Cracking the Codes: History, Identity and Culture

I grew up in Washington, D.C., later named chocolate city, and the experience of growing up in Washington, D.C. in Southeast Washington, which is right
on the Maryland/D.C. border with poor white people on the Maryland border and working
black folks on the D.C. side was pretty crucial in laying the foundation for my understanding
of humanity, not just of race. As a child, as most children are, I was really inquisitive,
and so I knew that when I went to Northwest Washington D.C., where The Capitol, The Monument,
and The White House were located there was a different quality of life in the people
who matriculated that area and then right down the street almost on T Street in Northwest,
where my grandmother and grandfather lived, it was not that way. I mean they had their
own home but, directly opposite the street they were on, people lived in abject poverty
and in the wintertime, as I got older, I was saddened and horrified to think about what
people did in the cold winter if they didn’t have heat and many of them didn’t. Mill Valley
is a primarily white town that is definitely practices the ethos of colorblindness, is
what I would call it now, it’s one of those places that, you know, it is very white and
a lot of the white folks there proport not to see race. You know, it’s sort of, it’s
seen as a benevolent gesture, to not notice race. Color became part of the conversation
when I asked my mother, “why is it like this?” And she said to me simply, “Sugar, white folks
have set it up like this.” And I’m thinking about the white children and the white families
I knew, they were too poor to set anything up. And I asked her, because they were in
the same situation I thought that we were in, and they really are. And I asked her to
explain it and she said,”Well, you know, you know I grew up in the South,” she said. I
said, “yes.” And she said, “You know I was there when the Klu Klux Klan ran the show
in North Carolina, and but before that, there was you know, black people couldn’t eat in
a restaurant where other….” She would say, “The other people ate.” What other people
are you talking about? She would almost censor herself for me and I thought, “oh, there’s
a lot here.” And then she explained slavery to me. And I remember I was really, you know,
in like elementary school and she described slavery, that people, human beings were slaves
and I didn’t understand what she meant. So I asked her to explain that, “What do you
mean, they had them do a lot of chores?” Because she had us doing a lot of chores at home,
but I knew that wasn’t what she meant, but I wondered, “what do I compare this to?” And
she said, “Oh no sugar, uh uh, they couldn’t be married, they couldn’t keep their children,
they didn’t have their own souls, everything was taken from them and you know, your grandfather–she
meant her father–his father was a slave.” I said, “No way.” She said, “Ya, that’s why
he has that African name.” I said, “Why did the people let themselves be slaves?” And
she said, “Oh Ericka, it wasn’t like that, the whole government supported it.” I had
gone to Mississippi because I learned about this relative that I had, who was a distant
relative, but also one that I hadn’t heard about until college, which I found telling
about my own family, about what colorblind racial ideology is. Because, he was the governor
of Mississippi from 1956 -1960. And so the moment that I remember, I guess, is being
in the archives in Mississippi, right, on this research fellowship. And reading these
letters that he wrote, mind you he was elected into office four months after Brown II, and
one of the first things he did was set up the State Sovereignty Commission and sort
of be in cahoots with the Citizens Council and try to use the law to preserve Mississippi’s
way of life. Right, so to subvert Brown to aracial legalistic means. But it wasn’t until
I read about the horrors of slavery, equal to, if not worse than, the Nazi Holocaust
against the Jewish people, that I got angry. When I saw that this had gone on for centuries,
not just a period of time related to a war, and that the government had sanctioned it,
that the Pope at the time had sanctioned it, I became angry. In the archives I was reading
this letter of this, this guy J.P. Coleman, my grandmother’s sister’s husband–so distant.
But, it was this letter that, to me, echoed of a sort of Ward Connerly colorblind approach
to the law as a way to ensure that, that racialized hierarchies of power continue and are upheld.
And the letter was basically one of, you know, in 1956 Mississippi, looking to remove the
language of race from the law so as to maintain segregated schools. But right up until I began
reading and reading and reading and reading and I wasn’t reading, you know, just, I was
reading history that I could find that wasn’t telling lies. And that’s the other thing that
made me angry, no one had ever told me in school. No one had ever told me the truth.
They told me about Crispus Attucks, ok you know I don’t have anything against Crispus
Attucks, but I needed to know more than the black men who fought in the American Revolution,
you know? But I didn’t get the truth, I was told a watered down story about Native Americans.
And I watched t.v. shows that showed Native peoples as savages that didn’t speak any language
that was discernible. African people that had bones through their noses and had no language
except ‘ooga booga,’ when I realized that this is what, not only I was being taught,
but all of the nation’s children and people were being taught this, I was so pissed off.
The Civil Rights Movement is easy to reduce if it’s only Mississippi god damn, if it’s
only, you know, sort of the dogs and fire hoses Bull Connor bigotry. It’s easy to say,
that’s not here anymore, we can’t point to that, we though we can sometimes, but I think
that that monolithic story is something that needs to be looked at, something that I think
a lot of scholars look at. But something that, looking at my great grand uncle’s story, it
makes it more complex because Mississippi wasn’t all, you know, sort of, a rabid dogs
and fire hoses bigotry. It was also sort of, sly purportedly, colorblind legalistic racism.
And I think that, so often we talk about the interpersonal, when it comes to race when
we need to be talking about the structural also. On the racism side, what I witness with
my dad in particular, was someone who was very disturbed by racism. Someone who was,
is, very dark skinned. A dark skinned Mexican man who hated being dark skinned. At the same
time there was tremendous pride in being Mexican. There was tremendous pride in being brown,
my grandfather was a revolutionary in Mexico, and there’s a lot of pride about him having
been a revolutionary and fighting for the rights of the poor. Right? So there’s this
passion about revolution, there’s this passion about liberation that lives inside, at the
same time, there’s that embarrassment about being dark. I saw myself as ugly for many
years because, culturally, I was not light complected, I have lips that are not thin
and I have kinky hair. I have all of those things that the society at large, but in a
way its been internalized by my own community. And it is not something that was overt in
my household because that is not so. But I had somehow taken on and acculturated myself
to the expectations of society about what I was supposed to be. The most staggering
piece truly about getting, working on, my own internalized oppression had to do with
a dinner. I think it was a Thanksgiving dinner in which we were telling these stories about
the ways in which my grandmother chastised my mother’s generation. And it was clear to
me in the telling of the stories, it still makes me cry, that she both emotionally and
physically abusive. Not because this was her intention, she was doing the best that she
knew, but that expectation that she had of her children was absolute, unquestioning,
immediate obedience. I remember about ten years ago, and I’m 54 so this wasn’t that
long ago. Ten years ago, he was visiting and he showed me a picture of himself when he
was four years old. Had never seen pictures of him when he was young before, he never
showed any photos of himself to us. And he showed me this picture, he was four years
old and he showed me this picture and he says, “Look at this.” I look at the picture, and
its this cute, beautiful four year old boy, dark, dark and they lived in the desert, they
were even darker right? So they lived out there in the desert, dark picture of this
four year old, cute four year old and I say, “Dad, oh you’re so cute, how come you haven’t
shown me these pictures before? This is the first time I’ve seen them.” And he said, “Well,
look at it.” And I look at it and he says, “I look like a god damn piece of charcoal.”
One day when my daughter, who’s my oldest child, age 12 did something. Talked back,
in a way that was inappropriate, and it was really inappropriate, she was at that stage
of her own development, that she was self-actualizing and I needed to make some room. And I said
to her, in a tone that I don’t know if I can quite capture, but I said, “Who do you think
you are?” And the intent was to stop her but there was an unspoken expectation in the way
that that question was answered that she was gonna say nobody. And that, that was the telling
point when I knew that there is something here that has to be unpacked and I have to
do it, not for the world, I have to do this so that my own family can survive and there
can be a healing inside of my family because if I can’t do that, then there’s nothing I
can do in the world. So, as I began to unpack the source of these behaviors, not just for
my family, but for other families, because we weren’t the only people that were telling
these amusing stories at Thanksgiving. I began to look at why we engaged these and other
behaviors and they really have to do with survival. There were periods of the history
of this country, particularly during slavery, in which one’s life depended upon how well
you could say yes sir, how convincingly you could ingratiate yourself and how high you
could jump when told to jump. And, my grandmother grew up in a time where lynching was a reality,
you know, nobody talked about in the past tense, nobody talked about it as electronic.
It was the real deal, there were ropes and torture involved. And raising your children
to know their place was critical. And had there been a shift by the time my mother and
her brothers and sisters were born from my grandmother’s time? Certainly. And had there
been a shift from my mother’s time to my time? Most assuredly. But there were behaviors,
survival behaviors, that are embedded in both cultures, both white and black, that support
this way of being and maintains a very specific power structure that you have to sit down
and think about how you prepare yourself and your children, not only to be oppressed, but
to be oppressors.


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