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Where Do They Keep the White People?

Time for that question to be answered.

I try to rise up each time the pits of Trump fears and anger draw me down. Many people speak of the tangle of old fears and new, past traumatic times bleeding into these times now, like a ruined watercolor painting — liquid stress muddying what needs above all at this time to be crystal clear. Friends talk of their inability to read the newspaper, watch television news or go to social media. “I listen to music, read a book, take a walk,” each one says. I do the same, but then we reverse ourselves: we must stay informed. How else to prepare for the inevitable struggles ahead?

I remember the models and lessons of past resistance, the times and ways people fought back, within ourselves and in the streets. In every memoir by an African American writer, I have told generations of students, there is a moment — early, maybe when the writer is five or six years old — of racial consciousness: what skin color means besides being a shade of tan or brown. I am Black — and from that moment on, the necessity is entrenched: to fight against assaults on dignity, on freedom: I am happy to fight all outside murderers as I see I must, wrote Alice Walker, a battle to ward off invasion of the inside. “We have lived through worse,” my African American husband of nearly 50 years has said repeatedly since the election results left many of us first in a state of shock, then of horror. Recalling years of growing up in total segregation in the Jim Crow South, he says, “It was hard, it was very oppressive, but we got through. And we will get through this.” Dubiously? Courageously — speaking of the threats to democracy we now must face, the spectrum of vicious hatreds at the center of a vicious campaign, reiterated in the inaugural address.

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around.

The civil rights movement, in both philosophy and strategies, gave birth to all our movements for liberation, here and across the globe, and Obama captured that spirit in the chant of his first campaign: Si Se Puede, yes we can. The determination to struggle through great difficulty and opposition — and the struggle is always both outside us and within ourselves — the faith that we must continue and can somehow survive — a faith embedded deep in African American history, from slavery, to Jim Crow, to the massive incarcerations of Black people in our prisons today.

Now is the time for all Americans, “born in the USA,” children and grandchildren of immigrants, to take as our model the great American patriots who fought in the streets and within their own souls — like a tree that’s standing by the water — for justice, for the freedoms written into our constitution over two centuries, for many Americans still unfulfilled.

The son of a family member — an 18-year-old young Black man whom I have known and loved since his birth — had gotten himself into trouble through addiction followed by several arrests. There was no violence in any of the crimes, but they were felonies of different degrees, and he spent more than six months in prison, first at the Manhattan Detention Center, then at the infamous Rikers Island prison complex in New York City, waiting for trial. At his last appearance before the judge who had previously sentenced him to await trial without parole, the judge changed her mind for reasons we can only guess, deciding he deserved one more chance for rehabilitation. Perhaps she knew what he would encounter as a young Black man, fairly innocent despite his recent history, in an upstate prison. Perhaps she was swayed by reports of good behavior for the months he spent at Rikers. Perhaps she took a liking to him after his several appearances in her courtroom. No doubt the constant presence of his family — “upstanding citizens” attesting to our support by our presence — no doubt the luck of finding an excellent lawyer from an organization offering legal services for free — all of this helped him in a way denied to many equally deserving young men, some of them really still boys who have made mistakes, taken wrong turns, who are in need of supports of all kinds to provide another chance at life. In any case, to our great relief, she remanded him on a plea of guilty to a rehab center in upstate New York, where he receives various therapeutic supports.

We visited him recently. Almost every single “resident” — many of them court remanded — were Black and Brown. This “community of color” surrounded by a larger, freer, more affluent white community, is not very different from most of our neighborhoods, schools, cultural centers, community and artistic events — our American lives.

By the time of his move to the rehabilitation center, we had attended his court appearances in downtown Manhattan several times, trying to impress the judge in whatever way we could: This boy is not alone, this boy has a family, this boy is loved. Once, as I sat there clenching my hands, making silent pleas, I heard another visitor — a member of an all white group visiting this courtroom as part of a New York City tour — whisper to her neighbor: “Where do they keep the white people?” Because, of course, all the prisoners, brought in to face the judge, were Black or Brown, as were most of the waiting families. The only white people, apart from myself, some of the lawyers, most of the guards and police, the judge herself. When the young man’s mother went to visit him at Rikers Island, she took along a friend for support, a woman from South Africa. “I thought you did not have apartheid in America,” the friend said. “Where do they keep the white people?”

All this was more than a year before the election of Trump to the presidency following a campaign steeped in the cynical language of white supremacy, explicit threats and insults and implicit implications that have been driving elections and policies in the US for centuries, now loud and open again. Though never so far in our history vanquished, never gone, this is the first time in many years commentators are naming the rhetoric fascist, the speakers and their threat to our nation, fascist — a process and outcome we have seen before, in Europe in the 1930s and ’40s, in the McCarthy period of the 1950s in the United States, now in 2017. Many issues — environmental, economic, global — comprise this dangerous worldview — but, as in fascist takeovers before, hatred of “the other” drives the verbal and often physical violence, making possible the murderous policies Trump now promises to invoke.

Years ago, in a predominantly white class on African American literary traditions, I taught the lyrics of the Black National Anthem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — a song well-known by every African American person I have ever met, yet unfamiliar to many whites. The most recent time I heard the song was last year on Martin Luther King Day at the New York City Fire Department. Along with a few other long serving African Americans, my husband, a deputy commissioner there, was being honored for his service. He had worked with a team over several years, eventually backed up by a court order, to diversify that once almost all white institution in the midst of New York City. All the firefighters and administrators of color stood and sang, and some of the white people sang too — or they remained standing, silent but respectful, feeling honored, I hoped, as I did, to be singing or listening to those words.

Lift every voice and sing, til earth and heaven ring,
ring with the harmonies of liberty.
let our rejoicing rise, high as the glistening skies,
Let it resound, loud as the rolling sea…
… Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
felt in the day that hope unborn had died.
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet
come to the place on which our fathers sighed?

I learned the song from a white teacher in my sixth-grade class in a public school in the heart of Greenwich Village, most of us Jews, Italians, Irish kids from the east side, one lone Black boy — George was his name — standing out in the midst of our whiteness. It was the 1950s, and scattered among the school population was a small group of “red diaper babies” — children of communist parents, including myself. We had been taught to fear the men from the FBI who often followed us to school, questioned us about our fathers, or rang our bells in the evening. We were instructed to say our fathers were not home, and we did not know where they were, even if they were sitting behind a closed door in another room. Yes, we were taught to lie, that sometimes lies were necessary. The risks, after all, were great — our parents could be arrested, imprisoned, for those of us like myself whose father was an immigrant, the threat of deportation was always feared. Many of them had been (or would soon be) called to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, accused of treason, pushed to name the names of comrades and friends, deprived of work by a national blacklist, even sent to jail. We, the small group of us, stood on the avenue at lunch time and argued with the other children about McCarthy, about our ideals — a system of values, the adults called it — embedded in their political philosophy, although kept apart from its ultimately devastating illusions and extremes: Negroes should have the same rights as white people. Workers should benefit from their labor. Street cleaners are as dignified as doctors. And the ordinary American kids screamed at us to go back to Russia.

The teacher who taught us the “Negro National Anthem” was a “sympathizer,” a “fellow traveler,” as we called those who shared our beliefs but were not members of the Communist Party. She was also the music teacher, and she played the piano at every assembly where, often, after singing that other anthem, we all raised our voices and sang “Lift Every Voice.”

Those days ring loud in my head today: the fears of our parents’ deportation, close friends and relatives arrested — locked up — for challenging political orthodoxies. “Lock her up!” some of the Trump supporters and spokespeople shouted from halls, stadiums and podiums, repeated at the inauguration when Hillary Clinton walked in — terrorizing, frightening memories that bleed into a frightening time.

“These are the times that try men’s souls,” we were instructed in the words of Tom Paine, and now again, as many have written and will continue to write, the Resistance has begun, preserving faith and hope, reminding me of the cry of the Spanish people who resisted Franco’s fascism in 1936: No Pasarán!

A very recent memory intrudes. An early December afternoon, I am walking down Amsterdam Avenue, about 65th Street, a Manhattan neighborhood famous for its liberalism and progressive politics, even if also for its increasing wealth and deep pockets of poverty. It is famously diverse, yet many of its blocks and apartment buildings are as segregated as those in most of the cities and towns of this nation. I am shopping for gifts on the crowded block, walking near the lines of Christmas trees, the aroma of pine calling up memories of holiday reunions past. At the corner, a taxi stops to allow pedestrians to cross. A tall, athletic looking white man crosses in front of me, and when we are on the sidewalk, he shouts to his little girl of about six or seven years old — she is walking next to him but he is shouting, wanting us all to hear: “You have to watch out for those fucking idiots driving taxis now — they’re all foreigners — bad people — they don’t belong here. They’ll kill you if they can.” I glance at the driver, wondering if he’s heard. Like many taxi drivers in the city now, his skin is brown, many of them immigrants or naturalized citizens, or Black and Brown Americans.

Trump invades Amsterdam Avenue. And so I remember that even in New York City, many voters — if they are not bigots or racists themselves — were willing to vote for a man who used bigotry of all kinds to rally his supporters, and who has now appointed many such men to his proposed cabinet.

We have come, over a way that with tears has been watered.

We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.

Voices lifted in song and at lunch counters, bodies on the streets, crossing bridges, artists making art — the struggle of African Americans for social justice, dignity and freedom is a legacy we — Muslims, women and men of all colors and creeds, people of all sexual preferences and identities — must all learn to share. From abolitionists and partisans of slave revolts to Freedom Riders; from Southern sit-ins and marches in Washington, DC, demanding liberty and justice for all; to Black Lives Matter demonstrations against the murder of young Black men and children — from this history, we find a model to resist. People of all backgrounds are marching, comrades with dark skins, light skins, holding banners reading: Aqui Estamos Y No Nos Vamos; The Proud Daughter of an Immigrant; He is not my president. Our common inheritance.

And I admit I am often frightened. Long ago childhood fears fill my dreams again, overlap anxieties for my grown up Black sons, driving, walking streets at night, strong men, yes. Brave men, but vulnerable, if not always in their bodies, in their spirits, their sense of safety replaced by a sense of threat.

I did not respond to the man in the street who shouted the obscenities at his daughter, but I vow next time, or in another way, to find my voice.

Lift every voice and sing…

Each time I get to the last lines, I cry; the promise, the claim:

May we forever stand / True to our god, true to our native land.

I read the word “god” to mean values. Where do they keep all the white people? Time for that question to be answered. Right here with you. On the front lines.

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