Where do they keep the white people?

Open city

For the first time in many years, the term “fascism” is being used in the United States to refer to the rhetorical return of white supremacists, and the threat it represents for the country. In this worldview, hate towards “others” leads to verbal and physical violence. My father and his family endured the Russian pogroms of the early 20th century, and I’m a young, white Jewish woman married to an African-American. Now that policies of segregation have returned under Trump, I have to admit that some of my childhood fears have once again brought me nightmares. I’m concerned for my black children when they go out at night.

Since the United States election of 2016, as in many cities in Europe, we are living through a frightening time. Specters of racism and fascism threaten us once again. In my country, from the Texas border and across much of the country, to New York City where I live – usually a very progressive and certainly diverse city, the home of millions of immigrants – people of color from all backgrounds are experiencing horrific verbal, institutional and physical violence. The most recent notorious situation is the separation of children, including very young children, from their parents at our southern border where people fleeing oppression are being detained, deported, criminalized, and literally caged. We have witnessed babies crying uncontrollably, small children shouting for their parents and being ignored, adolescents sitting in postures of despair. Some of these children have been moved to faraway cities while their parents are kept in detention facilities; some may never be reunited again.

I am the child of an immigrant father who, with his parents and youngest sibling, emigrated here in the early 20th century from Kishinev, Romania, now Chisinau, Moldova. In 1968, when it was still illegal in many states despite a 1967 Supreme Court decision legalizing so–called inter–racial marriage, I – a white Jewish woman – married an African American man, and with him raised two Black sons, living my most intimate life in a Black family. As a woman and a mother, I became deeply aware of my whiteness, its privileges and zones of safety, while also becoming angry, saddened and anxious about the welfare of my sons and husband on the streets of America. As a college teacher of creative writing and African American literature for many years, I learned, studied and taught American race history, practiced racial awareness, worked for institutional diversity – for both gender and racial justice. I learned these values in childhood. My father was a Communist from his youth in “the old country,” who fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade in the Spanish Civil War, and who is the center of my most recent memoir.1 Indeed, because of my life experience, my entire writing life in fiction, essay and memoir have included centrally what Toni Morrison has called the “deep story”2 in matters of race – a phrase that demands a personal exploration and reckoning as well as a commitment to activism. I am a Jewish woman whose relatives were murdered in the Holocaust, though I did not have a chance to know them. My father and his family lived through the pogroms of Russia in the early 1900s. I watch the crying, desperate children at our Southern border with the horror many Americans feel now, and hope we can ultimately defeat the vicious ideologies that have opened up scars of racism and bigotry, its roots in two hundred years of human slavery, continuing into more than one hundred years of an American apartheid, called Jim Crow in the South, widespread segregation throughout the nation still, though illegal, characterizing our educational, criminal justice, professional, business and arts institutions. All of this is part of me, and I come from all of this. In the early months of the Trump administration, I began using my voice to write and my feet to march as often as possible, to protest and describe the events we fail to face squarely at our own peril – as a people concerned with justice and equality, as human beings in an increasingly threatening world.

I try to rise up each time the pits of Trump fears and anger draw me down. Many people speak of the tangle of old fears and new, past traumatic times bleeding into these times now, like a ruined water color painting – liquid stress muddying what needs above all at this time to be crystal clear. Friends talk of their inability to read the newspaper, watch television news or go to social media. I listen to music, read a book, take a walk, each one says. I do the same, but then we reverse ourselves: we must stay informed. How else to prepare for the struggles ahead?

Reaching back for models and lessons of past resistance, I recall times and ways people fought back, within ourselves and in the streets. In every memoir by an African American writer, there is a moment – early – maybe when the writer is five or six years old – of racial consciousness: what skin color means besides being a shade of tan or brown: I am black – and from that moment on the necessity is entrenched: to fight against assaults on dignity and freedom. I am happy to fight all outside murderers as I see I must,3 wrote Alice Walker, a battle to ward off invasion, outside and inside. “We have lived through worse,” my African American husband has said repeatedly since the election results left many of us first in a state of shock, then of growing horror over the past year and a half. Recalling years of growing up in total segregation in the Jim Crow South, he says, “It was hard, it was very oppressive, but we got through. And we will get through this,” he adds. Dubiously? Courageously – referring to daily threats to democracy, vicious hatreds at the center of a vicious campaign, reiterated in the inaugural address and since in the presidency through numerous speeches, tweets and policies.

The spirit of the civil rights movement

Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around4 The civil rights movement, in both philosophy and strategies, gave birth to all our movements for liberation, here and across the globe, and Obama captured that spirit in the chant of his first campaign: Sí se puede, yes you can! The vow is to struggle through great difficulty and opposition – and the struggle is always both outside us and within ourselves; the faith is that we must continue and can somehow survive. It is a faith embedded deep in African American history, from Slavery, to Jim Crow, to the massive incarcerations of black people in our prisons today.

Now is the time for all citizens, born in the USA, children and grandchildren of immigrants or naturalized Americans, to take as our model the great patriots who fought in the streets and within their own souls – like a tree that’s standing by the water5 – for justice, for the freedoms written into our constitution over two centuries, but for many Americans still unfulfilled.

The son of a family member, an eighteen–year–old young Black man whom I have known and loved since his birth, had gotten himself into trouble through addiction followed by several arrests. There was no violence in any of the crimes, but they were felonies of different degrees, and he eventually spent almost two years in prison, at first at the infamous Riker’s Island prison complex in New York City waiting for trial, finally in two prisons in New York State before he was granted parole. At his last appearances before the judge who had previously sentenced him to await trial without parole, she changed her mind for reasons we can only guess, about the length of his sentence, shortening a full seven years to a possibility for parole after a year and a half. Perhaps she knew what he would encounter as a young Black man, fairly innocent despite his recent history, in an upstate New York prison. Perhaps she was swayed by reports of good behavior for the months he spent at Riker’s, or she took a liking to him after several appearances in her court room. The constant presence of his family – “upstanding citizens” attesting to our support by our presence – the luck of finding an excellent lawyer from an organization offering legal services for free – no doubt all of this helped him in ways denied to many equally deserving young men, some of them really still boys who have made mistakes, taken wrong turns, in need of supports of all kinds to provide another chance at life. In any case, to our great relief, she remanded him on a plea of guilty to prison where his granted parole has now returned him home.

When we visited him at various institutions, almost every single inmate was black and brown. These “communities of color,” almost always surrounded by larger, freer white communities, reflect most of our neighborhoods, schools, cultural centers, community and artistic events – our mostly segregated American lives.

By the time of his move to the last prison, we had attended his court appearances in downtown Manhattan several times, trying to impress the Judge in whatever way we could: This boy is not alone, this boy has a family, this boy is loved. Once, as I sat there clenching my hands, making silent pleas, I heard another visitor – a member of an all white group visiting the courtroom as part of a New York City tour – whisper to her neighbor: Where do they keep the white people? Because, of course, all the prisoners, brought in to face the Judge, were black or brown as were most of the waiting families, the only white people, apart from myself, some of the lawyers, most of the guards and police, the Judge herself. When the young man’s mother went to visit him at Riker’s Island she took along a friend for support, a woman from South Africa. I thought you did not have apartheid in America, the friend said. Where do they keep the white people?

Fascism reappears, resistance begins

All this was more than a year before the election of Trump to the presidency following a campaign steeped in the language of white supremacy, explicit and implicit threats and insults that have been driving elections and policies in America for centuries, now loud and open again. Though never so far in our history vanquished, never gone, this is the first time in many years commentators are naming the rhetoric, the speakers and their threat to our nation, fascist – a process and outcome we have seen before, in Europe in the 1930s and 40s, in the McCarthy period of the 1950s in the United States, now in 2018 in America and across many European nations. Many issues – environmental, economic, global – comprise this dangerous world view – but, as in fascist takeovers before, hatred of “the other” drives verbal and physical violence, enabling the murderous policies the Trump administration increasingly puts in place.

Years ago, in a predominantly white class on African American literary traditions, I taught the lyrics of the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing6 – a song well known by every African American person I have ever met, yet unfamiliar to many whites. The last time I heard the song was last year on Martin Luther King Day at the New York City Fire Department. Along with a few other long serving African Americans, my husband, then a Deputy Commissioner, was being honored for his service. He had worked with a team over several years, backed up by a court order, to diversify that once almost all white institution in the midst of a multi–racial and multi–cultural city. All the fire fighters and administrators of color stood and sang, and some of the white people sang too – or they remained standing, silent but respectful, feeling honored, I hoped, as I did, to be singing or listening to those words.

Lift every voice and sing, til earth and heaven ring,
ring with the harmonies of liberty.
let our rejoicing rise, high as the glistening skies,
Let it resound, loud as the rolling sea […]
Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
felt in the day that hope unborn had died.
Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet
come to the place on which our fathers sighed.

I learned the song in 1953 from a white teacher in my 6th grade class in public school, most of us of Jewish, Italian, or Irish backgrounds, one lone black boy – George was his name – standing out in the midst of our whiteness. It was the 1950s and scattered among the school population was a small group of “red diaper babies” – children of Communist parents, including myself. We had been taught to fear the men from the FBI who often followed us to school, questioned us about our fathers, rang our bells in the evening. The risks were great – our parents were being arrested, imprisoned; for those of us like myself whose father was an immigrant, the threat of deportation was always feared. Many of them were called to testify before the House Committee on Un–American Activities, accused of treason, pushed to name the names of comrades and friends or be deprived of work by a national Black List. The small group of us “communist children” stood on the avenue at lunch time and argued with the other children about McCarthy, about a system of values, our parents insisted, the authentic heart of their political philosophy of social and economic equality, kept separate somehow for years from the illusions and knowledge of the tyrannies of so–called socialist governments. Negroes should have the same rights as white people, we shouted. Workers should benefit from their labor. Street Cleaners are as dignified as doctors. And the ordinary American kids screamed at us to go back to Russia.

The teacher who taught us the “Negro National Anthem” was a “sympathizer,” a “fellow traveler” as we called those who shared our beliefs but were not members of the Communist Party. She was also the music teacher, and she played the piano at every assembly where, after singing that other anthem, we all raised our voices and sang, Lift Every Voice

Those days ring loud in my mind today – fears of our parents’ deportation – close friends and relatives arrested – locked up – for challenging political orthodoxies. Lock her up!  Trump supporters shouted from halls, stadiums – and podiums – when Hillary Clinton’s name was mentioned – terrorizing words, frightening memories bleeding into a frightening time.

Now, as many have written and will continue to write, resistance has begun, preserving faith and hope, reminding me of the cry of the Spanish people who resisted Franco’s fascism in 1936: “¡No pasarán!”

A legacy that we have to share

A very recent memory intrudes. An early December afternoon – I am walking down an avenue in a Manhattan neighborhood famous for its liberal progressive politics, even if also for its increasing wealth and deep pockets of poverty. It is famously diverse, yet many of its blocks and apartment buildings are as segregated as those in most of the cities and towns of this nation. I am shopping for gifts on a crowded block, walking near lines of Christmas trees, the aroma of pine calling up memories of holiday reunions past. At the corner, a taxi stops to allow pedestrians to cross. A tall, athletic looking white man crosses in front of me, and when we are on the sidewalk he shouts to his little girl of about 6 or 7 years old – she is walking next to him but he is shouting, wanting us all to hear – You have to watch out for those fucking idiots driving taxis now – they’re all foreigners – bad people – they don’t belong here. They’ll kill you if they can. I glance at the driver, wondering if he’s heard. Like many taxi drivers in the city now, his skin is brown – an immigrant – a naturalized citizen – or an American whose family has lived here for generations.

And so I remember that even in New York City, many voters were willing to vote for a man who uses bigotry of all kinds to rally his supporters, who appointed a collection of such people to his cabinet.

We have come, over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.7

Voices lifted in song and at lunch counters, bodies on the streets, crossing bridges, artists making art. The struggle of African Americans for social justice, dignity and freedom is a legacy we – Muslims, women and men of all colors and creeds, people of all sexual preferences and identities – must all learn to share. From abolitionists and partisans of slave revolts to Freedom Riders; from Southern Sit–Ins and marches in Washington D.C. demanding liberty and justice for all, to Black Lives Matter demonstrations against murders of young Black men and children, to the tearing away of immigrant children from their parents seeking asylum in a nation that once welcomed “the tired, the poor, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” – in this history we find a model to resist. People of all backgrounds are marching, comrades with dark skins, light skins, holding banners reading: Aqui Estamos Y No Nos Vamos; I am The Proud Daughter of an Immigrant; He is not my president. Our common inheritance.

And I admit, long ago childhood fears fill my dreams again, anxieties for my grown up Black sons, driving, walking streets at night, strong men yes, brave men, but vulnerable, if not always in their bodies, in their spirits, their sense of safety replaced by a sense of threat.

I did not respond to the man in the street who shouted obscenities at his daughter, but I vowed the next time to find my voice again.

Lift every voice and sing...

Each time I hear those words I feel the promise, the claim:

Where do they keep all the white people? Time for that question to be answered. Right here with you. On the front lines.

Recommended

  • El nudo maternoLas afueras, 2018
  • The Communist and the Communist's Daughter: A Memoir. Duke University Press, 2017

Notes
1. Jane Lazarre, The Communist and the Communist’s Daughter; Duke University Press, 2017.
2. Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark, Whiteness and the Literary Imagination; Harvard University Press, 1992.
3. Alice Walker, “Good Night Willie Lee, I’ll See You In The Morning,” poema inclòs en una col·lecció del mateix títol. The Dial Press, 1975.
4. Cançó gospel de principis del segle xx que es va cantar al moviment pels drets civils dels EUA.
5. Cançó gospel de principis del segle xx que es va cantar al moviment pels drets civils dels EUA.
6. Lletra de James Weldon Johnson i música de John Rosamond Johnson.
7. Lletra de Lift every voice and sing.