Jun 16 2012

Happy Birthday to Me, Tupac and a White Dude Who Dyed for Freedom (not a typo)

Today is my birthday. And Tupac’s Too.

Another June 16th human being I really love is John Howard Griffin.

6/16/20 – 9/9/80

I hope you already know all about this man, but if not, he was a White anti-racist who grew up in the South and wanted to do something to reach the hearts and minds of White Americans, most of whom were in denial about the conditions under which Black people lived.

Griffin conducted an experiment in 1959 that included shaving his head, darkening his skin with lamps and pharmaceuticals and living as a Black man in the deep south.

Though he endured for several weeks, he ended up cutting the experiment short, as he found that being a Black man was too difficult for him to maintain for long. He wrote a book about his experiences that made him a celebrity and (to some) a villain.

“Nothing can describe the withering horror of this. You feel lost, sick at heart before such unmasked hatred, not so much because it threatens you as because it shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you. It was so new I could not take my eyes from the man’s face. I felt like saying: “What in God’s name are you doing to yourself?”

“Suddenly I had had enough. Suddenly I could stomach no more of this degradation- not of myself but of all men who were black like me.”

“When all the talk, all the propaganda has been cut away, the criterion is nothing but the color of skin. My experience proved that. They judged me by no quality. My skin was dark.”

Mr. Griffin knew when he conducted his experiment he would forever be putting himself at odds with those in America who didn’t want the ugliest realities of racism to be exposed and so vividly expressed by someone White. After his book “Black Like Me” was published in 1961 he and his family received continual death threats. They left their Texas home and eventually moved to Mexico.

“John Howard Griffin was one of the most remarkable people I have ever encountered…He was just one of those guys that comes along once or twice in a century and lifts the hearts of the rest of us.” -Studs Terkel

Here is an excellent article about Griffin’s life, his experiment and his writings: JimCrowMuseum <<–Highly suggested reading!

“It seems to me that our country is involved in a kind of mass insanity where you can abuse the gift of sight in order to use it to discriminate against somebody.”

♥ HIM !


Jul 12 2008

I Don’t Have a Racist Bone in My Body

I was returning home to Los Angeles on a flight from Atlanta, where I’d spent a couple of days at a writer’s conference.

Weary from a weekend filled with late night poetry jams and early morning workshops, I boarded the half-empty redeye, found my aisle seat, shoved my bulging carryon bag under the empty middle seat, stretched my legs and thanked the airline gods for arranging an entire row just for me.

I closed my eyes as the last few stragglers made their way to their seats, and got an early start on what I hoped would be a long nap.

“Excuse me, Ma’am.” The voice was deep, the accent, southern.

I opened my eyes to an attractive white man in his early twenties looking down at me. He pointed at the empty seat next to me, shrugged a sheepish apology, and stepped back to let me stand, which I did. He didn’t take the empty window seat. Instead, he plopped his duffel bag near the window and sat himself down right next to me, which meant, of course, that I would have to move my bag.

I reached down and tugged at the strap, but my tightly wedged carryon didn’t budge. “I’ll get that,” he offered. He yanked the bag out, slid it to me and helped me squeeze it under the seat in front of me. It didn’t occur to the guy to just move over to the empty window seat. He flashed a perfect soap opera star smile at me, stowed his bag under the window seat and stretched his legs.

“Hey, what’s this?” He bent over to reach for something on the floor in front of him and came up with an award I had been given at the conference. He read the inscription aloud, “Best Contemporary Fiction,” then looked me over. “Wow,” he said with a raised eyebrow. His expression said my sporty pink jogging suit and Adidas cross trainers didn’t jibe with his vision of what an award-winning author might look like up close. “You’re a writer?”

There goes my nap. I knew in that moment I would spend my five-hour flight locked in conversation. It was inevitable. He would ask me what my book was about and as soon as I said, it’s a novel about a woman who’s half black but looks white,” he would take note of my ivory skin and blue eyes and realize, correctly, that I wrote the book from my own experience. Then the questions would start.

“You’re black? Wow. You don’t look it.” He was immediately intrigued, as are most white people when they meet me. I haven’t completely figured it out, but I suspect their fascination has to do with my apparent whiteness and my paradoxical belonging in the black community (where the majority of people who look like me feel anything but a sense of belonging).

Just as black people often joke that I am a spy infiltrating the white ranks, I suppose white people see me as an insider to the black world—an undercover comrade who can interpret what I’ve seen and experienced in ways they can relate to. That’s the only explanation I have for the ridiculous comments some white folks make when they discover my dual ethnicity.

In addition to the many off-the-wall questions I’m asked (Can you dance like a black person? Why don’t black people swim? Is that penis size thing really true?), white people say things to me they would never say to a more phenotypically obvious black person. For instance, I once had a white woman refer to the black man she had recently stopped dating as “too black.” When I asked what that meant, she explained matter-of-factly, “He’s ignorant and has no ambition.”

In my younger days I bristled at these exchanges, but as I’ve grown older I’ve come to the conclusion that each time I respond to these ignorant questions and statements with some degree of patience, the world becomes a slightly better place. In most cases I find that the decision to practice patience has a positive affect on the outcomes of these exchanges—including the impending conversation with the middle seat taker.

After he introduced himself as Jason, an actor on his way to Hollywood to audition for (who woulda guessed it?) a soap opera, he tugged and nudged me into a conversation that can best be described as Everything Jason Ever Wanted to Know/Say About Black People But Was Afraid to Ask/Get His Ass Whupped. He began the discussion by saying with wide-eyed sincerity, “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” He punctuated that idea by adding that he had “even dated black girls.”

While the other passengers slept soundly, Jason and I struggled to keep our voices at a half-whisper as we discussed topic after touchy topic. We talked about the overrepresentation of black people in the criminal justice system. Jason chalked it up to the “fact” that black people are more likely than whites to use illegal drugs. I countered with a government study that found 75% of regular drug users were white and only 8% black; yet 43% of those imprisoned on drug charges were black, and 25% were white. Of course, at the root of that is the fact that blacks are five times more likely to be targeted for arrest than whites for drug crimes (Source: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services.)

Jason and I discussed the underrepresentation of black students in college. He believed that was “of course” because black kids and their parents don’t value education. I explained that the best predictor of college entry and success is the quality of middle and high school curriculum. White high school students are three times more likely to be taught challenging coursework as blacks and twice as likely to be taught by an experienced teacher with specific expertise in the subject being taught. (Source: The Education Trust, “Achievement in America”)

We talked about interracial marriage. Jason will date, but couldn’t see himself marrying a black woman, though in his experience he found “mixed” kids to be more beautiful and more intelligent than “regular” black kids—a comment that I, being “mixed” was supposed to have taken as a compliment. Of course my counter argument for that ridiculousness was a thorough lesson on white supremacy and how it permeates everything in America – including how we arrive at our decisions about who is “beautiful” and who is “intelligent.”

Although there were many tense moments in our conversation, during which I had to struggle to maintain my calm, by far the most excruciating subject for me to endure was the one we spent over two hours entrenched in—slavery. I was astounded by Jason’s ignorance of the institution itself. Not only did he reiterate my elementary school teacher’s beliefs about slaves being relatively happy family members, he went so far as to repeat a joke he’d recently heard on a talk radio show which callously declared that American blacks shouldn’t be worrying about reparations, but “ought to be happy we aren’t charging them for their ancestors’ cruise over here.”

Jason seemed (keeping in mind he’s an actor) to have no idea that the Middle Passage constituted a holocaust of unprecedented proportions. Even conservative estimates place the number of slaves who died of abuse, disease, suicide and malnourishment during the Atlantic slave trade in the millions. The “cruises” Jason spoke of were months-long torturous voyages during which the “passengers” were chained to one another on stacked wooden bunks with less than a foot of space on either side. The kidnapped Africans who managed to survive day after day of writhing in blood, vomit, menstrual flow and excrement were delivered to the auction block and sold to the highest bidders. Women and girls had no defense against rape and were mated with men they did not know so they would produce children over whom they had no parental rights. Happy to be slaves? I don’t think so.

When confronted with that reality, Jason didn’t think so either.

What was most disheartening to me was that at his age, and with the advances in “multicultural education” this nation has supposedly made a commitment to, I expected the information I was sharing with Jason to have been taught to him in school. I told him about my experience with my elementary teacher Miss Lewis some thirty years previous—about her insistence that her heroes were good people who behaved in accordance with the times in which they lived; about her ignorance of the many anti-racist Americans who did live during those times but did not uphold the status quo; I talked to Jason about how I was impacted as a child by my teacher’s refusal to denounce slavery.

Though Jason was educated two decades after me, he said he had received the same messages my teacher delivered to me.  He knew that Thomas Jefferson and George Washington owned slaves, but when I asked him whether America’s most revered historical icons were racists, his answer was a safe, “I don’t know. It seems like it.” When I reminded him that America was “the Land of the Free” whose credo is “Liberty and Justice for All,” and whose currency is embellished with the phrase “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of Many One) he admitted that the heroes he was taught to admire and emulate did not live up to those ideals.

When asked to name a white American historical figure other than Abe Lincoln who sacrificed life, liberty or livelihood on behalf of human rights for all people, he could not offer Thomas Paine, John Brown, James and Lucretia Mott, Thaddeus Stevens, Henry David Thoreau, John and Jean Rankin, John Howard Griffin, Penny Patch, Viola Liuzzo, or any of America’s other thousands of white anti-racist heroes.  WIth the exception of Lincoln, whose commitment to human rights has been furiously debated by historians, Jason had not one anti-racist role model he had ever been taught to look to for education or inspiration.

Upon our arrival at LAX, Jason said our conversation was one that forever changed him. He thanked me for challenging him to think more deeply about his responsibility—not just to denounce racism, white privilege and white supremacy, but to educate himself about it and to be a part of dismantling it. I hope Jason wasn’t pretending, but even if he was, it was that five-hour interaction with a young white man I would not see or speak to again that stands as one of the most frustrating, at times infuriating and ultimately inspiring conversations about black/white race relations I’ve ever experienced.

It was a conversation that sparked the idea for the book I’m currently working on — a learning tool where young people might come to “Know Good White People.”

Jun 30 2008

For Us, By Us



Imagine you lived during a time when the clothes you wore were produced by slave labor. Oh… wait… that’s right… if you’re the average American, (or the average Earthling for that matter) it is highly likely that at least one of the garments you’ve worn in the past week (perhaps what you have on right now) was produced by a worker who earned far less than a living wage.  For evidence of this, please read the story below:

Indian ‘slave’ children found making low-cost clothes destined for Gap Kids
Child workers, some as young as 10, have been found working in a textile factory in conditions close to slavery to produce clothes that appear destined for Gap Kids…
(click here to read the article) 

Knowing this is widespread, and knowing that clothing is not something you can live without…

What would it take for you to commit to never again purchase or wear fabric or clothing that was produced unethically?

I asked myself that question today, and, to be honest with you, I haven’t arrived at a firm resolution yet. I want to change my life so that it mirrors what I know I believe, and yet I’m wondering how hard it might be to find and buy clothing that is cruelty-free.  With the price of gasoline going sky high, and my budget already stretched to capacity, can I afford to forego inexpensive clothing for something that is guaranteed to have been produced justly?  And then there’s the question of consistency. If I’m going to worry about how my clothing is made, shouldn’t I be worried about how my food is harvested?  How about the furnishings in my home?  At a certain point it becomes overwhelming — and that is probably why so many of us turn a blind eye.

Which is one of the many reasons I a.d.m.i.r.e. abolitionists Lucretia and James Mott.

In the decades leading to the end of legal chattel slavery in America, James and Lucretia Mott were fierce abolitionists who saw slavery as an evil to be opposed at every opportunity. Not only did they open their home to escaping slaves, the couple refused to use cotton cloth, cane sugar, and other slavery-produced goods.

Lucretia was known for her skill as an orator, and spoke publicly for abolition, despite repeated threats against her home and family.

African American Abolitionist Frederick Douglas wrote of Lucretia:

“Foremost among these noble American women, in point of clearness of vision, breadth of understanding, fullness of knowledge, catholicity of spirit, weight of character, and widespread influence, was Lucretia Mott of Philadelphia. Great as this woman was in speech, and persuasive as she was in her writings, she was incomparably greater in her presence. She spoke to the world through every line of her countenance. In her there was no lack of symmetry–no contradiction between her thought and act. Seated in an anti-slavery meeting, looking benignantly around upon the assembly, her silent presence made others eloquent, and carried the argument home to the heart of the audience.

I shall never forget the first time I ever saw and heard Lucretia Mott…The speaker was attired in the usual Quaker dress, free from startling colors, plain, rich, elegant, and without superfluity–the very sight of her, a sermon. In a few moments after she began to speak, I saw before me no more a woman, but a glorified presence, bearing a message of light and love from the Infinite to a benighted and strangely wandering world, straying away from the paths of truth and justice into the wilderness of pride and selfishness, where peace is lost and true happiness is sought in vain. I heard Mrs. Mott thus, when she was comparatively young. I have often heard her since, sometimes in the solemn temple, and sometimes under the open sky, but whenever and wherever I have listened to her, my heart has always been made better and my spirit raised by her words; and in speaking thus for myself I am sure I am expressing the experience of thousands.”

To learn more about Lucrtia and James Mott visit one of these links:

James and Lucretia Mott: Life and Letters By Anna Davis Hallowell, Lucretia Mott

As I read, and write about this awesome woman (and her husband who supported her work), I am inspired to get off the fence I’ve been on for so long.  I pledge to educate myself about this issue and work to become a part of the solution.

I am a descendant of slaves whose forced labor produced goods that made rich people richer.  Isn’t it a dishonor to them to buy or wear clothing that makes rich people richer at the expense of the disenfranchised and the desperate?

Here’s my poem about it:

For Us, By Us

kneel beside her now
this brown sister
sweat drenched
work weary
perpetually underfed

taste a drop of her sorrow
this Creator’s child
leg shackled
to desperation
freedom be her dread

ache to lift her burden
workhorse woman
baby tied
to bowed back
with rags from massa’s wife

scream out justice for this
soul survivor
hands weary
scarred and wageless
clinging to so-called life

we could end her slavery
invisible daughter
sweatshop whore

call her name, haiti
dominca, mexico
she be nafta’s slave
serving two gods
hers, and, yes, brother, yours

condemn her masters
karan, levi,
brooks brothers
and, sadly,
your own f.u.b.u

hey, brother
she’s your sister
your daughter
your mother