Archives for posts with tag: Boston

tearWHAT IT MEANS TO ME TO BE WHITE

I sit inside seventy-seven year old white skin which once covered a four-pound baby born into a family whose neighbors said, “Mrs. Bradley had one white baby and one dark baby.”  Skin color myths came early to us on Wren Street in West Roxbury, Massachusetts in 1938.  We were an Irish-Catholic family with four kids born within three years.

Class consciousness ruled our small crowded house. Mom had student taught one of the ghettos, and she was a stalwart advocate of the public school system. We kids attended Randall G. Morris Elementary School a block down for our little brown house on Wren Street.  My mom also taught there.  Our neighborhood was white.  Any idea of difference was inconceivable in our young world.

We were white on the Green Street Bus to downtown Boston, but we were definitely black and white at Dudley Street rapid transit station as people of all colors, particularly black, poured into hot steamy trains.  Our skin color difference seemed purposefully ignored by our parents.

Roslindale High School gave us a window into races when we took buses to our guys’ basketball games in East and South Boston.  The black girls didn’t like us and became angry.  We were told to leave in the middle of a basketball game, and we were hurried out a back door and onto buses headed back to our high school.  I think I slotted these kids as tougher, never wondering if their life conditions were harder because of skin color.

I had two options after high school graduation:  Boston Teacher’s College and Boston Clerical School.  I was afraid to go to Teacher’s College so I chose Boston Clerical School, a red brick building, smack down in Roxbury, a predominantly poor and black neighborhood.  I discovered my prejudices flat on, but didn’t think of them as prejudices, but felt a white superiority.

My mother died when my twin and I were in our last year of high school.  My father married a few years later.  He and my step-mother were class conscious, and cast low slung scorn towards lower economic and less educated classes of people.  Their attitudes were scornful of those with different skin color. Boston was a racist town.  Still I remained unaware.  Liz, my twin, and I mixed with all classes of people, but still lived in an all-white world.  Looking back, I felt I grew up inside a large brown paper bag and questioned nothing.  At Emerson College, a close friend confided to me of her deep love for a young black man, but she couldn’t marry him.  “My father would beat me up,” she said.

I left Boston, driving alone out to California in my beat up 57 VW Convertible.  I felt protected in an unseen spiritual sense, a definitely new experience. Before I left Boston the Cuban Crisis erupted.  Nuclear war threatened our nation.  A friend’s father was in the Federal Reserve. She spoke of members of the Federal Reserve going to safe surroundings in case of a nuclear attack. Boston also harbored fear because the infamous Boston Strangler, who raped and killed old women, stalked an edgy silence which seemed to hedge in the City.

I had rented a room in Belmont, and a very old, pale and fearful lady, Miss Gunn, rented the other room.  I was nervous about the Strangler.  Then the Cuban Crisis ended, and a lighter, less fear-filled atmosphere took over the City, but the Boston Strangler was still on the loose. I continued throwing everything I could into a large black trunk and even bought a dime store wedding ring.  If anyone stopped me on the road, I’d tell them, ‘I’m meeting my husband at an army base.”  One very early Monday morning in October, with the cold nipping my heels and a car heater that was kaput, I headed out via Route 66 towards Buffalo, my final destination: Los Angeles . My aunt knew I was headed their way. Boston was stultifying to me.  Get me out of here, thoughts banged inside my head.  Critical parental lectures as to my failures in life set off images of Bambi and his bags packed at the edge of the forest. I had to get out of Boston.

I made it to Ohio, eventually Texas, Arizona, and in California I took a right on Western, drove up to Franklin Avenue, took a left into Griffith Park, twisted on paths by smooth stucco walls, until I drove into a large patio overlooking the city, and stood and looked at the roses blooming.

My trip lasted 6 and half days. My relatives seemed wealthy and imperialistic.  “We never knew a working girl,” was an early comment as I headed off to work in a law firm.  One relief was eighty year old Uncle Charlie who came from Los Angeles when it was small, and covered with Orange Groves.  He’d tell me, “Drive in the middle lane of the freeway where you’ll feel safer.”  He was real. I never wore jeans, only dresses or skirts and blouses.  Occasionally the family would host a black tie party.

My aunt was very kind to me.  I walked into the basement of this large house, and its beauty greeted me.  Everything was in soft greens, and rich black oriental screens and gleaming silver and even a Japanese sword decorated the walls.  She had traveled the world as a Navy wife, and her home seemed to represent a lush salon. She took me under her wing and buffed me up socially, and she accepted me a stark contrast to my father and stepmother’s view.

God help me.  I drank alcohol and took a little blue over-the counter Compos to quell my fear of social groups was invited to someone’s New Years Day party. “Dress is informal,” my date said.  So I showed up wearing sneakers, a wrap around Madras skirt, and light blue long-sleeved blouse.  The women wore Talbot dresses and low slung heels.  I immediately took a drink, and another.  Casual on the East Coast differed from that of the West.  They were forming a Young Republicans’ club which in my hazed condition seemed splendiferous.  After that, I was invited to Bachelors’ Balls in Los Angeles and San Francisco and did the social scene, all the while working in law firms, finding myself scared and bewildered.  I found a roommate and lived in the Wilshire District.  Then I met a guy and married him on a May day in 1965.

A year later, I heard about the Baha’i Faith.  As we stood by the Manhattan Beach pier, the waves lapping our bare feet, a close friend, who was a former atheist and then agnostic, told me about progressive revelation, the oneness of humankind, and the purpose of this day and age:  to bring about oneness and much more.  I became a Baha’i within three weeks, and I felt thrust me into a global village.  Seals and Crofts’ manager had large gatherings at her house in Hollywood for anyone who was interested in this Faith. She was Dash Crofts’ mother-in-law, a Baha’i, and her house spilled over with people.  This is before Seals and Crofts were famous.  One Friday night, I sat across from a man who was African-American, Chuck Rhodes, a large handsome man dressed in blue overalls, looking quite serious.  Somehow he took scattered, skinny me, under his wing. He’d tell me becoming a Baha’i was like surfing the waves.  Sometimes I’d feel up, other times down, always stretching and learning. Chuck spoke eleven languages and would later marry Ulla, a lovely Scandinavian woman and they would move to Finland.  He was a big brother to me for over a year, and I am still intensely grateful.

I was now immersed in a world where blacks and whites mixed easily.  We were family.  I also read Black Boy, American Hunger, and since then have inhaled lots of books by people of color and books about white privilege, slavery, you name it. Today I am enormously aware of race, and I have had this developing consciousness since 1966.  I have to say becoming a Baha’i raised my awareness that God’s purpose mandates our oneness as a people.  I still had and have to do the work and become aware as to how this oneness is perceived.  Not as assimilation by people of color into a white world, nor by my ignorance of black culture’s rich heritage, and not by ignoring the dreadful history and treatment in our nation of over 300 years of cruelty.

When I went back to college at age 42 and an African American Baha’i spoke to our community, he challenged our assumed belief that life was fine and we were one.  I was upset that night, and I am sure I sounded racist.  But on campus, my house was filled with black, whites, all of whom could go out a window rather than take time to exit by door.  Kids were mixing.  I was by this time, attending UC Irvine, and my son and I lived in what is known as Old Verano, student housing with periodic plumbing mishaps, and an extremely diversified life.  When Nick went to an Irvine high school; he wasn’t a mainstream kid.  He was asked by his African-American friends to join their club.  He was the first to be asked, and maybe the only one.  I gave all the kids names, and one was Junior High Jared, the other Pomona Dave.  Turns out Pomona Dave’s brother is the African-American comedian on Jon Stewart’s show, and I adore this comic.  Nick was a rebel in high school and caused me concern, but I was proud of his awareness of his black brothers and sisters, and I still am. Still I was not aware of the larger society’s impact, ethos, and all aspects of racism.  I thought because my own small world was unified on some levels, everyone was.

After I graduated and took a year’s Education courses, I flunked the math portion of the State’s C-Best exam.  I was to teach English.  One professor said, “You will save lives.”  So much for saving lives.  Nick went to live with his dad, and I moved to Los Angeles to return to being a legal secretary.  A friend in Manhattan Beach said, “Come stay with me.”

I met my second husband Bill at a local Baha’i gathering. He had just become a Baha’i, and I had been one for twenty years.  We were active regarding racial justice, racial unity, racial amity groups from the get go of our marriage.  He looked black, and whenever we hoofed about walking for good causes, the Brothers nodded at him acknowledging another brother.  People at the market would ask him, “Are you mixed?” and he always said yes, because he probably was.  But he lived with white privilege too.

In Seattle a wonderful activist Harriet came to one of our meetings and told us how the newspapers wouldn’t publish comments written by African-Americans.  I felt a lot of pain in those circles, and know, it was part of my share of the pain that goes into this whole skin color mess.  I went home and wrote a letter to the Seattle Times mentioning their only showing blacks being arrested in photos, never whites.  The day my letter published, we had another race meeting.  Harriet said to me, “You made the black community very happy tonight.”  Boy was I grateful.  Ironically on the same day, my father’s will was mailed to me, and he barely mentioned my twin and me, nor my older sister or brother.  I was stunned.  What were we to my father? Nothing?  But still, I made the people of color in my area happy.  Which is more important,” I said to myself.  I knew the answer.

For the rest of the time, even living in Russia/Ukraine 1990-1993, we would mention color and interface with international African students.  I feel my whiteness.  I feel the agony and despair of blacks, and feel despair and powerlessness. I must never give up.

I am now in an organization called Coming to the Table, which is an offshoot of Gather at the Table, a national organization. www.Gatheratthetable.com.   I feel it is now the time of an ingathering of the earth’s people.  I am humbled to be a part of this organization.

I still feel myself sitting in my skin, but my soul proclaims the oneness of all, and I immerse myself in this oneness.  In the Baha’i Writings, it is suggested blacks must forgive, and whites must rid themselves of their inherent superiority.  Lord, it’s a crawl up the mountain; which is harder?

I feel gut wrenching agony over the conditions in this country. Consider:  if one is white and feels superior how unconscious primitivism is perpetuated.  I think about skin color privilege every day.  This is how I feel: I can drive anywhere sitting inside my aging white skin and feel unquestioned.  No one will follow me in the department stores.  No one will pull me over for driving while white.   Bill got pulled over when we moved to a fringe area in Seattle.  We had friends who walked the neighborhoods in Jamestown, Western New York, stopped by the police as guilty of being “black by walking.”  Overt, institutionalized and unaware racism permeated that town.  We and others started a Downtown Dialogue for Race which caught the attention of our Representative Amo Houghton.  Our family during our time in Jamestown was the people of color, and more than one tragedy wrenched our souls.

Last week I saw a Target ad which showed a game page and who was holding the big plastic Uzi type of gun?  A young African-American boy.   Look at the pictures in newspapers, how many blacks are seen committing a crime? Check out the mainstream magazines and see what skin color owns the majority of these pages.  Consider our prison and court system as a vehicle for the New Jim Crow.   I teach in black neighborhoods and a lot of my friends live there.  I feel the pain, the injustice, the weariness. I think the world is a dystopia for blacks. Certainly, I don’t suggest all African-Americans are poor and live in troubled neighborhoods.  But what I do suggest is unaware racism and institutionalized racism has cut a swath of vituperative hatred across our nation.  Yet, we whites sit in our houses, with diversity magazines on smooth glass-topped coffee tables, feeling uncomfortable but safe.  A lot of us are overwhelmed.

What helps for me is the vision and promises within the Baha’i writings.  I need to always remain aware, and learn more every day.  Until I draw my last breath, this is my call.  I want to recommend a book, “The Last War, Racism, Spirituality and the Future of Civilization, by M.I., Perry, George Ronald, Publisher, Oxford, www.grbooks.com, ISBN 0-85398-491-3.

 Why do I insert academic references to this vast and horribly sad topic of being white in America?  Because it means, I do know some things.  I’ve removed a lot of ignorance and illusion in my life.  I will never be done. I would give my very life to have this dreaded blight removed from our society.  It’s going to take time.  But the time is now.  That’s what white means to me.  Never stop.  Always stretch to be aware.  Be conscious of inherent white superiority in myself.  Be action oriented.  Be humble.

Finally, I would say the whites in our world should run to this subject.  We need to get to the marrow of other people’s suffering.  We need to eradicate our ignorance.  Some politicians seem reptilian in nature regarding race.  What we have done to our President will not go unnoticed in the pages of history, and I think our deeds, our very thoughts will be recorded on that Chrysolite tablet where our spiritual doings or lack thereof are imprinted.

Almost 50 years later I look back and realize I had to learn about being white.  I must be conscious as to how I use my whiteness.  “Esther gets it,” a black friend said.  Another said, “Honey, you are black inside.”  We all know I am not.   Maybe I have some awareness, but racism and its impact can run on microscopic moments.   I am humbled by my African-American friends’ trust in me, but that doesn’t let me rest and not be part of solutions for justice in a world where institutionalized racism is rank, pernicious, and palpably evil.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

oIWcfVXxvZu9XwJ55OX7Ag,oR8NjP4HI60nAYNEi7i25ZFGH7lV9EwkQp2vTR8SDvb_ARcy-fnOMDcw0x5pW32ULjoNlxVqpm1nrEPUX4aHIkW6pK9xK8XSdHsPJflL0PVqTkwA8bZQHkWaVmIA7vPpx3lprA

Bean Town

Boston feels like a sink hole, an asphalt taffy road with unexpected, unplanned for sags, taking the nation down and then up. Our hearts run to each other in times of tragedy, and someone else’s child is ours. We claim him, her.

Boston is in my marrow, even though I left there when they still hadn’t found the Boston Strangler, you know the guy who was murdering old women, and I was renting a room in Belmont, and the other roommate, Miss Bell, was very old.

I waited for the Cuban Crisis to be over, kept huge boxes around in my small vertical room, with tops open. I had ended a relationship and just couldn’t do law firms, relationships, or disregard from relatives anymore.

I had a VW grey Volkswagen convertible, with actual orange, Marx Nixt sticks, which to this day I don’t know how to spell, but I tell you, that car would go 55, and that was it, and by the time I edged out of Buffalo, my second morning, I was glad, because the heater was frozen, and I wouldn’t have made it through a Boston winter.

What’s in me from Boston? Libraries, libraries, libraries. Books, and my autodidactic self which took itself around books alphabetically, until I had read everything every author I fell in love with had written. In high school, as a rebel, I quit checking out books, and just stuffed them under my raincoat, and returned them that way.

Boston had the Charles River and the Harvard Teams crewing, but before that West Roxbury had Billings Field which was flooded in the winter, and my boys’ black hockey skates flew over this field every day. It was a time of Roast Beef in the dining room with the family on Sundays, and weekly meals in the kitchen for just us kids: leftovers on Mondays, Spaghetti on Tuesdays, Wednesdays I don’t know, but it was an era of the same type of meal each day, and our clothes were picked out the night before. School, the Randall G. Morris Elementary School was one block away, and on the first floor almost at the end was my mom’s room, and it felt as if I had a night light, even though we kids couldn’t have mom as a teacher.

I remember the smell of tight, smell of rubber, pink balls which bounced against garage doors with a thwap, and yearly visits to the Constitution, walking down narrow steps to its innards, and I remember visiting the Bunker Hill Monument, reading Johnny Tremain, and everything else for that matter, all stitched inside my soul as “Boston.”

I don’t remember girls having showers in high school, so the concept of running a marathon didn’t hit me until I was in my early 40s, and started running 3 miles a day.
In my era, we witnessed black out curtains, shortages of tobacco, sugar, and we jumped on tin cans, and later fought over who could massage the round orange ball inside the plastic covered white lard package to make margarine. We rooted for Ike, and laughed about having a naked man swing in the trees at the top of the hill where the Water Tower stood, a silent sentry to his bizarre behavior.

Boston’s a town that changed quite a bit; a town where prejudice of skin color and class etched pain in anyone’s heart in the 1950s. In my small patch anyone who wasn’t Catholic and Irish were suspect, except at high school, Roslindale High, and then we kids didn’t draw any type of line around, through, or over friendships

But somehow, maybe because change was in the air, always necessary, and because of books, and unobserved deeds of kindness, I didn’t pick up the alcoholism in the family quilt, and I moved to California, leaving the idea of skin color scorn and judging someone who didn’t speak the King’s English. Los Angeles in the early 60s was bizarre and multifaceted. Still, Boston, was a good place to be from, despite James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger, Jr.’s cavorts, and the horrible racism of Louise Day Hicks. I somehow knew change would come when we managed toe holds on the crust of the 60s. So now when I hear of newscasters laud the tightness of solidarity, I wonder. Is that really true?

But I tell you, we are all from Boston, or Newtown, or New York, or Baghdad, or Congo when atrocities hit us or others. The human heart has a way of moving borders. Got to tell the leaders about this. They need to know.