Saturday, September 08, 2007

What He Said, too.

Somewhat more important than High School Musical nudie pictures:

“Do you understand where you are?” by Lower Manhattanite on The Group News Blog, via Feministing.

...The tale of [the Jena 6] reminded me of an incident that took place in my family some 14 years ago. It was a simple family a small southern town. A tiny place in the extreme southernmost end of North Carolina... 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...a clutch of the set opted to cross those tracks—to saunter past that “green house”...

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...

...a large family meeting was called in the high school's lunchroom...

“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?”

Further down in the post:

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.

When I was growing up in St. Thomas, I rarely thought to myself, “Should I be here?” or “Is it okay for me to be here?” Now that I live in LA, I think about it all the time. It is a huge difference. It's not as bad as it could be, but when I walk around in certain areas--actually, in most of the areas I frequent--I feel like a freak show. I imagine other black USVI-to-US-mainland transplants feel the same way. I don't know if other colors of people--like white people, or people of Middle Eastern, Indian, or Puerto Rican descent--who grew up in the US Virgin Islands but now live on the mainland United States, feel the same way.

If you are reading this blog and you have experienced a similar Caribbean-to-US culture shock situation, please weigh in!


Carrie said...

I am (1) white, and (2) not from the USVI, but I definitely got chills reading that post. I am from a small town in central Florida (and "small town in Florida" = The Deep South) and lived in a city exactly like this one. I had to ride the school bus with people who lived "past the green house" and can honestly still remember the horror of having to be around them every day and hear them say menacing, racist things like it was no big deal. My family does not live there any more so I don't know if things have changed, but it still makes my stomach churn to think about how unbelievably horrible it was.

I think many white people in America like to believe places like this don't exist these days. Unfortunately, stories like this and the Jena 6, and having lived where I grew up tell me differently. It also saddens me that Los Angeles is so segregated. For all of our blustering about liberal ideals, we really are not that many steps ahead of places like where I grew up.

Bianca Reagan said...

Thanks for sharing, carrie. Lots of Americans in general believe places like this don't exist anymore often because they haven't seen them and haven't heard about them. Similarly, my contemporaries and I have a hard time explaining to our parents and our parents' friends why it's difficult to earn a living wage in America today. If you don't see something and the news isn't reporting about it, you think things aren't so bad. But they are. Black people aren't just whining about nothing, and 20-somethings aren't just lazy bums. There are actually lots of terrible situations going on.