30. July 2015 16:38
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Race Was a Lie by Wanda Benvenutti

30. July 2015 16:38 by Administrator | 0 Comments

 I understood from a very young age that race was a lie.

The heartbreak began right before dinner at my aunt’s house. The first time I learned that I was seen as different happened on a bitterly cold winter evening in Rochester, New York. My cousin started cracking jokes about the snow as we walked through the front yard. I stared at the sky and asked out loud about Puerto Ricans on the North Pole. 

“Did we have any up there?” We laughed and kicked snow around the edge of the driveway, taking our time. Dinner wouldn’t be ready for at leas another half hour. Cartoon music began blaring from the living room and I started to wonder if it was a new episode of Danger Mouse when I felt my cousin’s hand tug on my arm.

“Whoa.”Her mouth was wide open, her face an odd mixture of fear and anger. I immediately got scared. I’d never seen my amazingly cool, older cousin, who allowed me to hang out with her whenever I felt like it, look scared in my entire life. 

She turned to look at me, asking if I was okay---was someone calling their dog?

“Hey! Yeah! YOU. HEY!” 

It was the New Lady from across the calle and two casas over. She lived in the only apartment on the block. None of the neighborhood kids knew anything about her, except that she was mean to everyone. Mean, every day mean, the kind of mean that can get away with things when your parents’ backs are turned. Casual. We only played with her daughter when she was at the store buying cigarettes because she tried to spit at us once near the neighborhood bakery. When she got caught by another adult she said she had ‘violent phlegm.’ 

After several attempts at finding a medical definition for this new ailment I’d never heard of, I had to ask several adults if it was real. ‘Violent phlegm?’ We all knew she hated us, she just never told us why until she started yelling at us, louder now, from across the street.

“HEY!”

Now I started to feel sick to my stomach. I kept ignoring her and started to panic, reaching for my cousin’s hand. She took a few steps forward into the street and turned to my cousin.

“You tell that little nigger to stop playing with my daughter. You hear me?” she asked and lowered her voice, turning now toward me.

I was eight years old.

“I don’t want my daughter playing with any niggers.”

She made a move to spit again, her mouth kept moving but my ears filled themselves up with Johnny Cash songs, ‘I keep a close watch on this heart of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time,’ I remembered learning the year before at Girl Scout camp. Somehow we had started to walk up the driveway toward the house, my cousin pulling me because I couldn’t move. I couldn’t stop staring back at the lady’s face. It was still a person somehow, over there, screaming at me...wasn’t it?

I kept trying to understand. I kept not understanding.

It didn’t happen every day, but I was used to being called names as a kid, especially when I was speaking in Spanish. She didn’t call me spic, which is what I typically heard. I knew that we are equal citizens under the law [because] we’d just started on the three branches of Government at school. This made no sense, why was she so angry? Didn’t we all have the same rights?

Her hatred broke my eight-year-old heart, hatred that churned in my guts. This lady really thinks I am nothing. She called me an ugly, terrible word because she thinks she’s better than me, a kid! Did she want me to die? I knew I had done nothing wrong, and that it didn’t really matter because I’d seen it before. I just didn’t know what it was until that winter night before dinner.

My cousin kept walking me back, saying comforting things that at first I couldn’t hear. She told me later I was crying so hard my swollen eyes looked like I’d lost a fight. Finally I could laugh a little, asking over and over again, “Why does she hate me?” when my cousin looked me straight in the eye.

“Because she’s racist, and racist people are dumbasses,” [she said]. Before I could ask what a racist was, she sighed, “Acting racist is when a white person hates anyone else that doesn’t look exactly like them, anyone that isn’t exactly like them. Slavery, in America, it started with that. They just took people.” When I asked about all of the people in our family who have white skin, she sighed again and sat in silence for a while.

She knew more than I did, being a teenage woman of the world who flew to California once for an entire summer. Afterward, we talked about how the girls out there couldn’t really dance, but they got to live right near the beach. We couldn’t really be jealous. The world was changing even though some people refused to accept it, like the lady across the street.

We sat on the back porch and I started to cry again. Now my skin was seen as different, and that meant that I had a real reason to be afraid. Finally she tried to explain the rage from across the street. “That’s why some people in America get confused by Puerto Ricans. We’re Americans, we have everybody, every color in our family, and it’s not a big deal. Everybody else thinks it is, but they’re dumb like that lady.”

I started to shake from the cold as we walked through the kitchen door. Arroz con pollo never smelled so good. I began plotting ways to never see that terrifying lady ever again.

That expression of blind rage is something I will never forget. It is the same blind rage violently erupting over and over again throughout the United States today, a rage born of a system of thought that normalizes race as logical, white supremacy. This same rage claimed the life of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati, Ohio, and countless others targeted by the color of their skin.

This rage continues to prove that we refuse to acknowledge the truth: race as an idea, as a practice, has failed spectacularly in the United States. It is time for culture, rather than skin color, to be evidence of our equality.

Can we live as a nation free of the idea of race?

The answer is yes, because it is already a reality.

Puerto Ricans are a people and a culture that have lived beyond race in this nation for over 100 years. For the past 16 years I've been cross-crossing the U.S. documenting Puerto Rican culture in every state for my first book, American Boricua. This work serves to eradicate the concept of race through the power of visual evidence.

The BCRI Odessa Woolfolk Gallery will be home to American Boricua’s next exhibition in October 2015. I invite you to explore this new vision of culture in the United States.

 

 

Wanda Benvenutti is a New Orleans-based freelance Photojournalist and Photo Editor. She received a B. A. from Oberlin College, and an M. S. from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Her work has been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists, The National Press Photographers Association, and The National Hispanic Journalists Association. Wanda's photographs are also featured in the book, “100 New York Photographers” by Cynthia Maris Dantzic and www.americanboricua.com

 

10. July 2015 11:23
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For Charleston, a lesson in the faith and resilience of Birmingham by Priscilla Hancock Cooper

10. July 2015 11:23 by Administrator | 0 Comments


And you say

What has become of our young that they take life so easily

Without guilt or sorrow

And I say

We have sown seeds of hatred and now we reap a bitter fruit

For we harvest the slain bodies of our children

We have planted them in soil that is centuries soaked in blood

And they have fed from the taproot of violence

And you say

It has not always been so

And the winds of history whisper

"There is blood in the soil."

---excerpt from poem "American Legacy" by Priscilla Hancock Cooper

When I wrote this poem in 1993, I was reflecting on the loss of young black lives through homicides and mourning the loss of innocence of my daughter, then 16, who had lost at least six peers to murder by handgun.  When I was 16, I didn't know anyone my age who had died, much less been killed.  It was a different world.


 

Today, I read this poem and reflect on the murders of nine African Americans at a prayer service in a church.  The church shooting in Charleston, South Carolina once again galvanized the nation, uniting us in grief, anger and bewilderment.  We empathized with the families who lost loved ones...mothers, sisters, aunts, fathers, brothers, uncles....who had done nothing but come to pray.  How many more black people must die at the hands of whites before this nation can banish the demons of racism?   How could a person sit in a church for an hour with the intention of murdering the people there? The questions seem to outweigh the answers.

While homicide continues to be the leading cause of death for young black men ages 15-34, the profile for perpetrators of mass shootings in this country tends to be young, white and male.  From Columbine in 1999 to Sandy Hook in 2014, our nation has collectively mourned the loss of innocent young lives while trying to understand the anger, rage, hatred and mindset that would prompt someone to enter a school, college classroom or movie theatre armed with weapons for the specific purpose of committing mass murder.

The comments that Roof spewed as he struck down unarmed worshippers echo the racial bias that was forged in the institution of slavery. His remarks reflect the negative images created by a system that defined blacks as "less than human" even as they were stolen, bred and sold to build a nation with their unpaid labor. African Americans are confronted daily, in ways both large and small, with the results of deeply ingrained bias, hatred and fear...the shopkeeper who watches you suspiciously in the store, clerks at the corner gas station working behind barred windows and bullet-proof Plexiglas, and a mother's distress that her son will be mistreated at the hands of the police. We saw it again in Charleston with the added issue of race.  Did Dylan Roof have any idea that the site of his assault, the historic Emmanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, has been engaged in the African American struggle for freedom since its founding in the 1800s?  Could he have realized that his racial attack came in the same year that this nation commemorates the 150th anniversary of the 13thamendment that ended slavery in the United States?

Has there been positive change? Absolutely. In Charleston, a white police chief and a woman mayor of Indian descent stood in solidarity, visibly shaken and outraged by this horrific crime.  Law enforcement officers at the local, state and national level combined forces to capture Dylan Roof. The Charleston community, black and white, expressed collective sympathy and grief. An African American president expressed his anguish and frustration that this country has not resolved to end gun violence.

In Charleston, we see the destructive intersection of an American legacy of violence and racism. At the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, we share lessons that address both issues.  Visitors from around the globe come to gain a greater understanding of non-violent protest as a tool for social change. "Foot soldiers" embody the courage and commitment of "ordinary" citizens who risked their lives and livelihood to end segregation. The faces of young demonstrators remind a new generation that they, too, have the ability and responsibility to make a positive difference. 

And across the street, Sixteenth Street Baptist Church stands as a reminder that cowardly, racist murder in a place of worship is not new. The murder of four girls from a bomb in 1963 is indelibly imprinted on our collective memory. By example, that congregation and this community teach the greatest lesson of all - with faith and resilience we continue to move forward. In the words of a Negro spiritual that became a song of the movement:  "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me (us) around."

Ms. Cooper is the Interim President and CEO of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute