Famous Last Words
Every now and then a lesson comes easy. Other times we learn things by accident, if at all. And inevitably it seems, the lessons that matter most, often come from the least likely sources, and at the most inopportune moments. So much so, that if we aren't paying close attention, we'll miss them altogether. Such was the case last August when my paternal grandmother died, at the age of 78.
Although the passing of a relative may seem hardly appropriate as the jumping off point for a political commentary, it is precisely the oddity of it that makes it all the more poignant and valuable. But first, a slight preface to what I'm trying to explain.
In the past few years I have had the good fortune to speak before nearly 60,000 people, in forty states, on over 150 college campuses, and to dozens of community groups, labor unions, and government agencies about racism. Some audiences respond favorably, others not so much. But the message I deliver is always the same: those persons called "white" have a particular obligation to fight racism because it is our problem, created in its modern form by us, for the purpose of commanding power over resources and opportunities at the expense of people of color. Furthermore, all whites, irrespective of their liberal attitudes, "tolerance" for others, and decent voting records, have to address the internalized beliefs about white superiority from which we all suffer. No one is innocent. No one is unaffected by the daily socialization to which we are all subjected--specifically with regard to the way we are taught to think about persons of color in this society: their behaviors, lifestyles, intelligence, beauty, and so on.
Without question, convincing white folks--particularly those dear liberals who insist every other friend they have is black--that they too have internalized racist beliefs, even of a most vicious kind, proves the most difficult in the work I do. You can't prove the point with statistics, or poll numbers, or by pointing out the wide disparities in life chances which form the backdrop of American institutionalized racism. Convinced that they are free from the biases, stereotypes, and behaviors that characterize "real" racists, such persons inevitably seem the most resistant to the analysis offered here thus far. It is with this in mind that I return to my grandmother. For her death--and more to the point, her life, right up until she died--offers more in the way of proof that racist socialization affects us all than anything I have experienced in the course of my 30 years.
You see, my grandmother was one of those good liberals. In fact, in many ways she was beyond liberal, particularly given the time and place in which she spent most of her life. Born in the Detroit area, she and her parents moved South in the 1920's. Her father was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. A member that is, until the day in 1938 when his only daughter informed him that she had fallen in love with a Jewish man, and that in addition to that, his hatred of blacks was unconscionable to her. She then handed him his robes, and with her mother's approval, asked whether he was going to burn them, or if she was going to have to do it herself. She challenged him despite what must have been the palpable fear of standing up to a man who was none too gentle and most certainly capable of violence. As it turns out, he would never attend another Klan meeting, and by all accounts changed his attitudes, changed his behaviors, indeed, changed his life thereafter.
Throughout her life she would stand up to racist bigotry on a number of other occasions: threatening to commit vehicular homicide on a real estate agent who sought to enforce restrictive covenants in her family's chosen Nashville neighborhood; standing up to racist comments whenever she heard them, from friends, family members, or total strangers. The fear which often paralyzes whites and makes us unwilling to challenge racism--described by James Baldwin as the fear of being "turned away from the welcome table" of white society--was something that played no part in her life. She was a woman of principle, and although not an activist, in her own way she nonetheless instilled in her children and grandchildren a sense of right and wrong which was unshakeable in this regard. She is in no small part responsible for who I am and what I do today.
But enough for the praise. Heaping accolades on the dead is not my intention here. There is another part of this story which is less heartwarming, and yet more instructive and important than anything said heretofore. It is the part about my grandmother's death.
A few years ago it became obvious that MawMaw, as we knew her, was developing Alzheimer's disease at a fairly rapid pace. Anyone who has watched a loved one suffer with this condition knows how difficult it is to witness the deterioration that takes place. The forgotten memories come first. Then the forgotten names. Then the unfamiliar faces. Then the terror and anger of feeling abandoned. And finally, a regression back to a virtual infant stage of development, complete with the sucking in of one's lips so typical of newborns. It is a fascinating disease, in that it renders otherwise healthy persons helpless, eventually causing not only a mental meltdown, but a physiological one as well. It renders its victims incapable of reason or comprehensible thought. It saps the conscious mind of its energy, and therein lies the point of my story.
You see, resisting the weight of one's socialization requires conscious thought. It requires the existence of the ability to choose. And near the end of my grandmother's life, as her body and mind began to shut down at an ever-increasing pace, this consciousness--the soundness of mind which had led her to fight the pressures to accept racism--began to vanish. Her awareness of who she was and what she had stood for her entire life disappeared. And as this process unfolded, culminating in the dementia ward of a local nursing home, an amazing and disturbing thing happened. She began to refer to her mostly black nurses by the all too common term which forms the cornerstone of white America's racial thinking. The one Malcolm X said was the first word newcomers learned when they came to this country. Nigger. A word she would never have uttered from conscious thought, but one which remained locked away in her subconscious despite her best intentions and lifelong commitment to standing strong against racism. A word which would have made her ill even to think it. A word which would make her violent if she heard it said. A word which, for her to utter it herself, would have made her, well, another person altogether. But there it was, as ugly, and bitter, and fluently expressed as it probably ever had been by her father.
Think carefully about what I'm saying. And why it matters. Here was a woman who no longer could recognize her own children; a woman who had no idea who her husband had been; no clue where she was, what her name was, what year it was--and yet, knew what she had been taught at a very early age to call black people. Once she was no longer capable of resisting this demon, tucked away like a ticking time bomb in the far corners of her mind, it reasserted itself and exploded with a vengeance. She could not remember how to feed herself, for God's sake. She could not go to the bathroom by herself. She could not recognize a glass of water for what it was. But she could recognize a nigger. America had seen to that--and no disease was going to strip her of that memory. Indeed, it would be one of the last words she would say, before finally she stopped talking at all.
Please understand my point: Given this woman's entire life, and the circumstances surrounding her slow demise, her utterance of a word even as vicious as nigger says absolutely nothing about her. But it speaks volumes about her country. About the seeds of pure evil planted deep in every one of us by our culture; seeds which--so long as we are of sound mind and commitment--we can choose not to water. But also seeds which left untended sprout of their own accord. It speaks volumes about the work white folks must do, individually and collectively to overcome that which is always beneath the surface; to overcome the tendency to cash in the chips which represent the perquisites of whiteness; to traffic in privileges--not the least of which is the privilege of feeling superior to others--not because of what or who they are, but rather because of what you're not: in this case, not a nigger.
In so many ways that's all whiteness ever meant, and all it needed to mean for those of European descent. To be white meant at least you were above them. If you had not a pot to piss in, at least you had that. To call another man or woman a nigger and to treat them the way one is instructed to treat such an untouchable is to assert nothing less than a property right. It is to add value to what DuBois called the "psychological wage" of whiteness. When my grandmother was strong and vibrant she had no need to take advantage of these wages, and indeed, often tried hard to resist them. But in weakness and confusion it became all that her increasingly diseased mind had left. And she called in the chips.
Maybe all this is why I'm so tired of other white folks trying to sell me bullshit like: "I don't have a racist bone in my body," or "I never notice color." See, MawMaw would have said that too. And she would have meant well. And she would have been wrong.
Fact is, nigger is still the first word on most white people's mind when they see a black man being taken off to jail on the evening news. The first thing we think when we see Mike Tyson, Louis Farrakhan, or O.J. Simpson (as in "that murdering nigger"). Think I'm exaggerating? Then come with me to America's airports and have a drink with me at the bar the next time an African American other than Oprah, Michael Jordan, or Colin Powell makes the news. Take a cab ride with me anywhere in this country, and if the driver is white (or really anything but black), and the trip more than fifteen minutes, see how long it takes for the word or its modern-day coded equivalents to spew forth from their mouth, once they find out what I do. Ask me what white folks yelled at black students who occupied the basketball court during a Rutgers/U Mass game a few years back to protest racist comments by Rutgers' President. Fans who mere seconds before had been wildly cheering black basketball players, and yet could and did turn on a dime as soon as they were reminded of the racial battlelines which trump NCAA-inspired brotherhood every time. And then after that, tell me the one again about being colorblind. Let's go to Roxbury tonight, or East L.A., or to the Desire housing projects in New Orleans, or to any MLK Boulevard in any city in America--and then let's see how hard it is to spot melanin. Colorblind my ass.
And then once we're all through feeling bad for having been sucker-punched by racist conditioning just like everyone else, then please, for the love of God, let's learn to forgive ourselves. Our guilt is worthless, although, it should be said, far from meaningless. It has plenty of meaning: it means we aren't likely to do a damned thing constructive to end the system which took us in, conned us, and stole part of our humanity. And what those women at my grandmother's nursing home need and deserve--much more than a sniveling apology from embarrassed family members--is for me to say what I'm saying right now, and to encourage everyone to be brave enough to say the same thing. To put an end to this vicious system of racial caste. To spend every day resisting the temptations of advantage, which ultimately weaken the communities on which we all depend.
Those nurses knew--and so do I--why my grandmother could no longer fight. For the rest of us, there is no similar excuse available.
Of course we have been adding more links and articles to ZNet. We've even managed some non (explicitly) Kosovo material such as a major new Instructional On Economics ( ), an SEP site update ( ), new Activism Watch updates ( ), and of course new Kosovo pages ( ) from, among others, Edward Herman ( ) and Saul Landau ( ). We've also added a section of song lyrics that I feel speak to the issue, sometimes as well or better than even our most informed critics -- though differently, of course. THese will be changed every few days--those there now are from Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Phil Ochs. And again, for it is part of organzing, I also want to remind you to look at the ZNet Commentary Program Page ( ) and the page of outrageous options we are currently offering for subscribing to Z ( ), since each of these choices will not only bring you a much more substantial source of information and analysis than these free Updates, it will also, if you participate, help finance all our operations.
But, again, in light of the fact that we are at war, mostly I want to use this (extra) ZNet Update to try to convey something that will be useful to how you address the curent events.
When confronting a horrible war machine if one doesn't shut down and obey media marching orders, one's eyes tend to open very wide, not only to immediate events, but pretty quickly to broader matters as well. We become aware not only of the war but through discussion of it and a sensitivity that suddenly alters our perceptions, to other phenomena as well. It can be overwhelming to realize, and not just to realize but to really feel the extent of the crimes in the world and the extent of one's own country's quiet complicity, overt responsibility, or violent involvement. There is a tendency to either shut down to the truth or to bog down in feelings of hopelessness or cynicism about it, or perhaps to lash out in an anger that leads nowhere. In contrast, it is hard to do things that retain touch with the whole truth, sustain one's comittment, that speak to and from one's rage, and that yet accomplish good.
I am sending, today, the following piece adapted from one that I wrote during the Gulf War. It means to keep us in touch with the facts of our world, utterly horrible as some of those facts are when we literally face them in full display. Tomorrow I hope to inform this very emotional appeal, not meant to turn us into cynics or depressives or irate ineffectuals, with some useful answers to the questions that naturally arise -- okay, but then what do I do to dissent from war and to fight against these and all ill winds, and how do I understand my actions and also relate them to what other choose to do? I am sending these two messages because the last similar message I sent, about informing oneself in order to become an effective advocate of change, yielded a very unexpected but also very huge call for more material that spoke in a similar voice. I hope these two follow-up messages will be useful and that you will not find them an imposition. And I hope you will stay in touch with ZNet and its Kosovo pages for more analytic and in-depth historical material as well. First, then, to really put ourselves in touch with the world as it is and the responsibility we thus shoulder:
Suppose a hypothetical god got tired of what we humans do to one another and decided that from January 1, 1999 onward all corpses unnaturally created anywhere in the "free world" would cease to decompose. Anyone dying for want of food or medicine, anyone hung or garroted to death, shot or beaten to death, raped or bombed to death, anyone dying unjustly and inhumanely would, as a corpse, persist without decomposing. And the permanent corpse would then automatically enter a glass-walled cattle car attached to an ethereal train traveling monotonously across the U.S., state by state, never stopping.
One by one the corpses would be loaded onto the cattle cars and after every thousand corpses piled in a new car would hitch up and begin filling too. Mile after mile the killing train would roll along, each corpse viewed through its transparent walls, 200 new corpses a minute, one new car every five minutes, day and night, without pause.
By the end of 1999, on its first birthday, the first day of the new millenium, the killing train would measure over 2,000 miles long. Traveling at 20 miles an hour it would take about five days to pass any intersection. By the year 2000, assuming no dramatic change in institutions and behavior, the train would stretch from coast to coast about seven times. It would take about six weeks from the time its engine passed the Statue of Liberty to when its caboose would go by. God still wondering when pitiful, aspiring humanity would get the message.
Think how a young child sometimes points to a picture in a book or magazine and asks for an explanation, "Tell me about a tree?" A car? A boat? Or a train? A big train? The killing train?" Go ahead, answer that one.
If the ecologists are right that this planet is a single super-organism, they are wrong that pollution, toxic waste, and other human-created garbage is the most deadly virus attacking it. The killing train is worse.
Think about the pain that radiates from the Vietnam War monument with its 50,000 names in Washington, D.C. Imagine the lost opportunity and lost love and the network of negative influences that radiate from the unnecessary deaths enumerated on that monument. Now think about the killing train stretching from coast to coast and back and forth and back and forth and back and forth. Consider its impact, not only on those on board, but on every person that any of those corpses ever loved or would have loved, fed or would have fed, taught or would have taught.
Who rides the killing train? Citizens of the "Third World," selling their organs for food, selling their babies to save their families, suffering disappearances and starvation. They live in Brazil, Colombia, the Philippines, Timor, Iraq, El Salvador, Turkey, and New York. They are headed for the killing train. Every day. Millions.
Is this exaggerated? When 10 million children die yearly for lack of basic medical aid that the U.S. could provide at almost no cost in countries whose economies Exxon and the Bank of America have looted, what can you call it other than mass murder? Bloated diseased bodies are victims of murder just as surely as bullet-riddled bodies tossed into rivers by death squads. Denying medicine is no less criminal than supplying torture racks and stealing resources.
Evolution has given humans the capacity to perceive, think, feel, imagine. At a time of waras now in the Balkansif we get aroused to action we begin to see the whole killing train as it persists day in and day out. When this happens, what do we do about it. Become depressed? Cynical? Anguished? Cry? Daydream of Armageddon? Daydream of justice? Hand out a leaflet?
Once we begin to see this macabre train, how do we face it? Part of us says these crimes are so grotesque, so inhumane, that the perpetrators deserve to die, now. A little tiny killing train for the killers and no more big killing train for everyone else. An eye for a million eyes. What other step makes more sense? But, of course, that's not the way the world works. People give the orders, wield the axes, withhold the food, pay the pitiful salaries, but institutions create the pressures that mold these people. When an institutional cancer consumes the human patient, what kind of surgeon can cut it all away? Is the weight of repression so intense it can never be lifted?
At first, becoming attuned to our country's responsibility for the corpses stacked behind transparent cattle-car walls makes handing out leaflets, or arguing for peace with a co-worker, or urging a relative to think twice about paying taxes, or going to a demonstration, or sitting in, or even doing civil disobedience seem insignificant. But the fact is, these are the acts that the hypothetical God, tired of our behavior, would be calling for if she were to actually parade the "free world's" corpses down our mainstreets in killing trains. These are the acts that can accumulate into a firestorm of informed protest that then raises the cost of profiteering and dominating so high that the institutions breeding such behavior start to buckle.
The fact is, "You lose, you lose, you lose, and then you win." Every loss is part of the process that leads to transforming institutions so that there can be no people as vile as Clinton or Milosevic. No more "Good Germans" or "Good Americans," cremated Jews or decapitated peasants.
War in the Balkans is a horrendous crime against humanity for all the reasons critics have expounded, but, ultimately, becase it rends like and justice to no benefit to any constituency other than the Masters of War. It is an orchestrated atrocity that mandates our militant, unswerving opposition. There should be no business as usual until this war is ended.
But even after the Balkan War ends, the on-going U.S. war against "free world" people destined to ride the killing train will, if it continues, remain a tremendous crime against humanity. The killing train transcends the Balkans, Turkey, Timor, Colombia and extends into the systemic denial of human fulfillment and development, even to the point of starvation and death, all for profit and power. Ultimately, so must our opposition transcend the current events. The killing trainpoverty, disease, starvation, death squads, and terrorstems from basic institutions. These must become our lasting target.