Wednesday, July 31, 2019

G(RACE)

Saturdays have become classic movie nights in my household.  Either post-gig or not, it's still a work day and I try to clear my mental clipboard in the 3-5 AM time slot watching something from either my or someone else's past.  The television somehow offers plenty of quality films, without pay-for-view.  So last week I picked The Great White Hope.  I'd been fortunate enough to have seen that on Broadway, with the larger-than-life James Earl Jones, and Jane Alexander-- live-- in the lead roles, well more than 30 years ago.  It was brilliant-- resonant-- devastating.

Yes, I've been re-reading (the great) James Baldwin... Richard Wright-- but watching the theatre version of hard-edged racial tragedy was jarring and upsetting in a way I'd not expected.  In context of the current discussion of reparation and debt... everyone needs to go back and re-evaluate their African-American history course.  The juggernaut of the 'Me Too' movement stirred up some memory of that book title (acknowledged in a Lennon/Ono song) Woman as Nigger.  Even my laptop did not want to type out that phrase.

Now I'm a white woman with a prosecutable Me-Too incident of my own-- a life-warping, hideous, morally reprehensible, humiliating disgrace I have never brought much to light because, as we women well know, the procedural justice process can double-indemnify the victim.  We are sole witness... testifier, prosecutor, injured party-- and we set ourselves up, in the legal system, for the pillory.  Ask Robert Mueller.  But the ethnic and massive cultural wrongs against a group of people brought here as captives-- against their will--- enslaved, mistreated, and then left-- misplaced, without tools and respect in a foreign country-- unable to go back to their homeland, deprived of comfort and dignity-- and identifiable and stigmatized by physical characteristics that were interpreted by status quo as 'less-than-equal'-- well, it's a disgrace beyond comprehension. For most of us in the current culture where Beyonce is American 'royalty'... Hip Hop dominates the music industry-- fashion-- this is not simple.

Maybe the largest lesson of the Trump presidency-- and I see it as a huge disgusting presidential finger in my face every day-- is the survival of racism.  It's still everywhere.. in spite... despite.
I grew up a relatively privileged little white girl in New York... I had an Irish nanny some of the time, but like most middle-class households in the 50's and 60's.. we had a black housekeeper.  I've written about her many times-- more than a caretaker, she took me to church, sang to me-- loved me in a way no white mother ever did... I used to pray I'd turn black and live with her.  I envied the kids in the projects-- they had a community-- they hung out summer nights playing ball wth friends-- they barbecued and every night seemed like a party.  It seemed so 'safe'.  Little did I understand.

I married a black man.  My first husband-- yes, he was kind of a rockstar.  I'd never dated or been intimate with anyone but white men-- and it was different-- the chemistry was undeniable and the ceremony was like a dare.  I was actually surprised not one member of my family showed up at the wedding.  My parents had seemed like liberal democrats... no, they had no black friends; the soft boundary between me and our housekeeper made my mother nervous, I could see that;  I never told when I went to hang in her 'hood.  And as an aside-- no one in her hood ever made me feel unwelcome or different.  She referred to me as 'My Aimesy' and I loved it.

Was I trying to prove something?  I was not.  I loved the guy.  I was disowned by my family.  They clearly and verbally pronounced that they had one less daughter-- the Princeton/Harvard daughter.  Why was I surprised?  This was bigotry and racism in my own little clan.  It was real.  Was it difficult?  It was.  Even in Harlem people looked at us funny.  He had dreadlocks then and that was not part of Northern American black culture.  We went on a car trip and people in rural New England yelled out their windows at us-- 'Bob Marley go home'.  My girlfriends asked me inappropriate clinical questions about physical traits and ignorant narratives.  I learned things.  Among his people I felt comfortable-- but it was clear they would have preferred dark skin.  We struggled with the normal marital difficulties of rock musicians touring-- separations and misunderstandings... there was no communication technology in those days... just a rotary telephone and letters.

In the end we divorced... yes, we are still very, very  good friends; I am godmother to his 'black' children with his black wife.  I next married a British journalist-- couldn't have been much whiter-- and he was a 'dog' of a husband-- a cheating, hard drinking rogue who never paid a ha'penny of child support.  In the end-- a white non-present baby-Daddy with ghetto behavior.  Do I have the right to talk about racism, bigotry, issues?  To draw conclusions? I do not.

My son who is white British-American might have preferred to have been born black.  He was immersed in basketball culture and Hip Hop from an early age.  He was an incredibly talented young athlete-- was recruited and acknowledged-- and once snapped at me that he had zero chance of becoming an NBA player because of his color.  Not true, but it was his teenaged truth; he was occasionally the only white boy in the better leagues.  His friends are racially diverse in a way that should be normal here in our country.  He was raised just a few blocks from Harlem, and I often walk the streets of my James Baldwin world, remembering and fathoming.  The idea of being a cultural icon in those difficult days, where incarceration and physical threat was a constant-- where inequality and injustice was so ingrained no black person could walk safely down his own street.  Where-- then as now-- white authority represented the biggest threat of all.  Life-stopping.

Last week in the rain I went to cash a check at my bank on 126th Street.  They insisted I remove my hoodie... for the cameras.  Me-- an old white lady.  I retorted I had a hole in my head that would make the customers wretch.   In the end, they let it go.  I showed my ID.    I don't know where this fits in, but it sits there on the pile of racial profiling nonsense we all walk among in this century.  If I'd been a young black man I would have kept my mouth shut-- or I might have given the security guard a reason to put me in a fatal chokehold.  I thought about this on the way out-- how I had the freedom to make a disrespectful quip at what I found a ridiculous and inappropriate request.  

Tension has lightened a bit in the 21st century, but it's still there.  It was still there Friday night when I walked uptown to buy groceries and a kid was shadowing me on the street for whatever reason.  I apologized, in my heart, but I crossed the street.  One hour later on my way back, he was handcuffed and bent against a cop car.  Was he guilty?  Was I guilty? Me and my stupid James Baldwin and my compulsive apologies and my love of blues and black men in white T-shirts...

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