Wednesday, March 4, 2009

“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” William Shakespeare: Hamlet


Am I a coward?

February was Black History Month and on its designated page in the calendar, below illustrations of African American heroes like Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, George Washington Carver, Shirley Chilsolm and the newest, most notable addition of Barack Obama, there were dates that had scrawled across them challenges to the notion of America as a pot capable of brewing up a racial and ethnic stew that wasn’t too spicy; a recipe of many ingredients that didn’t cause heartburn. Melting pot? Pressure cooker, more like.

There was newly appointed Attorney General Eric Holder’s half-baked remarks surely intended to get a rise out of the population. He declared, “…we are a nation of cowards” on matters of race. “Saturdays and Sundays, America in the year 2009 does not in some ways differ significantly from the country that existed almost 50 years ago. This is truly sad,” said Holder.

To a large segment of the country the idea of a weekend—a Sunday-go-to-church, family ’round the dinner table, kick off your shoes and take a load off and talk about race kind of a weekend—seemed foreign enough. Many American citizens as well as the undocumented laborers have jobs outside the nine-to-five, Monday through Friday constraint: kitchen workers, housekeepers, security guards, actors, doormen, museum workers, nannies, and traveling salespersons to name a few. Many have not spent a Sunday with their families, much less seen the inside of a church, or any religious meeting house for a long, long time because of those schedules. More even than we can take on have no jobs at all, many have no homes, rendering the structure of time and date a job gives them irrelevant as they slip into a despair that has no visible hands on their clocks.

In all fairness Holder’s remarks were delivered before a gainfully employed audience at the Justice Department: “…in things racial we have always been and I believe continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards….” His contention was that we simply do not talk with each other about race. Actually he said we don’t talk enough with each other about race. We may have voted with each other, flocking in record numbers to voting booths to elect the country’s first black president, but apparently we don’t talk about it. There are those who sabotaged the charge from Holder, like an anonymous blogger who vented online: “I believe that most people who voted for Obama were afraid not to. The word “racist” has a lot of power, and the people who voted for Obama because they were afraid are cowards. So he has a point.” I did not vote for Barack Obama because I was afraid not to. I did not vote for Obama because he was the candidate of my choice—I lost heart when Dennis Kucinich dropped—or was forced—out of the race. Nor did I vote for a ‘Black’ man. I voted for Barack Obama because the last eight years had left the country bruised and sore and the specter of Sarah Palin was harrowing indeed.

I have a conscience. Though I am not exactly sure when my conscience, as such, began to intrude its didactical self and exert pressure on my thoughts concerning right and wrong.

I grew up in a housing project in Astoria. If such a thing is possible I think I grew up mostly around passive racism. We kids called Brazil nuts ‘nigger toes’ with nary a step missed in our Double Dutch rope skipping marathons and though I can’t recall anything about the exact moment, I was still a pre-teen and it was suddenly an awful thing to say. I hula-hooped and knelt on the pavement to flick bottle caps in games of "skelley" with the neighbor kids who were both white and black. If there were race wars in the projects then we didn’t know about them. Neighbors’ doors were left open for kids to wander in and out of, knowing the adult inside—usually the stay-at-home mom—would keep an eye out. The most tension I experienced between the races came from Junior Mosley who delighted in a kind of taunting chant and whenever he saw me would launch into: “Lina-dan-fahta-ga-ah-baw-hed.” (Translation: Linda Danz father’s got a baldhead, which was true.) The most anxiety I experienced period came from the Catholic school girls—all white—who lay in wait for me every morning as I made my way to high school in the city. The oversized black portfolio I carried as an art student was like a red flag to that clique's teased hair, pleated uniform skirts rolled up at the waistline and the cigarette wedged into a snarl and I rose earlier and earlier to avoid them until I guess they just gave up.

No comments: