Maybe it was fear that made the young men shout “Nooooo!” as I stood next to a For Sale sign in front of a house in a suburb outside of Boston. Fear of change, fear of something different coming into their midst. And maybe it was fear that made a woman look me up and down as I questioned her entrance into a building (part of my job at the time). As she left the building she made sure to look at me in that same way and I had to think, “Well, if looks could kill, I’d be six feet under.” And maybe it was fear that made the waitress do some things during a meal, such that once I’d left the restaurant with my friend (whose favorite restaurant it was), she said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t expect that to happen.”
Now if I were to say that all of those fairly recent events happened, in part, because all the other individuals were white and I am black … well, I think there are folks who might say, as is often said today, why does everything have to be attributed to race? Because race does matter. As does class, gender, and economics. It all matters. But here’s why race stands out for me: slavery. “Slavery ended,” someone said to me once. “Why keep bringing that up?”
Born in the 1970s USA, I have never been a slave. I have never been shackled or forced to give up a child or beaten if I tried to put pen to paper or pick up a book. I’ve never stood in a market while an overseer pointed out my attributes so that someone might buy me as a companion for their children or an extra servant in the kitchen. Never needed to carry papers proving freedom (or ownership), nor been branded, or had to hope that my master would free our children in his will.
As former slaves did about 150 years ago, I’ve never been in a position of celebrating freedom and, on the other hand, having to deal with the realities of having little but the clothes on my back and waiting for forty acres and a mule. Never had to deal with “separate but equal” or segregated schools (my older brothers did who were born in the 1950s and 1960s). Never been in a position or location where I had the right to vote but other forces, those perhaps suffering from fear of change, were putting strategies into place to prevent me from voting (my parents dealt with that).
Nor have I had to watch a loved one (or even a stranger) brutally beaten, mutilated, hung from a tree or a telephone pole, and burned. I’ve heard a few stories from older family, watched the documentaries and read quite a few articles. When I read the stories of lynching, especially in old newspapers recently digitized, and see the images, I cry. I cry for the people who died, the people who watched and tried to help, and even for the people who watched and did nothing. I did wonder what the people who did nothing were thinking? And what about the people who sang and danced and even cut off parts for souvenirs or mailed those parts to white politicians trying to effect some change?
For some, did the actions they witnessed mean nothing because the people to whom the deeds were done looked nothing like them? Or was it just that they did not know what to do? Were some people truly scared or were they simply seeking pleasure in establishing control over another? All of those incidents are part of the fabric of this country, as are the people, of all races and backgrounds, who fought to end slavery, the people who fought to end routine lynchings and the people who continue to fight for economic and voting rights for all people.
Yes, I do indeed bring up slavery and other injustices from the so-called past because of present-day incidents like in Ferguson. Slavery is an institution, one of many, that this country has yet to deal with. I don’t care about politics or how people choose to identify themselves in this country as Republican, Democrat, Tea Party, Libertarian and so on. Political labels and tenets change over time. But what about human behavior? How has that changed over time? Or has it? Why do we treat people the way that we do?
You can “follow the money” in terms of why slavery was entrenched in this country for so long. Economics, economics, economics. In too many venues of late, I have read people saying stop talking about race and focus on the economic issues in a Ferguson. Of course, economics is an issue and powerful factor leading to injustices happening in many communities. But it comes down to a bit more than money to treat people as inferior or to hear their screams of pain and laugh or to make assumptions about their children’s ability to learn regardless of resources provided for education. And it is about more than economics to see all those things taking place around you and to do nothing. To some extent, I feel little right to judge others because I do not always know what to do as I learn about the horrors around me, in this country and abroad. I do know with regard to slavery and the seeds that were planted that continue to sprout, I do not want to forget.
I’ve been researching the past, including slave times, quite a bit of late for various projects as well as to better understand current events. In the remembering, and rediscoveries, I don’t come to hate people who look different than me. Not at all. A part of me mourns. I mourn the horrors, and I also celebrate the courage of so many different peoples, their hopes, their activism and their creativity in finding the beauty in this life. And I celebrate such in the people who are active today.
As a final note in my Sunday ramblings, if you chose to read so far, … I came upon a 1920s newspaper article about a lynching. The reporter recounted that witnesses heard the dying man sing a song with his last breaths as the flames consumed him. I looked up the song and came upon the following 1950s rendition by Sam Cooke. A powerful piece.