Wednesday, May 12, 2010

When will she see that to gain is only to lose?

Walnut Street Bridge

One thing about living in the South is the wound of slavery forever on the landscape. It's so hard to talk about. It's almost impossible to have an honest discussion about race in this country, which makes our problem with it even greater. Nationally, we're always ready to condemn other nations for their failings, but not ourselves. It's that famous verse writ large: "Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?"

Of course, all other nations are the same. When I lived in France, they were forever having conferences about "the American race problem," or "racisme Americaine," as they called it. All the while they were kicking Arabs out of their bars and restaurants, completely legally and without recourse. The French were unable to acknowledge that they had a race problem themselves, just because happened to have not kept slaves. At least not on their own soil.

Our race problem, admittedly, is deeper and darker and longer and bloodier. I just learned from the Chattanooga paper that two black men were lynched from the Walnut Street Bridge. During the twentieth century. The bridge is now a pedestrian footbridge, the heart of Chattanooga's scenic downtown. I'll never be able to look at it the same way. I knew these things happened, but it's another thing to know they happened here, on this dirt.

I keep thinking about the Billie Holiday song "Strange Fruit." It blows my mind that an African-American woman, a mythic and powerful singer, was able to create art out of such horror. As it was happening. Especially when we can barely breath a word about it now. We're so afraid of telling the truth--about both our own past and our own present.

Here's the truth: racism is alive and well in Chattanooga. Maybe that's not a newsflash, but after years in the north, it shocked me. I work in a service industry, and the blatant disregard my bosses have for racial equality disgusts me. We hold to the letter of the law when it comes to African-American teenagers, and give rich white men enough wiggle room to do anything they want. I try to enforce our policies equitably, but I feel myself accepting and participating in that discrimination, as much as I try to fight it.

Here's another truth that makes me squirm: almost all of the problems I've had at work have been with those same black teenage boys. What does that mean? Can my statement even be trusted? Isn't my anecdotal evidence corrupted by the cultural lens through which I see the world, the racism I've been taught since I was a baby? Maybe those tendencies are rooted so subconsciously that they can't be changed.

But that's crap. I believe in change. I adore Tupac's song "Changes," too--an interesting counterpoint to Billie Holiday's song. Here's his line: "although it seems heaven sent, we ain't ready to see a black president..." It isn't true anymore. We have a black president, and that song is only twelve years old.

I'm not sure it helps the African-American kids that come to my desk, though. They're swimming against a strong tide. I just hope they keep swimming, and I hope the tide is changing. I'm going to swim and join them.

In land news, I found a beautiful five-acre piece on Monday, emailed the realtor immediately, visited the property yesterday, and was on my way to make an offer when she called back. It had sold. The contract was on her desk. So another one bites the dust. In blog news, I continue to be unhappy with my redesign. So more changes may be coming. I believe in change, after all.


Anonymous said...

Love reading your words against a blue background. Love pondering race issues, because I am a total racist. I just know I see through my lenses and I wish I were better at looking past differences. Thanks for honestly sharing. So sorry about the land. Ugg.

Anonymous said...

One of my book clubs is discussing Clyde Edgerton's "Raney" this evening. This book represents every single negative stereotype I ever had about the South - much of which, I'm sad to say, I've witnessed first hand since moving here two years ago. I am in a very small minority of people in this book group not solidly from Here, and I'm both curious and a bit nervous to hear their thoughts on this novel and how it applies to where we live.

Don't get me wrong, there was racism around me when I was growing up in the Midwest - but it was contained. (I hate to admit it, but it was my mother and pretty much the entire side of her family.) I grew up in two very liberal/progressive college towns, so thankfully anything I heard privately from relatives was immediately negated by 1) the perspective of my foreign-born, immigrant father, and 2) teachers/peers/pretty much everything around me.

I have a lot of reservations about raising my daughter in the South. How much of the person she becomes will be ingrained on her psyche by her family and the peers we try to surround her with, and how much by Everything Else? We have a neighbor with signs in her lawn declaring Obama as the Anti-Christ, and a confederate flag a little further back on her property. We also have neighbors that are some of the coolest, laid back, open-minded and respectful people I've ever met. I just don't know. I like to think that despite all of the misinformation I was exposed to, I still turned out alright; but I suspect that most people feel that way about themselves.

Notes From Paradise said...

I do not know you, but I have read your blog from start to most recent post. You seem to have a lot of angst about things that you cannot change. The things you can change are mostly glossed over or given up on. Maybe you should be looking for some wisdom instead of agonizing over an understanding of the unknowable.

The courage of your convictions and of your endeavors will always be trumped by fear if you let it. You do not need to be sure of your path. You only need to follow it where it goes. Remember, you're not going to get out of life alive no matter what you do; you might as well do what pleases and interests you.

Melissa said...

Thanks all, for the feedback. Race is a difficult topic, but whether or not I can do anything about it, I think it's important to talk about it. I try to fight the racism in myself, which is the best I can do, I suppose, aside from joining some kind of education or lobbying organization.

It's hard for any of us to follow the courage of our convictions--I'd like to believe that's the sole purpose of my journey, to cast off my doubts, and fears, and angst, and to follow the path Christ has set out for me. But I know I'm not going to give up grappling with the unknowable, either. Maybe that's how I was raised, or just who I am. I've always toed the line between thinking happiness was more important, or truth. I still haven't decided.

wfrenn said...

One of your best blogs, I think.
As an American historian who lived through full segregation as a youth and participated in the Civil Rights Movement as a college student and teacher, I fully believe that American society has become much more civil, tolerant, and just, at least compared to the first half of the century and earlier. That said, we are only comparatively improved in our spirit, and certainly not in a post-racial society with the election of President Barack Obama. It is only the end of the beginning.
But we are making progress toward a multicultural society, which we have always been, and not only with our white-psyche in regard to African-Americans, but also with women, gays, Asian and Hispanics. I doubt that "Anonymous" is a total racist, as s/he believes, but chances are that his/her children and grandchildren will be less narrow and uncofortable with other humans that don't look exactly like them.
I look forward to the day when, as with the ancient Roman Empire--comprised of so many nationalities of all races and ethnicities--that one's color or nationality was worthy of no notice, but only whether one had achieved the coveted status of becoming a "Roman citizen," and with it Roman virtus and character.
Meanwhile, on the path toward the perfected society, the best advice I ever heard was: "Do not allow the bigots and naysayers to derail the progress of the community. They must not be allowed to stand in the way of solving problems. They represent fear and negativism. Shun and ignore them. Work with the confident and thoughtful." (I paraphrased some of this.)
Yes, all nations are the same, and so are many communities: conservative, parochial, and uncomfortable with change. (That's why I keep asking you what the Alabamians and Georgians are like.)
Despite your agonizing, you came down on the side of the angels ("I hope the tide is changing. I'm going to swim and join them.") I was so glad to read that! While some people can be objectionable and downright unlikeable, it should not be confused with their race, ethnicity, nationality, religion or gender orientation, but rather with their individual personality and behavior.
In closing, your blogs are never dull, but with this one you take up a challenge that takes courage. And it makes it more interesting. I do hope you learn all about southerners like Clyde Edgerton' Raney, where he satirized the stereotypic characters he wrote about (or so says Rose, who read this section).
Re. your comment about happiness vs. truth: Truth is a hard task master. Truth, if it doesn't kill you, will set you free, sadder, perhaps, deeper for sure, but free.

The Capt'n