The following is an excerpt from a reflection I wrote December 2015.
It was a warm afternoon when we arrived in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Our Blue Toyota Corolla was overflowing with camping gear, the large Thule setting us apart as travelers, not locals. We’d never been in Mississippi, but as soon as we crossed the border, I felt a sense of uneasiness. Not fear, nor nervousness necessarily, but I was unsettled. The words of Nikki Giovanni’s convocation at Berea College spoke clearly in my mind, “I still fear when my son travels into the south.” I looked back at the kids and knew we were okay. We were white. I felt sick to my stomach.
Our final destination for the day would be the Chewalla Lake campground where we could stay the night for less than $10, a practice we repeated many times to extend our travel budget for the six-week long tour. As had become customary, we needed to make a stop for supplies before setting up camp that night. Without any local grocers open in Holly Springs, Wal-Mart became our supplier.
My son and I made our way into the restroom, and when it came time to wash our hands, Daniel stood beside me at the adjacent sink and asked solemnly, “Dad, why did someone carve that into the wall?” He pointed towards the words, “I HATE ALL N*****S.” I lowered my head and told him, “Because making things equal by law doesn’t mean it changes some people’s hearts.” I looked up at him and his face was grim. Despite our many discussions about racism, it was his first time seeing it and understanding that it was real.
The nation has done little, very little, to admit its faults and to own up to its terrible past. The hands of our nation are no less stained in blood than that of the Nazi’s. If it was possible to gather into one place and one time, all of the African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics that lost their lives to our smallpox blankets, our guns, our whips, and our nooses, if it was possible to systematically shove them into gas chambers or put them in front of firing squads, we would appear no different than those barbaric, ruthless tyrants known as the Third Reich.
And yet, still today in modern American, people of color born from this terrible history are continually denied justice and equality. They struggle to find hope in a country ruled by money, wreathed in false prominence, and governed by corruption. These minorities fight to dispel the darkness of ignorance and to educate millions of people easily swayed to hatred, easily set to dehumanize and destroy life in the name of economic growth and patriotism against terrorist “threats”.
When I look at the efforts of Ida B. Wells, W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T. Washington, and Marcus Garvey I could not help but wonder how they could keep from falling into deep depression. Educational attainment was even lower during their times, and the horrors of lynching people of color were ever present and acceptable in larger society. Millions of slaves were set free into a country who still did not like them, did not want them except for their labor in the most unwanted jobs and pushed them to live in the most unwanted places. Every attempt to rise up was met with destruction: People’s Grocery, Red Summer, and Tulsa being only a few examples. Though violence against African Americans was less prominent in the north, they still faced the institutionalized racism of economic stagnancy, educational and physical starvation, housing inequality, police brutality, and prison sentences.
If history has taught us anything, it is that people can be controlled if they are divided, and race is one of the easiest means.
There are reasons that people of color all over this world have been systematically oppressed and destroyed. People of color are, or once were, indigenous peoples. They shared a similar spirituality and understanding of land and community, finding happiness and freedom through their knowledge of how to live in symbiosis with the regions they occupied. But these people are a threat to “civilization.” As stewards of the land, they can teach the rest of us how to live and find happiness without having to subscribe to economic systems that ensure only a select few retain all the power and wealth. In the words of Jean Jaques Rousseau:
The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had some one pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow man, “Do not listen to this imposter. You are lost if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all, and the earth to no one!”
Even our white Scots-Irish ancestors in Appalachia knew this. Upon escaping the colonial plantations and their indentured servitude, they learned from Native Americans and achieved freedom through land-based subsistence in the mountains. But just as the Cherokee suffered from broken treaties, having their lands brutally taken before being forced upon the Trail of Tears, our claims to the mountains as US citizens were eventually taken in the form of mineral rights and broad form deeds. Our white skin assured us a better fate than the Cherokee, but our labor would be used to forever destroy our own sources of freedom–the mountains and forests, and the remaining cultural knowledge of how to live off of them. Thousands of Appalachians, African Americans, Italians, Yugoslovians, Polish, Germans, and other poor European immigrants would die in the process, some 104,000 over the course of a century.
It is the knowledge of continued oppression stemming back generations from our enslavement, be it chattel or wage, that drives our desire for equality and justice. This is why the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s work towards the Poor People’s Campaign was so important. This is also why his life was taken as was Malcolm X’s after his return from Mecca. They understood that the issues we faced with inequality had a much larger source. They understood that skin color was only a tool used to achieve control. They understood that the sooner we all realized our shared suffering was based on economics, the sooner we could all begin fighting for true justice and equality. The powers who thrive on continued inequality knew this as well
Everything we are seeking in terms of justice continues to be broken down into “us vs. them.” Left vs. right; black vs. white; citizen vs. illegal immigrant; democracy vs. communism (as maligned in definition as it is); Americans vs. terrorists; Christian vs. Muslim vs. Jew vs. Atheists; jobs vs. the environment. We all must realize that there is a powerful force that wants us to fight each other.
Unfortunately, the burden—the greatest and most terrible burden of this fight—will always be borne upon the oppressed. We are the ones who are left to do the work. We are the ones left to find love and hope where little exists, and to keep fighting and struggling against ignorance and hatred. Not only must we suffer, but we must also continue to find compassion and patience in educating those who intend us harm. We simply cannot accomplish this if we too, hold hatred and malice in our own hearts. We can’t make progress if we continually levy accusations and assume people are jerks and will never change, even among ourselves.
There’s always someone who has suffered more than any of us and deserves justice. We are all fighting for them, be it in our own country or others. If we are fighting more for ourselves and our own personal sensitivities, we will always lose. There is a bigger struggle at hand with much greater consequences, and we should understand that each of us has our own part to play in that struggle.