Tag Archives: racism

A comment from 1933

“…In large measure the race question involves the saving of black America’s body and white America’s soul.”

— James Weldon Johnson in his autobiography Along This Way, 1933. Although Johnson was discussing his work at the NAACP fighting lynching, in large part this observation still holds true today (and, by the way, provides a self-interested reason for some of us white people to be involved in anti-racism work).

Needles to Grants

Vivid dreams occupied me all night, though I didn’t remember any of them when I awakened in the morning. Perhaps they were anxiety dreams, or dreams of overwork; with Peace Camp and the youth service trip and my ordinary tasks, I worked pretty much seven days a week in the three weeks leading up to vacation.

We got up late, and after I ate breakfast we walked over to the Needles Point Pharmacy. I needed razors, and Carol needed a needle to sew up a shirt.

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Above: Needles, Calif.

The store was pretty big on the inside. I found the razor blades I wanted, and then Carol and I wandered around looking at everything they had. They seemed to have everything. In addition to the usual drugstore merchandise, they had in stock: jigsaw puzzles, Hummel figurines, 3.5 inch diskettes for your computer, writing tablets with air mail paper, a bright red Mickey Mouse travel alarm clock in yellowed plastic packaging, and brand new Clairol blow dryers dating from the 1980s. On a whim, I bought some air mail paper from the very pleasant woman behind the counter.

When we finally started driving, the thermometer outside the motel office read 110 degrees.

Carol drove for most of the day, while I dozed, and read aloud to her from Agatha Christie’s Murder at Hazelmoor. It seemed odd to be reading about a murder in country house in England in the middle of a dark snowy winter, when we were driving through the wide open, sun-filled southwest.

We stopped for some caffeine at a gas station in Navajo, Arizona. While I was in the gas station, Carol wandered over to where a man was selling jewelry that he had made. When i got there, Carol was trying to decide if she liked one of his necklaces. I got to talking with him. He had been born in the area, half Navajo and half Hopi, and he spoke both languages as birth tongues. Then he had been relocated to a Mormon couple in Utah; enlisted in the Army and served in Vietnam; went to college in Provo on the G.I. Bill; and then had lived in Greece, the Bay area, and several other places I have now forgotten.

He was a big supporter of Barack Obama. “He’s the only president who has done anything for Native Americans,” he said. We agreed that, regardless of his merits, that some of the criticism of Obama was due solely to the fact that he wasn’t white. “White people really like to be right,” he said, and I gave a snort of laughter at the truth of that statement. That got us into a discussion of race and racism, during which I insisted that the Boston area, where I grew up, was the most racist place I have ever lived. “Even the white people hate each other in Boston,” I said, thinking of the Yankees, Irish, Italians, and French Canadians. He agreed with me, though I wasn’t convinced he knew anything about Boston.

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Above: Navajo, Ariz.

The author of Mark Tidd

When we were kids, my sister Jean and I discovered the Mark Tidd books, written by Clarence Budington Kelland, while we were staying at our grandmother’s house in Staten Island, New York. I remember one of the books was inscribed “To Bobby” — that was my father’s name when he was a boy — from his mother.

Jean and I loved Mark Tidd. He was smart. Even though he looked funny (he was fat, and he stuttered), he always got the better of potential bullies. He and his three buddies got into all sorts of interesting adventures — in one book they took over a failing newspaper, in another book they ran a store, in another book they rented an entire broken-down deserted resort hotel — and they were always saved from looming disasters by Mark Tidd’s brains.

I tracked down some of the Mark Tidd books a few years ago, to see if I would like them now as much as I liked them when I was a kid. The plots and characters were pretty good, as juvenile series books go — the plots and characters obviously look to Tom Sawyer as a model (Tom Sawyer is explicitly mentioned in the opening pages of the first book; see also “Michigan Authors and Their Books,” Michigan Library Bulletin, vol. 16, no. 4, Sept-Oct. 1925 [Lansing, Michigan], pp. 22-24) — but as an adult I picked up on some undercurrents that made me uncomfortable. In the first book, Mark Tidd and his three friends form a secret society, which they model on the Ku Klux Klan; even though there’s no overt racism in the book (everyone in the story is white), even mentioning the Ku Klux Klan positively made it hard for me to like the book. (The later books don’t mention the KKK.) In the rest of the books, Kelland extols the virtues of hard work , honesty, and financial know-how — these are values I can affirm — but he doesn’t seem to recognize that a key ingredient to Mark Tidd’s success in his various enterprises is the backing of his father’s immense capital.

Recently I tried to find a biography of Kelland. Continue reading

Top ten best things about liberal religion in 2011, pt. 4

7. This year, for the first time, I feel as though Unitarian Universalism has made some real progress towards figuring out how to be a religion that’s not totally dominated by white folks. (Notice how I’ve qualified that statement: the progress we’re making is towards figuring out how to be less white.)

What progress have we made?

First of all, we’ve begun talking as though racism within Unitarian Universalism means more than just the white folks dominating the few black folks. After a couple of years of having a president of the denomination who is Latino, we’ve finally figured out that there are Unitarian Universalist Latinos, too. We have gotten to a point where we finally seem to understand that our efforts at eradicating racism have to go beyond the binary white/black racial divide.

Secondly, our collective anxiety seems to have gone down somewhat. It used to be that as soon as you started talking about race within a group of Unitarian Universalists, everyone would get so anxious that everyone would freeze up, and the conversation would either end or devolve into ideology and blame games. But this year, I’ve been at several public meeting where white Unitarian Universalists could talk openly about race and racism. (I credit Rev. Mark Morrison-Reed for much of this progress: he has an amazing pastoral ability to get people to talk openly and genuinely about race and racism without freezing up or getting strident.)

Those two things may not seem like much, but they represent some progress. And that’s both amazing, and worth celebrating.

REA Conference, part six

“Diversity and Neuroscience” was the title of the fifth plenary session of the annual conference of the Religious Education Association (REA). Moderator Harold Horell introduced the panel discussion with two questions:

— What are the implications of neuroscience for the field of religious education? — and
— How did the presentations and conversations address the racially and ethnically diverse constituencies of the Religious Education Association?

Claire Smith of Saint Paul School of Theology was the first panelist to speak. “I found in this conference an awareness of the issues of diversity,” she said, “and a concern to include all.” She gave several specific examples, e.g., the recognition of native peoples in the opening ritual.

While there was a general awareness of diversity issues within the REA, Smith offered two cautions.

First, much of the brain research we have is provisional, and “we should not treat it as gospel.” In spite of this caution, Smith said that there is much that comes out of this research that are important for our work as religious educators. Continue reading

Another experience of race

In her book Working-Class White: The Making and Unmaking of Race Relations, sociologist Monica McDermott offers an interesting perspective on the intersection of race and class, based on her field work in Atlanta and Boston. She writes:

The experience of whiteness in the Crescent [her Atlanta field work site] provides an intriguing example of the ways in which racial cues are bound up with class and the local context. “White” is typically conceived in terms of economic and social advantage and residence in predominantly white, affluent areas. What, then, becomes of the white racial identity of those whites who are poor or working class and live in an area with a substantial black, working-class population?

The results are not the standard ways in which whiteness typically functions in the United States — as invisible privilege, even for economically disadvantaged whites. Whiteness in this context does not simply function like “blackness” when the usual constellation of class and racial cues is reversed. Instead, whiteness becomes a badge of inferiority — one that is contingent upon a global view of whites as more deserving of nice neighborhoods and good jobs than blacks. It is also bound up with expectations about racial segregation and the characteristics of those who live in racially integrated areas.

Being a white person in this type of neighborhood is distinctly different from being a white person in a predominantly white area. The underlying assumption in the Crescent and Greenfield [the Boston field work site], held by both blacks and whites of various class backgrounds, was that the whites who lived and worked there were somehow defective; that the least capable whites were most likely to live among large numbers of poor and working-class blacks. As one of the working-class men studied by Lamont (1999) asserts, there “is no real reason for a white guy to be a failure.”

While McDermott is quite clear that her study is limited in scope because of her methodology, nevertheless it occurs to me that that class location probably always influences experiences of race.

Poly Styrene: an appreciation

Various media sources are reporting that singer Marianne Elliot-Said has died of complications of breast cancer at age 53. Elliot-Said was better known under the stage name Poly Styrene, a name she used while singing with X-Ray Spex.

X-Ray Spex had a short career. In 1976, Elliot-Said was taking voice lessons, learning how to sing opera, and recording derivative reggae songs on the side, when she saw the Sex Pistols perform. This exposure to punk rock galvanized her, and she decided to form her own punk band, X-Ray Spex. The band performed together for about three years, recorded a handful of singles and one album, then disbanded in 1979.

Following the demise of X-Ray Spex, Elliot-Said joined the Hare Krishnas — more properly, the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, a branch of Hinduism that worships Vishnu, and is devoted to bhakti yoga, or expressions of devotion to God. I had not known that Elliot-Said had joined the Hare Kishnas, but I was not entirely surprised. When she was singing with X-Ray Spex, her voice had a transcendent, joyful quality to it — even when she was singing about the horrors of genetic engineering, or screaming (in late 1970s punk vocal style) “Oh bondage! up yours!” Although the punk rock idiom of the late 1970s was fairly limited, as practiced by someone like Poly Styrene the vocal style could approach a raucous and ecstatic transcendence. There was often a hint of rapture in her voice, even a hint of a connection to something larger than herself.

Elliot-Said has been interpreted as an early exponent of what came to be called third-wave feminism; she had a clear influence on later feminist bands like The Slits, and it’s hard to imagine the riot-grrrl movement without her example. She allied herself with the anti-racist forces within punk rock and was bi-racial — a Somali father and an English mother — and perhaps she will be claimed as an early adopter of multiracial identity. She also had a preference for day-glo colors and wore braces on her teeth, though it’s harder to know what to make of those attributes.

But I prefer to remember her simply for her full-throated, no-holds-barred singing, a kind of punk bhakti devotion that invited us all to transform and transcend. The hell with the anemic pablum of praise bands — if you’re gonna make me have amplified music in a worship service, I won’t settle for anything less the raw full-throated raucous singing of someone like Poly Styrene.