Wednesday, September 5, 2007

“Do you understand where you are?”

The song “Strange Fruit” used to frighten me as a child. What did it mean to my parents, who had to live with its reality?

This story first came to me via a posting on regular reader Wally Whateley's blog over a month ago, which led me to a stunning main post at Pandagon. Since that time, it hasn't faded. In fact, it's grown...unfortunately, like Topsy. To where it's a featured story in Newsweek, on Anderson Cooper 360ยช and around the blogosphere.

The story? Perhaps you've heard about it.

It began with a seemingly innocuous question. At an assembly during the first week of classes last fall at Jena High School in rural Louisiana, Kenneth Purvis, a junior, asked the vice principal if he could sit under the shady boughs of an oak tree in the campus courtyard. "You can sit anywhere you like," the vice principal replied. Soon thereafter, Purvis and several black friends ventured over to the tree to hang out with some white classmates. According to the school's unspoken racial codes, however, that area was reserved for white kids; Purvis is black. Some white students didn't look kindly on the encroachment: the next day, three nooses hung from the oak's branches.

That provocation, which conjured up the ugly history of lynch mobs and the Jim Crow South, unleashed a cycle of interracial strife that has roiled the tiny town of Jena. In the ensuing months, black and white students clashed violently, the school's academic wing was destroyed by arson and six black kids were charged with attempted murder for beating a white peer. (The "deadly weapon": tennis shoes they supposedly used to kick the white student knocked unconscious by the first punch.) One of those black students—Mychal Bell, the only one of the "Jena Six" to stand trial so far—was convicted by an all-white jury in June on lesser felony charges of aggravated second-degree battery and is awaiting sentencing. He could face 22 years in prison. In the wake of that judgment, a host of national figures—from the Rev. Al Sharpton to the Nation of Islam to the American Civil Liberties Union—have descended on the town to inveigh against racial injustice. Billy Fowler, a white school-board member, has pledged that when the new school year starts, "we're not going to see black and white anymore. It's going to be right or wrong." But, says the Rev. Raymond Brown of Christians United, which has been working with parents of the Jena Six, "Jena does not want to come up to the 21st century. They are living deep in the past."

Decades of suppressed racial hostility spilled forth at the appearance of those swaying nooses. Word spread quickly that day; before long, scores of black students congregated under the tree. "As black students, we didn't call it a protest," says Robert Bailey Jr., one of the Jena Six. "We just called it standing up for ourselves." School officials convened an assembly in early September, where local District Attorney Reed Walters appeared, flanked by police officers. "I can be your best friend or your worst enemy," he told students, warning them to settle down. "With a stroke of my pen, I can make your lives disappear."


I'm not stunned. Not in the least.

It is, “par for the course”. The tale of Jena reminded me of an incident that took place in my family some 14 years ago. It was a simple family reunion...in a small southern town. A tiny place in the extreme southernmost end of North Carolina. So small, that the town didn't have a McDonald's—just an outlet of an odd chicken sandwich chain called “Skats”. My family descended on that little town—some 220 of us, totally juicing the hamlet's economy, while sending the town into a tizzy. We emptied the ATM at the bank and the Food Lion supermarket the Friday afternoon we all arrived. Skats ran out of peach shakes—the only flavor they had. Filled every hotel room—doubling up in quite a few. My family came from wherever they had been flung. But these places were mostly northern cities. Philly. Boston. Chicago, et al. Those who came “home” were thousands of miles away physically in most cases—psychologically in almost all.

My mother and father, both of this little two-stoplight town, were also far removed from the mores of the Jim Crow south of their youths, as were many of the adults, but not so far that the rattle of the junebugs, the sound of the freight trains's horn as it signalled its thrice daily bi-secting of “town”, and yes...the spectre of institutionalized, fist-to-the-gut racism was in any way forgotten.

You see, once the bulk of the family arrived, a huge meeting was held in the town square, honoring my family, and giving the reunion's organizers the chance to kill two birds with one stone—taking the opportunity while everyone was together to pass out info on what was happening that special weekend. There would be the big barbecue on the grounds of the local high school, the tour of places in town reknowned in family “legend”, a trip to the cemetery to honor the ancestors, and of course, the big Sunday breakfast before the church service we were all “ahem!”, expected to attend.

But one thing in the information packet began to start a buzz among the present.

There was a note about the local nightspots. Namely, that there were none. Save for the juke joint down the road a piece across from the “Fish Shack”, and of course, the few spots some 35 minutes away in Wilmington. But one of the note's points of interest got some of the young people going. It stated, that after 8:00 P.M., NO ONE WAS TO GO DOWN ACROSS THE RAILROAD TRACKS, PAST THE GREEN HOUSE (an actual green-colored house), AS THAT WAS THE DEMARCATION LINE BETWEEN FREE-GOING COUNTRY, AND KLAN TERRITORY.

Doing so was, according to the note, “tempting fate” and “taking your life into your own hands”.

Many of the assembled—particularly the younger ones, were agog at this special note, thinking it was a.) a joke, b.) a silly wive's tale, and worst of all, c.) an open provocation to their God-given right to flex their northern-bred muscle and “rights”. After much clamor, older relatives prevailed upon the upset youngers, and implored them to please observe the warning. It was not a frivolous one.

Of course, you can guess what would happen that night. While many of us went into Wilmington to celebrate, bringing big-city, New York, New-Jack “Swang“-style to the Carolina backwoods, a clutch of the set opted to cross those tracks—to saunter past that “green house”, and park alongside a stretch of road, with a nice, expensive car providing the music, a trunk cooler full of drink, and parrrrrrrr-taaaay!

My Uncle A. rushed into the Wilmington club, got on the mic, and requested that all family members leave immediately to get back to the main homestead.

As we left, we were told that shots had been fired at the brazen revelers who had line-stepped that aforementioned threshold. “Sigh.”

One female cousin was rushed to the hospital—thankfully, for only a graze wound to the back of her thigh, we would find out as we arrived “home”. But the rest of the us would all hear the same details—a brace of gunfire from a couple of different directions. One sounded like a shotgun according to those present. The other weapon had the unmistakable “ring” of an automatic handgun. Leave it to a gunfire-sensitized NY-er to grasp the difference. And from there would begin a debate that roiled until the birds sang the following morning, as to what to do.

Shocked...shocked, I tell you, northern cousins, and grandkids, and great-great grandkids, and fully embraced “outside children” wanted to burn the town down. Reacting like Eddie Murphy's myopic modern-day Black man boasting of how he'd have dealt with slavery:

“My friends always told me, "You better not go to Texas! They'll fuck you up! And when a modern day brother hears that shit, they're like,'What! They ain't fucking nobody up!' Brothers act like they couldn't have been slaves back years ago. Its not like motherfuckers liked that shit. 'I wish I was a slave, I would fuck somebody up! Shit, tell ME to bale some motherfucking cotton?! I would been on the street and shit, White dude would've come up and say, "Ay, yo, n*gger, bale this cotton!" I would say, "Suck my DICK, massa! Suck my motherfucking dick! That's right I ain't baling a motherfucker. And I'd have hopped in my Lincoln, and drove the fuck off.

The first n*gger who tried that shit... Somebody said, "N*gger, bale this cotton" and he said "Fuck you, Massa"... [sound of a whip]

The other motherfuckers said, "All right, we'll bale the shit, all right. Just keep that fucking shit away from me."


Hot tempers flaring. My then three-year-old son outside with me, sitting atop a massive orange tractor, happily playing “farmer”. And then I saw them. The town's White folks. scattered to and fro. On their front steps...leaning casually against mailboxes...some just peering over the roofs of their cars, resting heads in propped hands. Casual as can be. They knew what had gone down the night before. I remember seeing one old guy just chuckle as he walked up his driveway to his side door. We were crazed, and these folks had an eerie, “What? You don't get it?” calm to 'em as they watched us fume and spit.

About a half hour later, a large family meeting was called in the high school's lunchroom (a family friend was of course, the school's custodian, and had access). Spleens were to say the least, seriously vented.

“We can't tolerate this!

“This ain't 1920! What are we gonna do about this?”

“Fuck this!” (much grumbling and “Heys!” from the crowd) “Sorry. Sorry about my language. But, this is 1993! How does something like this happen?”

And then my Uncle R. The supposedly “crazy” Uncle R. (mentioned in comments in Jesse's “Genius” post) stood up, towering in his crisp overalls and bright red work shirt—and brought his frying pan-sized hand down suddenly on a table, and it boomed like a grenade in the lunchroom, stopping us all dead in our tracks.

He thundered, “Ya'll have no clue do you? No clue at all! I read the papers—I hear about what goes on up north. Cops shootin' you down every God-blessed day, but that's okay! That's fine! And then you all come down here, thinkin' everything is fine and mellow. You haven't a care in the world. And you leave your brains at home and forget the simplest things. Do you have the common sense that God gave a gnat? Do you understand where-you-are?”

The room fell silent. He looked around at the assembled and repeated it.

“Do you understand...where-you-are?” He took a breath. “Where we are?”

We all knew what he meant. That where we all had come from—those four corners of the world were not much different. That we had our own silent codes we had to live under. And that in our descending on Tiny Town, N.C., we had forgotten about that place's awful, and indelible codes and behavior because of race. How in this day and age, flouting those codes was still in many ways a potentially dangerous thing. And that we needed to realize that.

A few minutes later, I was helping my then terminally-ill father to the bathroom. He had been down south for a few weeks with my mom. Back “home” was where he wanted to die. I stayed there with him, as he stood at the urinal.

“You know” he said, “I came back here to let go, right son?”

“Yes sir.”

“I wanted it to happen here...where I was born. With Mama and Daddy, and everything I knew. I wanted to go...home.”

“Yes sir.”

“And I'll be”—he looked around to see if there was anyone there to hear him curse—“I'll be Goddamned, if the shit I ran away from in 1948 ain't still here.” He sighed heavily. “The same shit.”

He looked at me. His eyes wet with tears. “I swear to God son, I tried to make this a better world for ya'll. I tried. And look at it. Coming home to this shit...I know I'm not gonna be here much longer...but coming home to this shit...it just takes it outta me that much more. I feel like I could die today.”

I felt dizzy. I helped him out of the bathroom, and back to his table in the lunchroom, where things were calming. Folks weren't gonna let it go, but we'd proceed with the weekend as planned, and handle things afterward.

And then, I went out back—into the recess yard. I sat on a big stone turtle out there, and I just cried. It was all I could do—for what seemed like an eternity, but was in the end, about twenty minutes. My then-wife and son would eventually come for me, and we went on about the reunion's business for the remainder of the weekend. Albeit, hollowly in many ways. And many of us present, left there with much more to think about. Not just about family...but about America. And where we fit into it.

My father's words rang loud in my ears. It would be another two months before he passed away—there in the big bed at the family homestead. And me, delirious with grief, out there on the lawn in front, looking up at an impossibly starry, southern night, through sodden eyes, and asking God “Why?”—about so very many things. Did he answer? Not that night.

But eventually, with age...and thankfully more travel, through America and outside of it, I did learn some things. Some painful and true things.

You see, being Black in America, is not just about one's skin, and the big boogeyman of racism roaring in your face all day long. It's about the little things. Subtle shit (LM checks around to see if anyone heard him curse). You will often find yourself questioning your place. Your presence. “Should I be here?” It's a sad, and pathological spectacle too many of us do—but do it we do, for good reason. There are large numbers of White folk who visibly blanch at our very proximity. Understanding though, that The Black Star Line is no longer taking passengers “Back to Africa”, a lot of these folks have learned that they grudgingly must live with us. However, they have chosen to dictate the terms of how that “living with us” will go—thanks to majority status, White Skin Privilege, and control of the courts and government in large part.

We walk on eggshells still, many of us—gauging our effect on the surrounding environment, even the most bodacious of us, internally faltering for a moment when we enter certain surroundings. Letting that painful question be heard for the briefest second—“Is it okay for me to be here?”—before plodding forward defiantly...and sometimes with great trepidation.

That is the damage of institutionalized racism. Its “mark”, if you will. That hesitation. How does the old saying go?

“He who hesitates is lost.”

And sooooooooo many Black folks have hesitated over the years, decades and soon it will be centuries, that they—we—have become lost.

Understand something. It is the year 2007. Where we joke about, “Where is my flying car? My monorail? The 3.5 jet-packs per family we were promised?”, mocking the progress we were supposed to have made, based on futurists predictions.

It is the year 2007. And as much as we may try to think otherwise, we live in a country where White teenagers will still fight over who can, and who can not sit under a fucking tree during recess at school, based on the color of their skin. For all the crowing about the “browning of America”, and how the kids are un-learning the racism inculcated in the American fabric, this incident should give every one of us pause.

Pause because it speaks to the reality of what we're actually confronting here.

If these kids...these supposedly, rapidly blind-to-color kids will fight over a scraggly patch of grass, don't stand here and try to tell me that their fathers and mothers—the generation presently in control of this country—aren't actively fighting Black folks' inclusion in the more important arenas of participation in the American mosaic.

Do not look me in the face from my TV, and tell me from your visit to New Orleans Mr. President, that Kanye West—crazy as he is—was wrong. The carnival that is American Idol, where “Ohmigosh! Look at all those talented Black people doing so well—aren't they doing so well?” isn't enough of an anesthetic to numb me to the constant, pounding ache that is the reality of not being Black in America—but rather, what dealing with the perceptions from others about one's being Black in America does to you.

Jena brings it all sickeningly home. Teens. Kids. Decades at least, removed from the last picnic/lynching to take place in their neck of the woods, by so-called decent people, somehow knew, in their stupid little turf battle, just what mega-trope, what ultimate nullifier to go to to let those wandering n*ggers know that they meant business about keeping one's place. And then, when those Black kids defiantly said “Better check your calendar, motherfuckers. It is the year 2007!”, those Black teens saw the second wave, the real shock troops—those silly, turf-crazed White kids' parents, jump up with the old-school, authority smackdown all too familiar Post -Reconstruction, to uppity/not-having-it Black folks.

We can sing “kum-ba-ya” til our throats sound like Miles Davis after a bender of Sloe Drano Fizzes, but at the sick core of America, racism still infirms this country's aspiration to greatness.

I use the word “infirms”, loosely. Because the pat analogies about America's racial “sickness” are so very, very flawed. Racism in America isn't a wound,—as so many describe it. No. Wounds heal. And it isn't a cancer—because you can remove a cancer, should you catch it early enough, or if not—at least bomb it with enough countering toxicity where you can seriously impede its progress.

Racism in America is neither of these things—a wound, or a cancer.

It is quite simply...akin to a living, festering parasite that feasts on the very soul of the country, and what makes it work. It's a vicious tapeworm. Picked up long ago, and living there, deep in the American belly...it's very guts, in fact. Not killing, mind you...but in there nonetheless, all slimy and sickening, so intwined with what makes this place simply exist, that it's supremely difficult to remove.

And the host knows it's there. Knows it slows and sickens it with every step forward. But in the end...does nothing about it...because the effort to remove the parasite is “just too great”.

Too costly.

“Time will take care of it.”

And besides...the “host” figures, “How bad can it be? I'm alive.”

The host can “get by”. Never mind how his guts are fouled and slowly failing. As long as he can get up, and go about his business reasonably well, fuck it—it's a price he's willing to live with.

The willingness to pooh-pooh racism, and shuck off dealing with it pro-actively is like that walking around, going about your business, with that insidious parasite inside of you—sapping your strength, leeching off your nutrients, benignly weakening you from within. You can go about for quite a while with a tapeworm in you. Years, in fact.

But a side effect of having that kind of parasite in you, is that it is a thing unto itself. And it grows. And grows. And grows, until it sometimes spreads past the digestive tract, laying its eggs (for it does reproduce) in muscle, bone, and yes...the central nervous system.

One day, you wake up...and you. Are. Paralyzed.

Because you thought it was “too costly”. You assumed “Time would take care of it.”

“How bad can it be? I'm alive.”

Paralyzed, America. It's where we are headed. And I say we, because dammit, we,—us Black folks are part of America too—like it or not. And brown people—Mexicans, the hated Mexicans of late, too. Every thread, every stitch, every fucking wisp of lint that makes up this country in the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that too many have nightmares about.

All of us—are threatened with a national paralysis—an inability to function until we kill...that...parasite.

Will we? It is the year 2007. The same way it was the year 1993. And 1973. 1963. '43. 'Ought-Three.

I probably won't live to see it. My father certainly didn't.

I can only hope that my kids will taste the fruit of that change. And that it be recognizable fruit...and not something...well...

strange.