What we lost and why we can’t let go…why racial dialogue must happen

Like many people I struggle with my weight, a number of years ago, I took off almost 50 pounds and for several years, I kept it off. Then I stopped being diligent, honestly, I got sloppy. I started snacking when I wasn’t hungry and stopped walking because I was too busy. As a result of my actions, twenty of the almost fifty pounds have returned and are firmly planted right in my gut. I moan and groan about it since frankly gut weight isn’t a good look for me but at the end of the day, I am just too lazy to really do anything about it other than making sure I don’t gain any more weight.

In many ways, my relationship with my physical body reminds me of the relationship many Americans have with matters of race. For almost a decade, I have written about race and have received enough feedback to know that many people wish that people like me would shut up. After all, things are so much better than they once were. Or as a reader recently commented in response to my last post “I hope that, with time, your sharp, brittle edges will become softer and rounder, and that the big chip will soon fall from your shoulder.”

For the past few days, race has been laying heavy on my heart as I made the painful decision to end an eight year friendship with someone I adore because while I love her, I cannot stand by while someone works out their relationship to race. It is too heavy of a burden for me and one that frankly I have no interest in doing.

The world is a better place than it once was when it comes to Black-White relations in America, but it has a long way to go. As I am becoming painfully aware, the ravages of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation are still affecting my family in 2013. I know for some that statement may sound wild but it is the truth and I suspect I am not the only Black American for whom this rings true.

A few weeks ago my ex-husband contacted me because he has been trying to research my family tree and was coming up short. Over the years he has realized that while he is able to tell our son plenty about his family and their history, my side of the story has always been short.  My paternal grandfather was born in rural Arkansas in 1903, he died when I ten years old and while I don’t have many memories of him, I do have a few. Without telling all of my family business, I will just say that we can’t go back further in my family history than my great grandfather. That’s it. Slavery in the US ended in 1863, 40 years before my grandfather was born. Think on that. So you guessed it, my great grandfather was a slave. No surprise for me since my grandparents were sharecroppers, my dad actually picked cotton when he a young child. It wasn’t optional, he had no choice. My grandparents were actually forced off the land they worked when my dad was 11 because the land owner wanted what would have amounted to a concubine relationship with one of my aunts. My grandfather stood up for his daughter and well…a Black man standing up not all that long ago had grave consequences. Luckily, the result was that at the age of 12, my dad for the first time in his life lived in a house with an actual bathroom. Their home after leaving the only land they had ever known was the newly built housing projects in their town. I need you to sit in this and realize I am talking about my father, a man in his 60’s. A man who wanted to be a scientist but was told Negroes could not be scientists.

Lately my daughter has been asking about our family, living in Maine, a place rich in history, many of her friends have stories to tell about their families. As usual when I talk about my family, it is a short story, outside of my parents; there are no wonderful tales about distance relatives and ancestors. Not even my last name really has any meaning since it was given to us by the folks who owned my great grandfather.  I thought of this recently when a professional colleague was telling me about his wedding plans and how certain things will happen at his wedding because they have been a part of his family’s traditions since the 1700’s. What a blessing and a gift to have knowledge of traditions that have been handed down for many generations. That is not something I will ever know because America took that from me and mine; all I can do is create my own traditions because what I know of the past, I don’t want to share with my kids. I have older relatives who suffered greatly at the hands of White Americans, so much so that their hearts are permanently bruised against all whites. (Took the very White Man Unit to a family reunion some years ago…we have never been back)

Things are better, but let’s not pretend all is right and just. We may have changed some laws and there may be interracial marriages like mine but we are far from alright when it comes to racial matters in the US. In many ways we have become as lazy about dealing with racial issues as I have become about my weight. I talk a good game, I make a plan, but my follow through is weak.  To create lasting change means a willingness to work hard and consistently and few of us have that resolve unless we have skin in the game and even then, it is a struggle.

Louie CK sums it up well

10 thoughts on “What we lost and why we can’t let go…why racial dialogue must happen

  1. Thank you for this post, Shay, on the heels of the last one. Besides the precious video of wise, funny Louis C.K., the last paragraph is so right on. It is painful to be kept outside of a relationship because of unresolved conflicts, but when I think about it, I feel worse for the worse pain caused by the behaviors that arise from those conflicts, especially when that pain is inflicted on young black men. I speak from the experience of having “accidentally” profiled one afternoon while driving when tired and angry. I so want to see my fatigue and anger at someone else as an excuse, but in my heart, I know no way. We do this s**t and then we feel bad, but what do we really do about making ourselves stronger than the bad things we were taught, however discreetly and even if by our parents, whom we are also taught to love and respect? Their ignorance isn’t helping us if you’re walking away. To my white cohorts who struggle to pretend it’s all good, it is not. We have to own this and kick it to the curb where it belongs and find new ground to hold and sooner rather than later. The root causes of climate change depend upon racism.

    • I guess I also feel that what we really mean is that black people get to complain more and their complaints get to be heard and positively resolved more too.

    • Love your last sentences, I think part of the reason it feels like race talks never end is because people are talking and others are ignoring them, so nothing ever changes.

  2. First off, love that Louis CK clip.

    Second, researching one side of my family history has nothing but stops and then assumptions that have to be made. When my white co-workers can piece together their extensive history I feel empty. When some African classmates joke that I look like one of the taken ones then I feel another kind of way. Like you said, gotta make your own traditions and not get too frustrated. I don’t think they will ever understand how I feel without putting them through the exact same course of history.

    Third, I like to think the majority understands and that the minority are those who prefer ignorance.

    • Denisha, I really don’t think people grasp what it means to not have roots and how much of an impact that can have on you. It really hit me when I realized that we can’t find my family history, how much this nation;s history has affected me.

  3. This post is filled with so much truth. Sometimes you need to put things in context for people who are ignorant and just plain stupid. Sharing the example of your father, a man in his 60s, who was a sharecropper brings it home — and if it doesn’t, then people are really truly hopeless. The claims by some that, “Like that happen, soooooooooooo long ago,” is utter nonsense. Long ago for who?

    Much has been improved — absolutely — things have gotten better, but “better” doesn’t mean best. There is still so much left to get done about race and respect. There’s a brown man sitting in the Oval Office at the White House (how ironic) and the vitriol against this man (and anyone who happens to have the misfortune of being in the public eye) has gone WAY beyond policy — any one who says otherwise is full of it. The racist remarks bubble, not only to the surface, but over the d*mn pot. And it’s not just microphone-hungry (with very large, however disturbing followings) chimers like Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Sarah Palin, Ted Nugent, et. al., but elected officials and so-called “upstanding” citizens.

    Yeah, we live in a “post-racial” society. Call me when this fantasy is over.

  4. Powerfully moving! Thank you for sharing. Nowadays, it’s so easy to forget how or parents lived their lives, we forget to acknowledge the struggle. We need to always be mindful of our roots, and proceed with awareness of our past. Thank you for the enlightening piece.

  5. So glad to have found this blog as a new-to-Maine-r. I appreciate your candid and honest approach to topics most people just tip toe around, or worse ignore. It is a harsh reality that America has erased the history and traditions of so many that built this country.

    I also can’t help but also focus on your gaining weight analogy. I think we have learned so much about the valuelessness of black and brown bodies in our society (Trayvon Martin) as well as the objectification of female bodies, that I cringed when I read that your gut weight isn’t a good look. I feel that we owe it to our children to show them that these bodies are not only OK, but beautiful, worthy, strong.

    We must fight the insecurities we feel in ourselves that have been shrouded over us by media, social constructs, history. Your words are so necessary (especially in Maine) and though it isn’t your job to fix all that is wrong with how black and brown bodies are seen and treated in America, your point of view has already proven important to this community.

  6. I love that clip from Louis C.K. I have heard it often.

    I’m leaving Maine shortly, but I want you to know that this blog has been a sense of solace. I don’t get out much because I am always studying. So it has always been a comfort.

    We have so much in common it seems. My grandparents are from Arkansas and Mississippi. My paternal grandfather was born less than 30 years after slavery.

    So thank you again for doing this blog. I’m still going to stay on the list to keep track of you guys from time-to-time. You have no idea how much this has meant to me.

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