part of the Harlem Renaissance. He died of cancer at age 65 in his home on East 127 Street in Harlem, now named Langston Hughes Place.)
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.
(America never was America to me.)
Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.
(It never was America to me.)
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?
I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.
I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!
I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.
Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home—
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”
Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay—
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.
Sure, call me any ugly name you choose—
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath—
America will be!
Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain—
All, all the stretch of these great green states—
And make America again!