Tag Archives: racism

Miss Pittman

Miss Jane PittmanI read twenty-five books in 2017, another twenty-five in 2018, and another twenty-five in 2019. I share that with the pride that comes from the rarity of setting a long-term goal and sticking to it. My goal was another twenty-five in 2020 to make it an even hundred in four years, but much to my surprise I am already through twenty in just half a year, so the odds are in my favor.

It isn’t that work has even hinted at letting up. Instead, this sudden reading feast appears to be a combination of no evening events to attend, no sports to follow on television, and a persistent need to escape the present circumstances. I am reading constantly.

Book number twenty was The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman. Years ago, while living in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, my friend, Bruno, gave me a copy of A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines, one of those novels that crawls into your heart and builds a nest. Last Christmas, while stocking up on used books at McKays with my family, I couldn’t pass up a copy of Gaines’s Miss Pittman. However, it sat in a stack for the first several months of 2020, but as enduring racism claimed global attention alongside the raging pandemic, it seemed like the time to read this particular story.

The stunning plotline of the novel is the reflection of a 100+ year old woman whose life stretched from the 1860s to the 1960s, from birth into slavery through a life of unrelenting white supremacy and into the pain of the Civil Rights era. Alice Walker described it as “grand, robust, a rich and very big novel,” to which I add a humble Amen.

As I read the frustrating, humiliating, yet strong and courageous journey of the novel’s heroine, given the time in which I was reading I thought of decade after decade of so many thinking that the American Civil War ended something that it did not. And one does not even have to try very hard to connect the dots and recognize that the American Civil Rights Movement was not a finish line either.

It is shameful that we had to argue over such an innocuous phrase, Black Lives Matter. I guess that shows how deep-seated racism actually is.

Miss Jane Pittman is technically a fictional character, but of course she was oh so real. It occurred to me that many more Miss Pittmans were born in the 1960s and are now over halfway through another century’s journey. I wish their story was less painful than it is, but I have seen them on the television mourning the loss of their children, too.

I am thankful to Mr. Gaines for introducing me to Miss Pittman and teaching me that even being shown and told that one does not fully matter for over a hundred years is impotent compared to the capacity of the human spirit. May such extraordinary fortitude be rewarded in the lives of real people.

Livin’ on the Edge

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There’s somethin’ wrong with the world today
I don’t know what it is
Something’s wrong with our eyes…

If you can judge a wise man
By the color of his skin
Then mister you’re a better man than I…

Livin’ on the edge…
– Aerosmith (1993, inspired by the L.A. Riots)

Jerry Mitchell visited Nashville to promote his new book shortly before the pandemic swept across the United States, and I dropped by his book signing at Parnassus to pick up an autographed copy. Race Against Time chronicles Mitchell’s work as an investigative journalist to reopen unsolved murder cases from the Civil Rights Era, ultimately resulting in convictions of multiple people decades after their terrible racist crimes. It was later during the global quarantine that I took the time to read the book, and although I am aware of the history and reality of racism, I am somehow still stunned by many of its true stories.

With the book still fresh in mind news emerged from Georgia of the unconscionable killing of Ahmaud Arbery, and I had to wonder if anyone is truly winning this “race against time.” As a runner, I was shaken in a new way, forced to recognize that mindlessly enjoying such a simple hobby is yet another unearned advantage that I possess. Even during an unprecedented era of cultural transformation due to a rampant virus, there is unfortunately one thing that remains—the ubiquitous influence of a centuries-long assumption of white superiority.

More recently, I read another book titled, Nashville 1864, this time a work of historical fiction that recounted the Battle of Nashville in the American Civil War. The novel was frustrating in its romantic approach to the Antebellum South while helpfully portraying the terrible specter of war, and it simply reinforced in my mind the terribly complicated history of this nation. The novel describes the decisive encounter of the battle that occurred at Shy’s Hill, which happens to be one mile from my house. I finished the book on Memorial Day weekend, and early on Memorial Day itself jogged over to and up on Shy’s Hill to consider all the lives lost. It seemed random to see a marker for Minnesota on Shy’s Hill in Nashville, Tennessee—random until I learned that more Union soldiers from Minnesota died in that battle than from any other state.

And then the despicable murder of George Floyd in Minnesota was televised on the evening news.

Friends, it has been 156 years since a significant number of Minnesotans died in my neighborhood fighting a war that presumably put an end to the notion that Black Americans were less than White Americans. But it is all too clear that all the lives lost and all the efforts made and all the progress achieved has not ultimately prevailed.

For multiple reasons I chose years ago to post less about issues on social media instead of more. Among those reasons was a desire to read and listen more (and talk less), and to focus on things that carry the possibility of creating actual structural changes so that the reality 156 years from now is different—things like using my advantages to instigate conversations that lead to changes in education systems, hiring practices, and ultimately, changes in hearts.

But in times like this I question whether I am doing the right things, or things that really matter, or, maybe most of all, whether I am doing enough.

So today, for what it is worth, I say aloud that I recognize the deep wrongs screaming at us on the evening news—wrongs that exist in a nation where the two people competing to be its CEO are both White men who have independently and recently managed to offend millions of Black Americans. In such a time and place, I simply say that I stand alongside Black Americans and declare their full beauty and worth as human beings. It matters more whether I live it than whether I say it, but in case it helps or matters, I say it.

Remembering Josh Gibson

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I arrived early at Nationals Park for Game 4 of the NLCS and did a lap around the stadium to see the sights. I discovered three statues near the home plate entrance, and as a student of baseball history anticipated two of the honorees—Frank Howard and Walter Johnson. But I confess that the Josh Gibson statue was a most pleasant surprise.

Not that Gibson, the greatest home run hitter in baseball history, does not deserve a statue. Quite the opposite. Gibson hit more home runs than anyone, including the longest home run in the history of Yankee Stadium. Some called him “the black Babe Ruth,” while others preferred to refer to Ruth as “the white Josh Gibson.” No, I was surprised to see the statue since Gibson, simply because of the color of his skin, was never allowed to play a Major League Baseball game.

Sadly, Gibson died of a stroke at age thirty-five. Three months later Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball.

In certain ways there has been undeniable progress in race relations in this country, thanks in part to baseball and the heroism of players like Jackie Robinson. When the team from our nation’s capital takes the field tomorrow night in their first ever trip to the World Series, their roster will feature players from Brazil, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Venezuela—and the United States. And from the United States, alongside white, European-Americans you will find African-Americans, a Japanese-American, and a Mexican-American. It is a beautiful thing to witness.

But do not be deceived. Progress is simply signage on the road to somewhere, and the destination most assuredly remains on the farthest horizon.

Josh Gibson’s statue outside a Major League Baseball stadium in our nation’s capital honors one of the greatest baseball players of all time. At the same time, it reminds us that he was never allowed on the team. Both deserve remembering.

Courage & Conviction

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“Nashville sure loves its breakfast places.” – Jody Sturgeon

Before arriving in Nashville my wife suggested that Saturday morning brunch serve as our weekly date, and so far we are two-for-two. We opened with Holler & Dash Biscuit House where I sampled/devoured the biscuits & gravy and a unique approach to beignets, and then on Saturday number two we drove past the long lines at two iconic brunch spots, The Pancake Pantry and Biscuit Love, and ended up at Frothy Monkey where I enjoyed bacon, eggs, and pancakes as well as a decent portion of my wife’s meal, too. I like this new tradition a lot. And as Jody observed, we are in no danger of running out of new places to try out anytime soon.

As we walked down Fifth Avenue toward our latest brunch adventure, we noticed the historical marker for the 1960 Nashville sit-ins across the street from the Walgreen’s. I confess to knowing little about the Nashville sit-ins prior to our decision to move, but when I discovered that David Halberstam was a reporter for The Tennessean during this critical time in history and had written a massive book about it titled, The Children, I bought the 783-page monster and am eager to dive in.

Our national sin of white supremacy and the Civil Rights Movement that literally placed it on public display have captivated me on multiple levels, not the least of which being the Movement’s proximity to my world both in location and time in history. It is mind-boggling to remember that not so long ago fellow citizens with black or brown skin could not have sat at the same table with me for brunch in Nashville—and that when a group tried and white citizens assaulted and degraded them, only the former were arrested.

I am both impressed and proud that Nashville marked the spot, but do not be mistaken: There is much more work to do. However, what struck me last Saturday was that the world did change, and it changed due to the courage and conviction of college students. That makes me want to go to work today even more.

Today is April Fool’s Day, so consider yourself warned about some good, clean fun out there today. But let’s remember the lessons from our yesterdays that the students taught us and look toward a tomorrow with the courage and conviction that eschews foolishness and embraces wisdom.

Mudbound

mudbound picWe were simply looking for a movie to watch on Netflix and Mudbound had rave reviews. Watch it. But fair warning: It is difficult to watch. It is difficult to watch because the storytellers do a masterful job of portraying the sort of lives that were difficult to live. The movie is a disturbing, compelling, haunting, yet beautiful work of art.

Mudbound features the intertwined stories of two rural Mississippi families, one black and one white, when one member from each family returned home following World War II. I will spare you the full movie review (especially preserving the memorable ending) and just state that systemic poverty, racism, and PTSD are terrible things and that all sorts of people—the beautiful, the complicated, and the perverse—are all mixed up in it.

I learned that the movie came from a novel of the same name by Hillary Jordan, and since we all know that books are better than their movies, I can only imagine how good it must be. The novel reportedly contains the line, “Death may be inevitable, but love is not. Love, you have to choose.”

This seems particularly important to consider on this special holiday that remembers Dr. King. On this day and every day, like Dr. King, may we choose love. “Hate is too great a burden to bear.”

 

Unarmed Truth & Unconditional Love

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Ralph Abernathy and Will Campbell grieve the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the Lorraine Motel (April 1968)

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.” – Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

I was deep in the heart of rural Texas when the chaos in Charlottesville unfolded last weekend and found myself in a conversation with a couple of local police officers about other matters. I mentioned that they should visit us in California sometime and one offered a kind smile and said, “Nah, Californians don’t like Southern Republicans.” We laughed, but there is some measure of truth to his statement. And vice-versa, of course. There is plenty of not liking to go around these days.

I am a Christian, which unfortunately means many things to many people, but for me it means that I must love everyone. No exceptions. So I stand in opposition to hate in any form, which most assuredly includes all versions of white supremacy. And because I must love everyone then I am necessarily opposed to acts of violence. It is a package deal. Violence toward a loved one is unfathomable, so when you choose to love everyone it kind of takes the wind out of Violence’s sails.

“‘Don’t the Bible say we must love everybody?’ / ‘O, the Bible! To be sure, it says a great many such things; but, then, nobody ever thinks of doing them . . .'” – In Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Will D. Campbell is a personal hero of mine who was an important leader in the Civil Rights Movement and a fierce advocate for the victims of deep racism. However, Campbell started to notice that many of his fellow activists used the same dehumanizing language  and tone toward the “segregationists” that segregationists used toward African-Americans. Since Campbell was a Christian, he took a stand against that, too.

“With the same love that is commanded to shower upon the innocent victim of his frustration and hostility, the church must love the racist. Moreover, the church is called to love those who use and exploit both the racists and their victims for personal wealth and political gain. The church must stand in love and judgment upon the victim, the victimized, and those, both black and white, who exploit both, for they are all the children of God.” – Will D. Campbell, in Race and Renewal of the Church (1962)

Some things in this country have improved in the half century since the milestone moments of the Civil Rights Movement while many others have quite obviously not. And the version of Christianity touted by “Brother Will” and Dr. King often appears unopened in the shrink-wrapped box.

But I remain hopeful. For I, too, believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will someday have the final word.

A Dream On My Mind

“Blues was my first love.  It was the first thing where I said, ‘Oh man, this is the stuff.’  It just sounded so raw and honest, gut-bucket honest.” – Carlos Santana

As American society is forced to observe its ongoing failure to achieve racial equality, and as the nation chugs Pepto Bismol straight from the bottle in anticipation of tonight’s first presidential debate, I find myself listening to the blues.  Part depression, but admittedly, part I like listening to the blues.  

The names of the blues artists are the best: Muddy Waters; Howlin’ Wolf; T-Bone Walker; Blind Lemon Jefferson; and Big Mama Thornton.  (I read a great suggestion for how to create your own blues name using Blind Lemon Jefferson as exemplar.  Start with a physical infirmity, add a fruit, and finish with the last name of a president.  I’m going with One-Eyed Apple Carter.)

And the titles/lyrics of the songs themselves are fantastic: My Starter Won’t Start This Morning.  Call Me Anything, But Call Me.  Cornbread Peas and Black Molasses.  My favorite line from B.B. King: “Nobody loves me but my mother.  And she could be jivin’ too.”  Or, this great section from Lonnie Mack’s Oreo Cookie Blues:

I hide ’em in a cabinet, I keep ’em in a jar
For emergencies you know I keep ’em in the
Glove compartment of my car.
And I can’t live without ’em
They git’ me higher than I can get on booze
I got them Oreo creme sandwich
Chocolate-covered crème-filled cookie blues.

But seriously, despite this troubled world of ours, what business does a pasty-white bozo living in Malibu with a blog about optimistic attitudes like me have listening to the blues?  Well, it could be that someone who feels the need to create a blog about optimistic attitudes may have an underlying issue or two.  And it could be that Santana was on to something and that I’m drawn to something raw and honest, which may be better stated by Wynton Marsalis who said, “Everything comes out in blues music: joy, pain, struggle.  Blues is affirmation with absolute elegance.”

That works for me.  The blues confronts the brutal facts of life elegantly.  On some level, personal, or societal, or whatever, we all have some brutal facts that need confronting, and I would like to do so with elegance, rhythm, and style.

Back in 1939, Big Bill Broonzy sang about dreams he had on his mind that just weren’t true when he woke up in the morning.  Dr. King spoke of such unrealized dreams a few decades later, too.  Today, as we continue to sing the blues, may we not stop dreaming.

“I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.    

The Problem with Judgment

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Norman Rockwell’s historic 1964 painting, The Problem We All Live With, serves as an important-yet-disturbing reminder of the enduring legacy of Ruby Bridges.  At age six, Ruby integrated an elementary school in New Orleans, although calling it integration is a little misleading since white parents pulled their children from class and white teachers refused to teach little Ruby.  Thankfully, one brave teacher from Boston agreed to step up, and for a full year Ruby experienced the ultimate in student-teacher ratio.

She also experienced pure hatred.  Rockwell captures the hatred in his painting, but Ruby experienced it firsthand.  The screams, threats, and nastiness came hot and heavy, directed at a sweet little girl simply trying to go to school.

At her mother’s suggestion, Ruby did something special as federal marshals escorted her to and from school each day: little Ruby prayed for forgiveness for the people screaming at her.

Remind me, what is it that I have to be upset about today?

I can think of two things that I have in common with Ruby Bridges: first, both she and I lost our homes in Hurricane Katrina; and second, we were both at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures on Wednesday evening this week, although I was a bald head in a vast crowd while she shared her captivating story from center stage.

Ms. Bridges said that she loved the first grade because of her wonderful teacher.  She said that her teacher looked like the screaming crowd—but she was different—and that the lesson she learned that historic first-grade year is that you cannot simply look at a person and make a right judgment.

Embracing that lesson is the third thing I want to have in common with Ruby Bridges.

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Brothers and Sisters

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“Let us all hope that the dark clouds of racial prejudice will soon pass away and the deep fog of misunderstanding will be lifted from our fear-drenched communities, and in some not too distant tomorrow the radiant stars of love and brotherhood will shine over our great nation with all their scintillating beauty.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail (April 16, 1963)

Three years ago, I wrote an essay for the Pepperdine Dispute Resolution Law Journal titled, “From Integration to Multiculturalism: Dr. King’s Dream Fifty Years Later.” The essay questioned whether the changes in race relations in the United States in half a century signified actual progress toward Dr. King’s dream. The skepticism I expressed in the essay has not improved while watching the news over the ensuing three years.

And what exactly was the Dream? Although the terms equality and freedom and justice, words with a legal flavor, were prominently featured in Dr. King’s speeches, it is the family metaphor of brotherhood (with apologies for the non-gender inclusive language of the time) that stands out in the speeches as a better characterization of the Dream. As King famously stated, “I want to be the white man’s brother, not his brother-in-law.”

Check out the epigraph to this essay that closed out the Letter from a Birmingham Jail to see what I mean. Check it out again and tell me that we are in shouting distance of such a dream. I think not.

So has this all been a waste of time? Are we simply left with a new holiday? Of course not, but although there has been much good, it is naïve to think that we are anywhere near a world where we see one another as brothers and sisters across the various social lines that divide us. Watch the news. Heck, join me in taking a good look at our own hearts.

So what now? Well, I say that we keep dreaming. And keep hoping. And keep working. For equality and freedom and justice, sure, but climb up on the mountaintop and see beyond those lofty words to an even loftier ideal where we all live together as brothers and sisters.

That is some dream, and it is worth remembering today.

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Examine the End

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French sociologist, Jacques Ellul, published “The Technological Society” in 1954, a book that predicted that although technology will be presented as a servant of humanity, it will overrun the world and become its master. My iPhone constantly reminds me that he was on to something (in the 1950s!). In the foreword to Ellul’s book, famed American sociologist, Robert K. Merton, wrote: “Ours is . . . a civilization committed to the quest for continually improved means to carelessly examined ends.”

I read that phrase years ago and cannot get it out of my mind. We are obsessed with bigger and faster and more—but for what purpose?

NBC News presidential historian, Michael Beschloss, spoke in March at the national meeting of the American Council on Education about the increased pressure on the president to respond quickly to national issues due to the social media phenomenon. As a stark example, he referred to the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and said that if President Kennedy had been forced to respond in the same timeframe that current presidents are expected to respond, he would have chosen to unleash heavy military action. It is estimated that forty million lives would have been lost. Forty million. Thankfully, there was time to reflect, and a different decision.

Charleston has dominated the news of late and rightfully so. It is an unspeakable tragedy—although there has been a lot of speaking anyway. I get it. Today, you have to speak quickly on important issues or you will miss the chance when the next story arrives.

I, too, have very strong feelings about the recognition of persistent racism in America and access to guns and gun control and the Confederate battle flag and am “committed to the quest for continually improved means” such as these (and more), but I would like some time and space for a deep and difficult examination of the true “ends” so that we might have shockingly productive conversations on how to get there.

My premise today is simple. For things to look up—and things can always look up—we need deep, measured, thoughtful conversations until we agree on where we are going, but it has grown more difficult to have such conversations because of our obsession with immediate actions.

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* Click HERE if you are interested in an essay published in Pepperdine’s Dispute Resolution Law Journal a couple of years ago where I reflected on the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. It concludes with an attempt to identify Dr. King’s “end” given his language.