My mother’s older relatives lived through the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, an event that has no parallel in our times. One of the favorite family stories was passed down from one of her uncles, Theodore (always called Uncle Thee with a soft-sound on the “th”), who walked about in downtown San Francisco an hour or so after the quake through streets littered with overturned carriages and dead dray horses and fallen bricks, the surrounding wooden buildings just beginning to be licked by the flames that would later engulf and destroy much of the city. It must have been a scene reminiscent of hell, and indicative of God’s vengeance on a sinful humanity. So reminiscent and indicative, in fact, that Uncle Thee said that when he met up with a white fellow walking numbly through the same chaotic streets, the white fellow rushed up to him, dropped to his knees, hugged his arms around Uncle Thee’s legs, and shouted, “Save me, brother! O, save me!”
In those days, barely a generation out of slavery, African-Americans were still considered by many white folk to be a simple, primitive, spiritual people who—because of our supposed simplicity and primitivity and our spirituality and the suffering we had endured on earth—we were thought to be closer in touch with God.
Uncle Thee’s reaction to the white fellow’s importunation has been lost to history, though having heard tales of some of his other biting remarks, I do not imagine that the request was considered with much favor.
African-Americans have long since lost our place as the spiritual saviors of America (I am tempted to add “thank God,” but that seems too close to blasphemy). But considering the events of recent days concerning the presidential race, our role as the nation’s racial conscience seems a cross that we are forced to continue to bear, at least for the foreseeable future.
An African-American presidential candidate who says his campaign is not based upon race—and who has not used race as a theme in his campaign—is forced to make a major speech on the issue of—guess what?—race. Why are we not surprised? And why are we not further surprised that of all the many candidates for national public office this year, it is only the black guy who has had to touch on this topic?
The issue of race, it would seem, continues to be a topic that African-Americans must continue to have to address, whether we want to or not, while our white friends can pick it up or drop it, at their leisure. There is no disowning or disavowing or denying it. Not in this generation. Or my parents’ or grandparents’ generations. Or my children or grandchildren’s generations, down as far as I can see.
Two of my daughters graduated from the University of California at Berkeley. During their time there, they learned to avoid late night walks past the white frat houses on fraternity row. Too many times, they said, they were greeted in the night with calls of “why don’t you go back where you came from?”
Where they came from? Our family came to California before the beginning of the Civil War, one group by coach along the northern land route, the other by taking sea transportation down to Panama, trekking across the Isthmus, and catching a boat back up to San Francisco. California’s population was not even 400,000 in 1860. There is a very small percentage of families of any nationality who can claim ancestry in this state from those days. And yet, some drunken white kids hanging out a frat house window feel empowered enough to believe that the daughters of that ancestry do not yet belong while the drunken fraternity white kids, of course, do.
One of my daughters’ boyfriends gets stopped, regularly, by police while riding his bicycle through their Los Angeles neighborhood, forced to show his identification and explain where he is going and what he is about. When he protests, he is told that he lives in a “bad” neighborhood, so he should expect such scrutiny.
I remember being told by a Charleston, South Carolina police officer a similar thing, almost 40 years ago, that I should always be prepared to give a cop an account of where I have been and what I have been doing over the past several hours. I was put over the hood of a police car and frisked, once, by another Charleston police officer after he discovered me late at night in the parking lot of the Charleston airport with the hood of a car up. It was only after he had determined my identification, and that I was unarmed, that he learned, upon asking, that I was under the hood because I had returned on a flight to find the battery dead and that this, in fact, was my car. He left without either an apology or an offer to help me get my car started.
In the ’90s, I did an article on successful African-Americans continuing to face racism in Silicon Valley, interviewing a Santa Clara County judge who no longer went to local department stores because she got tired of being followed around by store security while white patrons went ignored, or the African-American man in hospital greens who was asked by the elderly white patient at Stanford Hospital to empty her bedpan, the woman only learning later, and not from him, that he was actually the surgeon who was scheduled to operate on her brain the next morning.
But that is nothing.
On Sept. 16, 1963, sickened by the events of the day before, I went to my American History class and refused to put my hand over my heart and say the pledge of allegiance to the American flag. If you are interested enough in knowing what happened on Sept. 15, you can look it up. For my part, my mind moved forward to the words “and justice for all,” and I knew that in all good conscience, I could not repeat those words. I stood respectfully with the rest of my class that day, as always, but kept my mouth closed and did not say the words. That silent, respectful protest was not respectful enough for my teacher, however. I was booted out of my college prep class and down into the backwater civics class, where the teacher put his feet up on the desk and spent the first 20 minutes of class time, often, telling us how his wife’s pregnancy was getting along. I do not remember if we were furnished with a book.
Thus, my punishment, for my lack of loudly professed loyalty to America.
Older now, and having seen more in my life, I do not even bother to stand during the various public displays of the pledge.
Anger smolders when I think of what I might answer if someone, at one of these events, were to confront me and ask me why.
But the great African-American secret—if you need to be let in on it—is that anger smolders in almost all African-Americans of my generation, my parents’ generation before me, and my children’s generation after. There is a duality about the psychology of African-Americans that seems easy to understand—given our history and experiences in this still, sometimes strange land—but far too often seems unfathomable to clueless outsiders who wonder, “why are those Black People mad?” or, alternatively, “what do they have to be mad about?”
To be African-American—it has often been said—is to daily, voluntarily practice lunacy. To honestly face our condition and our history in this nation would force us either into actual madness or violence. And so, to maintain equilibrium, the African-American fools himself—daily, hourly, constantly—making a pretense that the world and its conditions are not what they actually are, inducing a mild form of insanity—a denial of the world as it is—to prevent an actual insanity.
And so I listen to the most famous sermon-snippet of Reverend Jeremiah Wright—Barack Obama’s pastor—and the words “the government gives them drugs, and builds bigger prisons, and passes a three strikes law, and then wants us to sing ‘God bless America?’ No. God damn America. It’s in the Bible.” And I hear a deep echo in my own feelings. And I know—just from the knowing, as well as from conversation and testimony—that the words have a deep resonance across African-America, as well.
But now it is supposed to be up to Barack Obama to explain why African-Americans might have a cause to feel this way, as well as denouncing those feelings as a prerequisite for entering the presidential club. And bless his heart, he did a bang-up job of it, despite all the difficulties.
But this has always been the difficulty—the contradiction, to use the favorite ’60s word--of an African-American running for American president. He, or she, must attempt to hold onto the two polar opposite ends of an electrically-charged duality that others are allowed to step around.
Meanwhile, we are told we must profess our loyalty to a country that is founded upon the principle that rebellion against an oppressive government is not only a right, it is a responsibility.
And then daily we see the jails filling up with young African-American men—their futures lost—and drugs and the accompanying theft and violence devastating our communities, and the core of many black families collapsing, and the public education system deteriorating, and we are told that these do not constitute a condition of oppression, they constitute an unfortunate social condition that has no historical roots. But then, King George III, the British monarch who oversaw the last days of England’s colonial empire in mid-Atlantic America, believed until the end of his days that he was the rightful ruler of America, a benevolent father facing ungrateful, recalcitrant children.
We always have a different view of things, depending upon which porch we’re sitting on.
And thus, African-Americans have a far different view of the American experience than many of our neighbors and fellow Americans, and that even with such a different view, we have remained among the most loyal of Americans, dying in every war, even when we knew we were returning to many parts of the nation that shunned us. One can do both, you know. And we have been doing it that way for quite some time. Why, in 2008, should any of this be met with such expressions of shock? It makes one believe that a lot of folks have not really been paying attention.