I had pretty much lost faith in white people. White Americans specifically.
Don’t get me wrong:
I was raised around a whole bunch of white people. I grew up in a suburb of Dayton, Ohio that was over 90% white when I started school there (after a five-year stint in Southern New Mexico). Some of my best friends were white. Hell, most of my friends PERIOD were white. My teachers were white, my police officers were white, my principals white, my driver’s ed teacher white, the people that worked at the grocery store, my bosses, my students, the history taught, one of my girlfriends, most of the men I’ve dated, and their families, the auctions and flea markets, the evening news team, white, white, white. And, given the reasoning that my family came to this continent and the fact that many last names in our family sound awfully English, Irish, or French, I’m pretty certain other people in my family had their run ins with the white gene pool, and though not always under any semblance of desirable circumstance, there are also instances, like mine, of genuine love and care for someone who is/was white.
I have white relatives. I have white friends. I have white family. And I know many white people who fight as rights accomplices. I love white people. I don’t have any problem with them. I’m the least racist person in this room (I mean, I can’t see anyone out there, but I guarantee you that I’m the LEAST racist person ever)
I just lost faith in white people:
The faith that white people- white Americans- in majority, when push comes to shove, when the fight is brought to their door, would say enough is enough and work incessantly and passionately for a true, multicultural, respectful United States. The one they tell me exists but I have yet to see.
It took a lot to get here.
My mother was born in segregated Louisiana. Despite this, she never let it affect how she saw the world and INSISTED that my brother and I see everyone individually, regardless of their similarity to those that might have hurt us. I have always thanked her for that because it has given me the ability to move through the world with eyes and ears open and given me access to experiences that I never imagined I’d be a part of.
I haven’t spoken to my mother much about her past in Louisiana. Partially because I imagine that it was pretty painful to live in a place where she was made a second- class citizen legislatively. It’s one thing to feel someone thinks that way of you. It’s another to force someone to live by that belief.
Other than her telling me about her experience at the movie theater- the bathrooms were never cleaned, and the whites would throw popcorn and soda, and spit at her- we haven’t discussed much. And even the mention of what she endured kills me to write.
There were, however, two instances where her life in segregation popped up in current conversation pretty unexpectedly.
While I was working as a singer on a cruise ship in 2011, we had the ability to bring on a guest or a relative for free for a cruise, provided the information was given one month in advance. That year we were taking our Christmas cruise to Hawaii, and knowing that neither my mother or grandmother had been, I sought to bring both aboard.
All they needed was their passport. No big deal, right?
However, she got a letter in the mail stating that they could not process her passport application because her birth certificate was invalid. INVALID.
How could this be? She was born here! A continuation of several generations. And how does one prove birthright citizenship in this circumstance?
Well, come to find out, as my mother was home-borne, the record of her birth was sent to the local hospital for verification and the production of an official birth certificate. The thing is, it was customary to throw out official records of Black citizens during segregation- bank records, property information, and yes, birth records. The hospital had no record and therefore the official document was, well, unofficial.
For proof, my mother had to produce a copy of the birth record page in the family Bible- where it was customary for a witness to said birth to write the name of the newly born - and send it to the passport officials where they would produce a new passport, and an official birth certificate.
By a miracle of familial strength, they were able to locate that very Bible, and the passport was made.
Two weeks after the deadline for the trip to Hawaii.
Even still, my mother was incredibly lucky. If she was not able to find the Bible, she would have had to go to court, and pay untold fees and spend untold time in order to get proof of something she should not have to fight to prove with so much ridiculous effort.
In 2016, after I had watched the movie HIDDEN FIGURES. I called my mother to get her impressions of the film.
“Of course I saw it! I love Taraji!” she said.
“What I can’t believe”, I said “ is that these women were arguably the most important people of the entire space program- that without Katherine Johnson we would not have made it into space at all, at least not as quickly as we were able, nor would the early space program continued to be as successful. And yet, we didn’t learn about her until 2016! If she were a white man, she would have had statues all over the country, and probably had been elected to some sort of public office.”
“Yeah, true”, my mom agreed.
“Well,” I continued, “how was it for you growing up? How was it to find out or hear about Martin Luther King, or Rosa Parks, or the March on Washington and the bus boycott?”
“Funny thing,” she confessed. “I honestly didn’t know about any of that until I moved north in my teens.”
“No- they didn’t tell us anything about any of that in segregated Louisiana. We moved to the north in 1968. And I didn’t learn about MLK until the day he was assassinated. I asked ‘Who is this man, and why are people so sad?’ And the other students couldn’t believe it. I then learned that I had been living in an illegal societal structure for over four years after it was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act, which I had ALSO not known was in existence. I didn’t know the current events. I didn’t know of the assassinations (other than JFK’s) none of it.
The people in power were hard pressed to keep the structure intact, regardless of the law,” she finished.
Those stories have swirled in my mind many times. Soon they began to stew around with the many slights I’d witnessed personally – the race fight senior year of high school, the housing discrimination in Iowa, the n-word in Denver, the “it’s just a preference” in Chicago- or societally- the Rodney King trial, the race riot in Cincinnati in 2001, and the myriad of unarmed Black people killed by police and citizen alike. They begin to churn and boil at the remembrance that all of the sacrifice and blood spilled got us a bill in 1965 that could not overcome the natural systemic obstinance that comes with centuries and generations of privilege.
The past is truly prologue; it informs the present. Work that needs to be done is rabidly opposed in the underbelly of society and exists in every part of the structure. Laws can be written, but it requires writing AND upholding the law, otherwise any progression will be glacial.
For despite the highest ideals of multiculturalism and melting-pot-salad-bowl equality thrown about in our society, my waning faith was rooted in the reality of history and experience. All of the avoidance, all of the blind eyes, all of the “you’re overreacting”, was going to catch up when people least expect it.