Category Archives: race

Our problematic past

A Memorial to Murdered Jews in Europe is located in Berlin, I learned last week at one of the sessions of the Annual Slave Dwelling Project Conference, and is the size of six or seven football fields. Not only is it huge, but the memorial sits in the middle of the capitol city.

During a Keynote presentation entitled, What Americans Can Learn from Germany’s Racial Reckoning, Susan Neiman asked, can you imagine if a comparable monument existed in Washington DC to memorialize the victims of slavery?

It took fifty years for such a conscious attitude to emerge in Germany, but we’ve had more than four hundred. Only now do the monuments to the Confederacy start to come down. Only now are state flags being revised to eliminate references to chattel slavery.

In Germany, it is illegal to display a swastika. If only confederate flags were equally taboo here (or swastikas, for that matter). If only an Anti-Lynching law could pass in the Senate!

Thanks to Bryan Stevenson, of course, we now have what’s casually referred to as the Lynching Memorial down in Montgomery, Alabama. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice. It goes a long way to recognizing the reign of terror (aka Jim Crow) and its many, many victims. I love the way the project collects soil from the sites of violence for the museum and erects markers at the site of the killings, often with surviving family members present.

The soul jars (an autocorrect for “soil” that I’m gonna let stand) are more akin to another memorial highlighted by scholar Neiman : the Stumbling Stones. These are small, engraved plaques located at the entrance to homes in 1200 cities through Europe and Russia. There are 70,000 in all.

A Guardian article compares the large memorial in central Berlin with these smaller, localized remembrances:

If Eisenman’s large monument, set in the governmental heart of Berlin, emphasises the scale and political culpability of the Holocaust, the Stolpersteine [Stepping Stones] focus on its individual tragedies.

Each stone is engraved with the following: Here Lived — the name of the former resident, their date of birth, and their fate. Some list internment, suicide, or exile, but most of them list deportation and murder.

On this side of the Atlantic, smaller American memorials to the victims of enslavement can be found here and there, with more springing up all the time. While these can never take the place of a national monument, they do matter. I know of at least two.

For example, Boston just recently erected a monument honoring those who were kidnapped from Africa and shipped here for sale. I visited The Middle Passage Memorial on Long Wharf and wrote about it here.

There’s also the African Burying Ground in Portsmouth posted about here after a trip to New Hampshire specifically to see it.

The plaque tells us that the male figure represents the first enslaved Africans brought to Portsmouth, while the female figure represents Mother Africa.

But again, let’s contemplate what it would be like if our country had the will, the sense of justice, and the dedication to righting the wrongs of the past such that we created a significant memorial in our Capitol.

It’s unthinkable right now.

I don’t want to end on such a hopeless note, so let me cite a few recent examples of reparations or even, moves toward reparations.

From KQED. One Way To Close The Black Homeownership Gap: Housing As Reparations (full article here):

Cities like Asheville, North Carolina and Evanston, Illinois have taken steps toward reparations in recent months. In Evanston, $10 million collected by the city in cannabis revenue would be used to offer African American residents $25,000 to put toward a down payment on a home.

California just became the first state to sign a law to study and propose a potential reparations plan.

From FiveThirtyEight. Can A Local Reparations Program Undo Decades Of Housing Discrimination:

In the case of Evanston, a suburb of Chicago, the city decided to address its history of discrimination via unfair housing policies, such as “redlining,” a practice in which lenders refused to insure mortgages in and near predominantly Black neighborhoods. So, yes, this is not reparations in the way many people traditionally think of the term — i.e., direct cash payments to Black descendants of enslaved people that attempt to correct the effects of systemic racism — but it’s likely that this program will still take some first steps toward remedying housing inequity.

To end, enjoy a few screen shots.

February 2021

The Confederate Flag of Truce

Did you know that before Robert E. Lee met with General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox to negotiate the terms of surrender that a white dish towel was raised? A classic and yet pedestrian signal of surrender, it’s also known as the Confederate Flag of Truce.

Artist Sonya Clark wove a giant version of the dish towel and made it the centerpiece of her installation at the DeCordova Museum, in Lincoln, MA (summer 2021). She asks the provocative question, “What if this was the symbol that endured?”

You can see the historic flag of surrender here. Also, here’s an ArtNews review of the show.

A facing wall features an iconic Gordon Parks photo of a cleaning woman. Clark stitched a reproduction of the cleaner’s dress and had someone video tape her wiping a floor with a confederate flag. A proper use. A reimagined status.

There were several other rooms of exhibits. I’ll leave you to find out more about them online.

In a tangential way, Clark’s show reminded me of a popular recent television series, Watchmen. The show answered a parallel question, “What if law enforcement was serious about chasing down and punishing white supremacists?”

A historian at the site of the Appomattox surrender describes the meeting between Lee and Grant here

The freedom of external structure

Responding to weekly visual prompts from the Paris Collage Collective has been productive in all the usual ways that prompts inspire. Here’s an image. Run with it. In writing sessions, it can be amazing to see what happens when you write for twenty minutes starting with the line, say, so much depended on or the ocean called her.

More specifically, the PCC challenge is freeing because I can run with pictures of black men and women in a way I might not were it a choice of mine. There’s a big footnote there that isn’t for today, but think: appropriation.

Since race and racism are central preoccupations of mine, I have OTHER images and ideas that want inclusion. Ideas flow. I don’t think I can adequately describe how liberating this has been.

4/20’s new meaning

Giana Floyd, George Floyd’s daughter

From now on 4/20 will live on not just as a day to celebrate pot but as a day to remember that a murderous cop was held to account.

I cried when I heard that the jury found Chauvin guilty on all three counts. A choking ugly cry. Gasping.

While I know this is not the end of the war (Al Sharpton) and that the verdict was only possible because it was captured on video, seen the world over, followed by a year of protests and the collapse of the blue wall (Jason Johnson), I want to breathe the relief of a decision well made.

Yes. Yes we get how broken we are that the outcome was not certain here. But let me exhale with gratitude.

Thank you jurors! Thank you “bouquet of humanity” aka witnesses who took the stand! Thank you remarkable prosecution team! Thank you protestors! Thank you cops who took the stand and spoke the truth!

Tomorrow I will lament the fifteen year old girl who was shot yesterday. Tomorrow I will share my outrage at how swiftly Republicans are seeking to outlaw filming police and protests but today: relief.

I shared this 53 second video over on Instagram but I’ll share it here, too. Synchronicity turned the Vogue model’s outstretched arms into something reminiscent of a prone, injured body as the day went on. Unintended but fitting.

A Shithole Country

Let’s dispense with notions of race. Not as in “I don’t see color,” but as in “your color will not matter if I am a cop and holding a gun that I claim to’ve believed was a taser” and OOPS!

Can’t we just arrest these killers on the spot? Forget suspension with pay or firing them or forming a commission or building a case against the police unions. Let murderers be treated like murderers.

The slamming down and winking out of a Black man’s life is one damnation. The slow-walked consequences constitute a second damnation.

Everyone knows that if the murderer just down the road is acquitted not just one cheap-ass Dollar Store will burn, but all of Minneapolis.

Notions of race have changed. They are at once fluid and rigid. Italians used to be considered “colored,” Catholicism was outlawed. Jews, no matter their designated race, have never managed to get ahead of those who would hunt them down and exterminate them.

Exterminate is a word that intentionally calls to mind vermin, rats. And Jews. Don’t say “Jew” if you’re not Jewish. It too easily glides into insult. Listen to this or that white supremacist refer to 1/4 of the American populous as “the blacks.”

Why can’t we eradicate the haters? The bearded, insecure, gun-toting white men who by most counts seem hell-bent on destroying the America they claim to love? They carry illusion in one pocket, grievance in another, and make violent scapegoating their mission.

Let seditionists be tried for sedition! Charging an insurrectionist with trespass is a little like charging Rockwell Inc. with trespass when clouds of plutonium smoke from its bomb factory poisoned entire neighborhoods south of Denver.

But, the Colorado courts wondered, can the plaintiffs make out a case even for trespass when it’s so hard to quantify the harm? Even if the impossibility of quantifying the harm is because its magnitude is nearly unimaginable? (let me insert here that the half life of plutonium is 240,000 years and that a particle the size of the head of a pin, when breathed in, will kill).

But the residents near Rocky Flats knew. The ‘downwind scars’ from thyroid removal so prevalent as to earn that cute nickname, children dying of weird cancers, calves born deformed. It’s a little like how an entire zip code of Black people in Ohio knew they were descended from Thomas Jefferson for several generations in advance of DNA proof.

But I digress. One man yells, “This is the people’s house!” Then another. Then a chorus. I want to yell back, “And these are the people’s laws!”

Meanwhile, how is it possible that the biggest seditionist of them all is waltzing around, golfing, disrupting weddings, drinking Coke while calling for its boycott, and spouting the Big Lie, still?

Inversion of truth has a way of wearing people down. Tell me again why a Dollar Store should matter more than a Black man’s life? Tell me again why the tanks and armor and gas and shields and vests and guns and batons and more gas arrived in force instantly at a crowd protesting injustice but did not manage to show up at a full fledged riot at the Capitol. Or why the men who threatened to kidnap and kill the Governor of Michigan did not end up being convicted. Of anything.

We all remember Dylan Roof’s post-massacre cheeseburger or the near-high fives the police gave Kyle Rittenhouse.

The curfew is a catch-22 for Black people. Protest and you’ll be arrested NO MATTER HOW EGREGIOUS THE HARM you protest. So many catch-22’s for Black people and so many with lethal consequence. Stay in your car, you’ll be shot. Get out of your car, you’ll be shot.

All those who plea for Black obedience have not been paying attention. Half of the men on the Hill frame grievance along racial lines, with utter disregard for the facts, for the Constitution, for actual history. It’s truly sickening.

Vote Them Out, rings hollow when voting rights are being gutted. All those good guys swearing they’ll wait a hundred hours in line or those others saying they’ll risk arrest to bring water and pizza to voters, seem not to have read the part about the legislature now being empowered to overturn elections.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how many well-meaning allies show up with water or how many patriotic Black voters wait eons to exercise their constitutional right, the Georgia GOP can change the result. Poof! There goes Stacey Abrams’s strategy and hard work. The Republicans have enshrined into law what the Orange Menace tried to do in November with his pathetic election-tampering phone call.

They fired the guy who taped that illegal call, I don’t need to tell you.

Even with my pale and privleged ass, I’m really tired of this shit.

The through-line from slave patrollers to current policing is direct. They basically killed first, asked questions after.

There was so much extra-judicial killing of slaves in South Carolina that the Slave Code of 1740 tried to put in some limits. Imagine, even as the Assembly imposed one onerous restriction after another on the enslaved, they put the brakes on the slave patrollers. Why? Because they were costing the elite planters too much money, damaging their investments, etc.

An owner, of course, could kill one of his slaves for any reason at any time. Also, if a black person struck a white person, they would’ve been condemned to death, if not killed on the spot. But patrollers out for blood or maybe for bounties, had to be reigned in. The average healthy male African cost the equivalent of $18 to $26,000. The price of a very good used car.

White colonial governance pitted Natives against each other to help finish what small pox started. They also had no problem situating — there’s a word — various tribes further inland — west of the Edisto River, say — as long as said placements — there’s another word — didn’t occupy land where rice would grow. But wait! If a slave ran away, it was common for the aggrieved owner to hire a Native tracker to bring the enslaved back. No one knew the landscape better than the Natives! Here’s a musket!

But if not hiring a Chocktaw to find a runaway from Gambia, say, the fancy second sons from England and France might have captured a passel of the so-called red skins to sell as slaves to sugar planters in the West Indies. It didn’t pay to keep them around — Natives were too adept at melting into the scrub to make them a sound investment.

But, keeping at least one Indian on register was considered good sense, since it was believed that mixing Native with African blood would produce offspring better able to withstand winters.

For no rational reason that I’ve ever come across, Natives on the auction blocks in Barbados or Antigua fetched lower prices than Black captives. Perhaps it had to do with how theories on race were gaining traction — solidifying — theories that said that the black-skinned were particularly suited to hard labor and that their owners did them enormous favors by offering them such opportunities, etc.

Because I’m not Black or Jewish or Asian, I cannot begin to imagine what it is to receive the hate and the threats that are such common currency in this country. But I AM tired of it all. Hypocrisy, the violence, the fake patriotism, molasses-paced consequences, the unraveling of truth as something that should matter.

Let me end with one piece of good news and a prayer.

The good news: Fani Willis did not pursue felony charges against the young legislator who knocked on the door where Kemp and his cronies signed the voter suppression law.

The supplication: I pray that the Chauvin jury does the right thing. Please, please, convict the motherfucker. There’s been enough damage done.

* sorry I don’t have an attribution for the protest photo.

A really good ongoing critique of policing can be found here:

I recently learned about Rocky Flats by reading this really good memoir: