The little, pink General Lee

The last time I really went through the house was probably 10 years ago.

I had just come back from my first big tour abroad and I couldn’t wait to tell my dad all about it. The visit went how they almost always went. I told him stories, he beamed with pride. He told me stories, I tried to take a lesson from them. Then he’d sit down at the piano, I’d pull out my guitar and we’d play old blues songs for the next couple hours. Then we’d take a break, start all over again and keep going until I had to go home.

This particular time, after our first round of stories and blues, I started feeling nostalgic and went upstairs to check out my old room.

The house itself is very old. It was built by my great-grandfather on my mother’s side. Even though most of that side of the family was long dead, much of them still remained in the house. No one was ever completely gone. This was obvious anywhere you went in the house—even in my old room.

My father hadn’t really touched the room since I moved out. My pretentious music and movie posters were still on the walls—which were still the same color I’d painted them in high school: black, naturally. My same bed was still in the same place, though not completely mine. The mattress was mine, but the frame had been my grandmother’s. It was white and gold and matched her dresser, which was also in the same place it had been when I last lived there.

And there was Grammy’s big closet. It was a walk-in, but just barely. It was unfinished and under one of the eaves, but you could definitely walk into it. I never really had, though. It had always just felt like my Grammy’s big closet and none of my business.

Grammy had died when I was five, but I still had vivid memories of her. And they were all loving. In the drawers of her old dresser must’ve been a hundred pictures of her and I, and every one of them reflected those memories. Both of us happy, usually playing together, usually mid-laugh. Even now memories of her bring back a sort of love and excited contentment I haven’t felt since she died.

I was looking for more of that feeling when I decided to go through her closet that day. And that feeling is exactly what I found.

My parents used to drop me off at Grammy’s Friday afternoon. I’d stay the night and she’d let me stay up late and watch my favorite show, The Dukes of Hazzard. She even got me a little toy car that I’d drive through the air and mimic the sound of its Dixie car horn. The toy car didn’t actually look anything like The General Lee. It was pink and it didn’t have any moving parts. It was just a hollow, plastic shell, but it was close enough for me at the time.

Every Saturday morning she’d drive us back to my parents’ apartment and we’d all have breakfast. Then she’d get up to leave and I’d cry. Then she’d hand me that little pink car and tell me that she’d see me in a few days and she’d let me stay up late and we could watch our favorite show.

Naturally, the next week would come and I would have lost the car. But every single time, somehow she would find it and I would have the little, pink General Lee in hand, ready when our favorite show came on.

That little, pink General Lee is in all my memories of Grammy, even the last one. I was laying on my stomach on the floor in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen of my parents’ apartment. Grammy was sitting with them at their kitchen table. She was mid-sentence when her eyes rolled back and she fell out of her chair. My father caught her and gently laid her on the floor. My mother called the ambulance and I jumped up screaming and crying, clutching that little, pink General Lee.

Over the next 20-plus years I would think about the little, pink General Lee whenever I thought of Grammy. It became a sort of legend I not only associated with my grandmother, but also with the house. So, you can imagine the overwhelming joy in my laughter when, in Grammy’s closet I found a shopping bag full of little, pink General Lees.

I had often wondered how she always “found” something at her house that had been lost someplace else and it turned out she hadn’t. I couldn’t stop laughing at what a wonderful, joyous thing this was. It was this sweet and loving prank she had played on me, a joke where the punchline arrives more than twenty years later surrounded by the happiest nostalgia. I went back downstairs to share the joke with my dad.

He didn’t laugh.

My father’s relationship with my grandmother was very different than mine. My grandmother’s family had lived in New England for generations. She was a pillar of her Maine community. She was a deputy sheriff’s widow. And she was the very protective white mother of a white daughter who had just married a big, Southern Black man.

She was never overt in her opinion of my father’s race, but she would let him know in other ways. In passive-aggressive ways. In plausibly deniable ways. In cruel ways. For instance, she would let his Black child watch a TV show that glorified the racist symbolism of the south. She did this knowing how he felt about that racist symbolism. She would go further by encouraging that Black child to run around with a little car hollering out Dixie in his home, knowing how he felt about that song.

It wasn’t possible to explain to me what racism was, never mind all of the layers. The long and cruel history of a country, its life-long battle with race, its ever-permeating racist symbolism and the day to day effects of these things on people who look like us. The country itself still doesn’t understand it, so how would this four-year-old child?

My father was stuck. He was alone, but not in the usual ways a Black man is alone in a white place. This was different than being followed around a store or being questioned by the police. This was even different than the plain and hidden racism he faced in public as a Black husband to a white wife. He would not discuss this with my mother. He would not risk the retaliation from my grandmother. He would not risk the possible loss of his wife and child. He would take as much as he could. Like he did the whispers from fellow restaurant patrons and the shouts from passing cars, he would take it. He would take it because he grew up with different bathrooms and water fountains. He would take it because he was 10 years old when Emmett Till was beaten to death. He would take it because even though it was in his house now, he’d come too far to let it steal his dignity. But he wouldn’t take it lying down. No. He threw away every little, pink General Lee I came home with.

And here I was, 20-odd years later. An adult, standing there in front of him, overjoyed, grinning that same Grammy-is-the-best grin, holding that bag, a time capsule containing a sweet and loving prank for me and a hard, sordid one for him.

I went back to look at those pictures in her dresser drawers. Grammy and me still playing and laughing. They looked different, but not entirely. Even now, when I look at them it’s impossible not to see what I saw then. The photos are as true and real as any grandmother’s love for her grandchild. But I also know another thing. I know that if she had not been my grandmother and I had met her as I am now, the spitting image of my own Black father, she would have likely judged me solely for that.

She was absolutely a loving grandmother. I still have no doubt of that. She was also a spiteful person who would manipulate and exploit her own grandchild in order to make his father suffer for his race.

Both things can be true.

I still have no doubt of that.

I wouldn’t go through the house again until my father died.

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When they call you a racist

What a week! Seriously, it’s not every day that  the leader of a country decides to tweet shame a sexual abuse survivor. I don’t know about you but under the leadership of Trump, the world moves at such a rapid pace that even as a news junkie, I can’t keep up.  

If world happenings weren’t enough, my own life has been moving rapidly. Last week, I launched the long awaited podcast and a few days afterwards, the October issue of Maine magazine came out where I was named as one of Maine’s 50 people whose work is making a difference. While I have known about this honor for some time now, having it actually out in the world officially is an entirely different thing.

Which brings me to my thoughts for the day. I have spent the past decade-plus writing about racism in Maine and in the larger world. I have now had the pleasure of serving as executive director of a small and scrappy Boston based anti-racism organization. I also speak on race and current events throughout the region. In many ways, my dad’s upbringing under Jim Crow in rural Arkansas combined with dealing with racism as a Black woman in America are what led me to this work. Change requires intention and it requires people to roll up their sleeves and start doing. I want change, so I am doing my part.

Over the years, I have racked up my share of detractors and frankly, scary-ass people who don’t like me or my work. I am well familiar with the hateful, online trolls who say horrible things and even question my existence. Earlier this year, I even had a white nationalist show up at one of my speaking events. I have long accepted that I am not everyone’s cup of tea and that some people will just not like me.

However until a week ago, I had never had the experience of being called a racist to my face in a social setting. While out enjoying adult beverages with friends, I had an encounter with a white man and was told that I was pretty cool for a racist writer chick. Excuse me?

I can’t lie, the encounter bothered me because, without getting too deep in the weeds, it was clear that his “information” most likely came from someone who lives on the same small island that I live on. It means that the place that has become my safe haven isn’t really safe and yet safety for Black and brown people has always been an illusion. I know this and yet I wanted to believe, that there could be a safe space for me. A place where I don’t have to look at every white person as a potential threat.

However, once I got over the shock and got out of my feelings about this situation, I realized that a white man calling me a racist is exactly the type of white fragility that permeates our daily rounds and makes real discussion on race impossible at times. After all, trying to argue with anyone who calls you a racist when your work is anti-racist, is a waste of time. Frankly, I am long past the age where I defend my work to the willfully ignorant. It’s one thing to be racially illiterate and wanting to learn, it’s another to be steeped in white supremacy and uncomfortable with anyone who confronts unjust systems.

A Black woman who is critical of a white supremacist system is not a racist. My work is not based on a dislike of white people; it’s based on the dislike of a system that was built that elevated white people while disenfranchising others. A system that rewards whiteness and to be honest, demonizes blackness. A system that sets white as the societal norm and “others” everyone else.

I also was reminded how for today’s white people, the use of the word racist has lost all meaning. Far too many white people are more bothered by being called a racist than they are actual racist behavior. Our own president in the aftermath of the tragedy last year in Charlottesville could not call out racism without equivocating. He regularly engages in racist behavior but goes into full rage when called a racist. On the flip side, when white people are uncomfortable with POC for speaking up and out, we are quickly painted with the racist paint brush and labeled as such.

Even our children are not immune from a fundamental lack of understanding on what racism is and what it means to be called a racist. I have recently encountered several instances of white youth asking me if calling a Black person Black was racist.

In the end, it is all about the white fragility that keeps any and all discussions on race so intellectually dishonest. The majority of white people were raised to not have the emotional resilience necessary to have uncomfortable conversations and racism is very much an uncomfortable subject, so the goal is to deflect and shut it down. To do anything to make the discomfort go away. Well, after an emotional roller coaster of a week, I am here to say that if you call me a racist, I will take it as a sign that I am doing my job: To stop white supremacy by any means necessary.

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Image by Adi Goldstein from Unsplash

The racist garbage in the back of my brain

Every time someone shares the image of the cartoon supposedly depicting Serena Williams,* it hurts. It’s like a stab. Stop! Stop showing that to me! I don’t want to see that ugly racism!

I’ve written about the internal, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual process I’ve been going through over the years, working to shed my own racism and step out of the fish bowl of whiteness. One thing I refer to quite often is “the ugliness” or the “racist thoughts I know I shouldn’t have.”

I’m going to write “out loud” the things I have frequently discussed with white people offline. Maybe it’s the rules of whiteness (see Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility for more on that) keeping me quiet even more than fear of harming any more people of color.

As I said, seeing the image that’s supposed to be Serena Williams is jarring and upsetting. In a similar vein, watching documentaries like Ava DuVernay’s 13th that have clips from The Birth of a Nation make me physically uncomfortable. I have sometimes fast-forwarded so I wouldn’t have to see the vile caricatures of Black people as subhuman.

Why are they so awful to see? Of course, seeing people depicted as less than human just hurts my heart. No one did anything to deserve such violent and disgusting treatment. Words fail me when I try to express how wrong I think the images and ideas are.

They are also awful to see, I now understand, because they’ve been a part of the way I have seen the world. The way I see Black people was built on racist imagery and ideas like that comic. To be clear, I was never exposed directly to The Birth of a Nation. I have no memory of being exposed to overtly racist imagery or ideas, although I’m sure I was exposed to them (think antique stores with “kitsch” like a “lawn jockey”). If anything, I was raised in the era of Black is Beautiful. (I won’t go on a long rant about my background here. Just know that I’m being entirely honest when I tell you that no one I know ever used the N-word, ever, unless they were explaining something awful that happened and even then I don’t remember them saying the actual word. The racist garbage in my brain didn’t come from overt racism expressed in my presence.)

Here’s what I found out about myself, and I feel very sure I’m not the only white person who feels this way: I found out that when I looked at Black people I was immediately thrust into the mental gymnastics of keeping the racist imagery (that I didn’t even know was in my head!) out of my mind. I saw full lips, and oh my god without even realizing why I was in turmoil inside, I felt uncomfortable and it turns out I was trying to not see Black face or other “old-fashioned” racist images. I saw groups of Black people laughing loudly and moving freely with expression and something felt not-quite-right but I didn’t know why. It turns out there was a part of me—a part that I recognize now isn’t actually me—that associated those louder sounds and freer movements with centuries’ old stereotypes (similar to the horrific comic that’s supposed to be Serena Williams). I swear, I didn’t even know I knew about these stereotypes until I started getting curious about why I couldn’t just be normal around Black people.

I looked into the old, old stereotypes. I’m talking about during slavery and post-slavery, into reconstruction and into Jim Crow. I’d examine them and I found they were there, hidden in corners of my awareness that I didn’t really know was there.

Guess what? With practice, I’m finding I can get them out of there. It hasn’t even been that long (a few years) and most of the time, I can interact with Black people without feeling oddly nervous or overly friendly. It’s because I saw the ugliest garbage was taking up space in my being and it didn’t belong there.

I still don’t want to see the comic that’s supposedly about Serena Williams. It really does hurt my heart that Black people are still subjected to such disgusting treatment, and it hurts my heart that we white people are still so damaged that we don’t see Black people as fully human. But I’ve experienced waves of liberation, and I’ve had deeper connections with people of color, including Black people, since I sorted through what racist trash was cluttering up my brain and began the process of getting rid of it.

I don’t know how to change the world so white people realize how wrong that comic is, but I do know that I can change how I interact with the world and I can help my white friends do the same. That’s not nothing.

* Editor’s note: If you have somehow managed to miss the story about the Serena Williams cartoon, here is a take on it by The Root. We don’t wish to give the cartoon any more play than it has already gotten, so we aren’t posting it here, but do be aware the image appears in the article linked to above.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.

Photo by Geralt on Pixabay