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jmtorres ([personal profile] jmtorres) wrote2017-06-30 10:52 pm

history only feels real when you make it personal

I've been listening to an audiobook of Audre Lorde's Sister Outsider, and having a lot of feelings about a lot of things. One was her story of where she was the night Martin Luther King Jr died. Students she had taught at Tougaloo College in Mississippi had come to New York in a choir to perform at Carnegie Hall with Duke Ellington. They stopped the concert to announce that MLK had died, and only finished one song (What the World Needs Now is Love) as a memorial before cutting it short. Duke Ellington was crying on stage. The choir was. The audience was. Go read it in her words.

Listening to her experience made me shiver. It also made me think. My education had presented the assassinations of JFK and MLK as roughly equal in importance, but while I had heard people tell "where were you when" stories about JFK's assassination, I hadn't heard any about MLK's. And that's probably because as a white person living a life fairly insulated by privilege, I haven't talked to a lot of black people of that generation, and white people, well, frequently don't focus on what they consider "racial" topics, as if white is not a race.

I told my mom about this, asked her what she remembered about MLK's assassination. She told me how she had been in high school in Texas then, and the school didn't do anything the day after, a Friday, but students were talking to each other about it. On Monday, none of the black students showed up, and she remembered white students complaining that no one had told them they could skip school and it wasn't fair the black kids got to. I immediately thought of the "why isn't there Straight Pride" crap that's been coming up, as it does every year at Pride, since that's an axis of oppression I experience. She told me the small town she lived in feared race riots, feared "outside agitators" would foment something (I've heard her joke before about the mythic "outside agitators" her parents' generation expected, it's just like accusations today that protestors are paid to show up somehow, the assumption that people wouldn't do anything, would just be docile and go along with whatever, unless there was some outside force motivating them). Her father was a fire chief, which I knew growing up, but I hadn't thought about how that made him an agent of city government. She said the fire department was deputized, and she remembered her father going out with a helmet and a rifle to take up a sniper position on the top of some building downtown. At the time this was a town of only seven or eight thousand people, and "downtown" there when I was a kid was like, less than a mile stretch of road around the Long John Silver's. I can't imagine he was more than two stories up. But mostly I never before imagined that he was out prepared to shoot black people, and not just as a white man but as an official. It would have been officially sanctioned violence.

One of the measures of how little time has passed since the abolition of slavery in this country is how few generations it has been, that elderly people alive today, in their youth knew people who had been slaves. I don't actually know if people in my family history owned slaves--what I do know of my grandmother's childhood is that they were rural poor, so maybe not? At least, not that branch--I know much less about my father's side of the family. But I hadn't thought about how few, how many fewer, generations back the Civil Rights movement of the 60s was, and that someone I knew, a grandfather who doted on me, directly contributed to the oppression of black people in America.

At least that story didn't end with him actually killing anyone. I am glad I do not have to think of him like that, even if it may boil down to lack of opportunity that night more than anything else.

Everything becomes more real to you when it becomes more personal. This is why oral histories are so powerful. I want to ask those of you who are white to ask into your own family history, something as simple as do you remember where you were when Martin Luther King Jr was killed? I want my white peers to be aware of our privilege not just in academic terms but in personal terms, in ways our families behaved, what they witnessed and what they did. I think it's important to recognizing our responsibility as white people for the violence we as a race perpetrate on black people, to know what our personal connections are to the people we may be tempted to think of as merely historical.

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