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Monday, August 24, 2015

Between Worlds

To Ta-Nehisi Coates:

I am erupting with reflections after reading Between the World and Me. I must release them before I explode. I wanted to address them to my 15 year old son, but he is now 38 and probably has heard enough from me. I told my grandson this morning that he must read your powerful memoir five years from now when he is 15.  He just returned with his siblings and parents from Guadeloupe, where his father was born, descendent of African slaves, with a tee shirt for me purchased from the new slave memorial there with the inscription "La memoire inspire l'avenir."

Our worlds are so different, you and I. I am old enough to be your father and, unlike you, registered by the census bureau as "white" or "Caucasian" despite my protest. Yet our worlds intersect dramatically.

I too was not born white; but unlike you I was made white by my parents, my neighborhood, my Catholic school, my church, and my nation. I did watch Tarzan and the Lone Ranger. I listened to Amos and Andy and Jack Benny's Rochester. Jesus was white and meek until much later when I witnessed the fall of Marcos in the Philippines and again when I met the Black Israelites on Chicago's Near West Side where I encountered the angry black Jesus. I learned the conventional, triumphant  history of the US until I read Howard Zinn, and then Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright.

I grew up in a Jewish-Catholic neighborhood in Detroit. I remember descriptions of the Detroit race riots of 1943 that occurred five years after I was born. I remember when the kid next door made fun of a rarely seen black woman passing us on the side walk probably after cleaning someone's home. The kid who made fun, an Armenian whose family escaped the Turkish genocide, was almost as dark-skinned as she. But he was on his way to becoming white as most of the Irish in our parish had and as my parents from Italian and German immigrants had as well. All American Dreamers as you say.

I remember collecting funds for the missionaries in India and Africa there to save those poor, unfortunate people who were the white man's burden. Sometimes in my Catholic ghetto I felt that it was my vocation to do likewise. So I went to a Jesuit Novitiate. There we had one African American seminarian who left after one year. But we were taught Catholic social teaching and the importance of social justice for workers, the poor, and those left out of the largesse of our exceptional American society. Once when I was teaching in high school as a part of my training, I was commenting on the civil rights movement and the War in Vietnam and a student challenged me: "Mr Smith," he said, "you talk a good line, do you ever do anything about it?" He introduced me to a neighborhood of Black, Puerto Rican, and Appalachian people who were trying to organize themselves under the tutelage of Saul Alinsky in central Detroit. It was getting to know them when I experienced shame and anger. That changed my life.

When I went on for studies in Chicago, I decided to live first in the public housing community on the Near West Side and then in North Lawndale. That's where I learned what racism is and that I am a racist as is every person, black, brown, white, Catholic, Protestant, Jew, African, Asian, European, who is brought up in the United States of America. As you say so well, racism is the parent of race--not the other way around. And I learned that the US political economy is not only founded on racism, but still thrives on it. And I learned that so many of our wars are caused by the boundaries we defend against those "others" whom we fear will take away our things.

I saw in Chicago how urban renewal, even aided by the so-called war on poverty, appropriated lands for market development for rich people by clearing out poor people and warehousing them in fourteen story brick fortresses and blocks of closely built row houses. But it was especially in Lawndale where I gathered stories of upwardly mobile black families trying to escape a slum further east created a new one--or so they were told and thought. (Yes, as a young Jesuit, I worked with Clyde Ross whom you interviewed in your Atlantic article on reparations.) And I gathered stories of escaping white families who had weathered the immigrations of Italians, Greeks, two waves of Jews, and Irish even though "their kitchens smelled different," but who were told to get out fast as the last wave of immigrants from the South were moving in.

Those black families who moved in, even if they had a downpayment and a job, could not get conventional financing (the area was considered a mortgage risk by FHA and the banks), but had to pay twice as much as the house was worth and use a land installment contract that left them ownerless until the last payment was made and subject to eviction for missing a payment. It also meant they had to take in borders and defer repairs so that soon they were living in the same slum from which they had hoped to escape--and blaming each other. The white folks who were scared out were screwed too; but you know who they blamed--and still do.

I am doing some work in fast gentrifying Columbia Heights DC today and seeing long term black families being pushed out to Prince George County by a regional housing market controlled by wealthy financiers and would-be wealthy investors. Sort of a reverse carbon copy of the Lawndale practice. It just keeps getting more subtle. I have so many other stories in my experience in Chicago, Toronto, California, Cleveland, and Hawaii.

Fortunate and grateful I am that our children grew up in Hawaii where we haoles were a minority like everyone else. That kept them from becoming white. While attending college in Canada, my daughter met the man who became her husband born in Guadeloupe with a black African father. My grandchildren have US, Canadian, and French citizenship.

But having black friends, nephews and nieces, and son-in-law, campaigning to elect an African American president, and living and working in black neighborhoods are nice, but do little to counter racism. Nor does the knowledge that all humanity starts in Africa. It means nothing that I like black people and black communities as long as racism exists in my country. A country that was founded on slavery in an Empire made on slavery which ironically rejected slavery before my nation did. And my country still practices racism subtlety but effectively by controlling the "free" market and passing and policing the laws by which society can exert the violence that denies a person or a community dominion over their bodies.

Hilary Clinton recently in her advice to the leaders of Black Lives Matter was theoretically correct, but practically wrong. She is right to push the discussion from having a "good heart" to the policies and institutions that promote racism. Organize and use your power to change behaviors and gain respect. Forego being liked and changing hearts to achieve justice. But then who is she or any of us for that matter to give advice to these young people trying to build again a movement for equality. Yes, we can raise questions, but they should be to ourselves and as part of an inclusive search for justice.

I am no longer a member of the Jesuit order, nor even a Christian. Like you I accept and celebrate that we are our bodies and I no longer count on some supernatural entity, law, place, or reward.  However, I am grateful to the Jesuits for my social justice education and consider myself a companion of the Jesus of my imagination. I was taught to be detached from gaining wealth and I never felt the need or desire to pursue it beyond the basic needs of life. That took me out of the American Dream and for that I am grateful.

Whenever I am asked to identify my race or ethnicity, I refuse to put "white" or "Caucasian." I usually put "Euro-American" or "other." I do not want to be white even if the whole world says that I must.

I loved Hawaii, a land of minorities. I felt very welcomed; but I was never at home. The first Nation that was appropriated by first the British and then the Americans was very much in evidence. No matter how much I worked and earned, no matter how much of the land was used for US military bases that I supported by taxes in order to control the Pacific, I and my family were visitors of the hosts who were at home. And I never wanted to overstay our welcome. I was enraged to see so many native Hawaiians disproportionately filling the jails, fighting to sleep on the beaches, or turned out of their homes because of their inability to gain and pay US dollars.

Hawaii taught me to never be at home anywhere. I felt the same in First Nation territories (reservations!). I am now enraged that Senator McCain of Arizona, sanctioned by law but not by right, is taking public lands sacred to First Nations to give to Australian Mining companies. We moved a lot and I always felt that anywhere in this beautiful land from sea to shining sea, I am not at home. Every place I ever lived is land that has been appropriated, stolen fair and square. And not only native peoples but Mother Earth is rebelling. I sometimes feel at home in a national park hiking some wilderness path but only because, even then, I am on the move.

I am not at home even now in the place that I will probably die, chosen because I am close to my spouse, children, and in touch with a large network of friends with whom I am chez moi wherever they are on this earth. The advantage of living here is that I can hop the metro easily to add my body to the bodies of the First Nations, women, black lives matter, conservationists, voters rights advocates who come to the White House and Capitol to redress their grievances. In the cities of the world, DC, Chicago, Paris, London, San Francisco, Reykjavik, Nantes, I feel most alive and exhilarated, but not at home. I am not at home nor will I be in all this land as long as there are so many dispossessed persons with whom I identify.

But unlike you, I never had to feel fear. My rage often turned to depression, the feeling of my deepest incapacities, but not fear. I never feared walking through strange neighborhoods. Once when I was coming back late at night to my apartment in all black, segregated Lawndale walking from the Congress El, I saw four or five youths walking on the other side of the street. I knew they wondered what I was doing in their neighborhood. They turned to follow me. There was an instant of concern, but I looked down the street, waved and said "hi" to an imaginary friend. They turned and went on their way.

A few of us do-gooders were once beaten by a very disturbed young man. And Mrs Kirk, a tenant organizer, once made me hold her little pistol when we went to rescue her daughter from an deranged lover. I never had an incident when waiting by myself at the bus stop in what others would warn me is a "dangerous neighborhood." I loved being in the black community of Chicago and felt as safe there as anywhere else. This led me to consider the fear in the white community. The fear of the Dreamers. And maybe my own fear that leads to my depression at times.

I just visited two cousins by marriage who are big into the American Dream and who clearly fear the black man and especially black youth. They assert that they are self-made, up by the bootstraps men. Both are in their seventies. Both had to overcome the disadvantages of their youth by becoming white. One made it big and is worth billions (though he works hard and long to make more). The other just made it and is only worth millions (though he thinks that he is poor and needs more). Both are strong Tea-Party Republicans. I see both with their guns, their guards, their guarded homes as fearful people, which they would strongly deny.

I see their fear of losing their whiteness which they worked so hard to gain. Yes, it is motivated by greed. But I think looking within myself and the whiteness that I cannot simply wish away that it is often envy that causes our fear. Why do we love and appropriate your music, dance, and sometimes writing? Why are we so fearful that you will get ahead without becoming white and earning your way like we did? Why are we so afraid you will get advantages that we or our children will not get? Why do we deny our racism?

I loved living in the black community and cannot stay away from the black community even now. It is not the Jesse Jacksons, the Barack Obamas, the Cornel Wests, or even the Ta-Nehisi Coates with whom I love to consort. It is the tenants of Columbia Heights Village, the kids in the summer youth program, the folk in the black churches and U Street nightclubs. It is because we are so very poor, so very lacking in your experiences, spirituality, and Soul. Remember Soul.

I see black kids and hispanic kids becoming white. And I grieve. Because to become white, someone else has to be colored. But most of all because by becoming white we lose our Soul.

I am very grateful for letting me overhear your letter to your son. And I know my son and daughter will overhear our dialogue as well and someday my grandson.

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