I was born on the South-side of Chicago before the Civil Rights Act. I learned about racial violence at an early age—when my parents purchased their first home. We were block busters, the first black family on the block in 1965. I was in half-day kindergarten when my parents drove my sister and me to see “our” first new house. It seemed huge. There was not one piece of furniture and every wall in every room was freshly painted white. Painted to conceal the damage done by the previous owners who moved away in the middle of the night. There was a fireplace and mantelpiece in the living room (new vocabulary word for me) and a huge backyard where I would later pitch my tent and pretend to camp. It was so much bigger than our apartment where I had arrived 5 years earlier as a baby and now shared a room with my older sister. My sister and I ran through the house pretending to get lost in the small rooms. I climbed inside the kitchen cabinets. There was also a full basement; i.e., secret lab/dungeon/pirate cave/ big wheel race course. And best of all, I was going to have my own room. My own room, where I would learn to read, count, play with G.I. Joe, Hot Wheels, whittle my pinewood derby cars for cub scout merit badges, toss a ball in the air lying in the new bed, and stick chewed Bazooka Joe bubble gum under my desk. Yes, my very own first desk and bookshelf that later became homework prison. And my sister, with her long red hair and freckles, would have to stay out.
I remember that first day clearly; but, also the first night after we actually moved into the house. We were the first “Negro” family on the block during the height of the civil rights movement. A group of neighbors, “who thought they were white” threw a trash can of burning paper in our backyard that first night. Some were yelling “niggers go home,” and some threw rocks at the back windows. And, because my mother “looks white,” it may have appeared to some that not only had a Negro family moved in the neighborhood, but possibly an interracial family! I understood none of this at the time. Why would people try to set our house on fire? I remember my Dad (a WWII veteran) and my mother’s brother (a Korean War veteran) standing on the back porch that night. “Uncle Doc” was a young Chicago policeman and I saw that he had his pistol in his hand and he was shining a flashlight from the back porch into that huge dark yard and alley behind the house. He was using words I don’t think I ever heard before. My Dad was also angry, why? I had never really seen him angry before. My mother yelled at me to go back to my room and stay there. She said it real mean, like she would kill me if I did not obey. I think that scared me the most. I ran to my sister’s room. I recall her saying to my Dad and Uncle “they’re going to burn us out.” She also used some words new to my vocabulary. Why was everyone so angry, so mad? This went on for a while. The kids on the block who were taught that they were white were never allowed to play with me. But eventually white flight took off on our block and that was that. The next summer, my Dad marched with thousands of others when Dr. King was stoned in broad daylight in Gage Park, Chicago, on August 5, 1966.
As a child I always thought I was a smart. Not because I necessarily earned good grades, but because my parents kept telling me I was smart. Funny how kids believe what their parents tell them. I was formally educated in a Chicago Public elementary school; then a private middle school, a private high school; and then top-rated public universities for my BA and MA. I earned my PhD at a prestigious private university where I wore the armor of being “the one” black graduate student in the graduate program the entire time I was there. Next, a Stanford University post-doc. Most of my formal education, like the walls in our first new house was freshly painted white.
Anyway, I guess my formal education prepared me for my career in the academy. But I know too well that often “schools do not reveal truths, they conceal them [Coates, p. 27].” The older I get, the more time I spend struggling to unlearn the myths I was taught (and now sometimes teach). Integrating what I learned alone in the “stacks of libraries,” with what I learned growing up on the South-side of Chicago is increasingly irreconcilable. But I am still here. And to paraphrase Baldwin, “to be here means that I can’t be anywhere else.”
This month my second-cousin passed away at 108, Myrtle Allen McKinnie. I believe she is my mother’s father’s brother’s daughter. I never really “knew her” but was introduced to her many times at Memorial Day gatherings in the small town where my parents were born. You meet so many relatives–the Allen family is huge! Anyway, her obituary tells that she achieved her lifelong goal of becoming a teacher in 1927; married in 1929; and was “asked to resign from teaching in Alton, Illinois because at that time, there was a law stating that married women teachers were not allowed to teach in public education.” She did not return to teaching until 1952. Her life story is inspiring, but sadly is not unique. Thousands, millions, of women were legally denied the opportunity to pursue their ambitions because of their gender and/or marital status (including many women in my family, and yours). There are both remnants and evolutions of these discriminatory laws today. I have posted about Hobby Lobby on WordPress previously. For me, second-cousin Myrtle’s life story is yet another reason why the precedent set in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is so potentially dangerous. And, why the composition of the Supreme Court is so critically important. Again, I don’t pretend to have known cousin Myrtle. I have absolutely no idea how she felt about reproductive rights (Burwell) but I bet that she did not appreciate being fired from her job because of her gender.
I feel this New Yorker article by Jeannie Suk. I don’t pretend to be qualified to teach rape law. But the limited time I spend on Supreme Court opinions on sexual harassment and rape law at the undergraduate level is also risky. I have lost count of the many times I have looked out at my class during these discussions and noticed a student struggling to hold back tears. My stomach sinks to the floor. I’ve had students walk out of class. These discussions are difficult, it is also important that everyone feels safe in your classroom. You do the best you can. You go home, you re-read the intro and the first two chapters of bell Hooks’ “Teaching to Transgress,” and you try to do better next semester. I see them.
This country was founded on violent rebellion. Our constitution drips with the blood of the American Revolution and our success as a nation is rooted in the genocide of Native Americans and centuries of legalized homicide, rape, and unthinkable brutality to enforce the chattel slavery of African-Americans. This is our reality. Racism, violent crime, rape culture, gun worship and police brutality are part of an American nightmare for many. It is up to each generation to take steps to heal these wounds.
Most cops are good. They are our friends, neighbors and family. But, like civilian criminals, there are also criminal police who cannot be allowed to violate policy and/or brutalize the public with impunity. Many citizens (especially young Black and Hispanic males) live in communities terrorized by both gang violence AND by police brutality. This terror is heightened when we embed increasingly militarized police forces [who often have little connection to the communities they serve and are sworn to protect] into places like Ferguson to enforce discriminatory policies (racial profiling, stop-and-frisk, broken window, etc.) that disproportionately target and harass law-abiding people of color. The lack of trust between some communities (especially those defined by poverty and/or race) and law enforcement is diminished even more by the conflicts of interests when local prosecutors defend police officers accused of violating that sacred trust. Why are people protesting? Because many blacks, browns and whites are simply sick of it.
Okay, so before the shit hits the fan tomorrow and some start calling Obama an Emperor again, it may be helpful to review examples of some other executive orders. There have been times when our system of governance (especially Congress) has proved incapable of producing moral and just policy outcomes. Often, these policies involve issues of race, gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation. It is in these centuries and decades of darkness that we have turned to our Supreme Court or to the executive branch for strong leadership to bring this nation out of its dark past and into the sunlight of a better tomorrow.
The Emancipation Proclamation was an executive order issued by Lincoln during the American Civil War.
Executive Order 8802 – Roosevelt banned racial discrimination in government departments and defense industries. It also established Fair Employment Practice Committee directed to oversee compliance with the order.
Executive Order 9980 -Truman. It prohibited racial discrimination in federal employment and established a Fair Employment Board in the Civil Service Commission.
Executive Order 9981 – Truman. It desegregated the armed forces.
Executive Order 10590 – Eisenhower. It established the President’s Committee on Government Employment Policy. It aimed to eliminate discrimination in federal hiring.
Executive Order 10925 – Kennedy. It established the President’s Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, which later became the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and requires equal opportunity in placement and promotion in the U.S. military.
Executive Order 11063 – Kennedy. It banned segregation in federally funded housing.
Executive Order 11246 – Johnson. It prohibited discrimination in employment decisions on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.
Happy Veteran’s Day, but don’t talk to the Frenchwomen.
I read tonight that during WW1 “Brigadier General James B. Erwin issued an order which forbade Black soldiers of the 92nd Division to speak to Frenchwomen. American military policemen arrested Negroes who were caught talking to Frenchwomen.” 92 Division? 92 Division? Yes, I remember now. My grandfather, Thomas McKinley Lyles. He was in France during WWI, (CPL 804 Pioneer Infantry, 92 Division). I just wonder if Grandpa ever spoke to a Frenchwoman?
Columbus Day is some bullshit. Before “discovering America” Columbus lived for a time on Portugal’s plantation island of Madeira and was well acquainted with the slave population on the island. Columbus also was certainly aware of the slaves in the Canary Islands (off the northwest coast of Africa) working the sugar plantations. Research also reveals that Columbus, as “a product of the new Atlantic slave-powered society,” discussed the trade of Africans in a letter to the Catholic kings in 1496. Furthermore, it is documented that during his third voyage to the Caribbean, Columbus sent back from Santo Domingo to Seville, the first known cargo of slaves to cross the Atlantic: Taino Indians, albeit in a west-east direction. Later, in 1496, Columbus himself returned to Spain with thirty Indians to sell as slaves. At the same time, Amerigo Vespucci was also bringing back slaves from the Bahamas and from his voyages along the coast of Brazil.