Saturday, July 25, 2009

So much to write about ... so much happening ... and seemingly unrelated, but maybe not ...

Prof. Henry Louis Gates, eminent Harvard educator and recent humiliated proud black man.

I don't believe there is a person of color who didn't immediately grimace in pain upon learning about his arrest on his own front porch in Cambridge.

Immediately my mind rushed back to the many times when we lived in our lovely redwood creekside home in suburban Walnut Creek in the Fifties; when I would answer my doorbell to some salesman or solicitor who would look past me, over my shoulder, and ask if the lady of the house was at home. I was invariably assumed to be the maid. How I wished that I could have screamed and pushed the offender off into the bushes, but instead I would say simply, "I am the lady of the house." There was no graceful way to rescue the idiot with the egg on his face except to quietly close the door and push the insult to the back of my mind in order to get through another day of being diminished.

Then there was the time when -- at my father's invitation -- I attended the annual banquet hosted by his St. Vincent de Paul's Society at a fancy Italian restaurant in downtown Oakland. Dad was an officer of the organization and was to be honored for a year of outstanding service. I'd dressed in my most elegant outfit complete with hat and gloves and drove in from the suburbs to join him and mother for the evening of celebration. Getting there early, I found that I was the first to arrive and that the doors were still locked. I sat in my station wagon at the curb for a while, then -- as I watched -- as a man drove up who was obviously preparing to enter the restaurant, I approached cautiously to inquire about the dinner (maybe I had the wrong date or time?). He welcomed me with a smile and, assuring me that I had the right information. "Just follow me," says he. In so doing I found myself being led through a side door and into a huge bustling kitchen where he pointed to a shelf near the door -- indicating crisply that here was the place to stash my hat and purse -- so saying he handed me a checkered apron and walked away ... .

What does one do with those awful moments? Racial profiling? Of course. The kind that has followed people of color throughout our lives. They have a double-edged effect. We're not only embarrassed for ourselves, but almost always for the offender as well, because we know they're caught up in an age-old stupidity that is almost reflexive -- the default -- born of something bigger than either of us. It's this awful ambiguous situation so easily denied ("you just didn't understand") that builds up until all you can do is push back for the sake of your own sanity. For me it was many years too early so I swallowed my pride and added the incident to a growing body of insults that exploded in a quiet rage fueling my soul in marches and demonstrations and protests as I grew into my anger. This was so hard for well-intentioned liberal friends to understand or appreciate, so it was lonely. The charges were guaranteed to send conservatives into spasms of irrational rages of their own that further alienate (or did you not hear Patrick Buchanan's comments this week?).

Professor Gates could afford to push back because times have changed and there are now both black and white Americans pushing back with him from the same side of the racial divide. But the push-back comes at a very high price for everyone involved; and to him more than to anyone due to his exalted position in the academy. The unfairness adds to his rage, I'm certain. Despite this awfulness, the social climate has changed and I, too, would have expressed my outrage freely were it to happen to me today, and I'm confident that there would be many across that racial barrier who would understand and support me in my fury, as there are for him. I would have liked to count President Obama among them.

I would have preferred that our president had resisted the temptation to be so "even-handed." His first response was the right one, from my obviously biased perspective. And I'm sure he knew that. The weight of the presidency is in delicate balance -- but just this once -- I wish that he'd placed his thumb on our side of the scale. I admit to feeling the sting of disappointment in his later backing away and giving equal weight to both the young white officer's claims and those of the rightfully offended Skip Gates. The president obviously hoped to placate all who have been handed that checkered apron over a lifetime. All it did for me was to re-open old wounds and re-ignite the embers of bitterness I thought long extinguished.

We all have much work to do, still, do we not?

Photo: That would be a photo of me taken in 1957 about the time of the incident at the Italian Restaurant. How did he even know that I was African American? Beats me, except that I'm sure that I appeared more so in person than this picture would indicate. My neighbors had no problem whatsoever pegging my racial identity.

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