COMING OF AGE BELOW THE MASON-DIXON LINE

The older I get, the more I am becoming aware of how very different the home I grew up in was when compared with the homes of my peers. There is so much baggage, so many experiences that I did not have because I was insulated from our culture as much as my parents could possibly achieve, so many things that were not said and possessions not owned so that I was trained to think and evaluate everything in life correctly and did not grow up with the vast majority of the detrimental mindsets that shape the lives and minds of a lot of our children even now.

I went to school with Paul French. He was a couple of years ahead of me and his family was the only black family that lived on the South Side of Hannibal, Missouri. The only black person who was ever in our house was the delivery man for the local cleaners. He was a splendid, very interesting fellow and I was delighted to see him and his wife at the visitation for my mother when she passed away. Some 30+ years after meeting him, he and my mother found out that they shared a birthday, so for my mother’s 65th birthday they celebrated together at his and his wife’s house. Until that time, my mother had never been in the house of a black family. It was an incredibly important experience for her.

For all intents and purposes, until August 1966, my life was devoid of “people of colour”. There was no purposefulness to it, it was just that we lived on the South Side of town where my parents had grown up, went our way, did our thing, worshiped in our small, little church and pretty much did a lot of what my parents had done when they were growing up. Except for one thing.

When I was growing up, I was taught that G-d made all of us equal; that we had equal value before Him; that we were intellectually equal as well as in every other way;  that sin was sin and virtue was virtue, and that neither one had anything to do with skin colour, religion, gender, economic status, country of origin, education, or any of the other bases for racism and discrimination. And that was enforced in everything they did, in everything that was around our house, in everything they modeled. It was pounded into me from a very young and early age that I was to judge people based on what kind of people they were, not on any of the trappings, and I have tried to follow the justice and fairness of that in all that I do.

Did my parents take flak for raising us in this way??? Definitely, but I was shielded from most of that as well. I was well into my adult years before I learned that some of our family members held some distinctly racist viewpoints. For me, because most of it came from the elders, the authority figures in the family, I either wasn’t aware of it, or what I was aware of I handled with “I don’t believe that way, so it is not relevant to me, I am going to keep on doing what I have always done.” There was no opportunity to address the issue and I was very aware that I would have been in a lot of trouble if I had brought it up. So I didn’t. I just went ahead and did what I had been taught.

No, they were not perfect parents. Yes, I was aware that there were endless divisions in our society between people. I knew from the very beginning that I was one of the “have nots,” that I was from the South Side, we were working class poor, and I was never expected to have much more or do much more than I had and did growing up. And definitely never an education. My generation was the first one on both sides of the family where most of us graduated from high school. But I was not really aware of how non-white America lived. I knew they were oppressed. I knew there were people who hated them and throughout our history had killed some of them simply because they were black, Latino, and Asian. But I did not know what that meant, especially in day to day terms.

When my ex-husband joined the USAF, I went from a farming culture to plunging headlong into the heart of the international community. I was around people from all over the world and who spoke a myriad of different languages, ate different food, many times had different religious beliefs. The culture shock was mind-bending and it took me several years to make enough internal adjustments so that I was not feeling like I had walked through a time warp and was on a totally different planet in a totally different universe. But one of the take-aways for me was that I saw people of all races and walks of life working together to accomplish the same sets of goals. Everybody worked together, lived together, fought together, bled together, and died together. I embraced that mindset and did not really look beyond to understand that while the veneer was there, it many times did not permeate the troops as a whole.

When we separated and divorced in 1980, I stayed in Maryland. For the first time in my life, I was in a totally civilian environment below the Mason-Dixon Line, with all that entailed, in a community that was known, in part, as an enclave for the KKK. I did not have a clue, but I was about to learn.

It was all very subtle at first, an undercurrent a little bit below the surface. As a white person, I almost would not have noticed if it had not been for my cabbie friend who told me to go to this restaurant in the center of town that was on a short side street off the main drag. He told me they had great food, but would have a “Closed” sign in the window after 2 PM, even though they were actually open. They only did that to keep the blacks out. I was to pay no attention to the sign, but go on in and tell them that he had suggested I stop in. When I got there, the “Closed” sign was indeed in the window, but the door was unlocked, so I went in, not at all sure what I was walking into. Conversation stopped and everyone looked at me. I explained who I was and gave them my cabbie friend’s name, which was good enough for them to serve me, but not good enough for conversation to go back to normal. I was an unknown, an outsider.

They brought my food to the counter where I was sitting. They were polite enough, but still, not friendly. As I was eating, I looked around. It was a pretty common looking neighbourhood restaurant and visibly patriotic. However, the pictures on the wall behind the counter were interesting. They had pictures of every single American president up to Richard Nixon. Then they stopped. Except for a prominent picture of George Wallace at the end of the photo display. By that time, Ronald Reagan was in office, but they were missing Ford and Carter as well. The question flitted through my head, “Why did they stop at Nixon and Wallace???”

I did not like the answer. Many of my friends were either black, Hispanic, or Jewish. It was not a very friendly environment for me to be in. I finished my food, thanked them, and beat a hasty retreat, never to come back. Years later, the county tore that location down in order to put up a county office building. That the restaurant was gone, and with it their pocket of hate, could not have happened to a nicer group of people. I had no illusions about their hate being gone, just the place where they congregated every day. I am fairly certain that did not deter them, merely change their location.

Having once experienced a few very uncomfortable moments in the “Old South,” I did not need to have a lot of things explained to me that had not made sense before. I had thought that because I had seen what appeared to be a more equitable environment in the military, that the racial bigotry and ingrained prejudice I had heard so much about in the 1960s was mostly a thing of the past. I had been confronted by the inescapable reality that it not only was not a thing of the past, it was alive, well, and flourishing just under the surface . . . and sometimes not even that.

I have learned much in the thirty-five years since then. How I lived for so many years totally unaware of what surrounds me, I neither know, nor understand. It has always been there, only I did not see it. The only reason I can figure out is that because my mind was trained to not think in those terms, I did not look for others to think in those terms either. I should have know better.

Thirty years ago, the NAACP asked the federal government to open an investigation into cases of police brutality and deaths of black arrestees while in the custody of the Baltimore City Police Department. Aside from knowing that Baltimore, like Washington, DC, was predominantly black, I knew little about it. I had started out my sojourn in Maryland in the Washington, DC suburbs and even though I was then living further east in central Maryland, I had never shifted my “community” orientation. I was still a Washington girl at heart and it is a vastly different city than Baltimore. As the nation’s capital it is an international city and I was used to living in an international environment. I blew off the request of the NAACP as so much grandstanding. Little did I know.

Fast forward to 11 August 1997 when James Quarles was shot in broad daylight at Lexington Market. Yes, he was brandishing a knife, but he was never a danger to any of the four policemen who surrounded him. Mace, pepper spray, a night stick, . . . all could have knocked the knife out of his hand and subdued him without having to resort to lethal force, but he was shot in what police described as an unfortunate mistake by a cop with just four years experience who said Mr. Quarles “lunged” at him and he was afraid for his life. I had heard that story before. A lot.

As I went back in my memory and began to tally the “reasons” given in cases where police brutality and excessive force were in question, it seemed that nearly all of them had explanations of the arrestee either “resisting arrest” or officers “were in fear for their lives.” I questioned myself whether or not the BCPD officers were so untrained or undertrained, or the arrestees so fearsome as to give any credence to their explanations. My conclusion was that no police department encounters that may perps that are beyond their capacity to subdue short of violent means or lethal force.

I saw the video of the shooting of James Quarles again, and again, and again, and again, and again. And each time, there was one inescapable conclusion: despite anything that the internal investigation did to try to explain away what happened, it was not a “righteous” shoot. James Quarles did not have to die that afternoon. But he did.

As the years have passed and the body count of arrestees has risen, there has been no way of escaping the truth that some on the Baltimore City Police Department are guilty of gross brutality which has led to significant injury and, in some cases, death. As Baltimore is predominantly black, so are the victims. And in a never ending litany, the police department and the courts have cleared nearly every single case with the assessment that the police actions were justified. I had long since done business with the fact that the streets were mean enough that you could literally be dying and no one would do anything. But it jarred me to my core that a person could be killed outright without cause by the police and neither the government, nor the courts, would do anything. I understood that, given the right set of circumstances, even the fact that I was a white woman would not exempt me from that possibility. And that made me afraid.

When I married, my former father-in-law was a policeman for our local police department. His father-in-law had been a prison guard in the federal prison system. I was used to thinking in terms of cops being friends and reliable authority figures who would help in times of trouble. That is what I had been taught as a child growing up. Nothing prepared me for thinking of cops as enemies and opponents, someone who could do anything to me and never have to answer for it, if it was legally, morally and professionally wrong.

There was one thing about this entire scenario, however, that I could not wrap my mind around. I could understand this type of police brutality and use of excessive force in cases where there were white officers and black arrestees. What I could not understand was how this could be happening in a police department which had a large contingent of black officers and black leadership, in a city which was predominantly black, with a city council that was predominantly black and a mayor that was frequently black. Until Freddie Gray.

Much has been written about how Freddie Gray was arrested without probable cause, placed in the police van without restraint, was denied requested medical attention several times, and was unresponsive upon arrival at the police station. Disturbing as those facts are, they have been played out countless times without having the fatal consequences that they did with Freddie Gray. But the one facet of this case that has pushed it from “I am watching these situations and am keeping count” to “NOT ON MY WATCH!!!!” is the injuries Mr. Gray sustained.

I am no expert, but I am a retired legal secretary who has had any number of cases cross my desk over the years of people who have been injured, sometimes seriously or fatally. Even I understand that giving somebody a “rough ride” where they are handcuffed behind their backs in the back of a van being driven in such a way as to cause injury is not sufficient to sever the spinal cord by 80%. The physics just does not work. If nothing else, the very fact that the arrestee had his hands handcuffed behind his back will provide a certain amount of protection, except possibly to the cervical spine where a sharp blow could do significant damage. But an 80% severance??? The amount of torque required for that type of injury is tremendous and deliberate. It is also not easily explained away, although I am confident that the defense attorneys for the officers who have been charged in Mr. Gray’s death will do their utmost to make it sound like anything but what it is.

We, in Baltimore, are at a crossroads where everything must pivot on the case of the officers charged in the death of Freddie Gray. No matter who wants life to go on unabated with no changes and for these officers to be exonerated, the community will no longer tolerate the status quo. We want answers and we want changes. Now!!! How much we will get depends on how hard we are willing to fight for the changes we need. The price tag for not fighting is entirely too high. It always was.

In order for there to be change, we have to have some extremely uncomfortable conversations.

We need to confront ourselves about our own denial and our own inaction.  We need to confront ourselves, our leadership, and those responsible for the bad things we allow to happen in our communities that we should make sure is stopped. Conversely, we need to confront ourselves, our leadership and those responsible for the good things we need and want in our communities that we continually allow to be delayed by promises never fulfilled, to be stymied by endless red tape, and to be prevented from happening outright by administrations more interested in their own welfare and public perception, rather than the the welfare of and benefits to the communities they were elected to serve. What we need to do is insist upon the infrastructure being established so the necessary programs and opportunities can implemented and completed.

We need to confront ourselves and our leaders about what we allow them to do and say that is destroying us. We need to hold our leaders accountable for everything they do while in leadership positions, including where there is moral failure, and we need to insist that they clean up their act if they want to remain leaders. If they don’t, we need to elect someone else who will be a person of integrity.

We need to stop letting things slide, to stop buying the many lies and excuses we are given by those with glib tongues, to stop using them ourselves to deny problems which are many times self-evident or to diminish how great they are. And we need to recognise and reject the lies and excuses that strip us of our power and ability to fight for changes so justly deserved and long overdue.

The first thing we have to confront is the fact that life in America is vastly different in the white community as opposed to the different ethnic communities that live among us. I say “among us” because “they” do not live “with” us. No matter how thin, there is always, always, always a veil of separation between us. Like the old observation: “Q: When is the most segregated hour in America? A: 11:00 AM on Sunday morning.” Why? Because that is when the vast majority of the “people of colour” – the black, Latino, and immigrant communities of this country – go to their places of worship to be with people who are like themselves, while much of the white community sit in  churches where there are either no people of colour or very few.

We cannot understand what is actually going on in this country and in our communities unless we are willing to listen to all of what is happening, not just what we are comfortable with, or how far we are willing to extend ourselves beyond our comfort zone to hear. We need to hear all of it.

We need to hear the fear, and the anger, and the desperation, and the hopelessness. We need to hear what we are doing wrong and if we are doing anything right. We need to understand realities such as the economic bondage that exists in the low level infrastructures we have built, how when Dollar General types of stores are all there are in the community, nobody can buy decent quality products that they need to live because the stores that sell them are far enough outside of the community as to make them inaccessible on a regular basis, especially for those dependent on public transportation, which includes many inner city residents.

We need to listen instead of talk. We need to respect the communities and their leaders, instead of taking the patriarchal attitude that we know better than they do, that we know what is best for their communities. We need to stop running in fear from everything that is not “just like us” and understand that “our way of life” is not threatened with extinction because someone is not “like us.” We need to instead understand that we are a stronger city because of our diversity, not in spite of it.

The conversations have to start somewhere.

Below are three articles from the NY Times that talk about what it is like to raise a son who is black in America. They deal with what the ingrained obstacles are that have to be faced and overcome, if they can be. Such as, how the abilities of a black child who tries to get a good education are many times met with the assessment in the better school systems and private schools (run primarily by wealthy whites) that they cannot learn because they are black and the reaction of some in the black community that if they do get a good education, then they sound “white.” How does a black child win in that situation? Too many times the answer is that if they do what is best for themselves, then they are seen as anomalies in the white community and traitors in their own. When what they should be seen as is a successful child who has gained a good education, something to be celebrated by everyone.

Please read these articles and watch the videos.

Let’s help start the conversation here in Baltimore and give it more than the cursory lip service it normally gets. Our survival as a community depends upon it.

What Dr. Martin Luther King said has become something of a truism, we have heard it so many times. But it still is the best and only real solution to the juggernaut confronting us. Doing anything less will not work.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

____________________

FILM SERIES

1. A CONVERSATION WITH MY BLACK SON

2. A CONVERSATION ABOUT GROWING UP BLACK

____________________

AN EDUCATION IN EQUALITY

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