This is a picture of my mom on her honeymoon in 1956. At that time she and my father lived in Lackawanna, NY. Lackawanna was home to Bethlehem Steel, a branch of that famous plant in Scranton, PA.
My father took this picture of my mother about to enter a washroom at a roadside gas station in Florida. The signs read: “Ladies“, “Men“, and “Colored“. They were struck, horrified, and ashamed by what they witnessed in the Jim Crow South while traveling by automobile. This picture was a testament of proof, to them, that the South was truly segregated.
My mother was always embarrassed by this picture. By using that restroom she felt complicit. A kind of tacit and unspoken agreement of Jim Crow. She spoke of that moment as a dirty secret. Of how they attempted to negotiate their guilt by exaggerated (and yet honest) attempts of kindness to every African-American they encountered — bus boys, hotel maids, or passers-by. They went to the South. Witnessed horror. Then left. Never to return.
My parents were right to feel guilty.
Guilt is about responsibility. Guilt is about remorse. Not necessarily caused by one’s actions, but a moral and ethical response to a wrong.
The work, however, is about what one does with that guilt.
This is not a condemnation of my parents. This is about how for years and years the majority of white citizens knew that their Black and Brown fellow Americans were being brutalized and traumatized by state policy. State policy that was enforced and enacted upon not just by institutions, but by individuals. And, they did nothing. Their lives continued with out interruption.
That was, and still is, an aspect of white privilege. Some things never have to touch you. You can ignore them. Or, you can do nothing. Like my parents did, in Florida. Just a feeling of disgust. A story to tell with a shudder.
My parents complicity could be defended or explained away. Perhaps their personal interrelationships with people of color could exonerate them. They were good people. And yet, why did they, like most good white people, allow for Jim Crow to continue? And, why did it take Black and Brown people marching, rioting, and dying for things to finally change?
I once wrote: “The sky is blue. The grass is green. Black people suffer.” As if Black injustice is an a-priori of the United States.
Sixty-five years later Black and Brown people are still marching, and rioting, and dying. The Civil Rights movement was not a failure. But, as activist and scholar Dr. Henry Louis Taylor so succinctly and eloquently argues, “Blacks are still not free”. In 2021, white people are more outraged about the daily social injustices that Black and Brown people experience. The brutal and callous murder of George Floyd by police galvanized a whole bunch of white people. And yet, not enough white people. A big constant remains. The majority of white people remain indifferent or silent about taking concrete actions to becoming anti-racists. For whatever reason.
I am not speaking to the people who believe that racism no longer exists. Or those that believe that racism is about individual behavior and not ingrained in our institutions. I am speaking to those who know that racism is a problem, if not the problem, in our nation. Yet, still do nothing. For whatever reason.
We know that “Silence = Death”. Those iconic words were written and illustrated in 1987 by AIDS activists. But, they speak to a historical and universal truth about all oppression.
I keep this photo on my writing desk. It is a daily reminder that my guilt must result in more than a lament. It is my call to action. I cannot, nor should not, allow my Black and Brown brothers and sisters to continue to live in a country that is less inviting, more painful, and more damaging to them. I cannot not, nor should not, let my Black and Brown brothers and sisters do all the work. Because it is at their cost. Not mine. And. And. And, most importantly, it is not their task, nor their responsibility, or their obligation. It is mine. It belongs to me. It belongs to all white people.