Social Justice: A Personal History of Awakening
August 26, 2020
One of my early memories is being in downtown Syracuse with my father. I think I was about three years old and we were in the area where I would sometimes see “Mr. Peanut” outside his shop. Down the street, I saw a man we would have called a “bum” in those days. I told my father we should give the man some money, and my Dad said no, because the man would just “drink it up.” Then I suggested we give him some food, but Dad steered me away. That’s all I remember now.
When we were kids, we would go to an annual community pancake breakfast that featured the appearance of “Aunt Jemima.” I wanted to go up front and meet her. I remember she gave me a hug and spoke to me in a kind way. Another year, it was a different woman in the role, which was a little confusing. It seems like those breakfasts stopped happening, or maybe we stopped going. It’s uncomfortable now to think of those women who dressed up in those outfits to portray what is now known to be – and was then – a garish racist and sexist stereotype. In our white suburb, there was no one to play this role or person of color to share the pancakes. My elementary school was all white and there was no question about it; it was the way things were.
When we drove out to my aunt and uncle’s farm in the Hudson River valley area, we drove through Albany on Route 5 and 20, before the Thruway, through a black neighborhood of brownstones that was later gentrified by the State workers. Looking out the car window, the people seemed exotic, exuberant and colorful to me, unlike the folks that surrounded me at home, and a little intimidating, but it was a sight I looked forward to seeing every trip as we passed through. Eventually, we drove on the Thruway to save time. Eventually, those neighborhoods disappeared.
One evening, I stopped in my tracks in my living room, astounded by the nightly news playing on our black and white console television. People, black men and women, were being blasted by fire hoses, jumped on by police dogs, in Selma, Alabama. Could this be the same America that I pleged alligience to every morning at school? What kind of place could this be, where things like this happened? It was my first inkling of the lie, the lie of white supremacy, the lie that there isn’t racism in the North. It was the time of the Civil Rights Movements, of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam, the Black Panthers, Angela Davis.
As a high school student, still in an predominantly white school except for about three black students, I began on my own to read James Baldwin and Leroi Jones. The first concert I went to was Jimi Hendrix. We listened to every musical genre on the radio, from folk to rock to R&B and soul, to country ballads, all mixed into the playlists. At the suggestion of one of my parents’ friends, possibly their only black friend, I joined a community theatre group and made my first black and Puerto Rican friends, appearing in a long-running production of The Me Nobody Knows. The young woman with whom I sang a duet to open the second act of the show used to tower over me and threaten my life and her brother liked to call the white kids “crackers,” but most of us were great friends with each other. It was an amazing time in my life, and it changed my consciousness.
Fast forward to now, although I had a few black friends in college, my life in white privilege led me through various jobs, graduate school, marriage and parenthood and divorce and remarriage, and eventually to counseling juveniles in secure detention. There, with the youth as my teachers, my real education in what it means to be black in America occurred.