Should a Select Committee to Investigate Racism in the U.S. be in our future?

 

Like many of you, I’ve been watching the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol. From Chairman Bennie Thompson’s opening comments at the first hearing on June 9th to the July 21st closing comments from Vice Chair Liz Cheney, I’ve watched them all.  The hearings have been riveting, not a bombastic spectacle, but a tempered, dispassionate presentation of what led to the event, what happened on that day, and what has happened subsequently. We are beginning to fully understand how this assault on American democracy unfolded and what would have been the ramifications had it succeeded. I believe we’re doing this, in part, so our country might recognize the toxic political partisanship that almost destroyed us, address it, and, hopefully, begin to heal.

Racism, visibly and invisibly, has also divided our country. We’re just beginning to see this. So,  imagine if we had the same type of examination of slavery,  segregation, and the overall impact of racism on America—the same level of thoroughness to examine how people of color have been treated, and the impact of that treatment on disparate groups and on the country.

How would that story be told?

The January 6th hearings are so compelling because real people are telling their own stories. You can relate to, even feel, their emotions. Because so much of the foundation of racism happened centuries ago, telling this story will be more difficult, but I think it can still be told.

For example, without video and first-hand accounts, how would the terror of having your land taken and your people exterminated be told? Maybe those currently living in war ravaged countries in which predators have come to take their land could describe their experience. Could they be modern day proxies for what happened in America centuries ago? I think so. And coupling those stories with disclosures from people living today who were taken to Indian boarding schools could bring to life the full trauma of that experience.

Without people alive today, how would the committee capture the horrors of being kidnapped, brought to a foreign land, and forced to work from before sunrise to after sunset in atrocious conditions? Perhaps some of those brought to this country in current times as domestic workers and then enslaved by their employers could tell their stories. I know, it’s not the same, but perhaps hearing those agonized accounts will offer insights.

Then the committee could listen to real first-hand experiences in Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories.  These are actual accounts, recorded interviews with the formerly enslaved, done between 1932 and 1975, and stored at the Library of Congress. But even those accounts may not reveal the complete truth since some suggest that the experience of oppression and fear of white people may have caused some formerly enslaved people to alter their stories so as not to fully incriminate their oppressors and be punished for telling the truth. Yes, fear even decades after slavery had ended.

While some parts of the story of racism would have to be approximated or told via recordings, that would not be the case in the discussion of Jim Crow laws, and the 20th and 21st century treatment of people of color in America. The reality of disparities in education, health care, housing, the in/justice system, and overall economics could be told by real people today. Some might be elders who were taken out of schools in the 8th grade to work the fields, or soldiers returning from World War II or the Korean War wanting good neighborhoods and housing for their families, or some might be contemporaries, such as the families of those who are now incarcerated  for offenses – remember three strikes you’re out — that are currently touted as desirable entrepreneurial opportunities and some witnesses might be people simply seeking unbiased appraisals today of the value of their homes or quality public schools for their children.

The truth can be told if America is ready to hear it, learn from it, and then change — heal.

Racism is a deep wound that continues to affect our country.  A wound/a disease cannot be accurately treated until you know what caused it and then address it correctly. That is what the January 6th committee is attempting to do – find the truth, repair the fissures in our country, and, hopefully, heal.

We’ve never had a national conversation about race. The closest we’ve come, that I’m aware of, is the President’s Commission on Race established by then-President Bill Clinton in 1997. Have you heard of it? It was chaired by noted historian John Hope Franklin and charged with conducting town hall meetings, examining data, and creating solutions to address the racial divide. The intent was correct and the leadership stellar, but one of the first lessons in racial justice work is that intent and impact are two very different things. While well-intentioned, I don’t believe this commission had significant impact on racial justice. In fact, 25 years later, our inability to examine and discuss race and racial injustice seems to be worsening. Maybe the country wasn’t ready in 1997. I’m not so sure that it is now, but I know that when a group of Texas educators want to refer to slavery as involuntary relocations that’s a clear sign that truth is lacking. Obfuscation and denial continue.

Even in this post-Trayvon Martin, post-Barack Obama, post-George Floyd world of an awakening to racial injustice,  are we ready for a Congressional Hearing on Racism? I believe, if done correctly and with full transparency, it would get us closer to the truth, closer to healing, but is America more primed now than it was in 1997?  If the Congressional Select Committee on January 6th can be an example, we know that Congress can investigate a travesty against the country and can present its findings in a way that compels almost 20 million Americans to watch.  Now, we’ll just have to wait to see what happens because of all the revelations. If the country can handle the truth about January 6th, learn from it, and then act, maybe it’s ready to handle the truth about racism.

 

 

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.

Never a Victim

Friends often ask me, “How could you have grown up in segregated Richmond, Virginia in a stark separate-but-equal environment without witnessing overt signs of segregation?”

Their question stems from a truth I’ve shared with them: I have no memory of seeing whites-only and colored-only water fountains. No time when I was denied access to restaurants. No riding in the back of the bus. None of that. As a child, I had no understanding that my world was defined by race. People don’t believe me when I tell them this, but it’s true.

Some suggest that my mind has blocked the negative images or memories.

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My parents: Edna Charity Lucas and Howard Edward Lucas (next to our home on Edgewood Ave)

I don’t believe that. I think there is a far more powerful explanation: Edna Charity Lucas and Howard Edward Lucas, my parents. In hindsight, I know they went to great lengths, as many black parents did, to see to it that I never felt any level of second-class citizenship. Another thing: they did not talk about discrimination, at least not where I could hear. I think that was important in shaping my reality.

My mom would pack a delicious lunch for our trip to visit family in New York. Then halfway there, my dad would pull the car over to a roadside picnic area. No one commented that we were doing this because we couldn’t eat in restaurants along the way. My parents simply pulled out our lunch, put a tablecloth on the wooden picnic table, and we played games — looking for cars with license plates from different states — as we ate and enjoyed what we now think of as quality family time. And when my dad stopped at the Esso, now Exxon, service station to buy gas, we would go to the bathroom. I didn’t think anything of it. But his lifelong loyalty to Exxon was born from that company being the first to let blacks use the restroom facilities in their service stations, a reality that I learned from books, not from my dad telling me.

There was one childhood incident that probably was exposure to separate-but-equal, but I didn’t know it at the time. My mom and I had entered the train station to travel to visit relatives. I remember skipping ahead toward a seat. My mom took my hand and gently directed me to another area. I now suspect that she was leading me to the ‘colored’ area. No conversation, just a subtle re-direction. I don’t recall even noticing it at the time. The possibility/probability of this being a separate-but-equal memory only surfaced as an adult when friends questioned my experience of segregation as a child. Again, the important point was there was no preamble as I was being led away from where I was headed. At no time, did anyone tell me that there was something I couldn’t do or someplace I couldn’t go.

Of course, I lived in a segregated neighborhood and attended a segregated school, but I didn’t know I was being denied anything. My community was lovely, and I never felt as supported in any educational environment as I did in that school. My point, simply, is that the harshness of segregation as a reality that makes someone superior to you never consciously entered my psyche. Was this level of insulation by my parents positive or did it cause me to have an unrealistic sense of the world? I’m not sure.

All I know is that when whites entered my world via integration, I didn’t fear them, nor did I dislike them. I did not feel that they were the persecutor and I was the victim.  I think that is the most important point. Victims are powerless. Being a victim wears you down. You are continually looking for injustice, looking for where/how you have been wronged. It causes physical and mental stress. I am not saying that prejudice has not been a part of my life. Of course, it has, but that is not the frame that I start out with every day. Whites had, and have, more power than I do, but I have always approached my interactions with them as equals, even as a child. Now, as an adult, injustice surrounds me in the governmental processes and structures that have, with intentionality, disadvantaged me and my community. It is in the media that often portray negative images of black people. It is in the rhetoric of the current president of the United States. It is truly in the air I breathe. But, I am still not a victim.

My parents wisely, and bravely, chose to deflect—but not deny—segregation’s impact on me even as they raised me within its confines. They dealt with the reality of it, all the while telling me that I could do anything I wanted to do. Today, as I work for racial understanding and justice, I recognize that I was raised to be a daughter of the dream, never to be a victim.