Losing them, fixing them, forgetting to put them in
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This past August, in a section titled “One Nation, Indivisible,” we devoted more than half our pages to excerpts from The Sun’s archives. Our goal was to address the current political moment by giving readers perspective on the past and courage to face the present. Because the problems in our nation seem unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, we are making this an ongoing part of the magazine.
The work hours were from six in the morning until five in the evening, plus five hours of work on Saturday. Everyone worked on the chain gang. Convicts who had seizures, cripples, and convicts with one eye were required to go out on the roads to work. Eleven hours a day and five on Saturday, cutting bushes, digging ditches, and doing any other type of road work. It never got too cold or too hot to work a convict.
A typical breakfast on the chain gang was fried fatback meat, grits, black coffee, and black molasses. The convict would get one fried egg each week, on Sunday morning. In the dorms at night, when a convict had to get up to relieve himself, he yelled, “Getting up, Captain.” The guard in the hall would yell, “Get on up.” There was a guard who watched a convict every minute of the day and night. A light burned in the dorms all the time, and the convicts were never in the dark.
The ones who had escaped and gotten caught had a length of chain running from one ankle to the other. When they got up at night, there was a lot of clanking. With the lights in your eyes at night, convicts yelling, and the clanking of the chains, a convict did not get much rest.
Convicts were not paid in the 1950s. We received a five-cent bag of smoking tobacco for a week’s work.
“Prisons (All Kinds)” (Readers Write), Billy Wagoner, January 1985
On the peace march I can say, “I’m walking to get to the next rest stop,” or, “I’m walking to get to the next campsite and set up my tent and read a book,” or, “I’m walking so the people who drive by and see me on the road will think about peace today.” At any given time all three of these things may be simultaneously true, and, taken to extremes, they all amount to the same thing: peace, joy, satisfaction.
The goal, however, is the Big Triumph. But I don’t believe in that one anymore. I’m not saying we can’t get rid of the bombs — if I believed that, I would be in despair. We have to get rid of the bombs, but it won’t happen all at once, and it probably won’t even be clear when they are all gone. I think nowadays more in terms of trends than events, and I think of life as a series of unique moments rather than as a singular unfolding story. So I keep personal and political aims in mind, but they are more like directional magnets than like goals. Or, more accurately perhaps, my goals are realized constantly. When my heart is open, my gestures, actions, and intentions are “offered up,” complete in themselves every moment.
“Ruminations on the Great Peace March,” Marc Polonsky, November 1986
In the quiet, prairied earth of the Midwest, where earthquakes were never talked about, never expected, we learned how to crawl under our desks or stand within a door frame to protect ourselves from collapsing buildings. We listened to the president on television talking of aggression, the Iron Curtain, the communist threat, and we vaguely knew of a war in Korea with thousands of Chinese swarming down on our good soldiers. We looked at civil-defense pamphlets describing how to build special shelters, from stacks of cinder blocks in the corner of the basement to more ambitious enclosures buried in the backyard, with water tanks, air vents, and bunk beds.
It’s hard to know how trusting and naive our parents and teachers were as they patiently listened to the platitudes and assurances of the government; what concerns and fears they might have felt as they put us through those air-raid drills. Now, forty years later, we are just beginning to realize how naive and reckless our government was in its experiments with the Bomb.
Now I hear that the equivalent of fifty thousand tons of dynamite is allocated to my simple person alone. I don’t remember any senator, representative, governor, or mayor ever telling me this was the plan. And I’m sure I’ve been paying for it since my first paychecks with their minuscule deductions so neatly itemized for me. This is one of my investments as a taxpayer, a macabre annuity I’ve anted up to all my life: a massive, expanding, exploding fireball that vaporizes all life in its path, turns buildings to smithereens as if they were made of matchsticks, bringing radiation death, shadows burned in concrete, and the possibility of winter and darkness that would envelop the planet for years. Can you imagine the very sky suddenly, entirely exploding? It took me decades.
“The Bomb” (Readers Write), Gregory J. Gapsis, February 1990
My skin is pale, my hair is straight, and my family is black — African American, if you prefer. When we moved from the South Side of Chicago to Kalamazoo, Michigan, in the early sixties, a neighbor girl told me that I couldn’t play with her dog; it wasn’t “used to colored people.”
I was one of only two “colored” kids in my entire school. I looked just like the white kids, but I wasn’t like them. They all had friends to play with at recess, to sit with at lunch, to stick up for them if a fight broke out.
At my Episcopal church, during my confirmation class, another girl told the minister that I was not allowed to come to her house. Though her mother really liked Louis Armstrong, she said, she did not allow Negroes in their home.
In the late sixties and early seventies my black peers told me that I was “not black enough.” I tried rolling my hair in hard metal curlers, but it just came out in tight ringlets. I never achieved the truly nappy hair of a “real” black woman. The black kids would taunt me and threaten to kick my ass because I not only looked white; I acted white, walked white, and talked white. (Am I typing white?)
The hippie counterculture offered a place where I could be accepted. For some, I was just a mascot for their rebellion; they wanted to say that they’d gotten high with a “black chick.” But for others I was (and still am) simply a friend. We broke rules and defied norms. We smoked weed and dropped acid. We fucked and had fun. And I fit in, for a while.
After college and a year in Spain, I went to work in corporate America. Co-workers, customers, and people I didn’t even know would boldly ask me, “What are you? Are your parents mixed?” What kind of question is that? I wanted to say. Why do you need to know? What does that have to do with anything?
It has not changed much since then. The shade of my skin, the texture of my hair, and the way I talk are still an issue for black folks. White people sense that I am different, but they can’t figure out exactly how. Several times I’ve had clients assume that I am Italian or Latina and go on to tell me their feelings about “those goddamn niggers.” These same people are shocked and offended when I tell them I am black and that they need to apologize very quickly or they will never do business with me again. Yes, they are offended.
“Fitting In” (Readers Write), Marilynne S., September 2004
Before leaving for an antiwar demonstration in Washington, D.C., I asked a neighbor how many years she’d been demonstrating for progressive causes. “More than sixty,” she replied. Then she shrugged and added, “Not that it seems to have done any good.” “Well, you never know,” I told her. “If you hadn’t demonstrated, things might be even worse.” Did I really mean that, or was I merely trying to make her feel better? Perhaps I was just trying to keep my own spirits up. As the train I’m on winds its way north through the gently rolling North Carolina countryside, I remember making this same journey, for this same reason, more than four years ago. Back then President Bush was preparing to depose a fearsome dictator, dismantle his horrific weapons, and liberate his people. Now the dictator has been deposed (at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives); the weapons have proven to be nonexistent; and of the nearly 30 million Iraqis we’ve “liberated,” 2 million have fled the country, and an equal number have been displaced from their homes. If a comparable exodus occurred in the United States, 40 million Americans would be clogging the roads, setting up tents outside the White House, and furtively crossing the border to Mexico under cover of night.
Sy Safransky’s Notebook, July 2007
We’ve set up a system that actually guarantees high levels of violence in poor areas. They have a name for it: “containment suppression.” My middle-class neighborhood is safe only because those neighborhoods soak up all the violence. The cops in Southeast LA will tell you they’re not there to provide public safety; they’re there to make sure the violence doesn’t spread. We’ve got seven thousand unsolved murders in South LA. Our political system has engineered public-safety apartheid. Why is it acceptable that residents of West LA have a one-in-eighty-thousand chance of being murdered, whereas people in Southeast LA have a one-in-two-thousand chance? . . .
There’s a one-in-10-million chance that any American is going to be hit by a terrorist attack, yet we spend billions every year to fight terrorism. We spend just seventeen cents a child to keep kids in Southeast LA safe.
“Both Sides of the Street,” Connie Rice, interviewed by Diane Lefer, April 2008
I was expecting to be cynical about the [citizenship] ceremony. At that point, I’d lived here for eighteen years. I thought I would walk out feeling unchanged. But then I saw people weeping, and I imagined the situations they had come from and how hard they had worked to become U.S. citizens. There’s a point in the ceremony at which you have to renounce your birth country. I had a hard time doing that. How do you renounce the place where you were born and where your parents live? At that moment I teared up.
I think when I renounced my allegiance to India, it put pressure on me to make sure the U.S. really lives up to the ideals that make this country great — so great that people renounce their homelands in order to become Americans. People will sometimes call me “unpatriotic” or say, “If you don’t like this country, go back to your own.” And I always tell them that it’s because I love this country that I do this work. Dissent is patriotic.
“Without a Country,” Pramila Jayapal, interviewed by Madeline Ostrander, November 2008
© Ariana Harley
Most people . . . will acknowledge that white privilege existed at some point. I always ask them: When did it stop?
Some think that racism ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Those were important steps, because they made it illegal to engage in discrimination. But just because you’ve made something illegal doesn’t mean it no longer happens. No enforcement mechanisms existed for the Fair Housing Act until 1988, and evidence suggests there are still millions of cases of race-based housing discrimination every year.
We also know that job applicants with “white-sounding” names are 50 percent more likely to get called back than those with “black-sounding” names, even if both have the same qualifications. That is privilege. Is it as blatant as a NO BLACKS NEED APPLY sign? Of course not. The privilege has become more subtle.
“By the Color of Their Skin,” Tim Wise, interviewed by David Cook, July 2009
An African American in a Louisiana prison told me how they were working in the fields — eighteen thousand acres of cotton and soybeans — and being watched by guards on horseback with guns. The prisoner overheard the guards placing a bet on how many men they could throw in the hole that day. One said, “I’m going to get me three niggers in the hole today. Just watch.” The inmate was hoeing, and the guard got in his face and said, “Nigger, what are you going to do?” and called him every obscenity in the book. Finally the inmate couldn’t take it. He pulled the guard off the horse and hit him in the face. And he was thrown into the dungeon.
“And Justice for All,” Sister Helen Prejean, interviewed by David Cook, August 2010
In my early thirties I came to understand that, for me, the cross was not a religious symbol; it was a symbol of dissidence. I realized that people who love fiercely often die violently: Gandhi, Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr. The Jesus I was hearing about in many churches and the Jesus I was reading about in the Gospels seemed like two different people. Jesus became more of a revolutionary in my eyes. . . . I understood, probably for the first time, that the Gospel has nothing to do with becoming successful or wealthy or respectable or comfortable — or with self-preservation of any kind. The Gospel is basically about a scandalous love affair between God and people who need freedom but often don’t know it.
“Dangerous Love,” Lynice Pinkard, interviewed by Mark Leviton, October 2014
Changing things is easier than we think. We just have to get off our chairs and show up: to elections, courtrooms, town meetings, marches, rallies. Showing up is half of democracy.
“It’s Easier Than We Think,” Ralph Nader, interviewed by David Barsamian, December 2016