I wanted to write a post yesterday to celebrate the life of a great man who inspired many others to action, but instead I used my God-given freedom to slack with my kids. We read several library books about Dr. King and watched some of Savannah’s well-attended parade on TV, then we all put on wetsuits and went surfing. I had the honor of sharing a wave with a friendly pod of dolphins, an experience far more fulfilling than attempting to compose something genuine about a social movement that of which I have to admit I know so little.
As one of a handful of Jews in a Mormon-y enclave in Arizona I wasn’t the whitest girl on the block, and I learned early that I was “other.” Rather than sit around and cry about it (okay, I did try taping my nose up in third grade to see if it might conform to the ski-sloped nosed blond girls dominating my school, but all I got was a rash on my cheek from the adhesive) I embraced otherness in every form: I marched for the ERA when I was 8, I started a Young Democrats club in high school when I saw there was no political alternative to the smarmy Young Republicans (der, none of us could vote anyway,) I went door-to-door registering voters in Phoenix’s most horrid neighborhoods during election years and I loudly and proudly ditched school to march on MLK ‘s birthday before it became a national holiday. When asked to fill in a bubble as to my race, I still skip “Caucasian” and opt for “other.” And, as you know, the rhythms of Africa are in my blood.
I like to think I’m down. I’ll always feel more comfortable at the corner store where the old men congregate to drink out of bottles in paper bags than shopping at Whole Foods. I use the terms “sister” and “brother” for everyone I meet and deem “ginuwine.” I keep it real, people.
Yes, I do realize I am completely full of liberal crap.
Coming from an upper middle class Jewish family, my freedom has been a gift from the very beginning. I have not wanted for anything in my life; even when I lived in my van by the side of the river (true, true!) it was always a choice to be poor. It’s been my choice to be other, to feel oppressed, to empathize with the other side of the tracks when I easily could have put on a pair of Manolos after college and passed for a rich white girl.
Now that I live in the South where I see poor black people every day, people descended directly from those kidnapped from Africa and made slaves, children born into a fifth generation welfare, folks who may have won the right to equality but hardly have the resources and education to exercise it. Segregation may be in the past officially, but here in Savannah there are black neighborhoods and there are white neighborhoods, and there are black churches and white churches, and while my son’s school is a shining example of diversity, the public school system and its obvious imbalances appear to define the notion of white flight. Violent crime is rampant here, and the specter of “young black men on crack with guns” is today’s everpresent boogeyman. Articulate, well-mannered black people are still considered precious, an aberration of the norm. It’s just so f*cked, my brothers and sisters, and I admit I am paralyzed in the face of this thick, ugly unconcious attitude that hurts so many.
I am fool to think I could know what it’s like to live in dark skin. I hear the older people of the Jewish community use the terrible term “shvartze” to refer to their neighbors, and I have more than once heard “boy” to refer to a grown man of African descent. You might think this girl who spent many an evening in the deep dark parts of Oakland shaking booty would be outraged into action, but you’d be wrong. And I’m ashamed about that.
Sometimes I speak up, real polite-like, as to not embarrass my husband’s family or jeopardize my own extremely fragile social standing, but mostly, my bleeding liberal heart aches quietly. I pick my son up from school and feel magnanimous for sticking to my guns and keeping him in public school, but then I drive “home” to the beach, where it’s a mostly white population living away from the crime and the ugliness.
In the meantime, I fantasize that I will find some drummers who know the rhythms I know and we will give free dance lessons in the park and shake this city out of its dark history with the vibrations of the ancestors. When we finally buy our house in the heart of town, I will organize my neighbors to walk together and take back the night. I will counsel my children that we are blessed, blessed people and that it is our heritage to fight for justice for everyone. Next year on Dr. King’s birthday, we will march downtown in that parade. I will not forget that this dream of his, this idea that people of all colors and religions and opinions can live peacefully and share their ideas, their rituals, their recipes.
As you can see, he never forgot us.