PART 1: Peeking over the sidewalk, hunch-shouldered, the bust of a Beanieboo-eyed street-art panda projects its thoughts into a cartoon bubble above: “CAN WE COME OUT NOW?” Fearful and vulnerable, the image seems to say, that humanity is also an endangered species now. Though the human population hasn’t been reduced on a scale equal to that of the pandas, the vulnerability is real.Hunkering for months in the face of a world-wide viral contagion, our unease is caused by something inconceivably microscopic, suddenly ubiquitous, and frighteningly deadly. The growing daily numbers of infected or deceased are on an ungraspable scale, and the public messaging is often incomprehensible. Our lives have been altered or shuttered, and in this shifting world, our feet are searching for steady ground.
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PART 2:While I’ve felt personal vulnerability before—to shame, failure, ill health, or loneliness—I’ve lived most of my life with the luxury of an external sense of security: living in the US democracy, far away from war zones, in a safe community. The pandemic has given me a small taste of what many Americans and much of the world know well—living in a world of more threat than security. Early in the pandemic shutdown, I heard an interview with a man from West Africa who joked that, in a land with Ebola and black mambas, Covid was just one more thing to add to a long list of things that could kill you each day. When I think of vulnerability in a world of threats, I remember the stories of my late friend Esther. On the weekend of her 90th birthday a few years ago, she told me of her harrowing experience under Nazi occupied Poland during World War II. Her ordeal began when she was fifteen years old, a year after she’d been awarded the top student prize by the mayor of her city, Łódź. It ended when she was twenty, doing slave labor in a Krups munitions factory. In the years between, she endured the horrific loss of every member of her family: by gas chamber (her mom and infant sister), by bludgeoning with a rifle butt (her fourteen year old brother), and by machine gun (her baby brother, age four). The only member of her family who did not die directly at the hands of German soldiers was Esther’s father, who gave way to starvation in her arms. Naziism’s racist ideology, as Esther put it, was a “mental contagion”.
PART 3: The government perpetuated genocide of native Americans, the enslavement and countless brutal rapes and killings of black Americans, and the long trail of discrimination and abuse of nonwhite immigrants has shown that this country, too—for all its ideals—has always had a large segment of its people living under a threat. We’ve had our own longstanding mental contagion—white supremacy—that has stayed in our system like viruses that lie low only to flare up when the host is weakened. The difference is that viruses have no intention. Humans do.How can America heal itself from the plague of racism, which still threatens, intimidates, and represses people of color—even in this supposedly free country? For one, its time to look clearly at ourselves under a microscope—to be awash in light. A close-up of what ails us, seen in the videoed police murder of George Floyd, prompted a response, not unlike antibodies, in the form of widespread and ongoing protests to the oppressive and destructive forces in our national system. In a few short weeks, these reactions have already effected positive changes across the US. Old stories about the impact of racism in this country are finally coming to light: about the Tulsa race massacre of 1921; the extrajudicial killings by the Texas Rangers of thousands of ethnic Mexican Texans in the 1910’s; and the systematic murders of countless Osage Tribe members in northeast Oklahoma in the 1920’s by white oil-prospectors seizing mineral rights to the oil-rich tribal lands. In the official telling of American history, much has been lost, ignored, or whitewashed to create a comfortable and heroic mythology for white Americans. This mythology has to be dismantled by those of us who’ve had an insider’s vantage point on the ugly truth—this was a nation built on a bedrock of white violence and oppression, justified by the mentality of white supremacy.
PART 4: I had that vantage point growing up in the 1960’s and 70’s in Fort Smith, Arkansas, still a largely segregated town at that time. A descendent of European settlers and raised on the white side of town, my stories are of the perpetrators: of Captain Aaron Jernigan, my grandfather generations removed, who founded what is now Orlando, by leading an armed militia to rid central Florida of its native Seminoles—herding them at gunpoint onto boats in the Gulf of Mexico bound toward the Oklahoma Indian Territory; of grandparents who met in the 1920’s at a dance hall entertained by black musicians, yet who cautioned that black people would “stab you in the back as soon as look at you”; of evangelical congregations, sisters to the one I was raised in, that would not allow black people to attend services, convinced they were the descendants of the brother-murderer Cain—blackened as a curse by God.My own life was tainted, too. The all white Southside High School, which I attended and where I played trumpet in the marching band, was built deep into the white side of town after the previous two segregated high schools had been forced to integrate—the all black Lincoln High having been closed and merged with the whites-only Northside High School. Children could only attend schools in their neighborhood, so this assured, for awhile, that the whites could still have a school of their own. Likely as a way of scorning integration, the new school embraced Confederate emblems for its identity: the football and basketball teams were the Southside Rebels and the mascot Johnny Reb. Dressed in authentic Confederate military uniforms, our band responded to every up-tick on the scoreboard, with an enthusiastic blast of Dixie, the confederate flag waving wildly overhead. Having learned nothing about the Civil War in US History class—my football coach teacher had skipped over it under the pretext that we’d “heard too much about that already”—I was baffled when integrated schools around the state refused to play our teams. My response then was the same that we always hear from the ignorant or the willfully blind: “What did we ever do to them? Slavery ended over a hundred years ago.”
PART 5: Racism, at its heart is also a way of telling stories—stories of hate, contrived and perpetuated by the fearful, that metastasize and distort self understanding into a self-serving ethnocentrism. It can only be combated with counter narratives shone from the light of truth. When the earth-centric view of our universe was countered with astronomical evidence that we actually circle a star, the old stories of earth’s dominance eventually fell, along with religions and cultures that had shaped themselves around that view. We need to teach a more complex, more integrated version of American history to our children, showing us as one humanity, whose actions—ugly and beautiful, brave and cowardly, ignorant and brilliant—have been built collectively on each other to create this hopeful melting pot we live in. This not only means correcting false accounts of history, but filling in the long-ignored stories of people of color, who even as objects of racial brutality and injustice, inconceivably managed to elevate humanity in spite of it. Reshaping the white-aggrandizing narratives that have shaped the American collective identity for its entirety means many of us white Americans will have to exchange fear for shame—a self-reckoning that will be painful. But healing sometimes hurts. The vulnerable have already borne more than their share of suffering for American ideals. Besides, doing so could lead to something beautiful: the future of America could be one in which no one has to cower like the street-art panda—where instead, everyone is entitled to step out boldly and thrive.
WOW, another GREAT piece, Brenda!!! Thank you so much for sharing!!