“One Nation, Indivisible” features excerpts from The Sun’s archives that speak to the current political moment. You can read the full text of excerpted sections online at thesunmagazine.org/onenation.
I ’m working on a case right now in Dickson County, Tennessee. The county is only 5 percent black, but all the landfills in it have been placed in the middle of a black community. This is the county government doing this, mind you, not an outside industry. The Harry Holt family has a 150-acre homestead adjacent to the county’s landfill, which has contaminated the wells in the area with TCE [trichloroethylene], a chemical that has been linked to cancer. In 1988 the county told the Holts that their water was safe. In 1994 the county notified nearby white families of the contamination and provided bottled water for them to drink, but they allowed the Holt family, which has lived there for six generations, to drink that polluted water. . . . This family survived slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow, but it may not survive environmental racism through zoning, land use, and waste-facility siting.
“In Their Backyard,” Robert D. Bullard, interviewed by Rebekah Cowell, May 2012
It’s a sign of privilege for whites to say they are going to view people of color only as people. If I don’t see their race, I’m not going to see their lives as they really are. I’m seeing them as abstract “human beings,” not as people who’ve had certain experiences. I’m going to miss or misunderstand how their experiences have shaped them. Civil-rights leader Julian Bond said years ago that to be blind to color is to be blind to the consequences of color, and especially the consequences of being the wrong color in America. It would be like pretending not to notice that some people are disabled: if we don’t notice disabilities, we aren’t likely to build a ramp so the disabled can enter a building.
“By the Color of Their Skin,” Tim Wise, interviewed by David Cook, July 2009
When I was growing up, Hollywood was in its heyday. Films are quite an educational part of a kid’s awareness of history, and of one’s worth. I didn’t see blacks in movies except in denigrating, insulting, stereotypical roles. And then, in grammar school, at an age when a kid believes that if it’s in a book it must be true, one history book told me that the slaves were happy and singing all the time. We had talked about slavery and feudalism and I was against all that. And then to hear that my people were happy and singing all the time in slavery! I was ashamed of that. Therefore, I was ashamed of myself. Within folk music — people collecting the songs and the history around them — I found more of the history of my folks, and their strength. That started making me feel much better about me.
“The Magic and the Power,” Odetta, interviewed by Howard Jay Rubin, December 1984
I ’ve had to struggle not to absorb those stares and questions and traffic stops and newscasts and TV shows and movies and what they imply. I’ve been afraid walking through the alarm gate at the store that maybe something’s fallen into my pockets, or that I’ve unconsciously stuffed something in them; I’ve felt panic that the light-skinned black man who mugged our elderly former neighbors was actually me, and I worried that my parents, with whom I watched the newscast, suspected the same; and nearly every time I’ve been pulled over, I’ve prayed there were no drugs in my car, despite the fact that I don’t use drugs; I don’t even smoke pot. That’s to say, the story I have all my life heard about black people — criminal, criminal, criminal — I have started to suspect of myself.
“Some Thoughts on Mercy,” Ross Gay, July 2013
As the men got out of the bus, they unfurled their flags of Dixie, adjusted the belts around their white robes, and walked toward us. The old woman with the contralto voice picked up her grandchild and hugged her close.
“See?” she said. “See what they look like? That’s the Klan.” The child hid her face in her grandmother’s neck. “Don’t be afraid of them,” the grandmother said. “Don’t they look stupid in their bathrobes in the middle of the day?” Her granddaughter didn’t look up. “That’s the Klan,” the old woman said again, her face settling into a grim imitation of a smile.
As they drew nearer and started across the street, state troopers moved into position between us. “Niggers go home,” the Klan yelled. “King was a communist.” Their white masks had holes cut out for eyes. . . . “White power forever,” they shouted. On our side of the street, the singing faltered, then started again. Victory is ours, victory is ours, we sang, holding hands.
“Victory,” Charlotte D. Staelin, April 1993
Obviously [President Obama’s] election had tremendous symbolic significance, but there’s a real risk that it has been misinterpreted, not only in communities of color but around the world. It’s tempting to believe that this represents a final nail in the coffin of Jim Crow. And it’s true that most whites have rejected the old Jim Crow idea that all black people are inferior. But black exceptionalism — having some black people who are visibly successful — actually strengthens the current caste system of mass incarceration, which is predicated on the notion that most blacks choose lives of crime, and that if they just made different choices, they could be successful like Barack Obama.
“Throwing Away the Key,” Michelle Alexander, interviewed by Arnie Cooper, February 2011
In the morning my mother would let her arm drop to the side of the bed and say to me, “Baby girl, go make Mama some coffee — this color.” She’d point to the beautiful brown of her outstretched wrist. With that image in my head, I’d pour exactly the right amount of cream and then test it. It always tasted perfect, and to this day I drink my coffee the color of my mother.
When I was growing up, all sunburned and blond — gifts from my father’s side of the gene pool, along with his green eyes — I would rarely be identified as African American. The frizz of my hair and my broad nose were clues for those who were keen to notice, but mostly I became an imposter. I would have given anything to make myself look on the outside as I felt on the inside.
My ivory-rose skin made me privy to remarks about “niggers” and “lazy, thieving blacks.” Even some members of my father’s family would occasionally forget I was around and make an insensitive comment. Someone else in the family might meet my eyes with an apologetic look. My mother’s family didn’t particularly try to hide their disdain for whites either. A younger cousin once told me to shut up because I was “just the white one in the family.”
Now I have two sons — one almost the color of my coffee, with tight black curls, and one with fair skin and soft blond curls. As much as I desperately want to believe that skin color won’t shape and limit my sons’ destinies, I’m all too aware of its power. Everywhere we go, people fawn over my blond son and offer him compliments. Meanwhile my brown son recently confided to me that, as he’d walked down a busy street in San Diego, a carload of teenage boys had ridden by and yelled, “Nigger!”
“Skin” (Readers Write), Tamu Nolfo, June 2013
[Reparations are] necessary because the wealth some people have has been taken from others. This is an important insight during an era in which people are saying racial discrimination is over: “We’re all the same now; we shouldn’t look at race.” Reparations challenge the ideologies of equal opportunity and meritocracy and offer an alternative to charity or welfare or debt forgiveness — all terms that assume the assets being redistributed were legitimately acquired, and therefore the redistribution is generous and benevolent and should be met with gratitude. Who should be asking whom for forgiveness?
“Dangerous Love,” Reverend Lynice Pinkard, interviewed by Mark Leviton, October 2014
The dean’s speech had moved me. It was full of the muscle and might of Martin Luther King Jr.’s philosophy, which we’d all had preached to us by New York City’s public schools. It was a necessary tragedy, we believed, to be siphoned from the general masses of our high schools, our ascent the result of a fierce ambition and desire that our inferior brothers and sisters would never possess. The spirit of the preacher flowed rampant through our privileged-minority veins as we made our way through college in this foreign land we attempted to make our new home.
But there was only so much farther we could go on our own. For us to go beyond that, the white people at Brent needed to move toward us, as we had moved toward them for a better life. What no one — not the dean nor anyone else — had told us is that this would never happen. We’d entered a culture where there was no incentive for the inhabitants to learn how to pronounce the tricky cadences of our names or listen to the tales of who we were, because there were no negative repercussions if they didn’t. These boys and girls hadn’t grown up with a television or movie screen that showed them how our lives were better than theirs, and no one told us how that had insulated their minds from us. The fact that we, as privileged minorities, were climbing out of our world meant that we were climbing into theirs — the same world that had produced their parents, and this private school, and them. The road to success and wealth and happiness would never run the other way — from the suburbs to the Bronx — so we were forced to know everything about white people, while they didn’t have to learn anything about us.
“Suburban Bitch Cruise,” Akhim Yuseff Cabey, July 2009
Human equality is not properly a topic belonging to ethics but to chemistry. We are all interracial, none purebred, our bodies amalgamated from the great melting pot of matter. Atoms of the dead of every race mix in the earth and are recycled into new generations. The particles in a praying Mormon’s hands may once have tilled the soil in a Navajo farmer’s. An Alabama sorority girl may blush with the cheek atoms of her ancestor’s slave. Who says the flesh is perishable? After we die, our dust will build the scaffolding of future consciousnesses. Our souls may or may not be immortal, but our bodies are undeniably immortal, eternally reincarnated in other bodies.
“The Communion of Strangers,” Brian Jay Stanley, April 2012