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Posts Tagged ‘musings’

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a calm spot before a later storm

It always happens at this particular intersection in Somerville. It’s where I  cross the street to make the final leg of my journey home. It is a one way street with two lanes of traffic, a dedicated bike lane, and a complicated long walk signal. Great for me as a pedestrian. Tough on drivers. I have become used to impatient drivers inching into the crosswalk, hoping they can catch a gap in traffic, so they can make a quick right on red. With an exaggerated sigh, I usually walk behind those cars because at least I know the drivers behind them can see me. Hopefully I can cross the street before the light turns green and everybody hits their gas pedals. A familiar sequence of events. That’s almost what happened yesterday.

There were two cars to the left of me blocking the crosswalk. I stepped behind them. But something was odd. There was a gap in traffic. One of the drivers blocking my path could have taken a right on red. Except she was too busy yelling obscenities at the driver of the car next to her. Now, I’m used to the obscenities flung around by Boston area drivers but this woman’s words were different. They stopped me in the middle of the street.

Time slowed. I scanned the front of the screaming woman’s car. There was no body damage. If the person in the other car had tried to go around her to make a right on red (which happens in that intersection), a simple “F*** you!” would have sufficed, and often does at that intersection. But this woman, a brown woman, chose to shout into the other person’s car, and I’m editing just a bit, “You, wetback, go back to your own country!”

And she kept repeating it, with such vociferous pounding anger that was so out of context to whatever fender bender may have happened, that she had silenced the drivers around her. An unusual feat in Boston. Not a car behind her honked. It was just her voice ringing in the air. I could see the muscles of her jaw as she strained to shout these ugly words at a stranger over and over and over again. That African American was no different than the young white men in Charlottesville carrying the tiki torches. No different. Hate is hate.

Then I became angry.

Sad, too, but mostly angry, and I mean really angry.

I wanted to rush up to that woman and say, “What the hell are you doing? What are you, a black Trump? Do you realize if white supremacist leaders could see you now they’d just sit back with a big smile as you display your stupidity? How dare you give into racism. Don’t you know your own history? Have you no respect for yourself? Why put down another human being that you don’t even know?”

In the end, common sense won out. I remembered that I am not 6’5,” simply 5’3″ and I could tell that the woman was a bit bigger than me. And while I remember just enough of my karate training to probably take her down, to what end? Getting physical would not have ended her ignorance or increased her empathy. Both drivers remained in their cars. No children were in danger that I could see. I had to acknowledge that I was standing in the middle of a street, the light about to turn green, with two cars to the left of me and two cars to the right of me. It would not have deescalated the situation for me to move forward … though clearly my first reaction was not to deescalate anything. The only weapon the woman brandished were words, though she did have that car. She could have backed over me. She was that irrationally enraged.

Time resumed its normal course. The light turned green. The two cars sped off. I finished crossing the street, continued my walk home, my thoughts full of disparagement. Phone calls with family and friends calmed me down. They all brought up “ignorance.” Ignorance is no excuse for such behavior. Just as there is no excuse for racism by anyone toward anyone.

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In elementary school, I learned how to plant flower seeds in a cup, something I do all the time now. I learned a few other things too. When I was maybe four or five years old, maybe six though no older, a girl who I thought was my friend did something not nice to me and so I hit her. She may have hit me first but that didn’t matter, did it? In the principal’s office, the principal looked at me and said, “Cynthia, you knew better.” When I was in middle school, maybe 8th grade (I hope it wasn’t high school), in homeroom there was this girl who was bigger than the rest of us, wealthier than the rest of us, and she bullied people. In fact, she didn’t bully me very much at all in ways that I could notice. But some of my other friends were bullied and bothered by her behavior and one day, because of an accidental arrangement of desks and chairs, they were able to inflict silent revenge by leaving her sitting unto an island by herself. I sat with her for a while, because I didn’t understand what my friends were doing. Why had they gotten up and moved to the other side of the room? I began to understand when they beckoned.  I hesitated but I did join them.  I hope I always remember the sad look on the other girl’s face as she stared at us. It did not feel good to have helped cause someone to look like that. To feel like that.

The homeroom teacher saw what had happened. She made everyone rearrange their chairs and desks to form more of a community, and she pulled me aside at the end of the day to say, “Cynthia, you knew better.” When I look back I know that I had some awfully good teachers and that they reinforced what I was learning at home: how to be a good human being, how to be kind to those around me or at least not treat them with disdain, how if I had nothing nice to say, then say nothing. I learned, and continue to learn to this day, how to hold myself accountable for my actions. Ignorance is no excuse. That is what I thought today as I read about a man in Alabama who disrupted a peaceful protest parroting that idiot who made the “womp, womp” sound. He held up one of those signs that have become too familiar once more in this country. If the article was accurate than the man had spent time as a high school teacher and I could not help but wonder how had this man grown up, how did he live each day, and what had he taught those children in his care.

Did you notice what I did above?

I referred to Corey Lewandowski as an idiot. This, after having mentioned, that I grew up learning that if you have nothing nice to say, then say nothing. But the other thing I’ve learned as an adult, and continue to learn,  is that sometimes you do have to say something. You call the jackass a jackass. But do so with purpose. The unholy brilliance of a Trump and his minions like a Lewandowski, or channels like Fox News and Breitbart, is that they spout complete and utter garbage, manipulating the human psyche with words and altered images, seeding and cultivating fears, and fostering once more a white nationalist agenda (and I say white regardless of how many brown people on occasion are sent out to repeat their vitriol). And they stir up in those who disagree a malignancy as well. I don’t like to curse. I don’t like to think harmful thoughts about other people. It infuriates me that these men and women threaten to make me less than what I am by devolving to their level of speech and action. I hold myself accountable for my actions but who is holding them accountable?

We hold them accountable with our votes and with our pocketbooks. You don’t have to be a billionaire to make a difference with your dollar. Every effort makes a difference, at every level. Involvement is key. Tiring though. But who said democracy was going to be easy?  There is no endpoint to the struggle. The same issues of today I find in newspapers from the late 1880s and early 1900s …labor, immigration, emigration, exclusion, economics, wealth inequality … perturbations in the system causing people to experience fear and to isolate themselves with the greatest benefit to those wealthy enough to live in a bubble anyway. An endless struggle to find the “right” balance.

July 4th is on the horizon. I already see the shenanigans starting, stories about who’s patriotic and who’s not, the flag and what does it mean today, the anthem, bending the knee and so on and so forth. My father and forefathers, once they were no longer slaves, fought for this country in the various wars and the idea of what America stood for and the potential for what it could still achieve. They fought for the idea of democracy and a United States, ever changing, where their children would have the opportunity to become their fullest self. They fought for the idea that others, as brown as them or far whiter than them, would be able to come here and do that as well. I despise this administration but I do not despise this country. I still see the potential. That is what I fight for.

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The statues stand on the shore of the Hudson River, ever-changing, at least for now. They are the effort of one man who has no special goal and who with his silence invites the viewer to read the rocks, as did the author of this guest post who shared these words and images over one hot, tumultuous weekend as the nation’s ears rang with the cries of a child.

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Words and Images by Donna Stenwall

He literally balances one rock on top of another. That is it. It is amazing. Kids come by and knock them down and he keeps building. He’s been at it for 2 years. He thinks he will stop in August. The Parks Department said they wouldn’t be able to adopt it and care for it. Who knows what will happen.

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In this moment, what do I see? The gentleman in the middle reminds me of the potbellied clown tipsy as he holds on to the lamppost. A paint on velvet picture from my youth.

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The proud Victorian woman with her starched bonnet, chest held high, as they made their way from Europe to New York to start a new life.

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The Puritan escaping persecution for her beliefs. Is she waiting for another ship to arrive? Gazing towards the world she left behind to start a new life in a new world. Would she even recognize this country she held with such hope and such promise? I do not.

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I must say it was a bit depressing to read headlines from around the world today. From gang violence across U.S. cities, a new ‘trail of tears” as parents are being separated from children, resources for those most in need increasingly being eroded, and at the same time big business wielding its lobbying might to change policies that would have helped hold them accountable to the many for their actions as they work to increase wealth for a few. And then if I look outside my own borders to the rest of the world … well, goodness gracious. It is an avalanche or perhaps a mudslide of just damn bad news without clear sight of where hope lies on a grand scale. It clearly will not be coming from the White House anytime soon as that’s all that needs to be said for the moment about that sad mess and those sad people who do not represent me as an American. At the same time I know that there is lots of good work being done on the ground but where is the sweeping change to come? Is there a groundswell somewhere out there that I have yet to see? Time will tell … anyway, meanwhile, I choose to share these images of beauty, of prickly cactus crowned by flowers filled with light.

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I photographed this tree today. It stands in an adjacent property that has been purchased for development. Given the type of development taking place around me and across Boston, I don’t think the tree is part of the developer’s plan. Its roots may be strong but the tree will be cut down and those roots dug up. Change happens.

DSCN9552Near the tree there is a wild tangle of forsythia branches. For years I’ve watched the brown turn to green and then gold when it fully flowers. A bright sign of spring. I’ve always wanted to sneak onto the property, cut some branches and place them in a vase, like bringing the sunshine indoors. I think they will have the opportunity to bloom one more time before they too are dug up and tossed away. Part of the change.

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I think a lot about change and how change happens. I’m not happy about the changes around me. I am at times near paralyzed by the scale of idiocy and inhumanity in the world right now and especially in my own country under what should be an insignificant presidency. I’m not always sure what to do except donate money where I can, give my time when that makes more sense, and send notes of gratitude (and occasionally of protest). One of my greatest regrets during Obama’s tenure is that I never sent a note of thank you. Not because he was a perfect president but because he was (and remains) a good man, an inspirational figure for the ages. Speaking of inspirational figures … I was looking for some words and came across a sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. that seemed relevant.

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In a 1965 commencement address, Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, King spoke to Oberlin graduates about the strides that had been made in this country.  “We have come a long, long way since the Negro was first brought to this nation as a slave in 1619. In the last decade we have seen significant developments – the Supreme Court’s decision outlawing segregation in the public schools, a comprehensive Civil Rights Bill in 1964, and, in a few weeks, a new voting bill to guarantee the right to vote. All of these are significant developments, but I would be dishonest with you this morning if I gave you the impression that we have come to the point where the problem is almost solved.”

“Let nobody give you the impression that the problem of racial injustice will work itself out. Let nobody give you the impression that only time will solve the problem. That is a myth, and it is a myth because time is neutral. It can be used either constructively or destructively. And I’m absolutely convinced that the people of ill will in our nation – the extreme rightists – the forces committed to negative ends – have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation, not merely for the vitriolic works and violent actions of the bad people who bomb a church in Birmingham, Alabama, or shoot down a civil rights worker in Selma, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, “Wait on time.”

Well, I do not feel I am silent, nor do I like to wait around, but I do feel a bit stalled at this moment. Stalled and appalled.  Appalled at what is taking place in this nation with regard to immigrants. Appalled, when I can stomach it, to view the websites of anti-immigration organizations and to see on their staff and boards people who look like me. And so darned appalled at the petty political games being played with “immigration deals” that leave hundreds of thousands of people in limbo. How are people expected to live with such constant anxiety in their lives? They just do. They live. And they act.

People taking action. That is the key, isn’t?

Today even as I grappled with the overwhelming amount of bad news in the headlines, I found uplift in a little video that was heartbreaking but ultimately so inspiring because it featured two people taking action, in two very different ways, and how those actions galvanized the people around them. Its worth a view when you have the time.

 

 

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cuban oregano

Despite my pictures of the icy landscapes that form on some of the windows in this bitter cold, the sun does shine bright through those very same windows and so my plants shake loose their night time chill and seem to thrive though I have been a vary poor caretaker of late.

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flat leaf parsley

The geranium continues to thrive and even grow new leaves though I have it sitting in the coldest room in the house but in a spot that gets the most direct sun at a certain time of day.

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geranium

And I learned long ago that it is best to just let the nasturtium and African violet just be. Not too much water and let them find the sun in their own way.

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nasturtium

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african violet

And while the branches on the oak tree are winter bare, so the sun just pours in, I see an opportunity to plant some sprouts for now and to think about what else I’d like to plant in the future.

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sprouts planted and empty vessels waiting for seeds

This Sunday it felt good to rise from my desk … and take a break from, though not hide from, the absurdity of the news today … and put hands into soil and sort through seeds and muse upon what I’d like to grow.

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Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt

… a black man sat down to dinner and it caused a national uproar. That man was Boooker T. Washington, President of Tuskegee, sitting down to dinner at the White House with President Theodore Roosevelt.

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It was not as if, as one paper noted, it was the first time “a negro had been the guest of the White House. During former administrations … Frederick Douglas and B. K. Bruce registrar of the treasury had attended White House receptions.” [1]

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Blanche Kelso Bruce and Frederick Douglass

And “Queen Lilliuokalani, whose skin is as dark hued as a full-blooded negro, was once a dinner guest of President Cleveland.” [1] So what was the difference?

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Queen Liliuokalani of Hawaii at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee

In an NPR interview about her book on the subject, Guest of Honor (2013), Deborah Davis notes that from a Southern perspective inviting a man to dine with your family was acknowledging him as a social equal. Such a man, as your social equal, could even woo your daughter. If that’s true, Roosevelt’s action, as President of the United States, must have come across as a slap in the face to those southerners whom he had been courting politically.

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excerpts from Weekly Clarion-Ledge, Mississippi 1901

In 1901, the nation was grappling with what was referred to as the Negro Problem. Millions of black people in the South freed for a generation. Some had moved north and west but some stayed having finally acquired some political voice with the right to vote, a right being methodically stripped.

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excerpt from Atlanta Constitutution 1901

By 1901 blacks had become refugees within their own country as they moved across the land, often up north, seeking new opportunities. For many of those who stayed in the South, invisible if not literal walls were being built between the races. Each state took their own approach.

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Peoples’ fears and anxieties were heightened, and others’s sense of supremacy legitimized, by the fiery words of white supremacists like Ben Tillman of South Carolina and the Reverend Thomas F. Dixon.

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Benjamin Tillman and Thomas Dixon

Dixon had yet to publish the first book in his Ku Klux Klan trilogy that would inspire D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation fourteen years later, but as an extremely popular preacher of his day, Dixon was widely known, his lectures sold out and his words published in newspapers and journals nationwide.

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One month prior to the dinner, Vice President Roosevelt had been sworn in as President after McKinley’s death following an assassination attempt. Only thirty-six years since the end of the Civil War, Roosevelt sorely needed to keep a still-shaky Union together by remaining aware of, if not outright appeasing, a once again politically powerful South.

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Booker T. Washington and Family

Earlier in the year, Booker T. Washington had published his memoir Up From Slavery. For years he had traveled the world promoting the success and the ideal of Tuskegee, an educational institution that combined necessary academics with industrial training. In terms of the two sides of “the color line,” there were probably few other national figures as famous as Roosevelt and Washington.

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Theodore Roosevelt and Family

So for these two men to dine in the White House in 1901 was of significance. Evidence suggests that Washington was well aware of this fact whereas Roosevelt, with his impulsive nature, was less so.

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The uproar incited by the press, especially the Southern press, was unprecedented. For those who felt threatened by freed blacks, the dinner, its portrayal in the press, conversations on the street and from the pulpit, fanned flames of hatred and gave reign to violence. After news of the dinner, Tillman, then a Congressman from South Carolina, is quoted as saying: “we shall have to kill a thousand niggers to get them back in their places”. He also says later that same year,

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excerpt from Moberly Weekly 1901

As Davis shares in her NPR interview, the impact of that dinner would have ripple effects across the decades. For instance in 1901 a poem was published and appeared in newspapers called Niggers in the White House. Six Months Hence. Written by an anonymous figure, the poem describes in all the derogatory ways possible how blacks had taken over the White House, but then it ends with a solution alluding to the two men’s sons and daughters …

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In 1929, the poem was sent to First Lady Lou Hoover as censure when she invited a black congressman’s wife, Jessie DePriest, to tea in the White House. At a time when Northern politicians were trying to enforce existing laws against racial discrimination, the tea became an event around which southern politicians could rally efforts to continue the segregation and disenfranchisement of blacks.

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Jessie DePriest and Lou Hoover

Clearly both Booker T. Washington and Theodore Roosevelt survived the dinner’s aftermath. Roosevelt would even be elected for a second term as President. Roosevelt and Washington would meet again, several more times, but they never dined again in the White House.

Sources & Additional Reading

Guest of Honor by Deborah Davis (2013)

http://www.npr.org/books/titles/152665080/guest-of-honor-booker-t-washington-theodore-roosevelt-and-the-white-house-dinner

[1]Star-Gazette (Elmira, NY), October 19, 1901

[2] Atlanta Constitution (Atlanta, GA) January 13, 1901

https://www.newspapers.com/

Blanche Kelso Bruce

Frederick Douglass

Queen Liliuokalani

Benjamin Tillman

Thomas F. Dixon

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niggers_in_the_White_House

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jessie_De_Priest_tea_at_the_White_House

 

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