A Milestone: Time to Reflect

I’ve written this blog for five years. You’re reading the 82nd entry. Some have garnered a great deal of interest. Others, not so much.

“Why would anyone care what I’m experiencing or what I think? Is anyone reading this stuff?” I’ve often wondered.

And, on particularly hard days, I think, “Is focusing so much on racism making me feel sad and angry?”  Life can be swayed by too many negative emotions.

In those moments, I decide it’s time to quit.

“Five years is a good endpoint,” I tell myself, firmly decided.

Then I pause and reflect.  The news, not historical documentaries, the daily evening news, along with 24,7 streamed headlines, thrusts me back into current reality. That’s when I know.  I must keep at it.

Racial bullying continues. Governors and school superintendents don’t want the complete history of our country taught. Inaccuracy is preferred, at least, preferred by some.  And, structures are still in place providing preferential treatment to white people.  There’s a lot of misinformation and ignorance about race, racism, and what it means to be Black in America.

It was 2017 when I started writing this monthly blog. At first, it was connected to my book by the same name. All the early posts related to the decades-long, racially underpinned experiences I’d had along with my female friends, the “daughters” of the dream. I was simply sharing glimpses of our racial reality.

Over time, the posts have evolved. While my friends are featured periodically and sometimes, I focus on our youthful experiences in Richmond, Virginia, it is more about my reflections as an adult, as a Black woman in America.

Based on interactions with white friends, acquaintances, and colleagues, I know, for example, many think my experience is the same as theirs. This seems to be particularly true if they think we share a similar educational background, financial means, and professional status or because we’re both women. I can understand why they might think that, but it’s not true. None of those factors makes a difference.

No one knows, or perhaps cares (or should care), about my education, finances, or profession when they see me on the street or in a store. What they absolutely know for sure is that I’m Black.  From that one piece of information,  certain assumptions are made, assumptions that are often founded in untruths.

There continues to be an invisibility to racism, a lack of understanding of the depth, breadth and impact of structural racism and implicit bias and, basically, a lack of understanding of what it means to be Black in America. This is what keeps me writing. Maybe one person will have an aha moment that leads them to open the mind of someone else and then someone else.

While I know that some choose to be uninformed or to believe in a skewed, untrue sense of America’s racial reality, I believe that others haven’t been exposed and that if educated, they would be on the side of justice, racial justice. I hope to be a part of that education.

So, here’s my goal. I want to help non-Black people see the America that I experience every day. I want to prompt reflections on what may be a new insight, to promote reading and learning about race and racism, and to urge more people to be a part of the push for racial justice. I’m not Pollyanna. I don’t think of myself as naive.  This process won’t be easy and it certainly hasn’t been quick, but I choose to be hopeful. I believe that information matters, that knowledge can lead to individual behavior change and, ultimately to societal transformation. I’m just one, small part of that ongoing, necessary swirl of information about race and racial justice.

If you think it’s worth a 4-minute read once a month (or so), become a follower (maybe even read some of the earlier posts), pass it on to a friend, a family member, or a co-worker and encourage them to learn more. We all have so much to learn — and to unlearn — as we work in 2023 — and beyond —  for a racially just America.

Happy New Year.

 

Two brown girls

Is watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade a tradition in your family? It is in mine. As a child, on Thanksgiving morning, we’d drive across town to visit my maternal grandmother. After being greeted by her big hug and the wonderful smells of dinner cooking, I’d be drawn to the TV. The parade would be on. I’d plop down with my cousins watching the balloons and all the magic of the parade.

This year’s Thanksgiving wasn’t a lot different. Now, it’s me in the kitchen making my one obligatory dish, apple-sausage stuffing. The parade is usually on mostly for background noise and nostalgia, but this year something caught my eye.  I stopped to really watch. There were two brown-skinned women in the lineup for the Rockettes. They weren’t so light skinned that I barely noticed them as people of color. These were brown-skinned women who stood out in the mostly white precision line. I called my best friend, my Black best friend. She had noticed them too.

Founded in 1925, it’s not surprising that the Rockettes was an all-white dance troupe. Segregation was the law and the custom. What is a bit surprising, and disturbing, is the organization’s depth of commitment to being all-white and the length of time that it remained so. At one point, the founder, Russell Markert, forbade the dancers from even getting a tan because “they might look like a colored girl.” Violet Holmes, a former director and choreographer said when asked about integrating the troupe, “Blacks would distract from ‘the look of precision,’ the Rockettes’ trademark.”

The first woman of color, Jennifer Jones, wasn’t added to the troupe until 1987 for a special Super Bowl performance. 1987. This was after the pinnacle of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, after Beverly Johnson became the first Black model to be on the cover of a fashion magazine, Vogue, in 1974 and after a Black woman, Vanessa Williams, had been named Miss America in 1984, and, most importantly, after the passage of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act which prohibited employment discrimination. This dance group remained committed to being all-white for as long as possible.  So, even when the Rockettes finally integrated, it was not surprising that the lighter skinned candidates had a greater chance of acceptance, regardless of the dancing skills of browner girls, because the lighter ones would blend in with the look the organization was seeking and the Rockettes could check the “integrated” box.

So, in 2022, is it heartwarming or saddening that I found a moment of joy in seeing two brown-skinned girls proudly on the Rockettes’ line in front of Macy’s this Thanksgiving Day?

Pictured here — one of the two brown skinned girls in the Rockettes’ 2022 Thanksgiving Day performance.

There are so many components in defining American culture.  The Rockettes and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade are a part of Americana. When my cousins and I were watching the parade decades ago, we didn’t see many, if anyone, who looked like us.  Subliminally, that lack of Black people sent us messages about where we could/should be and what we could do.  Representation matters in every aspect of American life and not just to children, to adults, too. While two brown-skinned girls dancing on the Rockettes’ line is not a deeply meaningful testament to the lessening of racism in America, it is another building block in creating a more racially just country … and it made me smile.

 

Lock ‘Em Up: The Only Response?

A few weeks ago, I read about a 16-year-old, tried as an adult, who was sentenced to 55 years in prison for two armed carjackings. I was mindlessly scrolling the neighborhood site, Nextdoor, when I saw the post. At first, I thought the incident had happened in Washington, DC where I live since there had been a rash of carjackings in my neighborhood, but as I read, I learned this crime had occurred in Louisiana. Louisiana? Why was it posted on my Capitol Hill, DC Nextdoor? Then I noticed the volume of comments and the viciousness of some:

  • “GOOD and good riddance. Bye bye!!!!!”
  • “Good!!! Hope they catch and prosecute more of these car jackers! Teens or not … people work hard for their cars and more examples need to be made.”

And when someone questioned whether folks were satisfied that the punishment fit the crime, an immediate response was, “Actually, I AM!!!!!” followed by several similar comments and encouragement for DC to be more like Louisiana.

Then, the real impact hit me. This whole situation hurt my soul: another Black child was being lost to the criminal (in)justice system, a system that I know includes a disproportionate number of Black boys and men.  I was disturbed that no one seemed to care why this child was doing this. Lock him away was the only response. No mention of help or rehabilitation. I am not minimizing the crime. He was armed. The carjacking could have resulted in dire consequences (it didn’t). I understand those facts. I also understand that a 16 year old is still a child, a person who, according to Stanford University, has almost 10 more  years for their brain to fully mature and make wise decisions. 

Doing work on racial justice over the last few years has heightened my awareness of how bias, lack of resources and opportunities, and a host of other factors put Black kids at risk and how racism and bias are significant, often under-recognized, factors in how “justice” is meted out in America. As I reflected on my reaction to the Nextdoor exchange, I thought back to the viciousness of America’s response, not that long ago, to drugs and drug-related crimes. Remember “three strikes, you’re out,” America’s response to repeat offenders regardless of the severity of the crime?  Now drug usage has evolved into a public health issue. Growing and selling marijuana has become an acceptable business. Was race a factor in this change?  Some suggest that increased drug usage among suburban and rural whites was what transformed drug usage from an urban problem that was criminal to a public health problem deserving understanding and treatment. Think about that for a while.

Years ago, a former colleague suggested that prisons should be banned. At the time – about 2017 – I couldn’t wrap my mind around what I perceived as an incredibly radical, and probably unrealistic, idea. Now, I am beginning to understand that thinking. When will the social and mental health issues that undergird so many of the behaviors that place people, particularly young people, in prisons be considered? When will society focus on treatment of those underlying problems as the humane and merited response and look at the caging of humans as radical and reactionary?  When will help, not punishment, become the first (or even second) intervention? Does race play a role in preventing this transformation?

For those who know their American history, the 13th amendment to the U.S. Constitution is correctly reported as the amendment that ended slavery. It is also the amendment that still allows for slavery when a crime is committed. The actual language is,

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Both Ava DuVernay in her documentary, “13thand Michelle Alexander in her New York Times bestseller, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness prompt us to consider the connections between racial injustice and the business of America. Just as slavery offered a financial foundation for this country, today’s prison-industrial complex — bail bondsmen, court stenographers, bailiffs, lawyers, judges, prison guards, companies that supply food to prisons, prison security tech companies, and the list goes on – demands a steady increase in what is criminalized  and the number who are imprisoned in order to support the system.  And, while African Americans comprise about 14% of America’s citizenry, Blacks are about 40% of the imprisoned. Again, just think about that.

A 16-year-old was put in prison in Louisiana for 55 years and some people – too many — in a small neighborhood in Washington, DC cheered.

A Reflection on Indigenous Peoples’ Day

This blog was originally posted in July 2020. I thought it merited a repost today, Indigenous Peoples’ Day …

I am my brother’s keeper. Part 3. Black and Native.

In all my Daughters of the Dream posts, I comment through my African American lens. That is who I am. That is how I identify. In truth, however, my maternal side of the family is primarily Native; members of the Chickahominy Tribe of Virginia. I have known this all my life, but it mostly went unacknowledged. The federal government did not recognize the tribe until 2018. But more importantly, in many ways, it was also unrecognized by my family.

Big Mama and Papa Joe. separate pics side by side
The author’s maternal grandparents, Dora Adkins Charity and Joseph P. Charity.

Using Ancestry.com, I watched the evolution of the racial identity of my maternal grandparents. On early census documents, my grandmother was noted as Indian, full-blooded as the saying goes. My maternal grandfather was noted as Mulatto, which he was by the definition of that term, mixed Indian and white. Then they both become Mulatto, along with their children, of course. Subsequent census documents list them as colored, then Negro, then black.

My mother and her siblings were raised as African American. Perhaps my grandparents had internalized the negativity the white, dominant population associated with being Native. The only time I can remember my mother celebrating her Native heritage was when she casually commented one Thanksgiving that there was no need to observe this holiday (even though she did). “It was just the beginning of white people taking Indians’ land,” she said.

Now, I have started the journey of celebrating all of me.

Chief Stephen Adkins
The author with Stephen Adkins, Chief of the Chickahominy Tribe of Virginia

Just as I would not overlook a racist image of an African American or a racist comment about one, I am becoming more attuned to my Native roots and culture.  For years, I have recognized the racism in the names of some sports teams. But when conversations turned to looting following the murder of George Floyd, how many of us thought about the original looters — those who took the land of the Native peoples in this country?

Native and black, they are both a part of who I am.

But what about those identities that are not a part of you or me? Just because it is not our identity, racism cannot be ignored. Racism hurts all of us. As Martin Luther King said, “There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” The racial mosaic of those who continue to march and speak out against police brutality and racism, six weeks after the murder of George Floyd, gives me hope. An increasing number of Americans seem to believe — truly believe — we are our brother’s keeper.