From Yesterday to Today: If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes!
The Way It Works
Grab a spot on the front porch and get comfortable. We’re going to take a trip back in time, a little time travel if you will, and do some reflecting about life. I hope you enjoy the conversation.
Way Back When
It was about this time, fifty years ago, give or take a sunrise, Summer, 1970.
The country of my birth was in turmoil over the Vietnam War.
The country of my birth was in turmoil over Civil Rights.
It was a profound time of change in the United States and, by extension, in the rest of the world – actual change, imagined change, and hoped-for change. There were injustices to correct. There were inequities to give priority status to.
I was part of the famous, or infamous, Baby Boomer Generation, and I felt a strong pull to become a positive lantern of change. I signed up for a government program called VISTA, Volunteers in Service To America, part of AmeriCorps, designed to fight poverty in the United States. I was sent to New Iberia Parish, Louisiana, part of a small group of college-aged kids who would work with the underprivileged children and help them to read and improve their learning.
It was a foreign world for me.
I had never met a black person prior to college. I know that sounds unbelievable, but it was the way it was. I grew up in Tacoma, Washington, and there were no Blacks in our grade school and only two in our high school. I met neither of them. There were none in the area I lived in, the North End of Tacoma, the South End being where most people of color lived.
My parents were racist. There is no way to sugarcoat that fact. The first time I ever heard the “N” word was from my father, a man I idolized, and he was not apologetic at all for using it. He grew up poor white in St. Louis and later in Charles City, Iowa. He scrambled for any jobs he could find during the Great Depression, and resented the blacks for taking jobs white men should have. He had no time for them in the military, thought they shouldn’t be allowed to fight in World War 2. It’s just the way he was, not pretty but certainly real. My mom, the same!
So college was an eye-opener, a new culture, a chance to actually meet people who were not lily-white, to learn from them, and to gain a better understanding about race. But college could not prepare me for New Iberia Parish, Louisiana.
Welcome to Reality
New Iberia Parish, Louisiana, was a brutally-poor section of the United States in 1970. Rich Whites lived in Antebellum homes, the main streets were clapboard storefronts owned by whites, the Confederate flag flew proudly above most storefronts, and the Blacks lived in shotgun houses held together by duct tape down dirt roads choked by dust and mosquitoes. I had no experience with the type of poverty I saw in that Parish. I had no frame of reference. This could not possibly be the country I grew up in, I thought.
And yet it was!
I had worked with my best buddy, Frank, in college, helping neighborhood black kids to read, a program we set up in the Central District of Seattle, fifth graders reading at first-and-second grade level, but New Iberia Parish was worse. I’m talking fifth graders unable to read a word. It was satisfying work but at the same time totally disheartening, an undercurrent of sadness through it all, a suspicion that it was all a waste of time, the future bleak for those kids, God Almighty I wanted to believe differently but I couldn’t.
We were harassed by the locals while we were there. We were threatened. “Don’t need no outsiders coming into our parish, telling us what’s right, educatin’ them %iggers. Get your asses back north, leave us alone,” that sort of thing, and you can bet your ass none of us ever went anywhere alone during our time there, and how in the hell is this possible, I thought, and no answer came to me.
And then one day, while we were out walking on a steamy evening, we came across a large tree. One of the locals, a sort of sponsor/guide for us, told us we were standing under “The Hanging Tree,” so named because a young black man was hung to death from its branches ten years prior.
It was one of the most profound moments of my life. I was standing on the consecrated ground of hatred. Ten years earlier a man had dangled from the main branch, lifeless. His crime? He was black.
I cried. I could not comprehend how anyone could hate that much. Still, today, I cannot comprehend that kind of hate.
Fast Forward Fifty Years
I have a stepdaughter. Allora is her name, twenty-three years old, as good a person as you are likely to meet. She is half-black, an odd thing to say, half-anything, but her color is dark and she would immediately be identified as black by anyone who sees her. She lives up north, in Bellingham, works for the State in child welfare, a good job, meaningful, doing her part to help those who have no voice, and recently, while all of this George Floyd news was happening, she posted a message on Facebook:
I grew up not wanting to acknowledge my race. I wanted to remain in the background, as to not draw attention to myself. MLK days was one of the worst days for me for that reason even though it should be one of my most celebrated. I knew when the day would come my peers would look towards one of the few black or black mixed race people in my class as see what our reactions were to the subject matter. Because a teacher in elementary school did call me out on that day to get my feelings on it, i was taken back. I know that it may have been an innocent act but I didnt want to have to be a voice for a race when I actively avoided it.
I have been called the token black. Making me an outlier because of my race.
I was once called porch monkey. I didn't understand it as much when it happened and just thought oh forget them.
I have been told that I'm the whitest black person that someone knows. As if that is suppose to be a compliment.
I have been called exotic where I would smile and say thank you because I have to assume they meant well. Exotic: "originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country" - As if my hair and skin color make me look like I'm not from around here.
I have worked at a place where our neighbor flew a Confederate flag. I had to pretend like I didn't get nervous about it when I worked at night.
I have a grandfather that pushed my mother out of his life for years for marrying a black man, my father.
I have had a relative that is allegedly a reformed white supremacist. I have to push back my nightmares of that group harming me.
I have been in places where I feel unwanted because of the color of my skin.
I have heard my black grandfather say he doesn't want to go to a restaurant because that's where the white people go. Because segregation lingers.
I have overheard someone at school complaining that someone they knew was using their 25% minority status as a way to get into college easier because "it makes it harder for us normal people to get in", yes they were white. Oh but they were quick to say they didn't mean it like that, but I still heard it.
Many have had these experiences.
I'm sad, tired, but also more empowered.
What is happening in our world is history repeating its self but also history in the making. There are terrible things that are happening. People are rising against the racism and the oppression. We must continue to fight together. Fight so that little girls in the future dont have to be ashamed of their race
I am proud to be half black and I can finally say it confidently.
Fifty years later I’m left to wonder how far we have traveled as a society. It bothers me on so many levels that this beautiful young woman feels these things in 2020. Have we made any progress at all with this issue? I was once so full of hope that we could change the world. Today I wonder if the world really wants to change.
You know, it’s strange. I’ve been pulled over by the police probably six or seven times in my life, for speeding, for a broken taillight, those sorts of things. Not once was I filled with dread when the cop approached my car. Not once did I wonder if this would be the day I would die.
My stepdaughter wonders those things. My stepdaughter has that dread. In the United States of America. In what is considered to be a Liberal state. In the year 2020.
Truths as I Know Them
You cannot legislate hatred. We’ve tried, as a country, in the past and failed miserably, for you cannot legislate emotions and heritage and upbringing.
And I’m not terribly certain that you can change things by marching in the streets in protest, even though I have done it in the past and believed in it at that time.
Real change only happens through dialogue, and it happens slowly. It happens through doggedness, and it happens through education. It happens by working within the system for grassroots change. It happens as generations die off and new ones, less hateful, rise up.
I have faith in my stepdaughter. I have faith in many of the young people who are taking the banner and continuing the march towards equality. They seem determined, as we did many years ago, and that pleases me. This is too important to be ignored and, if you need proof of that, there’s a hanging tree in New Iberia Parish, Louisiana, which is all the proof someone should need.
Thank you for joining me on the porch today. Any old time you are passing by, and you see me sitting out here, stop by for a chat. I would love to chit chat with you.
2020 William D. Holland (aka billybuc)
“Helping humans to spread their wings and fly.”
H.O.W. (Humanity One World)