I just told a story to my sister from a long time ago which I have clung to as an example of being mistreated and patronized. But listening to her reaction I realize I may misjudged the person who I thought was misusing me. I have learned over the years that my memories are often faulty and I erased certain things that did not fit my perspective. For example I tell people that we moved from an all black neighborhood to an all white one just 8 blocks away. In reality our next door neighbors were a white couple including a man who drove a truck for the bakery around the corner. My sister, who is six years older than me, remembers that I broke a window in our neighbor’s house and mom made me go over and apologize. Mom paid for the window and after that we had a wonderful relationship.
However things did not go as smoothly with me. Perhaps it was due my personality as I was introverted and I would sometimes lash out at people. One of my hobbies was playing baseball and listening to the games on the radio. The top player at that time was Willie Mays. Well, as luck would have it, our neighbor would ask me about Willie Mays whenever he saw me. One day I told him that there was more to me than Willie Mays. I don’t recall that the man said another word to me. Looking at it from the man’s perspective, Chris that that was how men related to other people. Especially boys. I could have told him a little bit more about me that he could use to talk about. Instead I shut off communication.
This brief story suggests that there might be a value in looking at a situation from the standpoint of the other person and wonder what they are thinking of me as we interact. Am I communicating what I hope to be saying or are they hearing something very different from me? What do you think?
I have been reflecting this weekend on some things that have bothered me about the stories I recalled from childhood that my family and I used to tell about people who we suspected were gay, lesbian or bi-sexual. We had no understanding of what we were talking about but it seemed there were more of these people. My sister said they were “funny.” We would look at certain entertainers, like the Hines brothers and she would remark that one of them was almost certainly one of them. I don’t know whether we ever discussed James Baldwin in the same way. It was not that we hated these people, we simply did not understand them.
Our mother was very uncomfortable discussing sex and sexuality. It was clear in school that my classmates knew a lot more than I did and they said things I did not understand. Where I learned about sexuality was through politics. There was a group called the Mattechine Society that had a radio broadcast and gays and lesbians. And when I became part of the antiwar movement there were people talking about the need to fight all kinds of oppression. I grew up in Buffalo, New York, where Workers World Party was formed. One of the leaders was Leslie Feinberg who was the first trans person I had ever met.
I opened my eyes to the reality that there were more identities than I knew when I first became an adult. I grew up in the era of the Stonewall Rebellion in New York. One of my cousins was the first gay person in my family. As I looked around I discovered I had more gay and lesbian friends, including a woman who was part of the poetry group I belonged to. My best friend in my 20s was a bi-sexual woman who helped me struggle through underemployment.
A lot of has changed in these many years. On a Facebook post this morning I talked about the Supreme Court ruling that took us from an era of passing laws and constitutional amendments to discriminate to recognizing that all citizens were entitled to equal protection under the laws. When I attended the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly this summer I was asked what pronouns I used and I was stunned. I almost went back to the old All in the Family theme song talking about “when girls were girls, and men were men.” Fortunately those days only exist on television reruns. Another new thing that I did not understand or accept was the use of the term cisgender for men like me.
Yet in spite of the changes that have taken place there are still people clinging to their old prejudices. I saw something on Facebook about the so-called “gay agenda” which was a term invented by right wing bigots years ago as part of their campaign to deny equal rights. It is time to speak truth to ignorance. So, yes, my pronouns are the ones listed as the title for this blog entry. You can say of me that he said we need to accept and recognize our brothers and sisters.
UBLAC (Uplifting Black Liberation and Community) is an organization based in Sherman Park, almost a year old, led by black women. They are drawing many coalition partners together for racial justice work and are an accountability partner for SURJ. Standing Up For Racial Justice Milwaukee is a part of the national SURJ network of groups and individuals organizing white people for racial justice. They align with the mission, vision and shared values of groups such as UBLAC. Members of the First Unitarian Society Black Lives Matter Group participate in UBLAC and SURJ events. Thus it seemed reasonable as the new chair to suggest that UBLAC ask us to host their upcoming potluck. This week we exchanged emails about the idea for August 6th. Unfortunately before we were able to act, the group was able to book another location. When I got home this afternoon I asked whether w might be able to host the next event which will be November 19th. I am optimistic. I hope to attend next moth o become familiar with UBLAC. We are developing our fall agenda for the Black Lives Matter First Unitarian Society.
My overseas readers have deserted me. Meanwhile I was reminded of the power of in , person friendship. I attended a workshop today on the problems created by adverse childhood experiences. I had experienced several including racism, alcoholism, metal illness, domestic abuse and being exposed to smoking. But education, resilience, friendship and having a goals and hope helped me overcome my ACES. I saw myself as young gifted and black, not poor me.
I am reading this book by Ngozi Adichie that was a major best seller. It is the second book I have been reading since buying new glasses last week. I had been struggling with reading previously often crying as I tried to read. I took off my glasses because apparently the part of the lens where one does close reading was too small. There was much about my eyes that was unknown to me. It seems that I am not very good in buying glasses, sometimes keeping them way past the time when they are to be discarded. Other times getting glasses that don’t fit and look ridiculous. Now I have good glasses, my eyes are dry and the streets are damp. Now to find out why everyone is reading this book.
My first Nigerian novelist was the much beloved Chinua Achebe who made me feel the struggle of Africa being ripped apart by colonizers. I read him when I was in college either running from the police or trying to find a girl friend. Now I have these new glasses which make me feel like reading and writing once more. The book puzzles me as it seems to make a lot of jumps in place and time. At first, the main character Ifemelu is a smart mouthed blogger in America getting ready to return home to rekindle an old relationship and being tortured by an African hair braider who seems to be having a mental breakdown. Then she is a child enduring her mother’s religious fantasies in Nigeria. I will see where this leads.
I just listened to a story on This American Life about Alan Pean, a young African-American man who experienced a severe psychiatric breakdown while living in Houston, Texas. Alan was a college student who had previously survived a couple of episodes of manic depressive disorder. Alan came from a high achieving family with doctors including his father.
Alan found that his mind was overpowered by a delusion that caused him to jump off the balcony of his third story apartment, make his way to his car and crash through the gates. He drove toward St. Joseph Hospital, a major medical facility in downtown Houston. He crashed and totaled his car into the hospital and somehow told the emergency room staff he was having a manic episode. But he was never treated for his mental disorder. His father who is of Haitian descent arrived a few hours later and also told the staff that his son was having mental problems and yet Alan was still not evaluated by a psychiatrist.
His father left to try to arrange getting Alan help for his mental illness and shortly afterwards the staff had trouble with Alan and called for security. This turned out to be Houston police with guns who were not trained in dealing with psychiatric patients. Alan was tasered, then shot and almost killed and later charged with assault. Although the charges were later dropped there is a disturbing pattern of mental patients being shot or tasered by police who have little or no training in dealing with them.
There is a New York Times article about the incident involving Alan Pean. People need to be aware of these kinds of incidents and understand that psychiatric patients need help, not bullets. They need people trained to deescalate and force is the last thing you would ever want to use to help someone recover his or her mind.
This story raises other questions, such as what if Alan and his father had been white? Would the outcome be different? Would the hospital staff you turn to for help be able to recognize that when a white person says he needs mental help, they would hear the person and attempt to provide help? What prevents them from hearing the same statements from people of color? What information is available about the hospital you use and their policy about the use of force? How equipped are they to handle people with a mental illness? Is the person the staff calls for help going to be an armed police officer? And finally, what safe alternatives are there to hospitals for people with mental illness and how widely known are these alternatives?
Tonight I attended a screening of the 53206 movie at the First Unitarian Society. The movie showed the impact of the mass incarceration of African Americans focusing on a few families in this impoverished zip code. The zip code has one of the highest rates of incarceration in the country. I remember years ago being at a sign of hope in the community, a business incubator that was intended to help small business formation by African Americans. The businesses are long gone and what remains is the empty building.
The 53206 movie was shown at a Unitarian church in downtown Milwaukee to a packed crowd many of whom I did not know. There was an organizer from the 53206 project and talk about the lives being wasted and the depiction of a family hoping and waiting for their father figue and husband to return. He was denied parole, which is the most common result of parole hearings in Wisconsin. The governor plans to cut the parole department staffing even more.
The situation is complicated by the fact Wisconsin passed a truth in sentencing law in the late 1990s mandating that prisoners serve the full term of their prison sentences. But there are thousands like the man in the movie who are eligible for parole like the man in the movie but find the door slammed shut time and again. There is a lot of discretion still in the system and there are alternatives to long prison sentences but the fact we are not using them means that people are making money keeping things just the way they are. Who will have the courage to speak up? We signed cards tonight asking for changes but this is a long term project.