Reading “White Rage” & Grappling with Past-Present on MLK Day

I really cannot recommend White Rage: The Unspoken Truth or Our Racial Divide enough. I have learned so much (the lengths southern states went through to keep Black people from leaving, the extreme violence of disenfranchisement, states shutting down public education systems to avoid integration, Reagan and Nixon’s direct control of drugs entering the US), and have a much better view to what I have yet to learn as a result of reading it. Having finished, the feeling that’s sticking most with me is the one I had when reading,

…centuries of oppression and brutality suddenly reduced to the harmless symbolism of a bus seat and a water fountain. p.99

When I think of the Civil Rights movement, the images that flood my mind are “White Only” signs, busses, and MLK giving his “I Have a Dream” speech. The clothing is old fashioned, and everything’s got a tinge of past to it. It’s history. Intellectually, I know it wasn’t that long ago, but I have to remind myself of that every time. And still, I tell myself it is past. Not present.

Obviously, I know of inequity today, and intellectually, I know its roots are the history of the country, but I haven’t really let in the unbroken connection between then and now. It’s as though I’ve puts pauses in history. Like when you reach the end of the history book chapter on Civil Rights and start in on the next one. The labeling of movements and moments gives me a shield allowing me to think there’s a clear divide between then and now. White Rage has disabused me of that. Dr. Anderson does a powerful job of seamlessly connecting each history book chapter to the next, right up until today. I feel the connections to history so strongly after reading the book. And it’s left me feeling helpless, sad, angry, embarrassed and mournful for the country we should be living in.

All of this is particularly striking today as my twitter feed is actively reminding me how whitewashed Dr. King’s legacy is. Not having done the homework before, I spent my morning today following Shana White’s instructions.

I printed out and read Letter from a Birmingham Jail, and found it jarring (and telling) to see the publicly praised quotes, like, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” next to the ones new to me:

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating that absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering that outright rejection.”

“In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.”

“I suppose I should have realized that few members of the oppressor race can understand the deep groans and passionate yearnings of the oppressed race, and still fewer have the vision to see that injustice must be rooted out by strong, persistent and determined action.”

I certainly wasn’t surprised to see these sentiments, but I bet a lot of white America would be.

In continuing the homework Shana blessed me with, I will say I was surprised to see  both Ijeoma Oluo and Michael Harriot talk about how MLK is used as a tool by white people to chastise Black people into compliance.

Dr. King wouldn’t have been that demanding, people say. MLK wouldn’t have been so angryHe was a nonviolent man, remember? -Ijeoma Oluo

Even now, if you ask any black person whose name do white people bring up whenever black anger gives them the heebie-jeebies, “Is that what MLK would have wanted?” is second only to “What would Jesus do?” – Michael Harriot

I haven’t come across this explicitly – but of course I haven’t, I’m white. If I get upset or angry, people are likely to listen to me, and they sure won’t use the diluted version of a Black icon to get me to “calm down”.

Last thought: The most emotional part of Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail was the following on white people telling him now was not the time to press Civil Rights:

Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging darts of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six year old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five year old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “n*****,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you are forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness”–then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.

I read this about an hour after reading this excerpt from White Rage:

p158-159 white rage

Well, that drove home the past-present connection pretty darn well.

Author: Annie Perkins

Math Teacher in Minneapolis, MN.

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