Thursday, July 18, 2013

Will America Ever Truly Be My Home?

The title of this post is a rephrasing of an article I read today written by a Trinidad-born woman who, following graduation from college, had decided to return to Trinidad. Her thoughtful piece
details how, despite living in different areas of the country in different environments, among different cultures, she never felt a sense of belonging.

As a genealogist of 30-plus years, I have discovered that I am a fifth-generation American. My children are sixth-generation Americans and my grandson, a seventh-generation American. My family has been in this country longer than many, if not most, European-Americans. This doesn't include those ancestors who were Native Americans. Yet, like the writer of the referenced article, I ofen feel that I don't really belong. Yet, there are many here in this country who still don't see black people as "truly American." Yet, for the most part, we remain "the other." Yet, my educated, standard-English-speaking, non-baggy-pants-wearing sons are deemed suspicious, dangerous, worthy of being followed, attacked and even killed, solely because of the color of their skin.

Kidnapped, stolen, enslaved, beaten, lynched, stripped of native culture and tongues, Africans were bought to this continent literally kicking and screaming. The retelling of the conditions and treatment in which the kidnapped Africans were encased is unnecessary. We know, or should know, the history. We even have many who would tell us that, "We need to get over it." "That was a long time ago." "My grandparents never owned slaves." Yet, America won't "get over it."

We can educate ourselves at some of the finest institutions. We can gain employment at excellent organizations that enables us to purchase homes in gated communities, send our children to excellent schools, enroll them in extracurricular activities to build their character and help their communities. Yet, we remain the other. We still don't belong.

I've heard the question asked, "why do we keep trying to belong to a country that doesn't want us?" I can understand the sentiment. It's like the child who continually seeks his parents' approval, yet never gains it. It's like the abused wife who, despite her best efforts, can never satisfy the unreasonable demands and expectations of her husband. Dare I say it's like the cotton-picking slave, whose bleeding hands and feet traverse the cotton fields from sunup to sundown furiously picking the bolls in an effort to avoid the lash of the overseer, yet never seeming to be enough, do enough, be something other than the other, seeking favor, seeking acceptance.

I have friends who, tired of the fight to be more than the other, have just chosen to live within the system, eking out a living knowing the constraints. I know others who have fled the country to become ex-pats in countries they feel are more embracing. I admit to having strongly considered the latter in the past. Yet, I strongly feel that this country is as much, if not more, mine than most European-Americans. Yet, the melanin content of the skin of my sons conveys danger to many.

There are times when I doubt that we will ever belong. There are times when I suspect that is the agenda. Yet, this is my country. This is the country of my ancestors. Unlike the author of the referenced article, there is no African "home" to which I can return. The name, tongue and location of that African home was beaten out of my ancestors more than 300 years ago. I don't belong, but I'm not going anywhere.

It's 2013 and Trayvon Martin didn't belong either.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Have we become complacent?

Last week, social media was abuzz with chatter about the B.E.T. Awards, Being Mary Jane and whether Beyonce was again pregnant. Yet, there was little chatter about a landmark piece of legislation that was gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down (many say gutted) a large portion of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. This landmark legislation was signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. The Act was implemented to overcome legal barriers that prevent African-Americans from voting under the 15th Amendment of the Constitution.

As a little refresher on the pertinent point, The 13th Amendment (1865) abolished slavery and involuntary servitude. The 14th Amendment was enacted in 1868 and granted citizenship rights to emancipated slaves. It said that if states don't give voting rights to black men, they cannot then count them as part of the population for purposes of gaining seats in the House of Representatives. (Women did not gain the right to vote in the U.S. until the 19th Amendment in 1920.) Southern states vigorously and violently opposed the right of black men to vote, yet they wanted representation in Congress.

In 1870, the 15th amendment was ratified. It stated that voting rights in states cannot be withheld on the basis of race, color and previous position of servitude. Despite the ratification of the 15th Amendment, southern states still fought giving the ability to vote to black men. They instituted poll taxes and literacy tests for black men. White people were "grandfathered" in and did not have to take such tests or pay poll taxes. This was the impetus to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The Voting Rights Act was a landmark act. It prohibited "states from imposing any voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure ... to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color." This is the Act that was gutted (by a vote of 5-4) by the Supreme Court.

During the run-up to the 2012 Presidential Election, many states attempted to enact "Voter ID" laws. This is the 21st Century version of the old poll taxes. Realizing that the minority will soon by the majority and that this new majority more and more votes Democrat, Republicans had to find a new way to deter and dis-enfranchise voters. The various voter id laws are one way to do this. Another is the re-districting that is going on in many southern states. Without the protection of The Voting Rights Act, in its entirety, many blacks and people of color will be unable to vote. Failing to attract minorities and many young people to their party, the extreme Right is seeking other means to disenfranchise voters of color.

Of course, Congress and the Legislature can pass new legislation to enact new law, but with the Republicans fighting tooth and nail, it will be an uphill battle.

Young people need to learn the history and become involved in the process. Rather than worrying about whether Beyonce is again pregnant or discussing 50 Cent's latest troubles with the law or who won what award at the B.E.T. Awards, get involved in what affects your future. Learn your history and HIStory.

Finally, I write about Trayvon

I've held off writing something about the Trayvon Martin case. It was not because I had become jaded to the senseless attacks and murders of young, black men. It was not because I wasn't surprised at yet another case like Trayvon's. It was because Trayvon was my son, my nephew, my grandson or even my brother.

During the year since Trayvon's murder, I have found one thing quite interesting, to use a word. When Trayvon was first attacked and killed, Zimmerman was identified as a white man and in his early images, he appeared to be just that, white. His mother is Peruvian and his father is white. By the time he was finally charged and arrested, he had (it appears) gained a tan and was now identifying as Hispanic, no doubt on the advice of his lawyers. I found that interesting because the majority of Peruvians do not identify themselves as Hispanic. Rather they identify as Mestizo, which historically has reflected European and Spanish ancestry or European and American Indian ancestry. Somewhere in a back room, it was decided that if Zimmerman appeared and self-identified as Hispanic, perhaps it would be less likely that he racially profiled Trayvon. After all, minorities do not racially profile other minorities, right? Racial profiling is something only done by whites.

Today I read a post wherein the author attempts to make the point that blacks kill other blacks, and whites, routinely and it doesn't make the news. She/he asks the question why is it news when a non-black kills a black person? Many, if not most of the commenters on the post agreed with the author of the post. My response is that a question like that would make sense in Utopia. In Utopia (at least as I visualize it), there would not be the stain of racism. Young black men would not automatically be deemed suspicious and possibly dangerous. White people would not invent some random black man as the perpetuator of a crime and BE BELIEVED. My black sons would not be routinely stopped while driving. My younger son would not be selected out of a crowd to be ticketed for jaywalking (he was the only non-white among his friends and it was 2:30 in the morning.

We don't live in Utopia. We live in a country stained by slavery and historical racism. We live in a country where all of the things mentioned above regularly occur. For those ignorant of our history, there was a time when blacks were routinely beaten, lynched and otherwise murdered and nothing was said or done. Most black families have ancestors who simply "disappeared." No one in the family knew what happened to them, many figured the klan got them. Can't exactly do that now days. So, we have the Zimmermans of our time.

Rather than America, black, white or other, embracing Trayvon's as a son who was tragically murdered, funds sprung up to provide monies for the defense of Zimmerman, the murderer. There has been ongoing debate as to whether Zimmerman was standing his ground by following a young man, a teenager, who was doing nothing wrong - and murdering him. Indeed, it was weeks before Zimmerman was even charged with a crime. Had it not been for the outcry from the black community, I doubt he would have been charged.

As the trial winds down to a close, I fear the outcome. I fear that Zimmerman will be acquitted and yet the death of yet another young, black man goes unpunished and will be, in some quarters, celebrated.