22 December 2008

Who needs to explain when you have this?

People have asked me why I care so much about racism. People think they know why, but they don't. I have always justified it rather flippantly by pointing toward my "overdeveloped sense of justice", but I think I can more directly point it toward two things. The first was the impact of reading To Kill a Mockingbird. The second was that first grainy black-and-white photograph I saw in a book somewhere of a public lynching in the American South. A black man swinging from a tree for nothing more than the crime of being black. I think it was more a function of tales of torture, mutilation and humiliation. It always seemed to me that we vilified Nazis for their crimes, but ignored the sin that went on in this country with tactic public and government approval.

I had this vision of fat, bigoted, cigar-chewing, law enforcement with crew cuts, always white, sitting in police cruisers and calling everyone darker than me, "boy". I had visions of farm boys in overalls being chastised for their "high spirits" when they chased some young black man on foot across bean fields, until he, leg muscles burning and gasping for breath, finally eluded them in the dark.

I also had visions of black men, too afraid to lift up their heads when walking down the street for fear that it might offend some passing white. Stooped black men living in fear of everything and everyone. Free only in the sanctuary of the church, with voice lifted up to God. I wondered how many men, living under those conditions, realized that no God was going to save them--their voices silenced and deprived of even that moment of joy and freedom.

And then I imagined living under those conditions. Not as a high-spirited farm boy, but as a black person, oppressed and hated. I imagined being a child and not playing in the street, but in the back to avoid the wrath of white drivers. I imagined being a mother and shushing my children to be quiet so as not to draw undue attention on the bus or in the stores. I imagined the epithets hurled out of nowhere and for no reason. I imagined the looks of white women who considered themselves too cultured to sling epithets, but whose stares stung equally as hard. I imagined a life of work in the homes of white people who "treated me like family" but didn't know my children's names, or what my husband did for a living, and who thought I wasn't like the rest of them. The ones who told me that I was part of the family when they wanted me to work on holidays, but somehow never recognized me on the street with my real family. And although I have never been accused of harboring a great deal of empathy, I imagined a life where none of this ever ended or ever appeared capable of ending. Amazingly enough, I understood and it was real for me.

Today, I read this article in the NY Times that brought all this back for me. These feelings I had I have had for a long time. I don't know why I was affected by these things, but I was. I don't know why it was me, but sometimes you are the only one who hears, who feels, and who understands. If you are that person, you bear responsibility to do something. Something. Anything. Even if you don't know what all the time.

In this, the midst of the Christmas season, the world is supposed to be filled with loving and good will. I'm decidedly not feeling it this year. It's been a hard year. On the one hand, Obama's election marks a milestone in our eradication of racism. But it has not erased it. Nor has it erased intolerance of Mexicans, immigrants, or the gay community. It has not stopped the problems in Darfur or Kinshasa. The world begs for voices who understand.

I think something in my heart told me that I needed to on the side of "right". Like Atticus Finch. I'm certain there are others out there, like me, who find it impossible to ignore or discount or shut up about what they see as an ongoing and pervasive injustice. Your friends and family may tire of it, but I implore you to work in the coming year to advance your cause--no matter what it is. They are listening. They are softening. Hearts can be turned. The world can change. Because. it. must.

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