Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Silent Generation, Part I

As Black History Month winds down, I'm reminded of all those times, when as a child, I was asked to think and write about the contributions of famous black Americans.   The first person I automatically thought of was Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  He was the only person my social studies lessons and my teachers seemed to annually invoke.  I had no clue that he was only one of countless other activists who helped to shape our Civil Rights movement.  In high school, I began to learn the Who's Who of Black History beyond MLK, Malcolm X, and some entertainer du jour.  The lessons from textbooks and from life (like the first memory of being called a "nigger" on the day of my mother's funeral) would forge in me a steel-like, velvet soul always fending off attacks to truth and justice while seeking to understand the roots of inequity.  Now, I use this moment to reflect upon what contributes to Black History month being pertinent and necessary in a time when many question and refute its relevance.  Instead of a declaration of the courageous acts of people like Bessie Coleman, Bayard Rustin, and Lorraine Hansberry, I'm interested in the white side of black history. Specifically, the whites of the Jim Crow south.  Not the people like Gov. George Wallace or the Klu Klux Clan.  Like MLK, these white folks and their deeds have been etched into our consciousness so much so that our memory recall is rapid at the mere mention of Black History Month.  These were people who struggled with the realities of segregation, but participated in keeping Jim Crow alive and well.

Particularly, I'm interested in the bystanders and everyday people who never made headlines, but were captured in the images of policemen hosing down young protesters in the streets.  The people are nameless, but observant.  They aren't yelling at the black, college students sitting at the luncheonette counter. They are aware of  this scene from their booth looking down at their plates picking at the eggs over-easy, feeling either uneasy or indifferent.  They continue with their hushed conversation while the noise of people throwing chairs and hot coffee dominates.  They are the employers who hire help because they need lots of help and think that they are, in turn, doing their christian charity by helping their help because they've hired them.  For them, the socio-economic staus quo is that same mindset that defended slavery.

In the canon of civil rights history, the lives of the average, southern do-gooder is non-existent.  It is as if outspoken segregationists and raging white nationalists were the only roadblocks to freedom and the catalyst for the movement. Those who chose to live in silence while others suffered believed that they could either do nothing or risk losing everything for taking a stand.  However, I'm only speculating, because I have yet to come across any literature that speaks to this demographic.  Thanks to best-sellers like The Secret Life of Bees and The Help, the southern, white female voice is front and center dancing between that of the virtuous, but slightly rebellious protagonist and burgeoning activist.  As both novels are thinly disguised in biographical circumstances, authors Sue Monk Kidd and Kathryn Stockett, respectively, give life to familiar tales of discrimination, hatred, and partial redemption.  This half-redemption is left for the lone protagonist/narrator trying to carve a just life for herself amid an unjust society.  At the very least, we see her wrestling with civil rights versus familial obligations.  The fictional white, female character is an allegory for the feminine symbol of blind justice: the idea that if just one white person repents of their racist ways, this act covers the multitude of sins of the generation.  But, this is not so.  The enactment of the Civil Right Acts and the Voting Rights Act allowed for those at the margins of society to finally have a voice.  Simultaneously, these laws drove a wave of whites into corners of silence forced to now obey.  This is the memoir I want to read--the restaurant owner who refused to serve black patrons, but was then legally coerced.  I desire a page-turner that lights up about how much he wrestled with losing, God-fearing, faithful customers who at once decided that they just could not dine next to a black person.  

With the passing of decades and several U.S. presidencies and administrations, this generation of bystanders and taciturn observers have disappeared into the crowd.  Like aging Third Reich commandants scattered across the globe who've changed their identities and have fooled their progeny, they've successfully erased and revised their past. To their credit, some of them renounced segregation, and some of them eventually got on board with making MLK day a national holiday. Ironically, in perfect cadence with their forefather's footsteps, their adult children now hold secession balls in South Carolina.  They are legislators and ornery parents who opine to whitewash the Texas school curricula to omit any historical fact that colors the acts of the dominant culture.  For all of them, the Confederate flag is "separate, but equal" to the American flag.  Talk about history repeating itself. 

We've addressed the wounds of racism by bandaging it every time it re-opens and bleeds out.   I have a friend who grew up in the south and could not bring herself to finish reading The Help because it reminded her of her black nanny.  The severe discomfort of looking at her past drove her to a therapist.  I can only imagine what her parents do not feel and do not say.  I encouraged her to finish reading.  Racism is a broken bone that was set improperly and did not heal.  In order for the bone to return to normal it must be re-broken.  It's time for the silent generation to face the truth of its unrighteous exploits and confess.  The heavy burden of this reticence is carried by black folk, and yet we are consistently blamed for playing the race card, and like a magic trick, making it appear out of thin air.  Confession brings about healing.  Hippocrates said that healing is a matter of time, but it is also a matter of opportunity.  What we need is for these white families to tell their stories.  Let it begin in letters to relatives or in a journal.  It's time for southern whites to borrow a page from the annals of black history, dig their heels into the mud, and speak up for justice.