The cornerstone of wellness is feeling safe. We cannot feel safe if we do not feel equal to others in society, and none of us are truly safe until this is accomplished. But as long as there are those in this world who would count any life as less meaningful than their own, equality will never be a reality. We chip away at the laws which excuse bigotry, but we are still fighting the same battles that have waged since the beginning of man.
In the beginning of the pandemic, I was invited to a friend’s farm to dig some iris bulbs. We had an interesting discussion about what was happening in this country. He had served in the Army during Vietnam, and he worked with German troops while he was there. He shared with me that once, during an unusual down time, the soldiers talked about attitudes in their countries. The German troops simplified the race issue in America: we treat Blacks like they treated Jews in the rise of Hitler. That really hit me. It’s a telling assessment of an outsider’s perspective on our country.
When I think of the fight for equality in our country, especially in women’s rights, I think of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her passing has left an indelible void in the Supreme Court. When I heard of her death, I was driving with my husband. I heard the news notification on my phone, and while we were stopped at a light, I saw it. My first word out of my mouth was an emphatic FUCK. And my heart sank. I know that she will be replaced by a judge who will not fight for equality as RBG would. I fear for my daughters’ reproductive rights. I fear for the LGBTQ community. I fear for people of color and immigrants. I fear our country will continue to fall backwards in its progress toward eliminating discrimination against any characteristic that does not fit into the profile of a heterosexual, white male.
Interestingly, I started reading a book on Thursday that I finished today. It is Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. Published in 1960, it’s a study in how the Deep South treats Black people, and what he reveals is not pretty.
To conduct his study, Mr. Griffin transforms his skin black with use of medication, UV light, and stain. He immerses himself into the local cultures of places like New Orleans, Biloxi, Birmingham, Mobile, and Atlanta over a 7 week period.
He discovers how it feels to be Black in ways that whites have difficulty perceiving. He meets local Black leaders and learns about all of the issues they face. He receives warnings about how to avoid getting harassed by cops for activities as seemingly innocuous as sitting on a park bench. He feels the hatred. He gets the inconvenience and unfairness of not having access to bathrooms or places to eat. He changes nothing about himself other than the color of his skin.
What struck me the most reading this book is how the excuses for bigotry among whites are the same now as it was then. Some paragraphs could have easily been written yesterday as a commentary on 2020, not 1959.
In speaking to Black community leaders in New Orleans, one stated:
“We need a conversion of morals… Otherwise, we’ll never have the right answers when those pressure groups–those racists, super-patriots, whatever you want to call them—tag every move toward racial justice as a communist-inspired… part of some secret conspiracy to overthrow the Christian civilization.”Black Like Me
Sound familiar? Sub the term “socialist,” and you have one of the current political talking points of 2020, where moves toward equality are “attacks on Christian values,” meanwhile, forgetting the teachings of Christ himself. For example:
“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.”James 2:8-9
Toward the end of Mr. Griffin’s 7 week immersion, he stayed in a monastery outside of Atlanta. He observed:
“They (the monks) sought to make themselves conform ever more perfectly to God’s will, whereas outside I had seen mostly men who sought to make God’s will conform to their wretched prejudices. Here men sought their center in God, whereas outside the sought it in themselves.”John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me
I have definitely observed multiple instances in my lifetime of people, including politicians, and even church leaders, who disguise their prejudices and bad behavior behind the veil of religion. It’s disgusting. And it’s the main reason why I no longer attend church.
In further support of this thought, in his epilogue, Mr. Griffin exclaims:
“Racism always hides under a respectable guise—usually the guise of patriotism and religion…”John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me
I’m pretty sure when he talks about patriotism here, he’s speaking more of nationalism. We need to be cautious about the rise of nationalism in America right now. This is not to be confused with patriotism. For the nationalist movement leaves out everyone who is not the ideal, white heterosexual Christian male. And this, by no means, creates a society that promotes true equality among all of its citizens and those who seek refuge here. (Mr. Griffin observed the rise of nationalism while living in Europe in the rise of Hitler.) Flying the flag of a politician instead of the United States is a dangerous trend that is happening in my very own neighborhood. This isn’t patriotism. This is nationalism.
We learn in school that Americans can live the dream as long as they work hard, contribute to society, and pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but this dream still isn’t a reality for many people of color. We continue to have business and legal practices that are designed to keep poor people poor and limit opportunities to people of color. Systemic racism continues to be a huge problem in the US, and it’s 2020.
The book itself is beautifully written. It is honest; brutally so. But it also goes on to describe how the experience transformed his life, including having to leave his hometown in Texas due to the backlash from his writings, and how he became an even more passionate civil rights activist.
Black Like Me is an excellent book to read to gain some perspective not only on Black culture in the late 1950’s, but also to understand how little has changed in 60 years. We are still fighting the same battle. People who fear equality use the exact same talking points. They still use religion and upholding American ideals as an excuse to discriminate. They still use tactics like starting riots in areas where people of color gather and blame it on them, and then declare a need for “law and order.” And the people fighting this are exhausted.
Now is not the time to be apathetic about what is happening in our country. It’s not the time to continue to sit on the fence, wondering what side you should choose, basing your choice on what people will think of you rather than what you know is moral and just in your heart. History has taught us the same lessons repeatedly, but we refuse to listen. We must continue to fight for the survival of this democracy, and not just to maintain the status quo, but to create legislation that makes this country better, and safer, for everyone.
I’ll leave you with some lyrics from The Housemartins “Sitting on a Fence”:
Sitting on a fence is a man who looks up to his guardian
Sitting on a fence is a man who swings from poll to poll
Sitting on a fence is a man who sees both sides of both sides
Sitting on a fence is a man who looks down on opinion
But the real problem with this man
Is he says he can’t when he can
He’d rather not get his hands dirty
He’ll still be there when he is thirty
I told myself to keep my mouth shutThe Housemartins
But I still end up saying if and but
I lied to myself right from the start
And I’ve just worked out that I’m falling apart
Sitting on a fence
It’s time to get off the fence. What will you do to fight for equality? It can be as simple as calling your local, state, and national lawmakers and expressing your views on current issues. It can be as complex as getting involved in activist circles. It can be as small as making a new friend who doesn’t look like you. Or it can look like fulfilling your civic duty, and voting. But don’t give up. We must keep fighting. It’s not time to wave the white flag. As always, I hope you all are safe and healthy.
Griffin, John Howard. Black Like Me. New American Library, 1960.