A More Perfect Union

I live in Washington, DC and for a long time thought my physical location was a big part of what made me a political junkie. The local news is, after all, the national news. But it isn’t just location, it is also immediacy. Sometimes I know, have met, or have seen on the street, politicians in the news. This minor familiarity makes them more than just names. And, it isn’t just proximity; it is also a recognition and an appreciation of how much was sacrificed to have the ability to vote, a right that shapes so much of what is reflected in the news.

US CapitolI can’t envision a day without CNN, the Washington Post or the various news alerts on my cell phone. I’m hooked. I have to know what is going on in my world, even when the events of the day are troubling. So, as you might expect, I can’t imagine not playing an active role in our country’s political reality. I simply can’t imagine not voting. As the time for the mid-term elections gets closer, I am wondering if people will vote… and I’m completely baffled and angered by the possibility that people will stay home.

How can you not vote? Particularly African-Americans who didn’t have the right to vote until 1870, almost a century after this country was founded on the basis that ‘all men are created equal.’ It was only then that the 15th amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified giving black men the ability to vote. When blacks used that power of the vote and gained a few state offices in the late 1800s, they were struck down. In my home state of Virginia, and in many others, the power brokers of the time then put in place literacy tests and poll taxes, barriers that many could not overcome. In just four years, the number of black voters in Virginia went from 147,000 in 1901 to only 5,000 by 1905. Even 50 years later, in 1956, when an organization in Richmond started actively registering blacks to vote, they discovered that only 19% of eligible black voters were registered. Voter suppression strategies had worked.

Today, hard-fought political gains—post-1965 Voting Rights Act gains—are again being threatened. Just as the election of some blacks to political offices in post-Civil War America led to efforts to squelch power, so too did the election of an African-American president. Coordinated efforts, perhaps not as overt as the 1902 Virginia Constitution change that reduced the number of black voters, but coordinated efforts are being used to lessen the political power of black Americans.

In recent years, robocalls to voters have announced, inaccurately, that the polls have closed or named a winner even when voting is still open. States are also moving to structural changes, such as requiring government-issued IDs to vote, a measure that has a disproportionate, and potentially, long-term effect on communities of color.

But one of the more repugnant strategies was seen recently when the white, Republican gubernatorial candidate in Florida urged his supporters to not “monkey this up” an age-old reference to the presumed animalistic qualities and low intelligence of black people. His opponent is African-American. “Don’t screw this up” or “don’t mess this up” are everyday expressions that roll off the tongue. His comment to not “monkey this up,” is not an everyday expression. It was a clear, pointed, and racialized message to those who consciously and those who subconsciously continue to see African-Americans as less than human. His statement was in no way benign. It was calculated and racist.

I grew up in a time when every new black elected official was celebrated. My parents and neighbors celebrated Carl Stokes, first mayor of a major American city, Cleveland, and Richard Hatcher, the mayor of Gary, Indiana. They even celebrated Edward Brooke, the first African-American in the United States Senate since Reconstruction even though soon after his victory, he announced: “I do not intend to be a national leader of the Negro people.”

As the number of black elected officials has grown at the local, state, and national levels, we may have been lulled, a bit, into thinking that we are well represented. We are not. Currently, there are 47 black members of the House of Representatives (including two non-voting delegates), 47 out of 435 and three black U.S. Senators out of 100. There are no black governors. [Did you know: those of us who live in the Nation’s capital do not have a voting member of Congress. We have a delegate.]

All of this will change with the November mid-term elections. The question is, in which direction. While on the one hand, I see a heightened sensitivity among many in America to racial injustice, I also see ongoing inequities, many of which can be changed only by those who wield the power of the people—elected officials.

November 6, 2018, is election day. Vote. Elect those who can make this a land in which we truly are working for that ‘more perfect union’ promised in the Constitution.

What’s in a Name? A Lot!

Next month, Barack Obama Elementary School in Richmond, Virginia will open its doors for the first time.

Well, not really. The school, originally named J.E.B. Stuart Elementary, opened in 1922.

It was to J.E.B. Stuart that I walked on the first day of the sixth grade. I had attended the segregated Albert V. Norrell Elementary School for the 1st through the 5th grade (the highest grade at that school). Even though Stuart had grades 1-6, and my sixth-grade year was well after the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision, for me, the 6th grade was the first year that the city fathers of Richmond, Virginia allowed me into a white school.

Both Norrell and Stuart were within easy walking distance of my home, but Stuart was a little closer. I lived two blocks south of Brookland Park Boulevard. Stuart was two blocks north. Brookland Park Boulevard was the dividing line, separating black Richmond from white Richmond. The neighborhoods on both sides looked the same—the same beautiful mature trees, the same mixture of architectural styles of houses—but we knew when we crossed the boulevard, it was not the same. While the street itself was rather ordinary, it represented a significant cultural divide. We were foreigners entering the all-white community where our school was located.

As an 11-year-old, I didn’t think anything about who J.E.B. Stuart (a Civil War general for the Confederate states) was just as I hadn’t thought a lot about the eponym of my former school, Albert V. Norrell (an African-American educator whose granddaughter, Faithe, was one of my first-grade classmates).  The names of the schools were just, well, the names of the schools.

In recent years, as the racial consciousness of Americans has grown, how the Civil War is reflected in our day-to-day lives has become an important, and somewhat contentious, topic.

There is no question that for over a century, through many mechanisms, heroic status was given to the leaders of the Confederacy. Literally, looking at the plethora of enormous statues memorializing them across America, and especially in my hometown, gives these men a mythic place in our country’s cultural narrative. And when that fact is coupled with the reality of few monuments or memorials that acknowledge the suffering of enslaved Africans or that celebrate the many contributions of black Americans, you can see why the existence of the statues and the relevance of names is coming into question.

Last month, based on input from the community and from students, J.E.B. Stuart’s name was changed to Barack Obama Elementary. Good, right? Hmmm….. I certainly don’t want to celebrate J.E.B. Stuart and I never did. I do wish to honor President Obama, but it does feel a little strange that now I will tell folks that I attended Obama Elementary. Why is it strange? Because he would have been a one-year-old when I attended that school. Weird, right?

As I thought about it, my first thought was that long-established schools, wanting to change their names, should select non-current historical figures or just something else that is meaningful to the community. J.E.B. Stuart Elementary could have become Azalea Elementary maybe, recognizing the beautiful, spring shrubbery in the Richmond area. Or even Northside Elementary after the section of town in which the school is located, or perhaps be named for another historical figure like Albert V. Norrell, the name of the now-closed, black elementary school. Following that practice would mean that you wouldn’t end up with this peculiar time warp feeling that challenges me just a little right now.

What something is named does matter, having an unconscious effect on some, but great impact for others. This year, 96.4% of the children attending this school will be children of color with 91.8% being African-American. I know that the parents who hold their hands as they walk into Barack Obama Elementary on September 4th will feel a sense of pride. That pride will flow into the children as they learn about the leader for whom their school is named. And on those rare occasions when called on to mention my elementary school experience, the new name will catch on my tongue, at least at first, but I, too, am proud to have attended the only school in Richmond, Virginia named for the first African-American president. Time warp be damned.

obama shirt

Update:  When we — Tamara Lucas Copeland, Jeanne Johnson Petties and Debbie Johnson Riddick —  learned that Obama Elementary T-shirts were available, we immediately ordered ours.  Unfortunately, the promotion has ended, but, who knows, it might come back.  Add your name to the waiting list at http://www.bonfire.com/barack-obama-elementary-school=1/

 

 

Swimming in Inequity: Waters Divide

What do you think when someone says “Let’s go to the pool.” A fun place to meet friends, a peaceful spot to read a good book, take a refreshing swim, or do laps?

Whatever you think, this iconic image of summer rarely brings forth thoughts of race, but that’s exactly what happened to me recently. The racial overtone of swimming pools came to mind when I learned of a play coming to my area called #poolparty. Based on an incident that happened years ago in Mt. Rainier, Maryland, a community just outside of Washington, DC, this play focuses on the unique, and perhaps unexpected, role that swimming pools have played in the history of race in America.

Public pools were off limits for many African-Americans during the years when I grew up. In the late 1950s and 60s, there were none available for black people in Richmond, Virginia, my hometown. City leaders claimed that tight budgets and the fear of the transmittal of diseases, particularly polio at that time, was the basis for this decision. But no one believed that. The real reason, some suggest, was a desire not to mix races in what many felt was the intimacy of a swimming pool. Body-revealing bathing suits and the possibility of touching, even accidentally, brought forth the white community’s historical need to protect white women from black men. Since integration in civic areas was now legally mandated, public pools, at least those in Richmond, and in many other communities, would be closed.

Now, this reality didn’t have too much impact on many whites. There were private community pools and private country clubs. White teenagers still had pool parties, and young white parents took their young ones to pools to learn to swim.

That wasn’t the case in my community. Even though neither of my parents could swim, they both wanted me to learn. I remember them talking about how much fun I could have. It was right before school ended in the 7th grade that these conversations started in my home. Swimming had never come up before. What I didn’t know was that there hadn’t been a place for me to learn to swim until then. The local black Y—separate and pool with stepsunequal—didn’t have a pool like the white Y. At the time, there was no country club for the black community. But that summer a resource became available. A local black physician opened his nearby home to swim instructors from the black Y. They held classes in his backyard pool. That year, the summer between the 7th and 8th grades, I packed my towel and put on shorts over my swimsuit and walked the few blocks to Dr. Jackson’s house to learn to swim. Just as had always been the case, the black community found a way to take care of its own. But for those not fortunate enough to have a Dr. Jackson with a pool in the neighborhood, their grandparents might not have learned to swim. If they didn’t, their mom and dad might not have been encouraged to learn. And the fun and value of learning to swim may not have been transmitted to the current generation.

The lack of access to pools in the ‘50s and ‘60s continues to have an impact today.

Swimming is often seen only as a recreational activity but learning how to swim can, of course, save your life. Even today, the USA Swimming Foundation estimates that 70% of African-Americans cannot swim. Consider that fact against the high percentage of people who lost their lives in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Most were poor and black… and they drowned.

While swimming pools are no longer the symbol of privilege they once were, access to swimming is still disproportionately more available to the white community. Certainly swimming and access to a pool is not the symbol of racial equity in America. But the next time you sit by the pool to read, or you invite your friends over for a swim, at least acknowledge that this, too, is representative of the racial divide that continues to exist and is emblematic of a much more profound and significant racial disparity in America.

Daughters of the Dream: The Book!

Last September, I launched my Daughters of the Dream blog to share stories about growing up amid segregation, integration, civil rights and the ongoing push for racial justice. Now, I have captured those stories, and so much more, in a book by the same name. If the blog speaks to your heart, your mind, or your soul, I hope you will order my new book.

If you are a fan of Amazon, go to: https://www.amazon.com/Tamara-Lucas-Copeland/e/B07DLY2L2T/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0.

cover photo

If Barnes and Noble is more your choice, here’s the link: https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/daughters-of-the-dream-tamara-lucas-copeland/1128850552?ean=9781937592813.

And, one other option—Books A Million has the book at http://www.booksamillion.com/p/Daughters-Dream/Tamara-Lucas-Copeland/9781937592813?id=7284467936313.

For all the options, the book can be pre-ordered before its release on June 18.

Through vignettes of the life experiences of eight friends from Richmond, Virginia, the book presents one person’s perspective of what it truly is like to be black in America. Let me know if it makes you think differently, opens your eyes to another reality, or if it simply reminds you of meaningful life experiences.