Saturday, July 25, 2009

Matters in Black and White

There have been many things that have happened over the last month that have given me pause.

And a lot of it deals with race.

I wrote a while back about my coffee and birds incident at the local coffee shop. What I didn't write about is that rarely do the black people in my suburb venture downtown to the local restaurants or coffee shops. Even with a black President, the message sent to black people is that we still don't belong.

Then Michael Jackson passed away on the very day we returned from my Godsister-in-law's funeral. That shock resonated to everyone I knew - it didn't matter if they were Black or White. He was a cultural icon and even with his changing appearance, race mattered. It said to me that even in this country with a predominately white media focus,someone who has given so much to the musical genre as theatre would be reduced to a caricature in death. I began to hate the scrutiny of him and his family and speculation of his children. That is until little Paris Jackson, looking very Eurocentric, spoke eloquently of her love for "daddy" and how he was the "every since I was born, daddy has been the best father I ever had. And I love him so much." Then she tearfully turned into the arms of her very brown Aunt Janet. She was a black girl mourning her black daddy, and it didn't matter if the world saw her as Black or White.

I've been busy with my summer program and all the children under my watch. I feel deeply for them and a part of me realized it is cultural that one of my employees calls me "mama taye" and one of the students said "you are like a parent." I understood the place of my race,my background, my culture in the eyes of the kids. It mattered that I was black and not white because I understood and they did not have to explain it.

And just when I thought I could finish up the month without having to think so much about race and racial issues, this week happened.

I was interviewed by Christopher Peske, a student at Marquette University doing a documentary on race relations in Kirkwood. He found me at SPROG and arranged for an on-camera discussion about my impressions. It was a pleasant interchange with this white young man who could've been my son. Then the news and it mattered that he was black and not white.

St. Louis is a place where race is part of the fabric. It is what divides North County from West County and why we are still so polarized. it is why the Missouri History Museum, the St. Louis Beacon, and several groups have engaged in racial discussions. It is why a couple, simply asked to participate in a photo shoot, sparked off the age old racial and sexual issues of interracial dating. They are in love, and they kissed, and the photo was published. And it mattered that she is white and he is black.

Two things happened that the mainstream media gets wrong in the message. First, the "birther" nonsense about President Obama not being American. I know that American is code for white and there are some white people who can not just get past a commander-in-chief who is not a white man like the 43 previous presidents. Black and brown people here are not really considered citizens worthy of the lofty office. And the reason is that he is black and not white, even for those who want to elevate his biracial identity - President Obama is black.

The report of the arrest of the eminent professor, Dr. Gates of Harvard University brought up all kinds of issues of the part race plays in police issues and it mattered that he was black. A white man would never have been arrested in his own home for demanding to see the officer's badge. It spoke to the centuries old thought in this country that a black man - even educated - is less than a white man - even uneducated. It said that no amount of notoriety or education or income can insulate a black man from the injustice of police mistreatment. And it mattered in black and white.

One thing that I think makes all the matters different is the speed of the Internet. The Philadelphia swimming pool incident sparked a cyber discussion and call for justice. There were over 80,000 hits to the Color of Change.org resulting in the Department of Justice investigating the Valley Swim Club. It mattered that the kids kicked out were black and not white.

In the midst of all the news and my wondering if things will ever change, a small group of Kirkwoodians met at the local coffeeshop. We meet monthly to talk about race through literature. Our book this time was The Color of Water by James McBride. As usual, we talked about the environmental factors of the month even as CNN was running their Black in America 2 along with the news reports on the Gates and Cambridge incident. This was in the background as we sat around a table to talk. And it mattered that we were Black and White.

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