Writing in a Time of Peril 8.5.2020

The Johns Hopkins CSSE dashboard reported 4.50 million US cases and 152,074 deaths as of 10:30am on July 31. – From Johns Hopkins daily update.


The Johns Hopkins CSSE dashboard reported 4.79 million US cases and 157,186 deaths as of 12:30pm on August 5. – From Johns Hopkins daily update.

Excerpt from The Saltbox House on Bayou Black– a Memoir, “Lands of Milk and Honey”

I spent the last month of the summer of 1963 with my maternal grandfather’s family in the segregated neighborhoods in Natchez, Mississippi, and the farm community of Kingston near Natchez. During the week we stayed in Kingston at Aunt Bea and Uncle Henry’s house with my cousins Diane, Nina, Matiel, Bud, and sometimes Beanie. At Aunt Bea’s we did our chores after breakfast: weeding gardens, gathering eggs, raking yards of various animal droppings, and whatever else Aunt Bea told us to do. Then we were free to ride horses bareback and play in the barns, fields, creeks, and dense woods. We plucked blackberries as they hung plump and heavy along our road. We laughed at each other’s purple-stained mouths and picked out thorns from our scratched hands and arms. We reached up and picked ripe pears from the bent limbs of a lone tree in an empty field next to Great Uncle Herman and Great Aunt Annabelle’s farm house. We returned home for dinner and supper filthy, laughing, and drunk with the heat of the sun or happily wet and muddy after a sudden storm. The tomatoes, greens, peas, onions, beans, blackberries, and pears we gathered made their way into our meals each day. 

            On weekends we stayed in Natchez with Aunt Thelma, Uncle Thedo, and our cousin, Ina Carol. We were still young enough to walk all over town without fear of the police being called because some white person believed we might be robbers or worse. We marveled at the wide, neat, tree-lined streets and the big houses with even bigger lawns. We said hello to the maids, gardeners, and handymen working at the houses as we passed. We knew them as neighbors and church members.

By that summer the Natchez Boycott that had begun in 1950 was in full force. The Colored Co-op was running at full capacity, and white businesses were feeling the full consequences of Negroes refusing to spend our money where we were not hired, were exploited, or were treated poorly. Our parents stopped allowing us to walk to town to go to the movies. We heard about the Freedom Rides, the sit-ins, and the marches. 

Of the aunts and uncles, Uncle Henry was the only one still farming and raising cattle. Aunt Thelma owned a beauty salon. Uncle Francis was a building contractor, Aunt Hilda was a teacher, and Uncle Thedo was the editor of a weekly Negro newspaper and the manager of the Co-op. The Co-op was a combination supermarket, farm feed and supply store, and hardware store. It had been started to support the Natchez Boycott in the late 1950s and the civil rights movement generally. The boycott had been established and maintained in the South for nearly a decade and was becoming maximally effective. Colored people bought fewer and fewer goods and services from whites who did not serve, hire, or pay fair wages to Colored people. Instead, Colored people relied on each other’s crops, livestock, labor, and goods and services to eliminate their dependency on white-owned businesses. 

            On weekend evenings and rainy days, I spent as much time as I could in Uncle Thedo’s office while he worked. I read everything that came to him in the mail: books, journals, magazines, almanacs, and newspapers from all over the country. Two books changed me profoundly that summer: The Wall by John Hersey and The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. At nearly thirteen, I could not have said why I was so drawn to these books.

            The Wall read like fiction or a play or a dream. I understood the events in the book had actually happened. It was a story about a diary that survived the Warsaw Ghetto in Poland during World War II. The diary told of Jewish families segregated from the rest of Warsaw by a barbed wire-topped wall. Soldiers killed anyone who tried to get out. Disease and starvation killed thousands. Deportation to Treblinka, a concentration camp, killed hundreds of thousands. Yet there were schools, music, and religious and political communities working together, even when everywhere was hardship and sheer terror. And there was an uprising. Jews fought back until the Jewish ghetto was burned to the ground, but the diary survived. The people, the place, and the times were not forgotten. I took this book in through my senses. 

I had no trouble reading The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. It was stark and linear with an unalterable course. I took this book in through my mind. I had heard a lot about World War II, loved war movies, and consumed my history books with relish. I knew about the Blitz, D-Day, the Berlin Airlift, Pearl Harbor, Patton, the Marshall Plan, V-day, and the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I had seen the images of the mushroom clouds and firestorms that killed innocent Japanese civilians, although I didn’t yet know about Japanese Americans being interned in camps in the United States. I could not figure out how the bombings could be OK. I remembered seeing newsreels and movie scenes of U.S. soldiers liberating pitiful skeletal people from prison camps. None of the war movies I had seen had identified these people as Jews or explained they had been forced to wear the stars stitched to their clothing and to have numbers inked on their arms.  

            I read those books in rising fear as Germany changed from a democracy to a totalitarian dictatorship. German citizens turned into Nazis who systematically robbed, imprisoned, worked, and gassed millions of Jews to death, along with other people they found inferior or those who resisted. The European Jews were descendants of the people of the Old Testament, they were European, and they were white in my mind. I didn’t know there were Jews who were not white. The only Jews I had ever known were people my family worked for as maids, gardeners, and handymen. They all looked white to me. I questioned and reasoned rather hysterically: if white people had insisted on racial purity and planned to kill anyone whom they decided was not racially pure, resulting in the death of more than six million Jews and seven million others who were not Aryan enough or were disabled or gay or resisters, then what chance did Colored people in America have against Jim Crow’s murderous brutality, terror, and disenfranchisement? How could we gain the right to vote without unfair barriers, get paid fair wages, be treated with dignity and respect, advance ourselves, and be free of snarling dogs and gun-toting white men wearing sheets and hoods? How could we stop them from killing us?

I became consciously and frantically afraid of white people, policemen, bank guards, shopkeepers, sales clerks, and white men driving in trucks with gun racks. I started biting my nails. I began to have a recurring nightmare.  My cousins and I snuck out to adventure in our wood at night. White men and boys chased us on our property. We hid in trees. A white man found one of my cousins and pointed a shot gun at her. I woke up with the shot gun blast ringing in my ears. At times some of the details changed, but this nightmare would terrorize me for years to come. My nightmares woke my cousins and me. My cousins soothed me and helped me to go back to sleep. Once I wet the bed, and that is how the adults found out I was having nightmares. Uncle Thedo and Aunt Thelma talked to me. They were concerned the books were not good for me to read. 

             Uncle Thedo called my mother and shooed all of us children away while they talked long distance. I made myself small and invisible so I could hear grown folks’ business. I saw Aunt Thelma nodding her head in agreement as Uncle Thedo spoke to my mother.

             “Yes. I agree, it is better to let the child read than to forbid books,” he finally said at the end of the call. 

I had not finished the books by the time I had to return home. Uncle Thedo gave them to me as gifts. I finished them over the month before school began. 

*

At home that fall my family, church members, and neighbors made fried chicken and fish dinners, sweet potato pies, and layer cakes to raise money for transportation and first-aid kits for demonstrators and marchers. Our businesses and churches held special collections to help bail demonstrators out of jail, pay for lawyers, care for those who were injured, house those who could not return home, and bury the dead. Older teenagers signed up for training to go to the March on Washington. My mother said I was too young to go. She was stalked by every Colored mother’s fear for her children, what white policemen would do to Colored children and youth if they were separated from their group of demonstrators or marchers. The fear wasn’t said out loud for fear speaking it would cause it to happen, but I saw the distant look on my mother’s face when a child or a woman was jailed or missing, unaccompanied by her cohort or a family member. She shuddered and came near to tears, then anger and determination set on her face. It was clear her word was final. 

I listened to excited talk around our dinner table, among my friends, and in my neighborhood about pacifism, Gandhi, non-violent protest, civil disobedience, peaceful demonstrations, and the dread of police batons, water hoses, German shepherds, firebombs, and white men following someone on a deserted road. 

Fifty-seven years after the summer of 1963, I’m reliving the revenant times of America’s social and political systemic racism as tens of thousands have protested and are still protesting the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd specifically and systemic racist violent responses to black and brown people and communities in general. Women, men, young old, immigrants, African American, Latinx, Asian, indigenous Americans, LGBTQ, poor, working-class, and middle-class protesters have risked their lives during the Covid-19 pandemic, having decided that systemic racism posed as much of a threat to health and life as Covid–19 did. Anti–racism and anti–police violence protesters have been met with the very police responses and tactics they are protesting; hostility toward engaging in constitutionally protected rights to assembly and speech, provocative police presences, and aggressive deployments and tactics that include discharging tear gas, flash bangs, rubber bullets, and more.  

During the summer of 1963, I gained a prescient understanding that a white power structure demanded that some white people, other white people, sacrifice their lives in order to gain and maintain tyrannical white supremacist power. I understood that this white power structure and the white people who were expected to sacrifice their lives represented an unrelenting danger to my life, the lives of my family, the lives of poor people, people of color, and immigrants, and the national life of our democratic republic and institutions. I came to understand that white people’s lives have always been guaranteed supreme privilege based on the universal systemic, functional rendering of non–white racial-ethnic-religious and cultural populations as other, as inferior, as expendable. This othering not only requires the consensus and participation of all white Americans but also requires and encourages white Americans to wallow in white fearfulness, victimization, self–pity, helplessness, anger, and resentment. This othering demands the projection of white innocence, white ignorance, and white denial. This othering demands white sacrifice in order to maintain and grow white systems of othering, disempowerment, white privilege, and white power. 

Covid-19 impacts African Americans at a much higher rate than it does whites, but we must not forget that African Americans comprise approximately 13 percent of the U.S. populations, while whites comprise 77 percent of the U. S. population. (Based on U. S. 2010 Census reporting, 61 percent of the U.S. population reported as white only–77 percent, when those reporting as white– Latinos and white–Hispanics were included.) As of July 21, 2020, African American death rates are reported at 73.7 per 1,000. For Latinx populations, this rate is 37.2 per 1,000; for White Americans, 32.4 per1,000. However, African Americans deaths–that is, the actual number of African Americans who died during this time period, not a statistical representation–reached 29,946. Latinx deaths reached 22,226, while White American deaths reached 69,950. Covid–19 African American and Latinx deaths combined reached 52,172 as of July 21, 2020. By this reckoning, White American actual dead outpaced the combined deaths of African American and Latinx dead by 13,778. 

One of the horrific sacrifices and dreadful costs white Americans are being required to pay to maintain white supremacy and white privilege includes 65,950 deaths due to Covid–19, the vast majority of which were preventable. All Americans, young and old, of every race, ethnicity, and class, whether or not they are vulnerable to social and economic injustice and disparities or not, are being infected, getting sick, and dying or surviving with the long-term effects of Covid-19. Meanwhile, many Republican congressmen, senators, governors, and mayors drag their feet, duck, dodge, deny, project blame onto others, promote hate and division, advance conspiracy theories, and promote untried medications and cures without developing and implementing a coordinated national response to Covid–19.   

The message is clear. In order to grow and maintain white power and supremacy in our country, the current administration and the beneficiaries of white supremacy have, so far, required the sacrifice of 65,950 white Americans to die of Covid–19 as of July 21, 2020.  Consider the failure to expand Medicare, the refusal to nationalize the pandemic response, the insistence on opening schools with no funding for safety provisions, the refusal to extend unemployment and housing protections, the constant assault on our governmental institutions (casting doubt on the upcoming elections), and the hints that the president will not allow a peaceful transition of government if he loses. All these things, while impacting people of color disproportionately, also require white Americans to agree to the forfeiture of their lives and the lives of their families and neighbors, damaging communities and endangering our democracy.  

Power without love is reckless and abusive

And love without power is sentimental and anemic.

Power at its best is love implementing justice,

And justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.

–Martin Luther King, Jr.

I experience as patriots the U.S. citizens of every color, class, age, gender, sexuality, ability, class, citizenship status, religious belief or non-belief, political party or no political affiliation who are loving each other, listening to each other, learning from each other, supporting each other, organizing, marching, and fighting for our Constitution, our laws, our values, our country. Protestors are insisting that all U. S. citizens and guests share and enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness with equal regard and protection. Protestors and those who support protests for an equal and just society are putting their health and lives on the line for the preservation and viability of our nation as a democracy.

COVID-19 deaths analyzed by race and ethnicity — APM …

I play “Ella’s Song.”

Ella’s Song – YouTube

I turn to Lizz Wright: “I Remember I Believe”

Lizz Wright -“I Remember, I Believe” – YouTube

I listen to “Freedom.”

Lizz Wright: Freedom – YouTube

I go down my to-do list of self-care: stay physically distanced but not emotionally or spiritually distanced, avoid contact with police, resist occupations, counteract despair, meditate, eat well, rest well, get exercise, connect, connect, connect, stay home–except for the pharmacy & the grocery & then only with mask and gloves & when there are very few people about. Watch less TV, but stay informed. Laugh a lot. Channel fear, grief and rage into remembering, honoring, and loving compassion to expression, action, and art. 

I continue to chronicle these times.

In Joy,

A

© Andrea Canaan, MSW, MFA

andreacanaan@gmail.com

https://www.facebook.com/Andrea-Canaan-Author-456010704809232/

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