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Guest Posts, parenting, Race/Racism

Granny Sylvia’s Flag

April 25, 2021
flag

by Shannon Kenny 

“Mummy, could you put this flag on my karate pole, please?” asked my then four-year-old-daughter one Monday morning.

I gathered up the old orange, white and blue South African Apartheid flag that she had neatly laid out on the gleaming parquet floor.

“No, my darling, I can’t. I won’t,” I clarified, and continued folding the fabric till I had a neat square with the Union Jack, the Orange Free State flag and the flag of the South African Republic in the center.

“But why?” she naturally asked.

And thus, began a typical morning before school in our household. She’d wake up – or more precisely, we’d coax her out of bed. Then she’d run down the passage and return to our company with a myriad of complex ideas and questions; or, if she was feeling particularly charitable, just one simple question about a complex subject.

My answer to her question went something like this: The flag was the symbol of the old South African government which, as we had previously explained, was mean, nasty, brutal and whose founders were Nazi sympathizers. That government made unreasonable laws about who could befriend, love and marry whom; who could live and go to school where; and what jobs they would be allowed to do – or not. It was a reminder of the pain and hardship experienced by millions in our country who were subject to those laws. Many good people stood up to the government in various ways. The baddies made every effort – even killing people – to remind us that they were in charge and had the power. Some of the goodies never lived to see the baddies’ downfall. So no, we were not going to tether it to the karate pole so it could be waved about, because it is not a symbol that we celebrate.

Naturally, her next question was: “So why do we have it in our house?”

My husband and I had preempted this question four years earlier – when I was heavily pregnant with this very inquisitor – and endeavored to answer it as accurately and age-appropriately as possible when our daughter would one day ask.

The flag belonged to my late mother-in-law, my daughter’s Granny Sylvia, a well-loved and long-serving Akela in the 10th Durban Cub Scout troop. It had been presented to her – as national flags are presented to well-loved and long-serving Akelas in Scout troops around the world – in recognition of her service to 10th Durban. She had been an Akela during the apartheid era, so that was the flag of the country and that was the flag she received.

“Did Granny Sylvia like the flag?” was the next question that came my way.

I paused while weighing up how best to answer without being presumptive.

While Granny Sylvia was politically naïve and ignorant – as were many white South Africans – of the extent of the evil of the apartheid regime, she despised the lawmakers and enforcers for how, at a very basic level, they exhibited no real sense of decency: they bullied people they considered beneath them and displayed a hatefulness and mean-spiritedness that to her was unconscionable. Her own experience at an Afrikaans boarding school as a six-year-old, blonde and blue-eyed, English-speaking girl who could only count in isiXhosa (one of South Africa’s indigenous Bantu languages), was just the traumatic start she needed for her lifelong disdain for the Afrikaner-led Apartheid regime – and a difficult to hide negative bias towards Afrikaans, Afrikaners and Afrikanerdom.

“I know that Granny Sylvia didn’t like that the flag represented the Apartheid government,” I replied. “But this particular flag had been special to her not because it was the national flag but because it was an acknowledgement by her peers in the Scouting organization of her dedication and love for the boys in her care. Scouting was only for boys in those days. There was a separate organization, the Girl Guides, for girls. That flag would always remind her of some of her happiest times on camps, jamborees and the many meetings in the local church hall where she was able to provide a loving, nurturing, fun space especially for those who came from difficult home environments. She loved the boys in her care and they loved her in return. Granny Sylvia had once dreamt of becoming a schoolteacher but a series of tragedies and sacrifices resulted in the dream never being fulfilled. Her time as Akela made up for this in some small way.”

After a long breakfast, we said goodbye and my husband walked our daughter to school. They continued to discuss ‘the olden days’ (which to her mind is pretty much from the dawn of time to the time of her birth) and how much better ‘the recent days’ are for us. Later that afternoon we spoke about how, though life is much better now for some of us, there are many in our country for whom life is a daily struggle because of the effects of the olden days and the selfishness of some in the recent days.

We keep the flag on an easily accessible shelf, amongst photographs and other decades-old paraphernalia from our olden days, before marriage and parenthood. It helps, I think, that we are theatre practitioners and writers. On a few occasions we’ve had to explain its presence in our home to a shocked guest or housekeeper. We’ve used it several times as a prop in some of our productions.

My husband and I grew up during apartheid, in different cities, on opposite sides of a racial divide that grouped South Africans into WHITES and NON-WHITES.  We met and started dating on 29 April, 2 days after we had cast our votes in South Africa’s first democratic elections on 27 April 1994.

In 1986 my husband, along with thousands of WHITE boys like him, had been conscripted into the South African Defense Force – straight out of high school – as a naïve teenager who didn’t even know what the acronym ANC (African National Congress) even stood for. He left his ‘national service’ two years later with a great deal more cynicism, trauma and information than anyone, let alone he, had bargained for. At the height of the State of Emergency and martial law declared by State President PW Botha, he had spent a few weeks in Alexandra township in Johannesburg, where the brutality of the South African Police they’d been charged with protecting shocked and appalled him so much that he later volunteered to be posted as a signaler/communications operator to Namibia during South Africa’s (illegal) occupation of what was then called South-West Africa-Namibia and its (illegal) forays into Angola. The young man that emerged from the SADF was no political maven but knew enough, thanks to the uncensored, unadulterated information he received and processed daily through his ears and eyes and hands, just how pernicious the Apartheid state really was. And he knew enough to stridently and successfully dissuade his parents from allowing his younger brother, David, to be conscripted. The trick was to enroll at university (in David’s case to study towards a degree in mechanical engineering), study for as long as possible and hope that the political climate would change or that the authorities would forget about you. Fortunately for my brother-in-law, the political climate had changed by the time he had graduated, fully qualified.

I had grown up politically aware. It was nigh on impossible for me not to be: there was the fact of my birth – that I and my family were classified COLOURED (which is apartheid-speak for ‘mixed-race,’ another term that gives me the shivers, but that’s another essay for another day). I could not help but notice the race-based inequalities in our country, evident in everything from city-planning; public amenities that had signs declaring their use for WHITES ONLY or NON-WHITES; and how people of color were portrayed on our government-controlled tv programs. My parents, teachers and other adults in my life openly discussed politics. And my parents made every effort to dispel the falsehood of race-science in a climate that promoted that particular brand of lies all the time. My parents impressed upon us that our self-worth did not depend on whether it was acknowledged by a political system of white supremacy and racial hierarchy that propagated the belief that we were lesser human beings than our WHITE counterparts. We were taught to resist being co-opted into thinking that because we were classified COLOURED that we were somehow better – as a result of our mixed African, Asian and European heritage –than people who were classified BLACK and who were consequently subjected to certain indignities that we were not. That those racial classifications were just that; classifications; and they offered neither dignity nor any insight into anyone’s character. And it was hard to ignore impassioned prayers in church for the safety of those detained without trial for their political beliefs and anti-government activities; or the apartheid Security Branch bomb that exploded at the office of the NGO where my mother volunteered; or that one of my father’s friends had died at the hands of the police.  In 1986 I was 12, and on our way to and from our BLACK friends’ homes in New Brighton township, we’d have our car searched at checkpoints by conscripts (like my husband’s then 19-year-old self) for whom I’d developed a strange mix of pity and contempt. In 1986, on a family holiday in a WHITE town, my parents received calls from the local police to make sure we were the legal occupants of our holiday home (We were there legally. South Africa was very complicated).

In getting to know one another my husband and I have been able to get to understand our country – past and present – a little better. Our individual and collective experiences of apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa continue to influence how we view and shape our world in an effort to leave it in a better state than what we found it – for our daughter and those who will live on well after her.

Our hope is that our daughter would continue to ask many more questions and that we would be challenged to answer them truthfully and sensitively – all the attendant discomfort that may accompany some of those discussions and answers notwithstanding. We do not want to burden her unnecessarily with the troubles of this world but rather encourage the deep sense of compassion and justice she seems to possess so she too can help to change the world for the better in whatever sphere she feels called.

The old adage that “those who do not know their history are doomed to repeat it” is rather naïve in its assumption that if people were informed of their ancestors’ past wrongs and wrongdoings that they would automatically make strides to navigate the path of righteousness, rather than repeat their ancestors’ misdeeds. Many know their history. They just don’t believe that they were wrong and that they should have lost the war.

The Apartheid flag in South Africa, like the Confederate Flag in the USA, is more than an uncomfortable reminder of an evil that has not been fully acknowledged by some and of a not very distant past that still has a long reach into the present. That flag cannot be divorced from the philosophy and people that devised mechanisms to enact a cruelty that resulted in millions of lives forever altered, taken, wasted, scarred, disregarded, cheapened, destroyed; of land taken, divided, wasted; of a nation that never was and one that is still in the throes of infancy and so very desperately in need of healing.

At some point, we may have a flag-burning ceremony with our daughter in honor of Granny Sylvia and what she stood for – decency and kindness – and as an intentional act of recognizing the ugliness of the past, with a commitment from all of us to continue to be part of the building of a more equal world. Because some of us do know our history and we will choose to not be doomed to repeat it.

For my husband and I, Granny Sylvia’s flag is in part a reminder of the complexity of the human condition – a humanity that revealed itself in all its beauty and grotesqueness in the shadow of that orange, white and blue. Sometimes we’re not the heroes we’d like to think we would be. One can abhor an unjust system and what it does to people and yet feel utterly helpless to do anything about it, paralyzed by fear or insurmountable obstacles. There are times that we act beyond the bravery that we think we’re capable of. Sometimes we’re able to muster courage in the face of adversity. A stranger’s predicament can evoke an empathy that enables us to be kind beyond what is expected of us. Sometimes the weight of our own personal problems is so burdensome that we’re nigh on incapable of recognizing anybody else’s pain and desperation. At times we’re capable of forgiving grave political injustices yet choose to harbor personal vendettas. Sometimes we come to realize that just because someone has been oppressed, doesn’t mean that they are a nice person. Sometimes we act purely for our own gain, regardless of ‘the system’ we operate in. We are reminded that two wrongs do not make a right.  And that two opposite ‘rights’ cannot be simultaneously true; that some opinions are just plain wrong and do not deserve equality with the truth. When verifiable facts are revealed, sometimes the truth is that “I had no idea.” Sometimes “I had no idea” is a lie. And that always – always – kindness and cruelty are acts of human will.

This old flag is also a bit of war-booty; a reminder that we, because of the many who had gone before us, had triumphed over a system that in its ludicrousness – and amongst a host of other dastardly schemes – was designed to ensure that a family such as ours – that looked like us, that believed like us – would not and could not exist. We’re so glad that the good people won. And while we will not allow our daughter to fly the flag, she is welcome to stomp all over it. Anytime.

Shannon Kenny’s resume states she is an actor, voice artist, singer and writer. Some seven years ago she was dragged kicking and screaming into parenthood. She and her family believe in the transformative power of Love – and good chocolate.

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sentilles book stranger care

Sarah Sentilles is a writer, teacher, critical theorist, scholar of religion, and author of many books, including Draw Your Weapons, which won the 2018 PEN Award for Creative Nonfiction.  Her most recent book, Stranger Care: A Memoir of Loving What Isn’t Ours, is the moving story of what one woman learned from fostering a newborn—about injustice, about making mistakes, about how to better love and protect people beyond our immediate kin. Sarah’s writing is lyrical and powerful and she ventures into spaces that make us uncomfortable as she speaks for the most vulnerable among us. This is a book not to be missed.

Pre-order a copy of Stranger Care to get exclusive free access to a one-hour generative writing workshop with Sarah, via Zoom on May 25th at 7pm Eastern time. If you register for the workshop and can’t attend, a recording of the event will be available. More details here.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

Guest Posts, parenting, Racism

Confessions of a Brown, White-Girl

April 11, 2021
school

by Georgena Michelizza

It’s 1993. Mariah Carey’s “Dreamlover” plays on 97.3 Kiss FM constantly. It’s my favorite song so I don’t mind. I’ve started growing awkward pointy breasts that are too easily noticed under my oversized t-shirts. Bill Clinton is president; I know this is important, but I’m not entirely sure why. I like the way he plays the saxophone because I also play Alto. I know that Dan Quayle can’t spell potatoes and that there’s a war in Gaza. I’m only 10 years old.

This is the year my dad starts carrying a walnut-stock shotgun around. It must be almost the end of the school year in Taos, or the start, because I know it’s hot. Heat emanates off thick adobe walls as I walk to the plaza after school and floats in illusory ripples above the black asphalt when we drive home. Everywhere my father goes the shotgun goes. It drives to school with us, laid across the two flip-down seats in the rear of our red and gold Chevy. It sleeps on the floor beside his mattress and sits, propped in its beige canvas case, in the far corner of his shop all day. She’s our silent companion.

 ~ ~ ~

“You’re gonna die Nigger. You’re gonna die, boy. Watch your step.” Click.

My dad looks at me with those pleading honey-brown eyes and pushes the blinking green triangle on the answering machine again.

“You’re gonna die Nigger. You’re gonna die, boy. Watch your step.”

“I don’t know Dad. Maybe it was the same voice from the prank call this morning. I’m not sure,” I say, avoiding his needy eyes. Tension ties my jaw in bumpy knots and pulls my lips back in an awkward Cheshire smile; one hell of a coping mechanism freaky smiling is.

“This is serious, Georgea. You need to try and remember.” His voice is deep and resonant, the way he usually sounds after meditating, but the fine lines between his eyes and on his forehead show me he is not at ease. His sense of urgency is palpable, and I want to have the right answer. I want to know what’s going on.

“I couldn’t really understand the guy on the phone this morning, dad. I’m sorry.” I take my yellow Jansport backpack off and lay it behind the long desk that served as a bar for previous tenants. “He just sort of mumbled. I couldn’t make out any words. I thought it was just a prank call, so I hung up,” I keep talking, nervously trying to fill the space between us with words. My dad pushes the blinking green triangle again and sits down with his forehead in his palms, shaking his head “no,” gently, back and forth. A wriggly blue vein bulges beside his temple. I know this vein, it’s his angry vein, but he doesn’t look angry now. He looks sad. Sad and scared. “Do you think it was the same person?” I ask, wanting to show that I appreciate the gravity of the situation.

“I don’t know, Georgea. But, somethin’s not right. Not right at all.” I’ve never seen my dad appear weak or penetrable, and that is distressing alone. I’ve seen him worried when he says he is balancing his checkbook, or “figuring out what to do next.” Money, I know can cause those lines on his brow, “the business” can narrow his eyes like this, but never before has he appeared fragile.

~~~

I’m no longer allowed to walk the short 10-minute distance from school to our rug gallery in the plaza. Instead, he parks on the street directly outside my final class of the day, watching me make my way down the school steps and to his truck. We circle the plaza numerous times, bumper-to-bumper, trying to find parking. Shotgun in the backseat all the while. I don’t ask why she travels with us everywhere; I know the answer, “You’re gonna die nigger, you’re gonna die — boy.” I’m scared of her, both of the irrevocable damage it could cause and of why it suddenly has become present in our lives.

Gone are my 25 cent giant Jawbreakers from the huge glass jar at the candy shop on my way home. Gone is my blossoming sense of independence. I understand I need to be kept safe, but I don’t entirely understand why. My father’s attentiveness is warming, but unusual. “Sometimes you gotta learn the hard way,” was his mantra and that’s exactly how most of his tutelage was passed down; the hard way.

Beyond  the “N-word,” I knew what the caller meant by calling my father “boy.” My six-foot-five-inch father was no boy. He was big and he could be pretty scary. People in town called him, “Big A.” He was the guy you called to haul your 200-pound Mastiff Shepherd down the stairs when he’s too scared to walk down on his own. He’s the guy you call when you need help moving the heaviest couch on earth, or to build a deep-set fence to keep the neighbor’s cows out of your clover field. He’s not a man that many would cross. Yet, someone was not scared of him. Some drawled, barbed voice on the other end of the answering machine knew they had power over him, and they exerted that power with the word “boy.”

~~~

The death threat was not the first time I had experienced racism. Upon reflection, it was the first time I became aware of it…

~~~

“Don’t be offended, Georgea, I’m just not attracted to black girls,” says my 10-year-old best friend, Jessie, in the school-yard when he is supposed to run up and kiss me in some variant of tag we were playing. I’m not offended, but I do wonder if all the other boys I know feel the same.

“My mom told me you can’t wash dreadlocks.” School kids would say. “Gross. Do you wash your hair? I bet it stinks. Georgea’s got dog hair.” All too familiar schoolyard exchanges. I did wash my dreads, and my father also washed his. Oddly, I never registered the vitriol that underscored these comments. I was happy to explain to my peers.

“No, of course we wash them. We just don’t brush them. We pull them apart so that they don’t mat up into one big gnarly Bob Marley dread.” Perhaps they went back and told their parents what they had learned. Perhaps that is why they came back and told me they were no longer allowed to play with me because I’m “black.” Perhaps that’s why I decided to cut off my dreads that year.

Sprawled out in a giant tractor tire in a dirt schoolyard, Nicole looks at me and questions, “Maybe your skin is brown because God pooped on you?”

“Maybe yours is white ‘cause God peed on you and bleached you pale.” I get out of the tire as the recess whistle blows. Feeling self-righteous about my quick-witted comeback, I walk towards the haphazardly forming line to reenter the school building.

I truly did not believe she was trying to be mean. I would go on to have many sleepovers at her house. We’d drown out Rush Limbaugh’s agitated voice coming from the living room big screen with THE Dave Mathew’s Band cranked full blast on her Sanyo boombox until we were told to “turn that racket down.”

Joining some other classmates towards the front of the line, I’m told by a popular girl wearing an athletic-style headband, “Nuggers in the back.” I don’t know what that means. I know nigger is a hate-filled word, but I don’t know what “nugger” means. Does she mean nigger? The dusty schoolyard is chaotic and loud. I just want to get inside.

A big sixth-grade girl appears. She drapes her arm around my shoulder and pulls me in close. She feels like a sister. I wish she were my sister. Her hair is big and curly and she smells like coconut and Dr. Pepper Lip smackers. “Come in the 6th grade entrance with me,” she says, flipping her chin, neck, and hair around in the most confident display I’ve ever seen. Once inside the back part of the school in which I’d never been, she points down the hall and says, “Your classroom is that way. You’ll be OK.” She starts up the green-tiled stairs beside the water fountain when she turns and shouts down the hall, “Just ignore them.” I plant those words in my heart and live them as creed.

The halls are clean and almost empty as the lower grades have not yet been let in. I drink in the peace and try to step in each tile squarely, avoiding the cracks until I reach my door. The poster on my classroom door is a black and white picture of Dr. Martin Luther King with an excerpt from his, “I have a dream” speech.

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’

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 memorized those words that year and carried them as truth, my own illusion of colorblindness blinding me to the reality around me.

Heartbreaking as this all sounds now, it didn’t break my heart then. That came later. That came after the message. The message changed the tone the light cast on everything that came before.

~~~

During any one of my father’s empowerment lessons, he smiles that warming, charming smile that turns all the women around him into globby goo. “You can be and do whatever you want. You may have to work harder than some other people, but whatever you want to be in life, you can be. You just gotta play the game.” He looks like a superhero beaming down on me. Anything is possible, you just gotta be strong. Strong and proud; the burden of a black woman.

He tightens his turquoise bolo tie in the mirror and puffs up his chest as he swats the lint off his torso. I love to look at him when he’s dressed up for work. He’s taught me about the black cowboys in Oklahoma where his father is from, and I think secretly he wants to be a cowboy.

“Perception is reality, Georgea.” He always says my name after laying down some hardcore truths. “It matters how you speak, how you’re dressed, how you walk. People are gonna try and judge you, make decisions about you without axing you.” I register the mispronunciation of “ask,” and look up at him. “Asking,” he corrects himself smiling, his gold lateral incisor glistening in the sun. “You can’t change their minds, but you can control how you show up.” He adjusts the denim collar of his shirt, grabs his black wide-brimmed hat, and walks out of the room planting a sweaty kiss in the center of my forehead.

~~~

Raised to believe I had nothing to be ashamed of, I was happy to educate people about melanin in skin, the history of the slave trade, the ancient kingdoms of Africa and the Orient, and how my slightly wider nostrils helped my equatorial ancestor’s intake more air in hot climates. I truly believed that I could educate people out of ignorance, and I felt no shame in doing so.

“They’re just ignorant,” my dad would say. And so, for some time, this was my belief. People are not filled with hate, they are just ignorant. If their lack of knowledge was not elective, that meant I could simply provide them with knowledge and they would be healed, liberated. If they chose not to accept my knowledge, that was their loss. This stance carried me through much of my childhood and provided a cottony bubble of empowerment that burst when I learned that ignorance can be a choice.

~~~

“I’m Georgena. Georgena Tann. My name wasn’t called,” I say to the 5th grade ski club administrator in the auditorium. The words are hard to get out behind my suppressed tears. My voice trembles more than I want it to. She looks up from her scribbling with only her eyes.

“Right.” Eyes back on her clipboard. “I see your name here, Miss Tann. You were absent yesterday. Rule is, you don’t show up to school, you don’t ski the next day. You know that.”

“But it was a holiday. It was Martin Luther King’s day. It’s a holiday. I didn’t miss school. We celebrated.” I plead, genuinely surprised and confused.

“Not here it’s not. Everyone else was in school. Now, go back to your class. I’ll give you a late pass.” She hands me a yellow slip of paper without meeting my eyes.

I forget about my backpack and all my gear sitting in the 5th row. I run out of the auditorium, down the white-tiled halls, past a bumbling teacher, and out through those big green double doors. I run down those massive steps and all the way to my dad’s shop.

~~~

My father and I return to school that afternoon to speak with the principal. We’d been there only a few weeks back when I was sent home for the day for listening to “explicit content” on my Walkman. The song was a “Let’s Get It On” Marvin Gay single I’d stolen from my mom’s cassette library.

This was not the first or the last time my father spoke to a school principal on my behalf; not the only time I would register apprehension in her eyes as she closed her office door looking nervously at the aides on the other side of the glass.

“Big A” was intimidating. He couldn’t help it. He was born this way, brown and tall. The risen, rippling burn marks covering much of his right arm, hand, and body didn’t help diminish people’s concern.

So… my dad, big and intimidating, sat in front of that little principal woman, me beside him, and told her that Martin Luther King Day is now a federally observed holiday statewide and if the school was refusing to observe the holiday he would pull me from school, and — “take it up the line.”

We signed some papers and huffed out of there after collecting my things from the auditorium. The following day I returned to the private, “hippie school” I had attended in previous years. I had begged to go to public school to “feel normal.” My old, new school was directly across the street from Enos Garcis, the public elementary I had just busted out of, and at lunch recess the kids across the street would throw oranges and other fruit over the chain-link fence and chant, “Hippie Kids, Hippie Kids.” Maybe they hurled more intimidating insults, but my memory has kindly kept only, “Hippie Kids.” We had no ski-club, and our 30-person school was housed in an old church, but I was grateful to be back where things made sense. I still might not be kissable, but at least I could listen to Marvin Gaye.

~ ~ ~

I wonder if my father anticipated me not being able to ski and pulling me from that school. I wonder if he had planned the whole thing, or if it really was an innocent mistake. I wonder if he thought about how sad and left out I would feel sitting in that auditorium, while everyone’s name was called but mine. I wonder how I’ll teach my young, white-passing, daughter’s about the privilege they wear on their skin.

The following year Enos Garcia  observed Martin Luther King Day.

~ ~ ~

So what happened with my dad and his 12-gauge? I remember the look of concern and fear in my dad’s squinting eyes. I remember the words on the answering machine verbatim. I vaguely recall tall men in sleek suits standing out against the south-western décor of the hotel lobby, which led to our family business. I don’t why it happened, or if the matter was ever resolved. I don’t know when my father finally stopped toting the gun around, or why.

What I do remember is my father explaining to me what a hate crime is. I don’t recall the exact words, but what I took from that explanation was that people might want to hurt you just for being who you are. Raised to believe I could be and do anything I wanted, safely, this was a potent deviation from all my father had instilled in me. So why does it matter? If I can’t remember any of the details beyond a dreamy blur, why has this memory become embossed into my psyche? Why, as Black Lives Matters protests swelled across the US last summer, did this memory move me to tears and often panic?

This experience subconsciously added a new filter to a little ten-year-old girl’s perceptual reality. The new awareness; we are not always safe in our skin.

Despite being college-educated, having two-passports, and speaking three languages (in sum, being blessed by privilege) the yoke of this awareness chokes me now as  I, like my father 28 years prior, keep pushing play.  I keep watching a black man die below the knee of a police officer. Over and over I watch. “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” I can’t either. Am I safe? My supercomputer intelligence pulls up all the instances in which I have felt unsafe in my skin and begs me to explode into fight for flight. I’m flooded with cortisol and trembling despite sitting safely on my couch, phone in hand.

This is how trauma works, it creeps back up and takes hold of your most primal instincts when you least expect it.

Georgena Michelizza is a mixed-race, German/American dual citizen. She writes about growing up between cultures and skin tones. From the lens of a first-generation American she reflects on race, and wonders how to teach her very fair children about the African blood that discretely runs through their veins. Follow Georgena here

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Blow Your House Down is a powerful testimony about the ways our culture seeks to cage women in traditional narratives of self-sacrifice and erasure. Frangello uses her personal story to examine the place of women in contemporary society: the violence they experience, the rage they suppress, the ways their bodies often reveal what they cannot say aloud, and finally, what it means to transgress “being good” in order to reclaim your own life.

Pick up a copy at Bookshop.org or Amazon.

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Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option

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Click here for all things Jen

 

Activism, Guest Posts, Racism

Thoughts From A Concerned US History Major

October 20, 2020
white

By Rita Serra

Imagine it’s October 17, 1989

The decade marked by Rubik’s Cubes, Ronald Reagan, Pac Man, and shoulder pads is rounding to a close. This was the year that brought Lean on Me, Field of Dreams and Spike Lee’s, Do the Right Thing to the silver screen. Perms rule the hair waves, while rock and pop still rule the airways.

You are cruising down the highway in your Honda Accord when the DJ’s deep, satin voice says, “Hot off the presses here is Billy Joel’s, “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

The song is a snapshot series of headlines that chronicles 1949 to 1989. Before Joel lunches into the first chorus he stamps out the syllables, “Santayana Goodbye.” George Santayana was a poet, novelist, and philosopher who left the world with a slew of notable words including,

“those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” Reason, 1905

I was raised in a small, coastal town in North Carolina. Before I’d grown tall enough to see over the kitchen counter, I was spellbound by the music of the 1960’s and 70’s, despite the fact that I was born in 1994. Seriously, in fourth grade I was baffled when the rest of my girl scout troop wanted to listen to The Scooby Doo soundtrack instead of The Who’s legendary rock-opera, Tommy, on our way to the aquarium.

I developed a strong interest in the collection of stories that comprise our nation’s history. Each fact, figure, and historical antidote I was taught felt like a puzzle piece. Together these treasured pieces, with their smoothed edges, inflated bubbles, and concave voids, formed the present-day picture. They explained why America is the way it is and helped me better understand my place in the world.

In my adolescent years, I believed the 1960’s were a magical time, only abound with love and guitar circles, capped off by Woodstock as the ultimate emblem of unity. But as I came of age, I sensed that something was off and ran to the books like a moth who caught sight of flickering candle through a cracked door.

I directed my core university studies to the social and political movements of 20th century America. I was riveted by the sheer volume of audacious political activism that marked the 1960’s with its mixed overtones of social commentary, call to action, and peaceful ethos.

By 1969 the American Indian, Anti-war, Civil Rights, Gay Liberation and Women’s Liberation Movements were all in full force. These marginalized groups of citizens showed they had, had enough through; boycotts, burned flags, flower power, marches, legislative changes, long hair, occupied federal land, overtly-politicized music, protests, rallies, speeches, strikes, strategic violence, sit-in’s, and walkouts. They were met by vehement opposition and faced arrests, bombings, beatings, death threats, hate mobs, police brutality, fire hoses, tear gas, and K-9 units.

It was not until I studied history on the university level that I came to the stunning realization; the curriculum taught during our most formative years in primary schools is a whitewashed version of history that omits critical pieces of the US history puzzle, especially regarding black citizen’s plight to obtain equal rights.

As I peeled back the layers, I uncovered that Woodstock’s idyllic legacy of, “three days of peace, love, and music” overshadowed the reality that this was the most divisive, violent, and socially-volatile decade in our nation’s history.

My quest for knowledge culminated to a twenty-five-page history thesis entitled, “Shattering the Myth of Woodstock” in which I discussed all of the ways this event was the antithesis of the decade it came to symbolize and discovered the path to revolution has many lanes.

The first time I sat in front of my Victrola and listened to a vinyl record after I submitted my thesis I nearly cried. I took this event, this hopeful idea, this guiding principle that I had shaped part of my belief system around, and marred it. I took something I regarded as a beautiful and holy and made it ugly by ripping off the mask and uncovering the truth.

However, I have never regretted my decision to shatter Woodstock because I gained solace and an emboldened sense of security knowing that I possessed the truth. I came to the realization that knowing and seeing the truth is more beautiful than the vision we create.

The era I once loved for the music was now the era I deeply respected for the courage it took to change the world on societal, cultural, and legislative levels. Most people believe that after a law is passed, the problem is solved. The unfortunate truth is that changing the law does not change society’s views or instantly alter cultural biases. Generations of black citizens learned first-hand that legal “victories” were often followed by languid change, staunch backlash and a slew of new hurdles to overcome.

America’s current state of domestic affairs is rapidly becoming an ominous echo of the late 1960’s. Race relations have reached a critical boiling point. Every day people are spilling onto the streets with ardent resilience, refusing to be silenced. In order to understand how America has gotten to the point it has today, it is helpful to unpack history like a recipe for homemade soup, and go back to the point that the pot was set down and the stove-top was turned on.

“My skin is black, My arms are long, My hair is woolly, My back is strong,
Strong enough to take the pain, inflicted again and again”
-Nina Simone, Four Women, 1966

Let’s take a page out of Santayana’s notebook and follow the stories that have led us to today.

Voting: In 1870 the 15th amendment was ratified, stating, “a [male] citizen’s right to vote would not be denied on the basis of race, color, or servitude.” In response, the former Confederate States immediately coded discriminatory voting requirements into law, such as poll taxes, property ownership, and literacy tests, designed to prevent black men from voting. They would have stopped many poor white men from voting had it not been for a set of loopholes. “Grandfather Clauses” stated that if someone’s ancestors had been registered to vote before the Civil War, then that person was exempt from certain voting requirements.

It took well over a century for the majority of citizens from the southern states to accept the fact that people of color were their fellow citizens who had the right to vote. In 1965 the Voting Rights Acts was passed, doing away with discriminatory voting requirements, and the 24th amendment was ratified, eliminating the poll tax. Concurrently, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) resurged when the Civil Rights Movement gained momentum in the 1950’s and 60’s. The KKK employed violence and sever intimidation tactics, including murder, to repress black votes and white sympathizers. The group’s fearsome reputation combined with generations of prejudiced views, made it unnerving for white America to collectively wrap their minds around sharing power.

“Southern man, better keep your head, don’t forget, what your good book said
Southern change, gonna come at last, now your crosses, are burning fast”
-Neil Young, Southern Man, 1970

Housing: In 1934 the National Housing Act was passed in an effort to stimulate the housing market during the Great Depression. Agents from the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) took maps and drew red lines through neighborhoods they claimed to be, “high risk” in a practice known as Redlining.

 In every major city, the only redlined neighborhoods were the ones populated by blacks and other minority groups. FHA agents felt that the people in these areas could not be trusted to pay back a loan, thus they denied their applications for the government-sponsored, low-interest mortgage rates.

In 1968, the Fair Housing Act banned housing discrimination on the basis of race. However, by this time the government was no longer offering these low-interest mortgages and there was the issue of cultural bias. The inability to buy homes for decades, a top way of accumulating equity and generational wealth, has put the black man another century behind the white man.

It is estimated that three out of four neighborhoods that were redlined in the 1930’s are still struggling economically today. These neighborhoods often lack adequate resources such as banking, healthcare, public transportation services, affordable produce, job opportunities, and have underserved education systems due to local funding stemming from property taxes.

“Garbage ain’t collected, women ain’t protected
Politicians using people, they’ve been abusing
The Mafia’s getting bugger, like pollution in the river, And you tell me this is where it’s at?”
-Sixto Rodriguez, This is Not a Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, the Establishment Blues 1970

Education: In 1954 the Supreme Court decided in Brown vs Board of Education that segregation was unequal which made this a landmark case. A year later the court ruled in Brown vs Board of Education II that the lower courts and local school boards would be in charge of implementation desegregation “with all deliberate speed.” This last clause gave white supremacists all they needed to continue the unlawful practice of segregation.

One of the most disturbing and flagrant acts of defiance took place in Prince County, Virginia. Here county officials, with the aid of state officials, closed public schools for five years after Brown vs Board’s original ruling and opened “private academies” for only white students that were funded by the state’s tax revenue.

It is estimated that a decade after Brown vs Board of Education ninety-eight percent of black students still attended segregated schools. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act finally gave the federal government the power to enforce integration. The North Carolina high school I attended opened in 1972 with the specific purpose of integration. Eighteen years after the highest court in the land said segregation was illegal, county officials finally got around to upholding the law.

“Come senators, congressmen, Please heed the call, Don’t stand in the doorway,
Don’t block up the hall, For he that gets hurt, Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’, Will soon shake your windows, And rattle your wall”
– Bob Dylan, The Time’s They Are A-Changin’  1964

Systematic Inequality: In 1967 President Johnson formed “The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders,” to determine why America had experienced over 150 race riots from 1964 to 1967. The eleven-member committee headed by Otto Kerner submitted their findings in March of 1968 in a report entitled, “A Time to Listen a Time to Act.”

More commonly known as the Kerner Report, it concluded that the extreme economic and social disadvantages of black Americans, coupled by the racial attitudes of whites caused the riots. The report was highly critical of the federal government and their outdated, failed policies.

“What white Americans have never fully understood but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.” -Kerner Report, 1968

The commission recommended that the federal government create legislation to improve housing conditions, education systems, job opportunities, and social services in black neighborhoods. They felt it was imperative to remove the discriminatory practices that inundated employment practices, police forces and the criminal justice system.

The commission deserves a round of applause for their candid conclusion and detailed solution strategy. However, Johnson never publicly endorsed the committee’s report and congressional action ranged from abysmal to meager when it came to implementing the committee’s recommendations.

“Handful of Senators don’t pass legislation, And marches alone can’t bring integration,
When human respect is disintegratin’, This whole crazy world is just too frustratin’,
And you tell me over and over and over again my friend,
You don’t believe we’re on the eve of destruction”
-Barry McGuire, Eve of Destruction, 1965

This was the moment for America’s governing power to make a significant change, to right the wrongs of the past era, and to admit that America had a serious problem with racism.

The following month, on April 4th, Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, over 100 cities erupted in protest, yet the Kerner Report was ignored. Six months later, on November 5th, Nixon won the Presidency on a platform of more heavily armed police forces and cracking down on inner city crime. Rather than taking steps towards peace, America entered the war on drugs.

Today a statement from the Kerner Report reads like an eerie premonition come true: “Our nation is moving towards two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.”

I realize it does not matter how many books I’ve read, history lectures I’ve attended, or the number of times I found myself in the minority while traveling aboard. I will never know the experience of being black in America. However, I believe we can learn from the past. Knowledge leads to new perspectives and understanding which creates empathy. Greater empathy is the key to creating a positive, fundamental change in our fractured society.

To those who are white, if you were never told the full story of America’s institutionalized racism and systematic oppression, that is not your fault, but it is also not an excuse. We must do better than those who came before us.

The human mind is wired to see a full picture even when some pieces are not present. Instead of realizing there are gaps, the mind will stretch the pieces of the picture it has been given to fill in the blanks, or simply invent new pieces that match their pre-existing opinion. Now that some blind spots have been replaced by missing puzzle pieces, it is our collective responsibility to acknowledge these uncomfortable truths, and work to ensure the same mistakes are not made again.

Let’s come together and tirelessly work to ensure if, ten years from now, someone wrote, We Didn’t Start the Fire Part II, it will not be marked by Santayana’s ill-fabled irony. We must listen to our fellow brothers, sisters, neighbors, and citizens that have been marginalized for centuries, and stand by their side in order to forbid history from repeating itself.

“When the power of love, overcomes the love of power the world will know peace”
– Jimi Hendrix

Rita Serra backpacked around the world for two and a half years, world, often solo, on a quest for human connection, cultural enlightenment, historical intrigue and nature’s wonderment. After her period of Rolling Stone embodiment, Rita found herself in Northern California where she currently spends her days writing prose, crafting poetry, photographing nature and farming. Some of Rita’s other work has been featured in anthologies by Flying Ketchup Press, Train River Publishing, and Wingless Dreamer.

Anti-racist resources, because silence is not an option.

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Activism, Guest Posts

An Open Letter to My White Would-Be Allies

June 27, 2020
black

By Charli Engelhorn

The “Last” button on my remote is wearing out. I’m pressing it every four seconds, hopping back and forth between CNN and MSNBC, popping in on my local Spectrum 1 channel because they supposedly focus on pressing news happening in my city. Maybe I have to check the networks. Did I see a “City Channel” in the guide? Back to CNN, then MSNBC, rinse, repeat… all in the hopes of finding some shred of coverage of the protests in our streets. I’m pressing, I’m hopping, but I’m not finding anything.

After fourteen days, the news channels have tired of reporting on the Black Lives Matters protests. Or at least they did until yesterday, when another black man was shot and killed in a public Atlanta parking lot. The protests are interesting once more now that their peacefulness teeters on the brink. But that will slip from the spotlight again and give way to the novel coronavirus, the un-novel and preposterous antics of Donald F-N Trump, unemployment, graduations, online yoga tutorials. And it’s finally summer. The beaches are open. The trails are packed. The ice cream truck is serenading your hood once more. No more homeschooling. No more cooking. No more hoarding of toilet paper. You finally have your lives back, and you intend to make the best of them. And your hair needs cutting, your nails need painting, the hedges need trimming. And look at what my cat just did! And this Black Lives Matter business doesn’t really affect you, anyway. The curfews are over, and if they’re not, they really don’t apply to you. Maybe your town never protested. And now you see protestors holding signs in German, the only words decipherable being “George Floyd” and “Defund the Police,” and if Germany cares, then everything must be in good hands. (Because, really? Germany? They don’t have their own problems?) But you don’t know about defunding the police. What about noise complaints and suspicious people in the neighborhood? What about people like Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer? Besides, you have your sign in the yard that supports science and feminism and—mixed in somewhere—black lives. And there’s still that “Hate Has No Home Here” sign in the window collecting dust from 2016. But there are other things going on. Like the bats. Did you hear about the bats? What about the bats in your attic?

I get it. There’s a lot to process in your world, other priorities besides black lives mattering. And you haven’t been hearing from me. You’ve noticed that I haven’t been on social media much these days. Maybe I’m upset about all things “Black Lives Matter” because I’m black. But you don’t see me as that kind of black, and I have a lot of white friends, like you, so maybe I don’t feel involved. Is it offensive to ask? And everything is just really depressing, so you’ve been taking a break—maybe didn’t even notice I wasn’t being vocal. If I was really upset, I would say something, right? I’m not shy. So if I’m not making noise, I must be fine, right? Right?

I am not fine.

There have been so many voices raised already, so for a while, it felt like mine could wait… that there would be a time when different voices would be needed. But the more conversations I have with my friends, black and white and everything in between, the more I realize how much you still don’t understand, and the more I realize it might be important for you to hear from someone like me: someone you know and care about. Someone who is not the first person who pops into your mind when you think about police brutality against black people—me, that light-skinned, sharp, friendly aspiring writer who just earned her MFA and can frequently be spotted laughing over cocktails with her white friends. Someone who grew up in white middle America. Someone who a friend once asked, “What did your parents say when they found out you were black?” Maybe if you hear it from me, a true understanding of how black people are experiencing this moment might occur, because I don’t want these issues to slip into the constant background noise of Everything Else. Because using my voice now may help keep the focus on racism from drifting away like it always, always does. Because black Americans don’t have the luxury of detaching or checking out. We can’t simply turn off the TV or pop in a movie (most likely a movie where no one looks like us anyway, which is another issue—one that is important to me and I’m actively working to change with that MFA I’ve worked hard to earn). We can’t turn away from the movement or the moment because we are “overwhelmed.” And, more importantly, I don’t want to.

To those of you who have reached out to me personally to see how I’m managing through all of this: thank you. I know you don’t always know what to say or how to say what you mean or maybe even what you are supposed to mean, but your making the effort is acknowledged and appreciated. The truth is, I haven’t been doing well. At all. But today, I’m finally on the other side of a lot of the pain and grief I’ve been struggling with the last two and some weeks—my emotions have balanced out to some degree, and my spirit has been lifted by the domestic and global response to this call for justice—and so, although my anger is constantly triggered by the continued violence against blacks and all the damn “Karens,” I feel heartened just enough to finally reach out. But please don’t think this slight uptick in hope obscures my daily reckoning with how to get through each hour. How to manage my sadness and anger. How to manage my resentment of the silence I still see so much of from so many of you. How to manage knowing how to break my own silence. How to navigate my grief and guilt over not being able to be out there fighting all day every day. Yes, I braved the virus and went out protesting more than once last week, and this week, I’m feeling a little under the weather. I don’t know if it’s the virus or a common cold or a physical manifestation of emotional grief, but regardless, I don’t regret protesting. It was important for me to add my voice and my body to this movement. It gave me a direction for my emotions, and it allowed me to fully engage in a fight I dearly believe in. I am being responsible and watching my symptoms, but make no mistake, if I am physically able, I will be back out there again.

What I really want to say to my would-be allies is that this movement is about justice for black people, absolutely. But it’s also about changing society in general. Because BLM isn’t just about police brutality. It isn’t just about the outrage we collectively feel when another black person is killed on the street, in their yard, in their own home, or in prison. It’s about the social ideology of race perpetuated in our homes, relationships, schools, jobs, parks, and minds. It’s about the divides we put around ourselves as individuals and groups to feel safe… to stay comfortable. It’s about changing our perspectives so black people can leave the house without having to calculate the risks involved in having black skin in white society. It’s about not having to feel unvalidated when our non-black friends tell us we’re being “too sensitive” or “judgmental” or “aggressive” or “angry” about our experiences with racism. So we’re not constantly having to explain why something is offensive or justify our right to be heard or assuage your discomfort or white shock that racism still exists. So we don’t have to resist the temptation to scream when we’re complimented for being educated, intelligent, polite, caring, successful, articulate, and [fill in with any positive attribute] because “good on you for rising above your blackness.” So we don’t have to keep fighting for the recognition and support enjoyed as a matter of course by those of you not living in black bodies. So we don’t have to keep telling people that “not seeing color” is not enlightenment—that, in fact, it’s the opposite.

Let me state this unequivocally: If you know someone who is black, regardless of what other racial composition they possess or neighborhood they grew up in, realize that they—that we—have experienced all the things you hear about. We’ve been profiled. We’ve been followed by police in aggressive ways for doing nothing. We’ve been pulled over for “a burned-out license plate bulb” in broad daylight and forced out of the vehicle. We’ve had people clutch their purses. We’ve had people warn others about watching their purses around us. We’ve had people move seats when we sat down. We’ve been assumed to be employees at sporting events, music festivals, department stores, and grocery stores instead of patrons. We’ve been followed around clothing stores. We’ve been asked where we live and what we’re doing here while standing in our own front yards. We’ve heard friends tell offensive jokes in front of us and tell us to “lighten up” because “funny is funny.” We’ve been called the “N” word. We’ve been treated worse than our white counterparts in school and at work. We’ve been accused of ridiculous things by bosses. We’ve felt our skin crawl because of a single look from across a restaurant or party. We’ve wondered if we’re in danger of getting beaten or killed simply for existing. We’ve felt our idea of home taken away because of a renewed and emboldened uprising of prejudice and racism in our country. We’ve questioned whether to attend events out of fear for our safety. We’ve struggled to find our voices and learn how to raise them. And for so many, we’ve been killed by those who knew they could kill us and get away with it.

This list is just the tip of the black experience. This list is just the tip of my experience.

So let me set some things straight, because there’s been some confusion in my world, and I know harm is not what was intended, but nonetheless… here are some truths:

  • I have no desire to get away from the protests. This fight is not bad or inconvenient or oppressive. It is necessary, hopeful, and inspiring. I turn toward it, not away from it. I don’t want things to calm down so I can forget and “go back to normal.” There is no forgetting, and there is no more normal. And, honestly, what passed for normal for you was never my normal to begin with.
  • Your support is appreciated, but please understand that our experiences are not the same. I know many of you are suffering, too. You’re dealing with your anger at the world. You’re reckoning with our country’s history and your place in it, large or small. You fear what’s next. You’re sad about everything that has happened. It is an exhausting situation for everyone. But the exhaustion we feel as black people is not the same. We are viscerally exhausted from dealing with racism for as many years as we’ve been alive. We are dealing with the trauma, pain, depression, and fear of decades and centuries of being treated as less than. And the damage from generations of trauma has altered many of our physiological beings to the point where we can’t even imagine who we could be in the absence of trauma. We are tired of swallowing the hateful words of racists and misguided words of those who fail to stop and think before they speak. We are tired of the silence of the rest of society, especially the silence of those who say they love us. We’re tired of trying to make people listen. We’re tired of having to defend our pain and outrage and anger. We’re tired of having to dampen our pain and outrage and anger to make you feel better. We’re tired of seeing just how much our lives don’t matter: in the inequities experienced by predominantly black schools; by the lack of support and assistance for black-owned businesses, even during a pandemic; by the disproportionate number of black deaths from COVID-19; by the disproportionate treatment of black men and women within the justice system; by the disproportionate number of felony convictions for black men and women; and by the degree of force relied on by police when dealing with black Americans, even when they are unarmed. You can’t truly get it, and that’s not your fault. But please know we are not suffering in the same way. No, we are not awesome. No, we are not all right. We are pissed. And we are ready for change.
  • If your gut reaction is to challenge my experiences or feelings about these issues or exonerate yourself from my message, please save it for someone who cares. It’s not me. There is absolutely nothing you can say that will change my black experience or how I feel about racism in this country or the movement to end it.
  • If you haven’t done anything to me personally that you can speak to specifically, don’t tell me how sorry you are. I don’t want your condolences or pity. It’s an earnest sentiment, but it’s not action.
  • Please don’t thank me for sharing my story. I didn’t do it for praise. Again, nice sentiment, but not action.

My white friends and aspiring allies: what I would love instead is conversation. This movement is forcing some solid policy shifts and new laws to be enacted, but that does not equate to sweeping change. Laws were enacted to give slaves back agency over their lives. Laws were enacted to desegregate our cities and schools. Laws were enacted to give blacks the right to vote. And yet… here we are. Here, where more than 40 percent of black men and women 20 and older suffer from hypertension, black men are more than twice as likely to die at the hands of police than white men, black communities have unequal access to health and community resources, and black women are underrepresented in high-paying jobs and make almost 40 percent less than white men and roughly 20 percent less than white women. Laws are great and necessary, but nothing is really going to change unless we change voluntarily on a societal level.

We have to be willing to look at ourselves and our prejudices and ask why we have felt as we have and been who we are and what we can do to move forward better. We have to be willing to have uncomfortable conversations about our experiences and those of lives we don’t understand. We have to be willing to ask questions and risk sounding stupid or awkward. We have to be willing to bring down our walls and see each other. We all have prejudices. And I mean all of us, whether you’re aware of them or not. And it’s not just across race lines; it’s also within them.

A simple adjustment in awareness is not the answer. We must have a fundamental paradigm shift about how we think of each other as human beings. We have to find a real way to break the psychological divides that create “us” versus “them.” We have to talk. We have to talk. We have to talk!

What would happen if, today, every single one of you said something to spark that conversation? I don’t mean just on social media. I mean in person, in our real lives. Say something inspiring or supportive of the BLM movement. Tell a friend about a moment when you felt prejudiced against someone and why. Talk candidly about what you felt, why you felt it, and how you feel about it now. Explore where you think that feeling came from. Read up on and talk with other white people about what you can do to feel differently. If you are a non-BIPOC, talk about a moment where you’ve felt prejudice from another. Tell a white friend or a black friend how it felt. Tell them how it affected your perspective of life and society.

We all have to start being honest about how racism exists in our lives, even at the micro level. None of us are immune, and that’s okay. We can still do the work to come together to make sure that Black Lives Matter, that BIPOC lives matter, so that we can truly stand up one day and celebrate all lives mattering equally.

This is my wish for us: communication and honesty. We have to change on a base level to move forward with integrity. We have to start listening and believing. We have to be brave.

So here’s my story:

I made a quick judgment about a conservative-looking white couple I saw in France last summer. They were wealthy, had southern accents, and fit every box on my list of people to blame for Trump. I assumed they were prejudice against me, which made me want to talk to them… yeah, it’s like that. I was overly polite when I asked them what part of the States they were from and was not surprised to learn they lived near Mar-a-Lago. I was surprised when they turned their chairs and started a lively discussion about how terrible things were back home and how much they looked forward to the next election. In that moment, I knew I had committed the same crime I’d accused them of. I’d judged them and held prejudice against them because of what they looked like. I was humbled by that experience and promised to be better at walking my talk. And I realized the reason I’m often quick to judge people who look like that is because it provides safety for me. If I assume the worst and fortify myself against it, when I’m proven right, it won’t hurt as much. The fact is it always hurts no matter what, and I’ve probably misjudged a lot of people along the way and missed out on enriching conversations. The talk we had with the couple was amazing. The wife even caught our French waiter trying to overcharge us. My heart opened a bit more that day. It really doesn’t take much.

I am so tired of being tired. But I will be back out there anyway, and I will keep talking, and I will keep listening.

Now… your turn.

Start the conversation in your social group. Use the hashtag #mytruecolorstory to start the conversation with the world. I’ve challenged some of you to engage in these discussions already, and I’ve been heartened by your willingness to be vulnerable and lay your experiences on the table. But it’s not enough. We must do more. We must keep the conversation going.

And if you don’t know me, you know someone like me. Reach out to them. Offer your support. They’re waiting for it, and they’re wondering where you are.

Charli Engelhorn is an award-winning writer, freelance editor, and creative writing instructor. She received her BA in English from the University of Kansas and MFA in creative writing from the University of California, Riverside Low Residency program. When not writing, she can be found playing volleyball, her fiddle, and one-sided fetch with her dog, Jacopo. 

 

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Guest Posts, Racism

Silence is Not An Option

June 12, 2020
option

Black Lives Matter.

Over the past week, The Manifest-Station has been quiet as we watched the world change in reaction to the brutal murder of George Floyd. The subsequent flood of similar stories that continue to emerge is horrifying. The overwhelming number of people harmed or worse by a group sworn to protect is sickening. The growing list of names is heartbreaking. Support of it has to end and ending it is not someone else’s problem.

We all own this problem.

Marching, listening, amplifying…all of that is important, but those alone are not nearly enough. As individuals and as a collective, it is imperative we work for change from the inside out and the outside in. We need to learn what it really means for our black and brown friends to try to thrive in this country, we need to unlearn our own assumptions and bias. We also need to demand change and we need to be relentless in our efforts. When people talk about “doing the work” it is not a trope, it is work and it is necessary.

The Manifest-Station is about being human, and we have worked hard for it to be a safe space for words, for all writers. We are committed to continuing the support and amplification of black and brown voices, this includes the work published on the site and elsewhere. We are adding a “resource” page that will feature ways to get educated and involved. In addition, Jen’s instagram feed is filled with actionable items. If we are missing something that should be included, let us know, this is a work in progress.

At The Manifest-Station, we are proud to add our voices to the call for change. Silence is complicity, and frankly, it is not an option. Change is possible, moreover, if we work together it’s coming.

Guest Posts, No Bullshit Motherhood, Racism

Blue Blazes

November 27, 2017

By Jane O’Shields-Hayner

“It’s hot as blue blazes!” I said, wiping the sweat from my face with a faded, red bandana. I wet it under the garden hose and lay it, cool, around my neck.”

“Can we get more ice cubes, Mommy?” Rebekah asked.

“We’ve used them all. They go fast when it’s a hundred and six.” I answered, stepping into the soupy water of the plastic pool where my daughters sat with squirt toys, dolls, and blades of grass bobbing on the surface.

Rachael hugged my bare legs and lay her cheek against my knee. “Can we go to a real pool, Mommy?” She begged. “…a big one with a divey board and everything, … please?”

“I think it’s time we found one…” I said, …but let’s eat first!”

Both girls stood up in the tepid water and began to dance. “Swimmy pool, swimmy pool!” they chanted.

I stepped out, brushed the green cuts of grass from my legs and headed for the house.  “You-all play in the sprinkler while I make lunch!” I called back.

“OK, Mommy!” shouted Rebekah, dragging a hot hose with a sprinkler ring spraying behind it.

I walked up the back steps, where three air conditioners roared from windows in our rented home. The one near me sounded a loud boom and the walls and wood floor lurched, as the thermostat switched it off or on. I had learned to sleep through it, in fact, it comforted me; for I was born and raised in the blistering heat of North Central Texas. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Marriage, Race/Racism

On Loving v. Virginia and Interracial Marriage: When Race Isn’t the Only Difference

August 30, 2017
life

By Rebecca Bodenheimer

Our story is not the Loving story. It is a tale of interracial love and marriage—like the story of Richard and Mildred Loving, whose journey was beautifully and poignantly represented in the 2016 Jeff Nichols film Loving— and yet, it’s so very different. Fifty years ago, the Lovings took on the state of Virginia’s ban on interracial marriage in a landmark Supreme Court case, and on June 12, 1967, they won, hammering the final nail in the coffin of state prohibitions on interracial marriage. The Lovings were relatively similar in terms of background, including aspects of class, region, and language. The only thing that separated them was race. This is not to minimize the huge significance of racial difference, particularly in the 1950s South, but only to emphasize that in terms of other aspects of their identity, they were actually quite compatible with each other. One of the main messages I took away from the Loving movie was the gulf between the huge significance of race from a legal and social perspective, and its insignificance in the daily life of the Lovings. This story was not about a couple who set out to challenge a racist law, or even to take a stand on racial equality, at least not at first; rather it was about a man and woman in love, trying to do what was best for their family. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Racism, Resistance, Surviving

But What Does This Mean? Racism, Unity, And The Next Four Years.

February 6, 2017
racism

By Kristina Newman

This morning I woke up in the middle of the night to the screams of my daughter crying. I panicked even though this was not a new occurrence to me. We never let her come in our bed anymore but this time I needed to see her. As I snuggled her in bed my anxiety grew and my stomach clenched.

I thought about how this is only the second time I have been truly scared for my life and the life of my loved ones as a result of what was going on in the political world. The first time was when the announcement we were going to war in 2003 was made. I was in the car driving from California to Arizona with my dad. I remember asking him, “but what does that mean?” I meant, what does this mean for me? What does this mean for you? What does this mean for America? Will bombs reach our shores? How will our lives change after this?

14 years later I find myself asking the same questions. I understand who won, but what does that mean for me and the ones I love most? What does that mean for our country? I am a black woman who is married to a Jewish man and raising a biracial daughter. I am an ally to the LGBTQ community and many of my dearest friends and family identify as such. When their community bleeds, my heart bleeds too. I have friends whose parents and students and loved ones are immigrants. There are Muslims who are rightfully scared for their lives and have been since September 11. These are the communities I am most scared for. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Racism

The Natural Step

November 14, 2016
hair

By Trinica Sampson

You can’t remember the day you learned to talk or the day you began to understand speech—language sneaks in when you aren’t looking, and suddenly you can speak, suddenly you can listen as the world tells you that you are not good enough.

It begins with the books you read, with the characters who do not look like you. Next comes television, the bridge to the real world— but it’s a bridge that was never made for you to march on. A million advertisements showing you how to lighten your skin tone with makeup, how to tame your frizzy, curly hair. “7 Hairstyles to Mix Up Your Look!” the magazines shout, but your mixed hair won’t be manipulated like that.

Every Sunday your white stepmother tries to make sense of your hair. You sit in-between her legs for hours as she rips a comb through your curls and strangles your hair into submission with hair ties and gel and sheer force of will. She keeps up a running commentary as she does it, a stream of comments like, “God, your hair is thick” and “you just have so much of it” and “there’s not much I can do with this other than braids.” But you know the language, so the insidious coded message reveals itself to you as bad, bad, bad. Continue Reading…

courage, Guest Posts, Racism

The Last Pep Rally

October 23, 2015

By Jane O’Shields-Hayner

It was during that last, fragmented year of college when I found myself standing, once more, in a hot and rowdy crowd at what would be my last pep rally. My sorority required my attendance, to demonstrate support for the next upcoming football loss.  My school lost pretty much all the time in those days and I had no real interest in football.

This was my fourth year of college and I was twenty-one years old.  This semester I had registered for fifteen units of classes, and not attended a single one. Without a conscious thought, I had devised a simple way to sabotage my life.

My life was college life, and college was the vehicle I used to meet my whims. As a student, I could stay up late and hang out every night. I could dress in magazine fashions and boogie at the kind of parties where everyone drank as much alcohol as their gut would allow, then smile for photographs holding a paper cup while the blue light from the photographer’s flash bulb ignited and smoked.

I wasn’t new at slacking, but this year I had pushed slackhood past the point of no return. I dressed and drove my car from sorority row each morning while my friends left for class. Instead of parking at the main campus, walking inside a limestone building and facing one of the many professors I had never seen and never heard, I drove off in one of several other directions. I pointed the long nose of my yellow Mustang toward the highway, pushed on the accelerator until my toes touched the floor and dreamed I was flying. Three hundred horses of power propelled my wagon of yellow steel toward the horizon and then I was free. With a thrill in my heart, I raced past the contradictions, troubles and lies of my scrambled and misdirected life.

Continue Reading…

Current Events, Guest Posts, Inspiration, Race/Racism, Racism

At 13, I Didn’t Expect My Teacher To Be Afraid Of Me

October 16, 2015

By Haneen Oriqat

At 13-years-old, I was a nerd. At 13, I was also beginning to struggle with my identity. I didn’t expect that my choice of dress would define my identity, just as I don’t think that Ahmed Mohamed expected his identity to be the topic of a trending hashtag.

#IStandWithAhmed was trending at number one worldwide as social media erupted with the story of a 14-year-old 9th grader in Irving, Texas being interrogated without his parents’ knowledge and arrested in front of his classmates. Ahmed had brought a homemade clock to school, but was accused by his teacher of the suspicious object being a bomb. Despite claims of safety for the students, this wasn’t treated like an actual bomb threat. There were no lockdowns, evacuations, or a bomb squad to immediately remove the suspicious object from school grounds. When I read the article about the incident posted by Dallas News right before heading to sleep on the night of September 15, I was stunned.

I saw the picture of Ahmed being led away in handcuffs, his face a mixture of confusion and fear. He had been excited to share his invention with his teachers, adults that he trusted, educators that he looked up to. It was those same adults that should have been there to protect him against harm. That look of anguish on his face was one that I felt reverberated through my body on my first day of 8th grade as a 13-year-old. It was the day I decided to come to school wearing a hijab.

I held the blue and cream-colored smooth material in my ha Continue Reading…

Fatherhood, Guest Posts, healing, Race/Racism

A Black Remembrance of My White Father.

June 21, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Erika Robinson

I have not shared this photo before. I have wanted to keep my father to myself, perhaps because, when he was alive, I had to share him with so many.

But it’s Father’s Day, and it is both nationally and personally a sober time. So I am giving all of us a gift by sharing my father once again.

My father left for college when he was only 16. He left for the big city from a farm in Nebraska, where he had no exposure to Black people.

There was no one whiter than my father, with his light eyes and hair, his aquiline nose, his Midwestern twang, and the way he said words like egg and roof. Tweed jackets with leather elbow patches and Oxford shirts were his uniform. He lent them a white guy cool by finishing his look with khakis and topsiders that he wore with no socks. He smoked a pipe. He loved Latin and classical music and German food. He was completely and unapologetically white.

My father was also the greatest man I have ever known. I described him to a friend recently: the way my father was committed to social justice and the cause of civil rights; the way he gave his voice, his body, his life force to the struggle for equality for Black people to the degree that he received letters of thanks during his lifetime from Martin Luther King, and to the degree that he was eulogized in Congress upon his death.

My friend said “Your father sounds as though he was very…optimistic.”

This friend of mine is a very polite young white man. I could tell from the pause between the words “very” and “optimistic” that what he’d wanted to call my father was “naive.”

Here is what my father was: he was grounded in his identity as a white man, aware of the privilege this status conferred upon him, and acutely conscious of the mantle of responsibility laid upon him to live a life of service to those upon whom society had conferred a different status entirely. Continue Reading…

Binders, Guest Posts, Race/Racism

Creep Parade: Not One For The Bucket List

June 11, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88By Shani Gilchrist

Most people—Americans, anyway—have imaginary checklists with grand items they tick off one-by-one as they go through life. Visit Paris — check! Go bungee jumping — check! Run a marathon —check! When asked about my own bucket list I have to struggle to think of more than two items, and they’re not your usual wishes: kayaking with killer whales in Vancouver Bay and attending the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Truthfully, I only remember the kayaking part when trying to come up with a creative answer to the bucket list question. But Davos is a real dream for me. Unfortunately no one on the inside has any reason to send me an invitation, but I’m usually in a different part of the Eastern Alps when the world’s luminaries are convening in Switzerland. Usually, I’m tagging along with my husband for an annual medical congress he attends in the tiny village of Alpbach, in Austria.

Alpbach is quaint and cute and everyone remembers you when you return because outside of the tourists, almost everyone there is related. It takes about five minutes to walk from one end of the village to the other, but it’s an enjoyable five minutes amongst preserved, unified, traditional wooden buildings. Each roof peeks cozily from beneath a quilt of pristine snow, and each chimney lazily exhales a steady stream of smoke from a fireplace inside. Every year the staff at Der Alpbacherhof Hotel patiently suffers through my broken German. They give me wry, knowing smiles when I stumble through the haze of my jet lag into the breakfast hall just as they’re about to shut it down at 10:30am.  Every year the same dog wiggles his way toward Aaron and me for a pat as we walk up the hill toward the glass and metal marvel that is the Congress Centre, a meeting space that is the area’s lifeblood. Because of the timing of the annual meeting and the seemingly misplaced, ultra-contemporary structure, I dubbed the trip “Mini Davos” the first time we went.

This year my husband made an unusual move and signed up for a second conference following the Alpbach congress. I’d been told we were going to Innsbruck. Instead we went to Igls, another small village that is located five kilometers and several decades away from the Tyrolean capitol.

There were signs upon our arrival indicating that we wouldn’t be experiencing the warm hospitality we’ve become accustomed to in the state of Tyrol. My husband checked into the hotel while I organized our things in the car, trying to fully wake myself from the nap I’d taken on the drive. When we walked back through the front door once he’d come to help me, we busily walked toward the elevator, but the woman working behind the front desk came running from it to interrupt our path.

“Excuse me! Excuse me!” she said, putting out her arm to stop me from walking through the elevator door. “This is for guests only!”

Still foggy from my nap, I wasn’t alert enough to be anything but confused for a moment. There was a tinge of familiarity to the unfriendly greeting, but I couldn’t quite place it. All I knew was that I didn’t like it, and I silently raised an eyebrow at the woman as Aaron waved his keycard in front of her and informed her that we were heading to our room. By the time we reached the third floor I was fully awake and haughtily ticked off, realizing that the receptionist had—at best—assumed I didn’t match her assumption of what the wife of a white American businessman should look like. At worst, she’d thought I was a hooker. Once we’d unpacked, I took a page from my mother’s book of make-the-bitches-eat-their-hearts-out. I changed out of my ski jacket and thermal top and into some cashmere, put makeup on for the first time that day (we’d stayed up so late drinking wine with friends the night before!), and completely ignored the woman when we passed her on our way out to find some lunch, cheerfully calling “Grüss gott!” to anyone else we passed in the lobby.

Grüss gott. The phrase means “may God greet you.” In Austria and parts of German Bavaria it’s customary to give this blessing to people as you cross their paths. At busy times of the day in Tyrolean villages the air undulates with a continuous line of these greetings as everyone nods and acknowledges everyone else. In more cosmopolitan areas Grüss gott is used in more direct interactions, such as when entering a store or meeting a friend. The phrase represents much of what led Aaron and I to fall in love with Austria. Grüss gott feels like a friendly reminder to slow down. It feels like a wish to know the people around you. It feels similar to a sort of American Southernism that highlights the region’s unhidden quirks and long, drawn-out conversations. Perhaps this is why we felt so welcome the first time we visited Alpbach. We felt something akin to the warm space within the bubble of friends and family we’d built in South Carolina that kept us from moving away, despite the many signs that we should probably live elsewhere. At home, we were like welcome strangers. The same seemed true in Austria.  It seemed that every Grüss gott was sincerely given as a wish for good luck and well-being. On that first trip we visited friends in Salzburg once the conference was over. It was Aaron’s birthday and we dined and sipped local wine while trading stories of outdoor adventures and shopping. We returned to the hotel feeling warm and happy, as if God really had greeted us in Austria, bestowing grace and fellowship upon us.

The cold welcome in Igls didn’t prepare us for what the friendly night receptionist, who grew up on the other side of the valley, described as a “weird, creepy parade” that the town puts on every three years. It’s called Tyrolean Fasching, which, in this case, seemed like a redneck Alpine carnival gone wrong. The men dress up as grotesque peasant women who dance, hoot, holler and drink copiously as they lead a procession of tractors hauling miniature log cabins atop flatbed trailers into town. When the parade is over, the cabins are deposited in the village square and each one contains a different kind of discotheque. But I’m jumping ahead. By the time I realized that much I was already experiencing the feeling of being not being safe in Europe for the first time in my life.

The drunk, grotesque cross-dressing men knew everyone lining the streets except those of us who were in town for the conference. Unlike many of my friends of color, I don’t tend to notice when I’m the only brown-skinned person in the vicinity unless someone is making an issue of it. It wasn’t until one of the drunkest of the monster-like peasants lurched at me for a raunchy hug that I became aware of the fact that I was the only non-white person around. Suddenly, I felt like I was a target.

As the parade carried on, two more peasants lunged for hugs and gropes. Aaron, his British co-worker and I were laughing nervously, unsure of what to make of the situation. I started hiding behind my male counterparts whenever it seemed like I’d caught the eye of another parade participant. The final two men, who would have failed any sobriety test despite the fact that it was noon, were the most determined, and they were the ones who caught me off-guard. I was talking to a couple from the conference when I realized I wasn’t going to get away from the peasant who was suddenly in my face. As I shrank away from his hug I felt two quick raps at the backs of my knees from a surprisingly heavy walking stick carried by his friend. I tried to keep myself from falling to the ground by grabbing my husband’s arm, which was holding a cup of hot gluweïn. As we stumbled, the stick-bearer’s even drunker friend pulled up his petticoat, revealing that he wasn’t wearing anything beneath it and that he’d taken special care to French-braid the hairs of his nether regions. I shrieked and covered my eyes as I hit the ground and gluweïn splashed onto my jeans. I think Aaron may have spit or hurled out the bit of spiced wine that was in his mouth. As the men laughed heartily and moved on, I wanted to burn my eyeballs with whatever mixture of lighter fluid and flint I could find.

The experience was gross and slightly funny, and very unnerving. Even though Aaron and I exchanged tense laughter as we recounted what had happened, neither of us felt right about me leaving the hotel alone for the rest of our stay. I’ve traveled to Europe many times, but this was the only time I’d felt unsafe.

***

Apparently this was just another part of a running theme in my life—a revelation of the cushioning that often surrounds many of my life experiences, intentional or not. The little Tyrolean village we return to each year isn’t necessarily an Alpine utopia of acceptance. We repeat the same steps each time we arrive in Alpbach because we have such a wonderful experience there. By repeating those steps we’re less likely to encounter the unpleasantness we did in Igls.

The truth of the matter is that Austria has been steadily gaining a reputation for racism and xenophobia over the past two decades. In August 2014 the European Training and Research Centre for Human Rights and Democracy published a report stating that 52% of blacks living in Austria have been abused or harassed on public transportation because of the color of their skin. The study also states that 47% of the black population had experienced harassment in the street. Up until this latest trip to Austria I’d remained blissfully ignorant of such growing national attitudes because while my husband was conferencing, I was busy insulating myself into a mode of retreat. I’d sleep in, mosey downstairs to breakfast, go for a walk, then spend the day writing in a cozy corner of the Albacherhof’s lounge. When Aaron and his colleagues were done for the day they’d join me at my perch and we’d order a round of drinks. The Alpbach days were sustained by a mixture of solitude and curated sociability. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, motherhood, Race/Racism

Warnings For My Sons.

February 24, 2015

beauty-hunting-jen-logo-black1-300x88

By Seema Reza.

The first time I read about the murder of Tamir Rice, a 12 year old boy shot by Cleveland police for waving a toy gun at a playground, I tell my sons, eight and fourteen, to pause the television. We are watching a show called Once Upon a Time, based on fairy tale characters who are dealing with the ultimate curse: reality. I read them the whole article, word for word, from the link I clicked on my Facebook feed. I read them Tamir Rice’s father’s words, “He didn’t know what he was doing. He was only twelve.”

They pay attention to my words in the way they do only when I am telling them something in this tone of voice–a voice I cannot fake–the scared quivering that sounds like a squint. We are cramped on the couch in the apartment we moved to when I left their father, our legs piled on top of one another. The television is paused on one or another fair-skinned, flowing-haired heroine. On this show, every rescue emerges from doing the easily identified right thing, every curse is broken by the everlasting magic of true love.   Continue Reading…