I have now read about three-fifths of Isabel Wilkerson's incredible book The Warmth of Other Suns, and I am gaining such an important perspective on American history. She describes life in the "black" area of Chicago in the 1930s and 1940s. As I read of the very small area of the city where African Americans were "allowed" to live and how the rents got jacked up because so many people wanted to live in such a small area, I was reminded of the reading I've done about life in the Gaza Strip - a modern small place where a minority is forced to live. In Chicago in the middle of the Twentieth Century (and in most of the other cities in the North and West of the US), there was a color line that was so clearly drawn that, despite the fact it was not enshrined in law, people simply did not violate it. There were some brave people who figured out how to breach the line, and a lot of those people paid with loss of property, money, and, sometimes, their lives.
As I read the stories about life in these areas, I find myself seeing the inner cities of our country in a new way. The explanations I was given as a girl - that "those people" are living like that because they want to - are falling completely away. Wilkerson tells the story of a woman in her mid-20s, married, with three children, a survivor of the cotton fields of Mississippi, capable of long days of hard work; and this woman is at the very bottom of the list of people who could get hired. Jobs available to her and others like her paid the least, had the worst conditions, and were the most likely to have the worker not get paid. Wilkerson tells the story of a factory in Ohio that needed workers and advertised that it wanted to hire 500 white women. When it couldn't find enough white women in Ohio, it recruited workers from Indiana and Illinois; all of this while there were many non-white women eager to work.
The summer I was 13, the summer after my father died, my mother took her four little country kids to Detroit for a couple of weeks. We stayed with her brother (a newly retired police detective) and his family for a week in northwest Detroit and with an old friend in a wealthy enclave near the University of Detroit campus for another week. From those bases, we explored the city and its region. We spent a day a the Detroit Institute of Arts, another at the Detroit Zoo (where my mother and her brothers entertained all of us in the penguin house by naming the penguins after various characters in the ongoing Watergate drama that was tearing apart Richard Nixon's presidency), another at Greenfield Village, etc. Wherever we went that summer, though, we would get to "certain areas" of the city, and the adults would all hiss, "make sure your doors are locked!" We went to the neighborhood in which my mother had grown up, and it was block after block of boarded-up and burnt-out houses (this was just six years after the riots). My uncles explained that when "they" moved in, all of the "decent people" moved out, and this is what happened.
I didn't realize how deeply engrained this racism was in me until the summer of 2002. My husband had a professional society meeting in Atlanta, and we turned it into a mini-vacation. We drove to his folks' place in Durham, North Carolina, then on to Atlanta, and from there we went to central Florida. In Atlanta, while he was in meetings all day, I was out exploring the city via its public transportation system. (I have never adjusted to city driving, despite having lived in southeastern Michigan most of my adult life.) So, I went to the art museum, the Coca-Cola museum, the state capitol, etc. I also went to the Martin Luther King, Jr. center.
To get to the MLK center, I took the Metro train to a certain stop, then walked several blocks through one of "those" areas, and then found myself at the Center. There was an exhibit of photographs about lynching. If you ever get a chance to see one of these exhibits, approach it with trepidation. For me, going in, lynching was just a word with vaguely sinister connotations. The hour I spent with those photographs - most taken by people who were proud to be part of the experience - was one of the most devastating and chilling hours of my life. I walked out of that exhibit a different person, a person who had been confronted with evil beyond all understanding. One photograph showed a little blond girl in a cute little pinafore dress looking up at the dead black man hanging from the tree, and the little girl was smiling. I kept going back to that picture, and each time, I felt as though the ground were giving way under me. The little girl looked like me when I was that age, and I think that's what I found so compelling. How would such an experience warp and change you? Would you ever get over that early imprinting?
I toured the rest of the center and said a prayer at Dr. King's grave. And then I did the thing that stripped off all of the veneers and showed me to myself in a new and ugly light. I took aside one of the staff members and asked if there were some other way to get back to central Atlanta that didn't involve walking back through "that" neighborhood. The look of pity and barely concealed disdain she gave me haunts me to this day. As she gave me directions, I realized what I had just said. You see, when I took her aside, I thought I was saying, "This little country girl from northern Michigan doesn't understand big cities. Please help me." When I saw the look on her face, I realized that what I had just said was, "This middle-aged middle-class woman would prefer to not offend her eyes with how poor people live; and because she feels a certain sense of entitlement because of her skin color and class, she expects that others will ease her way in life." All the way back to the hotel, I tried to tell myself that I had truly meant the first; but I knew that I meant the second. I knew that I had to confront that latent racism and classism and that I had to recognize the sense of privilege I carry with me.
These are not easy admissions to make; this has not been an easy post to write; I spent a lot of time this week agonizing over what to say, what to leave out; and I sit here now looking at these words and wondering if I should say them out loud. I am going to publish this post, and I am going to ask that those who read it understand that until we can look at the faces of those in the crowds of evildoers and see ourselves, we cannot overcome evil. Until we can look in the faces of those we have seen as "others" and see fully formed people, we cannot begin to heal our world. It's funny, as I was writing along, I kept stopping to put in the various museum links; it was my way to keep from getting to the heart of this post.
For the record, when I left the MLK Center and walked to the alternate bus stop the lady had indicated, I saw myself in a new light, and I walked back through "that" neighborhood to the Metro train stop. Like the Magi at the end of T. S. Eliot's Marvelous poem "The Journey of the Magi,"
this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,