Respectability vs. Resistance

This week, when I read Barbara Reynolds column on her challenges with the Black Lives Matter Movement in the Washington Post (read here) I was deeply disappointed. Here was someone who is a respected leader and a member of the clergy, intelligent, articulate…someone who embodies all of the respectability of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s coming across like just another whiny baby boomer.  But I cannot and do not wish to get into a lengthy discourse on the pros and cons of her argument. I am not qualified. I am the cusp generation…Generation X…we were the product of the 1960’s Civil Rights Movement and are the parents of the Millennials driving #BlackLivesMatter. We cannot claim a place of leadership in either space, yet we are deeply impacted by both.

Today’s activists are working from a point of enfranchised disenfranchisement and that is a direct result of both the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s and my generation actively reaping the rewards of that struggle. Arguably, an enormous benefit that my generation received from struggle of our parents and older siblings, was “respectability” which came from a few key sources. Schools were systematically and aggressively de-segregated, not just in the South but in places where the practice was more insidious like Boston and San Diego. Affirmative action was in high gear whether some of us received the direct benefit of it or not, and for the first time, college admissions teams were asking questions about “diversity” in their school populations; the Ivy League started admitting women and people of color in significant numbers. That education led to greater visibility and so we also witnessed the power roles in media go from entirely white and male to including the regular faces of Barbara Walters, Connie Chung, Bryant Gumble, Geraldo Rivera, Oprah Winfrey and Jayne Pauley. Mini-series like Miss Jane Pittman, Roots and television programs like The Jeffersons, Dynasty (and even Good Times) changed the visibility of black history and black life. Magazines like Black Enterprise, Essence and Ebony were staples of newsstands, not just in black neighborhoods like they had been in the 50’s and 60’s and we even saw the desegregation of white fashion…thank you Beverly Johnson. By the time 1985 rolled around, when the oldest of those folks who currently claim the moniker “young adult” were just being born, we were already used to the “Huxtables,” Will Smith both Michael and Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston was at the top of what was once considered the white “pop” charts, echoing the achievements of her aunt Dionne Warwick back in the 1960’s but on a scale unprecedented by any previous artist. Colin Powell was poised to become the first head of the military (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) paving the way for back to back black Secretaries of State in the 2000s. Basically, today’s young civil rights leaders have not known a time when blacks didn’t have what appears to be access to education, high ranking jobs and “respectability.”

But that is where the communication seems to break down. Barbara Reynolds and others can’t seem to get past this word, and this is a sentiment I’ve heard from several older folks who talk about hair and sagging pants and profanity. But honestly, these are exactly the things they fought for. The church-going-white-lace-socks-and-mary-janes respectability image worked extremely well to say in the 1950’s and 60’s that once and for all, blacks are not animals. The strength of the black church over the years not only sustained and supported community, but it said to white America “we have souls.” These two questions, not being animals and having souls, were actually arguments that were frequently levied against blacks in the post Civil War era and throughout the early 20th century. The US military was segregated through WWII not because of some kind of unspecific dislike of blacks or a feeling that blacks were incapable of warfare, but rather because of more specific over arching sense that blacks could not be trusted. There are shades of this evident when looking at the events that unfolded in Britain in 1942 (see article here) The greatest achievement that Barbara Reynolds points to is respectability, but I say the greatest achievement is the buy in to American culture that the respectability gained for blacks.

This is the disconnect. Today’s youth and young adults cannot find jobs (see some stats here ) If they attend college, they emerge carrying more debt into the start of their adult lives than many of their parents incurred buying their first homes…something many black young adults may never be able to do.  They have a broader language of music and media interaction than the old guard can even conceive of and because of technology, they are internationally aware without ever having set foot out of the US. They not only know about black history, but the history of African countries, Asian countries. Middle Eastern Islam, Buddhism and other non-Judeo Christian religion is not a mystery to them and yes, some of them are Atheists and “nones.” Many of them place greater importance on the right to their gender identities and sexuality than they do their concepts of God. In short, today’s youth have taken the “respectability” of an earlier generation and turned it into fully developed lives and cultures lived without fear of certain kinds of oppression. The work of the 1960’s worked on one level; we “overcame” the question of being people. Today’s black youth feel fully enfranchised in what it means to be completely human in the United States. This is what the Herstory of the Black Lives Matter Movement says. It is unapologetic and expansive in its inclusivity.

So why are blacks being killed at random by overly zealous police?

Oh right…because even though we figured out the whole “respectability” thing, even though we got the education, the job, the visibility; even though black culture has become “main stream” through Hip-Hop, Rap and slam poetry; even though in some respects “we have overcome”… even though we are human and have souls, white centered US culture says…black lives don’t matter. With all the respectability in the world, black is not white and white is the context for US culture. THIS is what I believe the Black Lives Matter movement is resisting. It is a movement of resistance against contexts that are constructed for white success and safety only; a movement of resistance against cis-gendered, heteronormativity as the starting point. It is an invitation to everyone to benefit from fixing one of the most polarized cultural relationships in our nation’s history and create a new baseline. It is a movement of resistance from within the system that the Civil Rights folks of the 60’s fought to open the door to. Well guess what Rev. Reynolds, we got in. The ranch house in the suburbs belongs to us. And my generation tried living with that old flocked wallpaper and the shag carpet but the young folks who we’ve passed it on to, have decided to renovate…actually, to tear the damned thing down altogether and build something new. You fought for them to have the right to do this and unless you don’t believe in what you were fighting for, if instead you were fighting for them to remain as “respectable” non-threatening, non-violent negroes, it might be best to stay out of the spotlight…close enough to be supportive when asked…but let them drive the wrecking ball.

Finally, I would like to remind our elders of a highly ironic part of this whole “Old Civil Rights/New Civil Rights” conversation, as someone who is neither old enough to claim a place in the Civil Rights Movement of the 60’s and 70’s and who is too old to claim a place of leadership in #BlackLivesMatter. On April 4, 1968 a gunshot rang out that many people believe brought to a close the great hope of the 1960’s movement. But it is very clear to me that the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. was not the end. Instead, it was a beginning. His assassination was proof that black respectability, even as clergy, could be trumped by the context of angry whiteness. In that context, his life didn’t matter. Before Trayvon Martin, MLK was the first death in today’s Black Lives Matter movement.

Not Over…

imageWhen Bree Newsome scaled to the top of the flagpole outside of the State Capitol of South Carolina (with the help of James Tyson) she did what many black and white Southerners alike had dreamed about for a long time. She simply and with respect, took down the Confederate battle flag. This particular flag was put in place as a direct protest to the Civil Rights Movement back in the 1960’s and there has been a great deal of debate about it ever since. A particularly interesting debate occurred some 3000 miles away last week in my current city of San Diego when Dwayne Crenshaw of RISE San Diego was interviewed by Allen Denton of KUSI about the Confederate flag. I encourage you to watch this entire piece (KUSI Confederate Flag.) Besides the nervous vocal ticks of Allen Denton when he is with Mr. Crenshaw and the interviewer’s not so subtle bias toward the more academic approach of Trevore Humphrey of the San Diego History Center, the most telling moment is when Crenshaw skillfully reminds Denton that yes the Civil War was about economics…the economics of slavery; and yes, the Civil War was about states rights…the right to own slaves. He drives home the central point of everyone who ever objected to the public display of this flag from 1960 to Bree Newsome, to this weekend when the flag finally officially came down: there is no escaping the connection of the “Stars and Bars” with slavery in the United States.

But this leaves us with a very large and challenging vacuum. Suddenly, a symbol that has been adopted by millions of people in the South as a signifier of Southern culture, history, pride, etc., regardless of its direct symbolism of the racial polarization of our nation, has been legally and democratically removed signaling what will probably be a trend of its removal by other governments and agencies. Already retailers have removed it and are refusing to sell it. This is the Paula Deen fiasco on a much larger historical and cultural scale.  The days of the even tenuous political correctness of the Confederate Flag are over.  What is a Southerner to do in its absence?

I don’t have an answer to that. I was recently involved in a brief Facebook exchange with some black colleagues who spoke of something that we almost all share. We have researched our family history using a number of online tools that are available today and everything is fine until we try to go back before 1865. There are no records of our families or our people or our history prior to 1865. Actually, that’s not true, there are records “Negro/Male/24; Negro/Female/7; Negro/Male/ 50…” They are as anonymous as parts of machinery, for that is all they amounted to for the people keeping records of human life in the United States south prior to 1865. My and my friends histories, were ignored and deleted while our ancestors were slaves. I believe that this is part of the reason we have the kinds of struggles of belonging that we have today among many blacks. We can’t point to our people who facilitated the lives and wealth of our “founding fathers.” We can’t name the nursemaid that cared for the slaveholding elite that drove industry in early 19th century America. We have systematically been written out of the history of the United States prior to 1865.

So, I don’t have an answer to how or what form or why Southern pride will be reborn once the Confederate Flag is uniformly relegated to history books and museums. I do, however, know that Southern pride is very real and a valuable part of what makes the United States what it is. My earnest and sincere hope is that the people of the South are able to find the part of Southern heritage that they can celebrate that doesn’t celebrate the denial of my heritage as a black person.

Huffington Post: South Carolina Confederate Flag Comes Down

Spring Will Not Be Silent in North Carolina

HKonJ-FB-Profile-pic“While [Rachel] Carson knew that one book could not alter the dynamic of the capitalist system, an environmental movement grew from her challenge, led by a public that demanded that science and government be held accountable.  Carson remains an example of what one committed individual can do to change the direction of society.  She was a revolutionary spokesperson for the rights of all life.  She dared to speak out and confront the issue of the destruction of nature and to frame it as a debate over the quality of all life.”  – Linda Lear, Introduction to the 40th Anniversary edition of Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

On February 8, 2014, activists, clergy and concerned citizens will gather in Raleigh, North Carolina for the Moral March on Raleigh also known as HKonJ (Historic Thousands on Jones Street). This march is threatening to be “bigger than Selma” and is part of the wave of reaction to a Republican minority driving the North Carolina government toward exclusionary policies that hinder opportunity for all the poor and primarily the largely Democratic people of color of North Carolina.  These shocking policies,  most specifically around voting rights,  harken back, not just to the days of Jim Crow, but to the Slave Codes of the late 19th century.  Although not related to environmental justice on the surface, the call to action is the same:  we must fight back against short sighted public policies that serve to enrich an already wealthy minority while killing the larger population…and the time to fight back is now!

Silent Spring caused a firestorm of controversy around the use of pesticides when it was released in 1962.  Penned by celebrated author and pioneering biologist, Rachel Carson, the book called into question the entire biochemical industrial complex.  She made the powerful case for the toxic effects of biochemicals on all creatures, most of all on human beings, linking certain types of cancers directly to the production and use of chemical pesticides.  This was despite popular scientific theory of the time that claimed humans had “tolerances” and “adaptabilities” that surpassed these toxicities.  Her conjecture flew in the face of the greedy, ego driven, arrogant and entirely male dominated world of pesticide and chemical development.  Initially she was dismissed as a “hysterical woman” with no real scientific foundation for her claims.  But ultimately, when President John F. Kennedy took notice of her writing, things began to change.  Eventually, through public pressure, the government was compelled to investigate her theories finding them to be an understatement of the gravity of the actual situation.  Her work would lead to the creation of the EPA and domestic bans on DDT and other advances in the control, limitation and elimination of certain toxic biochemicals.  Her battle was not just for the masses, but rather personal.  Unknown to many at the time, while she worked on Silent Spring, she was battling breast cancer.  She would die in 1964 before seeing the full fruits of her labor.

Today, we still wrestle with big business and government interest around the environment, our food supply and ecosystems.  The battle for ecological justice is far from won, rather, it continues in earnest as the greed of a few continue to push Genetically Modified Organisms into our bodies and minds, with claims that they will be “better for us” in the long run.  The struggle will continue as long as the powerful, wealthy few live in fear of losing their power and wealth. Sadly, it is the same with the state of civil rights in North Carolina and other localities that are feeling the effects of the Supreme Court’s ruling on key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights act last year.  But what is most shocking is the hubris of conservative politicians to assume that they are immune to the toxic political environment they have created. At the very least it is irresponsible, at its worst self destructive.  Reflecting back on Carson’s perspective on the environment, Lear goes on to state that Silent Spring:

…proved that our bodies are not boundaries.  Chemical corruption of the globe affects us from conception to death.  Like the rest of nature, we are vulnerable to pesticides; we too are permeable.  All forms of life are more alike than different. 

Similarly, the restrictive public policies that the Moral March is highlighting ultimately bring down not just people of color and the poor in general, but all North Carolinians and ultimately all people of this nation.  Like the rest of nature…we too are permeable to the pesticides of class and race politics.  We are all susceptible to the poison of public policies that benefit only the very few.  The benefits for those few will only last a short time; the illness and cultural cancers for the many will and have lasted for generations.  Ultimately, greed multiplied by fear is the most toxic poison to the cultural soul.

But there is hope.  We  have seen the images from the struggle for voting rights in the 1960’s: black people…children going to prison, adults being attacked by dogs, or assaulted with hoses and brutalized by police.  But there was also Unitarian Universalist minister and pastor of All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington, D.C., James Reeb, a white man, who was beaten to death in Selma, Alabama for showing his solidarity with blacks in 1965.  His martyrdom and the actions of all the Civil Rights activists, black, white, gay, straight, Christian, Jewish, Muslim and non-religious combine to inspire a new generation of leaders and community organizers who believe that equality is not just for people who look like one group of people or speak the same language or come from the same economic class.  They believe, and the science of Rachel Carson and the science of nature itself, back this up: real social equity is something in which we all must make a deep investment.  It is the only antidote to the poison that permeates the current political climate in North Carolina and it is the only real cure to stop it’s insidious spread to the rest of our nation and maybe even the world.

This spring in North Carolina will not be silent.  March on, march on!

Update: The Moral March drew thousands on a cold rainy Saturday.  Despite conservative media challenges, the movement is poised for much greater national action (READ HERE)

Links:

Historic Thousands on Jones

Standing on the Side of Love

America’s Tomorrow – via PolicyLink

Equity Blog – via PolicyLink

Twitter: #MoralMarch

Happy Birthday

Today is the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.  It was a pivotal day in the history of the Civil Rights movement in America.  Although it had been conceived before (reference is made in the film Brother Outsider to a plan in the 1940’s for a march of this nature) it was the first time any demonstration of this magnitude had ever come together in this country.  A mixing of races and religions and economic backgrounds came together and stood united in demonstration of the need for change for one specific demographic sector…black people.

These kinds of demonstrations aren’t so simple now.  As we progressed from the era of fighting for the rights of one marginalized population, other groups began to find their voices in the song of freedom.  Women, Gays and Lesbians, Latinos, Asian Americans, people with disabilities, Jews, Muslims, Atheists.  But eventually people started to realize as well that they weren’t just part of one group.  We used to joke (before political correctness) that if you were a black Jewish lesbian in a wheelchair, you had the ultimate minority status.  But we don’t make those jokes anymore; in fact, we are starting to see the value of recognizing what a black, Jewish, disabled lesbian would represent in the mix.  She would represent the degree to which we all sit at intersections of cultures, demographics and social standings.  Each of us has privilege; each of us has disadvantage.  The Civil Rights Movement ushered in an age of self identity that has now culminated in all of us finding multiple self identities.

As we look back on the March on Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speech, the brilliance of Bayard Rustin’s organizing and the willingness of the people to buy into the effort and gather en-masse during a weekday, it does seem clear that somethings have definitely changed.  But it is also clear that some things have not really changed at all.  People have died for a cause who’s banners would be just as relevant today.  A white man can kill a black man and walk free.  We talk about how demographics are shifting to make people of color the majority in this country by 2050; but that kind of binary based demographic still leaves white people as the “norm” or the barometer against which everyone else is measured.   Change…but the same.

Progress…real progress, will mean a time when we are able to look at the world through something other than the binary lens: black/white; gay/straight; male/female; rich/poor; able/disabled.  We will look at each other as hearts and minds and we will look at life and maybe even God as a continuum…a spectrum of experience.  We will have no need for demographics because we will no longer be judging each other.  We will fully embrace our selves as black lesbian disabled Jews and our society will actually not raise an eyebrow when it is asked to embrace us back.

But over all, my point is, this day, in 1963 is when it began.  Certainly others fought hard before and after this date, but it is the one date we can point to when we know that at least 250,000 other people were thinking pretty much the same thing: “we need to do something about this mess.”

Today is also my friend Stacey’s birthday…in fact at the exact moment when those 250,000 people were gathered on the National Mall, when Martin Luther King, Jr. declared “I Have a Dream”, while Mahaila Jackson sang “How I Got Over,” Stacey sent her first cry to the heavens.  And although both Mahalia and Dr. King are gone, Stacey is still here and still crying to the heavens, singing jazz.  In 50 years, she has changed of course…as we all have, yet she is the same; just like this country, just like our dreams for justice and equality for all.

So, today, rather than lamenting how much things are the same after 50 years, let’s celebrate what is good about those things that haven’t changed…our basic desire for honesty, humanity and humility; our basic desire for good.  Our need to see the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice.  Our God given talents and gifts that lift one another up and unite us as one people to declare that we ALL have a dream; and of course the fact that we are still singing jazz.  For without dreams, whether they be great or small, what else do we have to live for?

Happy Birthday Stacey!