Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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“One Nation, Indivisible” features excerpts from The Sun’s archives that speak to the current political moment.
There was, in the displays we saw, scarce recognition of slavery at all. At the Magnolia Plantation [in Charleston, South Carolina], for example, our guide described in minute and reverential detail each room of the Drayton family’s ancestral home. But in the upstairs art gallery, amidst the many scenes of plantation life, there was remarkably little about the three hundred slaves who, along with the Draytons, also called Magnolia Plantation home. One notable exception: a drawing of the Reverend Drayton receiving gifts at Christmas — from his grateful slaves.
The old slave shacks were still somewhere on the sprawling grounds, but we were left on our own to find them; the brochure they handed us at the front gate discreetly referred to them as “a row of antebellum cabins.”
Whenever it came to slaveholding — which insured the splendor of the old South as surely as oil sustains us in our imperial glory today — Charleston, “America’s most historic city,” told its history as badly as a kid caught in a lie.
“Glory Days,” Sy Safransky, September 1986
Reagan declared his War on Drugs a few years before crack hit the streets. As soon as it emerged, the administration recognized an opportunity to build support for the drug war. They hired staff whose job was to find reports of inner-city crack users, crack dealers, crack babies, and crack whores and to feed those horror stories to the media. The media-saturation coverage of crack was no accident. It was a deliberate campaign that fueled the race to incarcerate. Legislators began passing ever harsher mandatory-minimum sentences in response to the media frenzy. . . .
It’s fair to say that crack’s association with inner-city black people is what made it possible for legislators, prosecutors, and the public to agree that such sentences were reasonable. The media campaign also gave rise to a lot of misconceptions about crack and its addictiveness and the harm it caused, which served to justify the sentencing disparity. Since then science has shown that crack cocaine is not significantly more dangerous and addictive than its powder counterpart, if it’s more dangerous at all. Last year The New York Times reported that alcohol is more harmful to a fetus than cocaine, yet the “crack baby” image is synonymous with hopeless birth defects.
“Throwing Away the Key,” Michelle Alexander, interviewed by Arnie Cooper, February 2011
The car doors shut noiselessly behind us. The artificial quiet and climate-controlled atmosphere made me think of the inside of a spaceship. Encased in all that luxury, I began to wonder whether driving around the suburbs and getting high with two white girls wasn’t a stupid and dangerous idea. As we pulled out of Virginia’s driveway, I asked if it wouldn’t be better just to go somewhere secluded and smoke up. They told me not to worry, that they’d never had a problem before.
“Ever have a black guy in the back seat before?” I asked.
“Suburban Bitch Cruise,” Akhim Yuseff Cabey, July 2009
The African American comedy duo Key and Peele have a skit in which President Obama is teaching his daughter Malia to drive. When she runs a stop sign, a cop pulls them over. Astonished and a bit embarrassed at having detained the president of the United States, the cop tells them they can go. But Obama, earnest as ever, says, “No, I want you to go ahead and treat us the way you would if I weren’t the president.” In the next shot we see Obama getting slammed on the hood of the car and handcuffed. It’s funny. And not only black people laugh at such jokes. Everyone does, because everyone knows.
“Some Thoughts on Mercy,” Ross Gay, July 2013
Obama’s presidency changes everything because it is something none of us could have foreseen twenty years ago. But it also changes nothing, because I predict it will have little impact on racism in our society. When Benazir Bhutto was elected prime minister of Pakistan, it didn’t end sexism there. If I were to say that India and Israel and Great Britain have no sexism because all have had female heads of state, would my comment even be taken seriously?
“By the Color of Their Skin,” Tim Wise, interviewed by David Cook, July 2009
When the heat had melted the meringue on the lemon pie and the flies had figured out from which direction the rolled-up newspapers would strike, we’d all be called to dinner. Grandpa stood at the head of the longest table and said grace. Then we ate and ate, each aunt insisting we taste what she had cooked.
After dinner, as the women cleared the tables, a few of the men led us children to the family graveyard hidden deep in the woods behind the barn. It was a small plot surrounded by a low stone wall that was held together more by ivy than cement. The graves were marked by cracked headstones bearing names like Horace and Miranda and dates from 1800 to 1925. In a small corner of the yard, a few graves had only large, unmarked stones at the head. “Those were slaves,” our fathers said, and spat expertly through their teeth.
We jumped and danced around the stone wall that encircled our family laid to rest, and no one asked why the slaves’ graves had no names.
“Family Reunions” (Readers Write), Sally Whitney, August 1994
Reparations begin with listening and responding to the claims and demands made by those who have been on the receiving end of racial domination. This means that people of color set the agenda, something that makes white people of all political stripes uncomfortable. White supremacy continues to manifest itself in this way, even among leftists.
Reparations are not a one-off payment but an ongoing process focused on the transformation of society, not just individuals. I’m not saying that individual transformation doesn’t matter, but as long as white supremacy exists, we all remain captives of our positions within it, which for white people means maintaining an oppressor identity.
Reparations can’t seek just to level the playing field or to swap out the players in different positions. To quote Robin Kelley from his beautiful book Freedom Dreams: “Imagine if reparations were treated as start-up capital for black entrepreneurs who merely want to mirror the dominant society. What would really change?”
“Dangerous Love,” Reverend Lynice Pinkard, interviewed by Mark Leviton, October 2014
Football reflects a legacy of racial inequality and reinforces racial stereotypes. White players are seen as more cerebral, African American players as more athletic. Sportscasters get in trouble if they say this out loud, but you hear it in their rhetoric. When a white player like Tom Brady makes a great play, he’s displayed “great football intelligence.” When an African American running back like Marshawn Lynch makes a great play, he’s gone into “beast mode.” That language of “beast” and “stud” and “specimen” would have been right at home on the plantation. Think about the NFL Scouting Combine: a bunch of white coaches and owners judging young men — the majority of them African American — based on physical prowess, the same criteria used at slave auctions. It’s reinforcing grotesque stereotypes about African American masculinity.
Look at the Southeastern Conference in college football. These are schools located in the heart of what was once the Confederacy, a culture that brought Africans over to America and treated them as property and finally, reluctantly, freed them. Then came Reconstruction and Jim Crow and segregation. The South remains a place fraught with racial anxiety and misunderstanding. So why is college football — a game played mostly by African Americans and watched mostly by whites — so hugely popular there? What is being played out? Is it a form of restitution? Some kind of strange worship and fetishization? Some special pleasure taken in seeing African American men perform dangerous feats for our amusement?
I’m not saying there’s no grace and beauty in the game. But we should ask ourselves: Why do so many white Americans get off on watching huge, mostly African American men stage a beautiful form of murder ballet?
“The Church of the Gridiron,” Steve Almond, interviewed by David Cook, September 2015
As a teenager, I went shopping in Bloomingdale’s with a black friend. Within minutes of our arrival, a short, overweight man came and stood about twenty feet away from us. He kept his hands in his pockets, watching as our hands moved hangers of blouses from one side of the clothes rack to another.
My friend explained he was the house detective. “They always target black teenagers,” she said.
I refused to believe her, of course. My mother’s efforts to hide her own racism had succeeded often enough to convince me, at that stage of my life, that racism was over somehow. Or that nice people in the community would never show it, especially grown-ups of good standing. So I conducted an experiment. I walked away from her to another section of the store. Although he watched me as I moved away, as if he wanted to keep a close eye on both of us, he continued to follow every move Carol made. He stayed with her all the way to the front door of the store. He didn’t smile, just stood by the window and watched us leave. I was angry, but Carol didn’t seem to be. She twirled around and stuck her tongue out at him.
“Victory,” Charlotte D. Staelin, April 1993