A young activist of color in my community, when I objected to the phrase Defund the Police, explaining that it sent a fuzzy message because of the meaning of defund, said that the definition of the word didn’t matter. I told him I was a writer so I choose my words carefully . They should express what I intend to express.
Write to your own people, he replied.
By which he meant to white people.
I don’t think of white people as “my people.” I didn’t know how to explain that to him or that I didn’t think I could explain anything to white people. It actually put me off and I turned into a grumpy 70-year old woman who thought if only this youngun’ knew my story.
Then on Friday, another black man was killed by police who were called because he was sleeping in his car in a Wendy’s drive-thru.
The words “enough is enough” flooded through me.
So here’s my story:
I went to San Francisco State, starting in the Fall of 1967. It was a working-class university in that it was a commuter college. The average age of students was 25, with many being young Black men who had served in Vietnam. It was well-respected academically, but you didn’t go to San Francisco State if you had ambitions for the presidency. Elites didn’t go there.
I come from a working-class background, or as I like to refer to it, American peasants. And I do not mean that derisively.
I was the first woman on my mother’s side of the family (she hailed from Oklahoma) to go to college. My father was the seventh out of seven sons born (in 1916) into an Irish American family of 10 on a farm outside of Cedar Rapids, Iowa. They lost the farm and moved into town when my father was about 13, where the town’s people shamed my dad and his family for my grandfather’s having lost the farm. It is likely that some very shitty men got him drunk and tricked him into signing it over to them.
These were in the NINA days—No Irish Need Apply. You know, those drunks.
I had a somewhat unique experience as a daughter of a working-class family in that we lived in Saudi Arabia from 1955 to 1960, so my world extended beyond a neighborhood. Instead of getting on a plane and coming back to the States for what Aramco referred to “the long vacation” (three months), my parents bought passage on a Dutch freighter. We spent 75 days traveling through the Far East, stopping in ports to load and offload cargo. Places like Mumbai (then known as Bombay), where instead of hiring a car to take us through the city, my parents hired a horse-drawn carriage. We experienced the sounds, sights, and smells of a city teeming with people.
“You see those people living on the streets?” my parents said. “That could never happen in America.”
They believed that. It was certainly the mythos of the time (1958). But they were not what one would think of as elites, coming from generations of wealth. They were part of the peasant class of America that had entered the middle class.
This is a long introduction to my story. I give it to you so you understand that though I entered San Francisco State after living in a virtually all white suburban town in the Bay Area, I had absorbed by osmosis my early experience of traveling to non-European countries. I was eight then—young enough that I could see without judging.
And, yet, I was not prepared for what I was about to experience.
The Vietnam war was raging. Men of color were disproportionally sent to fight there while in America, little Black girls were killed in a church bombing, Medgar Evers had been gunned down outside his family home, riots raged in cities across the country, and the livelihoods of Blacks who attempted to register were threatened. Others were murdered. The murder of Black people went unpunished or even acknowledged by the criminal justice system.
However, when young white people were killed because they tried to register Blacks, the country started to pay attention.
On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. came out against the Vietnam War, making the connection between it and the domestic terrorism of racism at home. He was vilified for it.
I signed up for a philosophy class the second semester of my freshman year (1968). The teacher was a follower of Herbert Marcuse. In March, he invited 4 members of the local Black Panther party to come speak at our class.
I remember clearly that I was wearing a floral-print dress with puffy short sleeves and orange Mary Jane shoes that perfectly matched the orange flowers in my dress. I was 18.
The Black Panther guests (two young men and two young women—likely my age) dressed in all black, loped into the classroom, and sat in the four chairs arranged for them, with the young black men sitting protectively on either side of the women. I use the word loped purposely. Loped the way an alpha wolf does—slowly, with purpose and a confidence that they were here and weren’t afraid.
The women made no eye contact with anyone in the room. They were clearly under the protection of their colleagues. I don’t remember details of the conversation other than this:
I tried to explain that I was on their side. But one of the young men claimed the room for his people. Who are your people, I asked wanting desperately to connect.
He locked eyes with me and held it while he gestured to the three other people who sat with him. “These are my people,” he asserted, making it clear that I was the other with whom he did not and would not and could not make room in his heart and soul.
He did not look away. I did. I believe I looked down. I felt foolish in my floral print dress and matching Mary Jane shoes.
I was shattered. I went back to my dorm room and wept. It wasn’t a painful experience. It wasn’t hurtful in that they intended to hurt me with an insult.
But I felt it. This is what it felt like to be the other.
And while those four members of the Black Panthers had dominion in that classroom, outside of it, they lived in a society, a culture in which they were the other, in constant danger of violence inflicted on them by the social institutions that protected me.
Protected me because I was white.
A week or so after that classroom experience, on April 4, 1968, a year to the day after Martin Luther King came out against the Vietnam War, he was gunned down in Memphis, Tennessee.
Locally, on social media group pages predominantly populated by white people who think they are entitled to the land they live on, their right to have the world conform to their limited view of reality, I am a pariah. And I wonder how safe I am in a community that comprises armed people who believe in taking the law into their own hands and who claim the right to use their weapons designed for war to protect their “privilege” of being white.
I’m a mutt. Irish. English. German. And who knows what else, but likely all European. Both sides of my family have lived in this country for generations, going back to pre-Revolutionary War. I have relatives (General Sheridan) who committed atrocities against Native tribes. My great grandfather, born two years after the end of the Civil War, was named after the slave-owning vice-president of the Confederacy. He took part in the 1893 Cherokee Strip Land Run. Someone took the parcel he claimed away from him, so he became a Marshall in Lawton, Oklahoma, when Oklahoma was still a territory. And while he went after the likes of the Cole Younger gang, he also guarded Geronimo at Fort Sill.
I can’t claim pride in that background. It was filled with ignorance and supported by the manifest destiny claim that the lands on this continent were up for grabs to the invading Europeans. That the people who lived here originally were savages unworthy of God’s grace. That those brought here in enslavement were unworthy of God’s grace in their eyes.
I don’t know how to relate to them. I don’t understand them. I can’t go back and make right the wrongs committed by my own family.
What I can do is stop saying that this country—the country that takes children from their parents, imprisons people because of the color of their skin, justifies killing people because the color of their skin makes them more threatening—isn’t the one I grew up in.
It IS the country I grew up in.
The country I grew up in needs to grow up. It needs to recognize that the history of this country didn’t start in 1492. That our country is built on a holocaust as horrific as the one that happened in WWII in Germany. That the history of African Americans didn’t start with their being imported into this country to be used as commodities for commerce.
It is a time for a reckoning. It is time to stop saying, but if only “they” didn’t loot and destroy property I might listen to their pain.
We might want to ask our indigenous citizens what it feels like to have had their culture and land looted, massacred without retribution to seize their “property.”
We might want to ask the descendants of the Tulsa Massacre what it feels like to have property destroyed, their lives taken without retribution.
I cannot change the color of my skin. But I can claim what I hear and know in my heart and soul.
I can shout Enough!
Enough with claiming America Exceptionalism.
Enough with a criminal justice system that has its roots in enslavement and cultural and ethnic genocide.
Enough with using God as an excuse to bully, harass, and kill.
Enough of safety being a privilege, rather than a right.
To the country I grew up in, I say loud and clear:
Enough is Enough.
Time to unravel the tapestry that is the history of this country so the voices of those trapped there can be heard. So we can start a new story.
A story that doesn’t put being white at the center of it.
A story that has as its moral center an acceptance of difference without turning that difference into a threatening other.