Recently, a white woman taking part in the increasingly violent demonstrations by progressives in Portland, OR, screamed something like “I’m a single mom and you’ve forced me to leave my child and come stand with these demonstrators.” The “you” in her statement, of course, are the federal troops sent to Portland by the president to quell violence. This single mom seems to me to be establishing herself as a special ally to victims of racial injustice. So her remark is patently about her and not the people of color who live under the yoke of that injustice every day. Her loud assertion also announces that she is “special” and so should be honored and appreciated for all she is giving up to “stand with” individuals whose lives are in constant danger. She and those like her who see themselves as saviors rather than allies may well qualify as a special spin-off of Robin Diangelo’s “fragile” white people.
On some college/university campuses lately, progressive students who adhere to a “cancel culture” approach to people who disagree with their politics or who argue for having thoughtful conversations among people of differing persuasions often assert that such remarks “threaten my safety.” When I read this, I flashed to the white supremacy card cops play when under investigation for killing yet another black person: “I felt my life was in danger.” Juries seem to collapse once they hear this, abandoning any serious attempts to determine guilt or innocence. Surely the progressives who feel their safety “threatened” by words others utter about their views mimic the defense hauled out by the very police they putatively despise and protest against.
When Women’s Studies was just beginning to become part of college and university curricula (the 1960s and ’70s), I attended national conferences of feminist faculty, overwhelmingly white at the time, and listened to colleagues who were intent on creating what they called “safe classrooms” for their students, especially students of color. This seemed like a romantic dream that smacked of arrogance and “saviorhood,” and once again to be about the white faculty person rather than a student who might feel hyper visible because of subject matter that mirrored their lives. Sometimes I offered my skepticism at our being able to do that, since such students had no reason to “trust” me just because I declared on opening day that I was building a protective bubble for the 50 minutes of our class. Those remarks were not received positively; I was seen as a pessimist, as someone unwilling to embrace the new aura created by feminist pedagogy.
It is very hard to resist feeling “special” if I, as a white person who could make an “A” on lots of tests intended to measure racist attitudes and behaviors. I want to step in, take over, recommend, get credit, stand apart from the “real” racists currently emboldened by a mean-spirited egomaniac with lots of power. What many black thinkers and activists say I need to do is keep my mouth shut and listen or read what life is like trying to survive and flourish in America if your skin color isn’t “white.” When I do that, my specialness evaporates because I understand that I still harbor and sometimes express or act on deeply embedded attitudes and beliefs taught me from infancy. I am anything but singular–at best, I’m just one more white person trying to lay aside those embedded attitudes and beliefs so that I am able to ACT in new ways that might one day allow me to say I am anti-racist today, anti-racist tomorrow, anti-racist forever.
In late March, the Basilica of St. Mary in Minneapolis, my church, closed to live worship and began streaming various services. I tried listening/watching my Sunday 9:30 mass. First of all, I felt sad for the celebrant, alone at the altar, even though I grant he felt the presence of his God. Then I felt sad not to be in my regular pew with my pew mate and amidst a little clutch of us who came early to chat before the service began. After a couple more attempts at watching the streamed service, I gave up because I realized that “church” for me is more than the words. I wanted the gorgeous stained glass windows whose blues and reds change depending on whether the sun is shining or not. I wanted the heavy incense that I know is hard for folks with breathing problems or scent issues. I wanted the candles at the altar, all around the choir loft, in all the side chapels one of which was where I always lighted a five-day candle into which I’d put names of friendscopoing with difficult moments. I wanted the eighty-person choir singing their hearts out, often in Latin or another language, always moving me to tears even as their sounds took me out of my self. So sitting in my living room in front of a little computer screen just didn’t do it for me. I began spending the time I wanted to be in church out in my back yard watching cardinals or gold finches or just sitting quietly and praying for my world that seemed to be becoming more and more uncertain.
Now it’s late July and the Basilica has just begun having weekday masses at noon. One registers on line and, if accepted, arrives at a little blue tent outside one side entryway to be checked off a list, have one’s temperature taken, and answer a few questions about how we are feeling and if we have been around anyone with covid symptoms. After a lot of serious discernment, I decided to apply, since the church can seat 1,200 people and my contact there said the first week of masses had between five and fifteen people. The staff advised anyone over 65 or having a prior condition not to attend. I am well over that age and have a cow membrane in my chest replacing a badly damaged aorta. But the accumulated months of not being in that special space has taken its toll on me, so I decided to risk it. A good friend who is super cautious around covid said “You’re safer at the Basilica than at your hardware store where you keep going.” But I did add a sentence to my health care directive stipulating that were I to be hospitalized with the virus, I did not want a ventilator for obvious reasons.
So yesterday I dressed for church, arrived fifteen minutes early, passed the tests under the blue tent, and was ushered to my seat. No one was anywhere remotely near me and there were thirteen of us in that cavernous space. Just sitting there was healing, as I’d hoped it might be. There were only two tiny candles at either end of the altar, but someone had put a small vase of white flowers at a powerful sculpture of Jesus on the cross with his mother and John looking up at him dolorously. One young woman sang the psalm and led us at a couple of points in the eucharistic preparation section of the mass. Since we were both few and far between each other and speaking through masks, I couldn’t hear anyone but myself, but I knew the others were saying what I was saying and there was comfort in that.
It all felt like a scene in miniature: only one lesson rather than the usual two, and that one was shorter than usual; the gospel was also short though it felt like a special gift to me because yesterday is the Feast of Mary Magdalene who has been named by Pope Francis “the Apostle to the Apostles.” Our pastor spoke for maybe four minutes as his homily, again focusing on Mary’s contribution to Christianity. The little tiny tasteless wafer was not given at the usual place but rather after all the preparatory words had been spoken and we had said the final “Thanks be to God.” Then we left our pews and went to the central aisle where there were lovely circles pasted on the floor at six-foot intervals. On each was the logo for the Basilica found on many of its publications, so that felt not quite so medicinal. Someone on the staff clearly had thought about how they could make the marks for where we were to stand not just be an “X.” I said a little “thank you.” We sanitized our hands just as we got to the person distributing the wafers, and then stood distant from her with fully extended arms to receive the host. Once we had it, we were to step to the side, lower or remove our masks long enough to place the little sliver on our tongues. They we were to leave.
Outside near that exit is a beautiful sculpture of the Virgin Mary surrounded by a small, well-kept garden, so I went over onto the grass and stood looking at her as I let the moment sink in. Then I got in my car and came home, not listening to MPR but letting myself feel how it was to have just done what I’d just done. As I said, it felt like church in miniature and certainly did not have components like those listed earlier as part of what makes going there most meaningful for me. But it was a profound gift to my lagging spirit. A long time ago, Marshal McLuhan coined a motto a lot of us spouted often: “The medium is the message.” Well, he and it came to me as I drove up Hennepin Avenue to my house. A building cannot be everything, but some spaces do carry meaning by their very existence. For me at this point in the pandemic, that big marble edifice at the edge of downtown Minneapolis carries meaning in and of itself. So I will focus on what I did get from my twenty-seven minutes there and let that be enough for now.
I recently watched six seasons of an American detective drama, each season having ten episodes. The series is called “Bosch” because our star detective is one Hieronymous Bosch, called “Harry” by his colleagues and friends. And yes, his name does invite us to recall what we know about the painter with the same name. Or to learn something about him and his art. And, in one episode, a famous Bosch painting by figures in solving the crime. The man playing Bosch is intense, taciturn, slow to express or exhibit the emotions, and fiendishly clever in figuring out who the “bad guys” are. Divorced from his wife, he stays in touch because they both love their late adolescent daughter who moves into her early twenties before the series ends. Bosch plays it close to the chest at work and in his personal relationships, though we know he feels things deeply.
Though Bosch is white as is his lesbian captain, many characters are played by black actors, especially male ones. Bosch’s fellow detectives, street cops, the Chief of Police governing a huge force– all played by black actors. So, however, are some of the criminals, suspects, PIs, ex-cons and general bad guys. When I found myself having a problem “telling them apart,” I first named this confusion for what it is: I was drifting dangerously close to “they all look alike” about the black faces on my screen, surely a racialized response if I ever saw one. So I stopped watching the episodes, took stock of my knee-jerk responses, and began to think about the other cop shows I watch.
Truth be told, I’ve spent a lot of late afternoons looking at re-runs of American police dramas–“Blue Bloods,” “NCIS New Orleans,” “Law and Order,” “Law and Order: SVU,” CSI Miami”–and I won’t keep listing. Before I started watching “Bosch,” I’d begun to be uncomfortable with how often the plot centered around white police, assisted by a token black or female or Latinx helper. I was growing even more uncomfortable with how often the offending criminal was black and was not always treated nicely by law-enforcement officers.
So what my streaming of “Bosch” has caused me to think about it this: The director seems to have decided to flood the screen with black faces playing all possible kinds of roles in the unfolding story of crime detection and personal vulnerabilities. By doing that, he not only caused me to face up to my own racial response to actors’ faces but, importantly, to have to see that black characters come in all different packages. So they mimic us white people who do the same, of course.
The added and unexpected bonus of watching all the ins and outs of Bosch’s maneuverings to solve the latest crime wrinkle has pretty much “spoiled” my late afternoon escapist TV watching since now I notice even more quickly and painfully just how much most such programs reinforce white ideas of what black people–especially black men– are like. If I am forced to find another way to end my afternoons, that will be a step in the right direction as I continue to unearth and face the deeply embedded racism in my own psyche and brain.
In 1939, Billie Holliday recorded the powerful song about lynchings of black people in America. Its title is “Strange Fruit.” On June 15, 1920, three black men were lynched in Duluth, MN. They were Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie. In the past two weeks of June 2020, two black men have been found hanging from trees in California. They are Robert Fuller and Malcolm Harsch. These most recent deaths were initially deemed to be suicides, but both are now being independently investigated because both families who have lost a loved member do not believe that explanation.
In Montgomery, Alabama, the civil rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson has installed an unique museum that houses several hundred rectangular boxes, each bearing the name, county of residence, and year of the lynching involved. This powerful structure memorializes a practice often conducted in broad daylight on the grounds of court houses and jails, assisted or sanctioned or at the least tacitly approved of law enforcement officers. Photographs from southern newspapers or preserved in state historical societies show whites often dressed in their Sunday best, often carrying picnic baskets or young children in their arms. There is an air of festivity and even enjoyment that permeates the paper on which the photographs were taken.
Ironically enough, it was on Memorial Day of this year that George Floyd was murdered by that relaxed white cop with one hand in his pants’ pocket and a look of quiet satisfaction on his face as he heard Mr, Floyd repeatedly say “I can’t breathe.” As several black scholars and commentators have pointed out, this is a contemporary lynching–George Floyd dies horizontally rather than the more conventional way of dangling vertically. I hope Mr. Stevenson will see many of the police shootings of blacks, mostly male, resulting in bodies prone on pavements or patches of grass as still more cases of the inhumane form of killing that just won’t stop happening in this country. He can begin constructing boxes the same size as those hanging in his outdoor museum and placing them on the grass surrounding the building.
There are no new words to be said about all this history that keeps repeating itself. A long time ago, the white southern writer, William Faulkner, who understood the awful legacy of slavery for both whites and blacks wrote in his novel Requiem For a Nun: “The past is never dead. It’s not even pst.”