“The greatness of a community is most accurately measured by the compassionate actions of its members.” ~ Coretta Scott King.
My mother was one of those annoying parents/teachers who was never off duty. She would be on your case in every way, checking on your posture, your behaviour, your manners, she never took a day off. No slouching, no forgetting please and thank you, no walking by dropped litter. In the classroom, teaching typing on manual typewriters, she was the same. But who knew about repetitive stress injuries like low back pain and carpal tunnel syndrome then? Keep those wrists off the desk, straight back, pay attention, watch your speed, watch your accuracy. She was tough!
It is difficult to get away with anything when your parents are also teachers in your high school, and your father is a local minister as well. In a rural village in Jamaica, eyes are watching you all the time, especially if you are one of the few white people in the area. Despite all that I managed to have some fun in my teenage years! But I always remember my mother once telling me (after I complained that I was not given a reward for having achieved some minor accomplishment) ‘All that we ask is that you do your best’. I was not expected to be the best, but I had better be the best that I could be!
I recently read an article written by an award-winning English poet. He was born to an Ethiopian single mother after she arrived in England to go to College at a time when single mothers were definitely not a ‘thing’, so she was rushed away to give birth, and her child was taken away from her (for her own good, of course), and he eventually went from foster home to foster home and emerged to be a successful poet and defender of children who grow up ‘in care’. As one of the few Black children in his elementary school, he was subjected to overt racism, and had much to overcome to survive and thrive. This week he shared an article he had written about a trip he had taken as an adult to a far flung Scottish island where he was astonished to see ‘golliwogs’ on display in a shop window. Now ‘golliwogs’ may have been seen to be a harmless soft toy, the symbol of a huge jam manufacturer (stickers were given away with each jar bought, to be redeemed for prizes), but their history is even darker than the material that depicted them. The caricature of the Black minstrels appeared in a book written and illustrated by Florence Upton, and was built upon the racist stereotype of Black people. Much like the confederate flag, it was not so much a nostalgic reminder of simpler times as a covert symbol of racism, designed to remind Black people of their role in a racist society.
I have my own recollection of golliwogs, for they were featured in childhood books written by the famous English author, Enid Blyton. But beyond that, as a child in England, whenever I would visit the home of an older family friend she would warn me not to open the door to the cellar in case I fell down the stairs and hurt myself. And the way she tried to ensure I would not explore in curiosity? She told me that there were ‘Gollies’ (a milder version of the name) living in the cellar.
In the case of the poet Lemn Sissay above, he spoke to the owner of the shop, and expressed what the sight of the golliwogs in her window did to him. He later wrote about it in a blog, which resulted in an outcry, and the lady ended up closing her shop. His question was, should he have written about it?
If we are to ever move beyond this racist, otherist, divided world, we are going to have to accept some hard truths, and by we, I mostly mean white people. It is not enough to know in your heart you are not racist, you have lots of friends who are people of color, in fact your niece married that nice Jamaican man! We need to acknowledge the ugly fact that our last disgraced, twice impeached, indicted, (with more to come) former guy exposed. That white supremacists have been emboldened; that systemic racism exists in all walks of American life; that politicians using scare tactics to fan the flames of fear and hatred has been normalized.
I heard yesterday that a certain network (now owing hundreds of millions of dollars in a lawsuit) aired over a hundred segments about violent crime in the weeks leading up to the midterms, which dropped by 50% in the weeks after. When a targeted population is force fed an altered reality that is designed to promote fear and distrust of the perceived ‘other’, it is no wonder that they become scared and trigger-happy. This week alone we had examples of totally harmless events (knocking at the wrong door; turning around in a driveway) resulting in gunshots and even death. What is wrong with us?
One of the ways to promote community is to know your neighbor. I am living in Hollywood, Florida, a city with a racist past of its own. Presently it is one of the most diverse cities in the country. I am proud to say that on my block you find a healthy mix of ethnicities, which is multiplied around the area. When you live in a homogenous neighborhood, it is hard to move out of your cocoon and recognize the truth: we are all more alike than we are different; that diversity strengthens a nation; that there is much to be admired in all societies.
I am writing this from a state in which teachers are told what to teach; what books can be read; and what language can be used. Children who are ‘other’, whether by virtue of the color of their skin, or their sexual identity, are being taught that their history is unimportant; their reality is not to be discussed openly. The feelings of the few are amplified and made to be more important than the lived experience of the many generations of Native Americans; People of Color; members of the LGBTQ family. It is time for us (and by us I mean White people and straight people) to ask, am I doing enough? Am I guilty of remaining silent when others act in a way that is crass or even dangerous? Have I ever really listened to the life story of a child who is growing up gay in a household where being gay is seen to be a sin, or deviant, or worse?
This Friday morning I am encouraging us all to do better, because we know better. To be the best that we can be instead of settling for not being a bad person. To be kind whenever possible, and to listen to the lived experience of someone whose experience is different from your own, for we all play a role in this community. And go read a banned book!
Have a wonderful weekend, Family!