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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.

 

 

 

 

A Life Apart – L. Y. Marlow 9780307719393

A Life Apart

L. Y. Mar

This is a historical novel dealing with race, World War II, specifically Pearl Harbor, relationships of the black and white kind, and a love story. The title A Life Apart implies to the reader more than one meaning. The author is indeed a , and as she takes us deeper and deeper into the novel, complexities of other families, life of African-Americans, how they differ, and a coming to love. It’s gentle, and it’s a story about love, about skin color privilege and hatred, and human beings caught on the corners or jagged edges of history’s transitions. I’m from Boston, and went to secretarial school in Roxbury. I was born a little before World War II, and grew up in the suburbs of Boston. I was oblivious to racial prejudice until I came to California in 1992, discovered the Baha’i Faith and the concept of the oneness of humankind.This book is important. There are no strident notes or harsh retaliations to the way whites treated our fellow African-Americans (grievously, beyond measure), and the author writes about these times, which are exceedingly important. If we are to know and love each other, and realize skin color is an illusion, we have to know of our insides, our hurts, our triumphs, frailties and joys. A Life Apart is a compelling story, and it works on many levels. I definitely recommend it. I read this book because I signed up for Blogging for Books, a worthy adventure in itself. Otherwise I might have missed A Life Apart. My life is enriched because of reading this. I think readers will hear more from L. Y. Marlow. She is also author of Color Me Butterfly, which I intend to track down as soon as I finish this review. Kudos to this writer! Thanks again Blogging for Books!

 From You Carry the Heavy Stuff, Esther Bradley-Detally – on Lulu.com., Amazon, and   Author’s possession 

Children of the Stolen Ones
(for Gloria Haithman—December 2, 2004)

“Greens” makes me think of Ola Mae’s Greens, down in my belly, in Olean,New York, as crowds of us burst into Ola Mae’s Restaurant on a regular basis to shoot the breeze, eat her famous Greens, and just to feel all’s well with the world.  Here in Pasadena,California, the subject of greens and chitlins came up.  I thought of Ola Mae, the camaraderie, her corn bread too, and just feeling part of the woodwork welcomed by her open heart and Best-Greens-Cook-In-The-World self.

In Pasadena, on a Wednesday night, Gloria talked about the same thing, but went a step further.  She spoke of soul food on another level, the spiritual teachings of love, hope, and faith.  She spoke to our insides where there are no colors.  Gloria said, “We were not colored when we were born.  Yeah, I thought, we came in that way, and no one crayoned some in, or bleached others out.

What if, instead of calling the dark ones, the Negroes, the People of Color, names given by history book scribes, say, “Black or African-Americans?” Then a phrase measured out, by Gloria, entered our gathering, all the while she was telling of a story of friends who called themselves The Sisters.  These Sisters went to South Africa, honoring their roots, and seeking answers to their identities.  On the trip they were constantly greeted by groups of women who would sing to them.  One day they met some African women who had the “Who are You? Where are you from?” look in their eyes, all the while staring at The Sisters.

One of the South African women said, “They are Children of the Stolen Ones.” Back in Pasadena, sitting on the orange velvet couch, those small noble words, “The Stolen Ones,” bombarded my heart as I felt my soul sink into a place of utter knowingness, of a reverence and majesty revealed.

As a white lady, an older one, who learned of our essential oneness some forty years before and humbly stayed on the thorny and pitted path of discovery and unity, I sat there stunned.  I repeated the phrase over and over to myself.  “Children… Children of the… Children of the Stolen Ones….”

Yes, and for me it was a rightful and merciful appellation.

Finally, dignity and solace packed into five words.  Measure it out on the tongue, slowly: “The Stolen Ones… Children of the Stolen Ones.” Feel your heart melt as if a great and timeless grief has finally been acknowledged.

My heart bowed a humble bow to the true nature of an incredible people, their majestic endurance, their ancestors.  I’m no artist and don’t know my colors, and I live in a world that thinks it knows its colors, and colors inside the lines, not outside—the “lines” being the operative word.

Well, I’d say in this year of 2004, “Maybe we should hear The Sisters, our sisters’, call from South Africa,” and use lines to wrap around: Majesty, Dimension, Endurance, Courage.  Name every quality our sisters and brothers of African heritage carry with fortitude, and you come up with, in my book, “The Chosen Ones.” And, what if God and his Messengers and Prophets saw that these Chosen Ones endured trials similar to the Minor Prophets? And what if Bahá’u’lláh knew His love for His Chosen Ones, knew they suffered the banishment, the chains, the whippings, as He, in the Path of God?

So here’s the final what if—what if this planet really was a testing ground to see who could show courage under fire, love of God, love of people despite that the Stolen Ones and their kin were also robbed? But wait, here’s another view.  I think the Children of the Stolen Ones are the Morning Glories of our age! Their children; their children’s children.  It’s the story Morning Glory.

Let’s proclaim, let’s shout, and let us bow in reverence to our ancestors, ransomed so we might reframe our hearts and join each other in history’s future where lines are a thing of the past and colors are loved-filled stripes of every hue.

Skin Color

At the Black History Parade, put on by the Jackie RobinsonCenter, one cold, but sun-emerging day, paralytic agony stops my nouns, verbs and adverbs describing skin color or lack thereof.  Pain fills my heart as my eyes Braille the sadness of a man’s face, deep rivets line his cheeks, highlighting generational discounts and the pitter patter of white voices.

Numbness clots my throat at this morning’s Parade, while those in other parts of the city, those from White gulags, tuff lawns, buff cars, and spread glossy interracial magazines, photo ops on tables, never viewed by the living.

Brown vs. Board, wasn’t that inTopeka?

In Idaho, Bill and I share a table with a Nigerian psychiatrist.  It’s lunch time in a hospital cafeteria,  and Bill asks a question which floats over our salads:

“Do you have to emphasize your African heritage”?

An acknowledged “Yes.”

A rueful, half-stated reply, “My children will not have that advantage.”

On the broad palettes of television’s life experts on society, are noticeable by their absence of color. Hey, what about The News Hour with Gwen Ifill?  Yeah, and Colin Powell, and… Yeah?  Hey guys, take the tour of Any City, USA, where two separate neighborhoods exist—bookends of ideological contrast.  One is spacious, forgiving, and tolerant, with wide streets, large houses and gracious plants, suggesting it’s easy to feel benevolent.  The other part contains narrow streets, boards on windows, hunger at night, restless poverty, and shootings.  Skin color privilege cuts its wide swath.

I can say no more.