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On My Childhood Experiences With Racism And How They Formed My Activism 
25th-Jul-2006 06:54 pm
Pastor Niemoller
"When you hate, the only person who suffers is you, because most of the people you hate don't know it and the others don't care."

- Medgar Evers
Assassinated Civil Rights Leader

This post is very important to me in that I'm hoping it'll glean a bit more insight into who I am and why I use my voice in this blog the way I do on occaision. I get a good bit of positive feedback from a wide spectrum of people, and in many ways that encourages me to continue writing on subjects and issues important to me in the hope of bringing awareness. It comes out in various ways, often in the form of anger and sarcasm - but that's only methodology and not what's driving me from within. What drives me in my activism against racism, sexual & domestic abuse, homophobia, inequality, fundamentalism, all kinds of things is a wealth of life experience in things I've seen, been a victim or survivor of, or taken part in - in one respect or another. The story you're about to read is a first hand account of how politics and racism came to have a huge impact on my worldview. It will infuriate you if you have a conscience and it will break your heart if you have one to break. I tell it now because I want people to know that the fire in me to use my voice is NOT just mindless idealistic bitching, it is meant to grab people and shake them by the shoulders until they stop being innocent bystanders and start paying attention.

At the end of the 1970's, just as I was coming of age, two very significant things happened that gave birth to my future as an activist. In one chaotic evening I lost two precious things - a huge chunk of my innocence; and the other, one of my best friends and playmates.

When I was a kid, Senator Floyd Hudgins & his family lived across the street from me in a very nice, suburban neighborhood. I liked the Senator very much, he was always very kind to me and taught me a lot about government and politics and what it meant to try and help people by making laws. His youngest daughter Sandy was one of two children close to my age on our street, and we played often. His daughter Jan was one of my sister's good friends, and his son Mike was just a teenage asshole that none of us really liked because, well, he was an asshole. He worshipped KISS and that was about all I knew of him, aside from him not wanting anyone to enter his room, and that he never had a single nice thing to ever say to anyone, ever. Oh yeah, he also sucked his thumb. That might have accounted for the buck-toothage, but I always remember thinking it was strange that someone as old as him was a thumb sucker. Sandy and I mostly stayed away from him and let him do his own thing and he ignored us when he wasn't being a complete dickhole for no reason.

Ronnie Upshaw & his family moved into the house on the corner at the opposite end of our street in the middle of Summer one year. I met him on a whim when I was about 9 years old and putting WD-40 on the chain of my bike and the wheels of my skateboard in my front yard. The chain kept jamming up the gears and I couldn't get it to work properly, and I was getting frustrated. Ronnie happened to catch my plight when he was walking by and offered to help with the bike in exchange for teaching him how to skateboard. We became friends immediately and I had my first neighborhood guy friend, which was great. I loved Sandy to death, but I was the consummate rough and tumble boy and needed another likeminded playmate. Ronnie's mother was named Cora and she was as sweet as could be, occaisionally offering to take me off of my mother's hands and spend plenty of time at their home. They took me out when they went to go shopping and to dinner to give Ronnie some company and because they liked me, and I thought they were all good friends. My mother and Cora got along famously, and they would visit while Ronnie (whom I nicknamed "Scoot" because he moved so fast) and I played in the yard or went bike riding.

It all came to a screeching halt one evening, and I'll never forget it for the rest of my life. I had just gotten out of the bathtub after a long day of playing with Scoot, and there was much commotion going on outside. Firetrucks and police cars with flashing lights and sirens screaming went flying past my house and down to the end of the street. I ran to the front of the house in my pajamas to see where everyone was going, and my brothers and sisters were already out in the front yard looking down towards Scoot's house. Lights were flashing everywhere and neighbors had begun gathering in front yards, faces ashen and heads shaking in resolute sadness. No sooner had I gotten past my front porch did I smell the smoke and see the flickering movements in the trees across the street. My sister was screaming to my mother something I didn't understand, and my mother grabbed me and pulled me back towards our house. All I knew was that something really bad had happened, she told me not to worry and made my sisters come back in to pacify me while ordering my brothers to go investigate what had happened and find out where the Upshaw family was and if they were okay, and to tell them to come to our house if they needed to. I do not recall how the evening ended, but they didn't come down to our house and eventually the firetrucks and police left, neighbors went about their business, and that was that - it all reverted back to normal.

The next morning I asked my Mama if I could go to Scoot's house to see if he wanted to play, still unaware that anything had really happened the previous night. She told me that we'd talk about it later, and in walked my sister. I was told to go find something to do, which only meant that I couldn't hear what they were going to talk about. Naturally I walked towards my bedroom, closed the door, and stood in the hallway eavesdropping. My sister was an equal mix of anger and hurt in explaining what information she'd gotten about the previous night's events, but it made no sense at all to me. All I really got was that it all must have been really bad because my Mama was crying when she said "I don't know how I'm supposed to explain this to that baby in there!", knowing full well 'that baby' was me. Before she could say anything I went outside, got on my bike, and headed down the street. What happened took me years to comprehend, and to this day I cannot really make complete sense of it. It is all in many ways still confusing to me, even with what I know now versus what I knew then.

I didn't know that we lived in a predominantly white neighborhood or that there was any real difference between the color of my own skin and Scoot's dark brown skin, except that we looked different from each other, but who the fuck cared about that, we never even thought about it. All I knew was that he was my good friend and I wished that he was my brother and could live with me so I'd always have a boy my own age to play with. The fact that he was black and I was white never entered my mind, in my family it was never an issue or in any way thought of with any sort of distinction. My parents had black friends, Filipino friends, Latino friends, and to me they were all just our friends, you know? They were treated like family, as were all of people traipsing in our house at any given time. Some spoke with funny accents and may have looked different than us, and we would sometimes have huge dinners with food I'd never had before, but it was fantastic and I loved it and loved learning about them. That was my norm as a kid, there were many different cultures and races and religions and blah blah blah - but to me they were all fundamentally the same thing: our friends and extended family. In my house, all were welcomed - as long as you were a good person and did right by others.

I didn't know that people would or could hate good people like the Upshaw family, especially when they didn't even know them. I had no way of knowing that such hatred would cause them to construct a ten foot cross out of two-by-fours soaked in kerosene, then put that cross on Scoot's front porch and set it aflame in an effort to burn the house down. All I knew when I finally rode my bike toward his house was that it didn't make sense to me - none of it. I sat on my bike by the curb in front of the house looking at the charred pile of wood dragged out to the end of the driveway, smelled that lingering smoke smell, and wondered where the family - my friends - had gone.

Thankfully the Upshaw family were visiting family in another part of town and consequently not home that evening and didn't know what had happened until long after the fact, when they returned home and the fire had already been put out. I was told that the burned cross was still intact and that my brothers were there as bystanders in the yard when the family were told what REALLY happened, witnessing first-hand the heartbreaking devestation that comes with a hatecrime.

That night, while we all slept, the Upshaw family packed up and removed every trace of themselves from their desecrated house - and we never saw or heard from them again. It was explained to me much later that they didn't want anyone to know where they went because of their fear in having the same people come after them again. So, as I stated earlier, in one fell swoop that night I lost two precious things - one, another huge chunk of my innocence; and the other, one of my best friends and playmates. This event alone came to solidify my hatred of racism, and though I haven't thought about him in a long time, I always wonder what all of that did emotionally and psychologically to Scoot and his family. I know what it did to me, but the fact is it wasn't my house that burned because someone hated the color of MY skin. What I lost, as significant as it was, paled in comparison - it had to.

Before the end of that year, after repairs had been made to the house at the end of the street and a new family had moved in, the asshole boy across the street - the Senator's son - went to juvenile court for his part in the arson crime of the Upshaw house. My family was in the process of moving to the neighboring state when it all began to unfold, and I understand it was the catalyst for the end of the Senator's career. Whenever I hear about Dylan Klebold, Eric Harris, or any number of teenage sociopaths, I always think of him. He died a few years ago, something related to his lifelong diabetes - I'm not sure. All I know is that when my sister called to tell me about it I felt absolutely nothing, nothing at all.

People might think that just because something happens in movies that it isn't real, it doesn't affect them. People didn't really burn crosses on people's homes and try to kill them for their skin color, not even in 1979 - that sort of thing was confined to the 50's and 60's! Perhaps they think such things because the horror of it all is just too much to bear, or perhaps it's something as simple to them as "doesn't directly affect me, not my fault, not my problem". I don't get that kind of apathy, I really don't. All that does is make the disease of racism worse, as it does with anything where people are oppressed or otherwise disenfranchised. I know that not everybody is not going to be the bleeding heart I am that wants to heal it all up and fix everything I can, I accept that - but I don't get how anyone can be made aware of how these sorts of ills happen to real people in real life and not be diminished a a person by it. I'll never understand that apathy, and I will never be that blind.

I've been thinking a lot about the Bush/NAAPC thing from recent days, wherein he finally addressed the group that he's completely shrugged off in both his presidential campaigning and all 5 years of his administration. Funny how now he finds the time to try and make nice with brown folks when there is a serious backlash by a majority of Americans against the Republicans in every branch of government, tons of speculation that in the midterms this fall they're going to take significant losses in both houses and in the 08 election, and his own admittance of institutionalized racism within GOP ranks. He almost sounded clever when he mentioned how shameful it was that the party of Abraham Lincoln (magnifying who freed the slaves) had been historically met with such derision by Black America. I say 'almost sounded clever' for two reasons. Reason #1: In Lincoln's day, it was the Republicans of that time who were the Democrats of now and vice versa - it was the conservatives who were the liberals - pissing in a fan much? Reason #2: His whole speech and posturing was just political grandstanding when you consider that within his speech he mentioned the estate tax (which would have affected virtually no one in attendance) as a good idea, yet did not address poverty which certainly is of serious importance to the crowd before him. It's just another instance for anyone paying attention that for all of the hollow apologizing, there is still a giant canyon of detatchment between what Americans want to be sure their President understands and what he actually does understand - particularly when that President is a Republican. The only people who are more out of touch are black conservatives, who make about as much sense to me as a black faction of the KKK. That's why I call the Uncle Tom's Republicans. I wonder how many stories like mine would ever come from a Conservative White Boy, how many people who look like me and talk like me would ever feel the way I do with or without the things I've seen and experienced.

I don't know the answer to that, but I do know this - no matter what I do in my life, if I ever see an instance of injustice, racism, or oppression, I will not be complacent. I never have been and I never will be. I will not be an example of apathy.
25th-Jul-2006 11:23 pm (UTC)
Thank you for sharing. I don't know what people have been saying about your journal, but it is a source of strength to me, and I very much appreciate its existence and its message.
25th-Jul-2006 11:33 pm (UTC)
Jesus Christ, I'm really at a lost for words. :(

You are such an eloquent writer AB and it's always a pleasure reading your political posts. But this particular entry really hit me personally as a black female. It brings comfort knowing that there are people like you who give a damn, care and will fight against all social injustices.

I was afraid that in the next paragraph, I would have read that Scooter and his family was in that house and died, but then I let out a loud sigh of relief to learn that they were not, and were not physically harmed - but it's the emotional damage that is just as bad, if not worse. Sadly, you learned a lot about the evils of humanity, but what happened was meant to happen in order to set the stage for who you are and what you do in the future, namely now.

Parents must be held responsible for raising rude racist fucks and I'm glad that Senator's career was derailed after it was discovered his son was the cross burner. Now, the bastard is dead and he probably wasn't even 40 years old. Karma.

Maybe Scooter and his family are somewhere much nicer and where they could live in peace. I hope Scooter is still alive and that one day, some how, you bump into each other and remember that you were once very dear friends.

thanks for sharing this, it was hard story to read but now I understand where you get your fire.

ps. ditto on the Bush address to the NAACP...it was pure bullshit. I only wish the Republican party was still like it was back in Lincoln's day. bitches.
25th-Jul-2006 11:51 pm (UTC)
You are right that I didn't realize crosses were still being burned in people's yards in 1979. I was a little kid then, and I remember "The Jeffersons" and not being savvy to what was so humorous about Tom and Helen for the way they looked - I figured it was just because Helen was graceful and polite and had married a doof. (To this day, that's what I find humorous in the reruns.)

I grew up in the Midwest, and my dad is an admitted racist, bigot - you name it, if it's different from him, he'll bitch about it. He doesn't hide it, either, or try to make polite. We used to argue CONSTANTLY on principle because we'd disagree about the way things ought to be in the world. (He's just not a happy person overall.) But I still remember when I was a kid and we lived in this pretty much all-white little town, and this guy's car broke down near the service station where Dad was working while laid off from the factory.

The man was black, and Dad was the one to go to his car with him and change his tire and sell it and the other items he needed to the man. Dad only charged him for the tire, not his labor changing it. The fellow was so grateful that he gave Dad some carpet samples from his trunk. (No, Dad didn't have a rug fetish - the guy was a salesman and it was all he had to offer.) Dad tried to turn him down politely, but the guy insisted.

From that point for the next few years, the man still came through the area every so often on his sales route. Because it was such a small town, he would occasionally run into Dad somewhere, and he jokingly called him "my best friend in town." He always seemed genuinely happy to see Dad, and if he saw Dad when we weren't with him and Dad had to tell us later he'd ran into the guy, he'd always smile while telling the story and any news he and the guy had gossiped about. (And, we always knew when they'd seen one another, because Dad would come home with a few more of those carpet samples - to this day, almost 20 years later, Mom and Dad are still using from that stockpile as mats just inside the doors for people to wipe their feet when they come inside.)

I guess my point is that my dad can be an asshole - he'll even admit as much to you about himself. It's odd how there can be such a disconnect between what a person says and what they do. Had he ever found out me or my sister had participated in burning a cross on someone's property, no matter WHO they were, he would've probably whipped us within an inch of our lives and made us take the blame for doing it on top of that.

I always thought Mom wasn't too different from Dad - they've both voted Republican as long as I've known them. In the past few years, though, I've seen them shifting in the face of the overwhelming stupidity of the GOP (more than normal). I said something to my sister recently about the folks being against gay marriage along with the rest of the Repubs, and she said, "Mom isn't."

"She's not?" My sister lives with them, and knows their current opinions better than I do.

"Nah. She figures if two people love each other and want to get married, why does she care?" Then she proceeded to tell a story about how Dad was verbally ripping Dubya a new one in some other part of the house for being such an idiot. (Hmm. I didn't think I could be surprised by them after 34 years.)

Not much point to all that, I guess, except that like the other commenters, I like reading your journal and appreciate your insights too.
25th-Jul-2006 11:57 pm (UTC)
thanks for sharing that
26th-Jul-2006 12:06 am (UTC)
you know...growing up...I was surrounded by such a diverse crowd...we always assumed the racial mutterings of our elders were due to simple ignorance and inexposure. I dated a black girl in high school..and I remember my mother saying something stupid about being "unequally yoked" and I remember asking her if she had any idea of how dumb that sounded...anyway...as it turns out...mom later attended a mostly black church..and ended up being the "prayer coordinator"..some people just take longer to realize the obvious...

...hmmmm....interesting that I say that about mom...heheheh
26th-Jul-2006 12:06 am (UTC)
Psst I wond the auction for that purse.. Whats the shipping on it to 33635?
26th-Jul-2006 12:16 am (UTC)
Jude, thank you...understanding better the reasons why fires burn inside us (no irony intended) help to stoke those fires in others. Those horrific demonstrations of hate *still* happen, even in places one would never expect--like my small mid-Michigan hometown, long after I left, to a family which left crime-ridden Saginaw looking for peace, safety, and a good place to raise their children. But the swift and thorough reaction by the community made it clear that cross-burning racists will never be welcomed or accepted there...and they rose to the occasion by helping that family recover from its property losses. It can never make the family's experience go away, but it made me feel good to know that my hometown did the right things for the right reasons for the right people, doing its best to atone for the grievous hurt inflicted by one or more of its own.

I wish that you hadn't lost a good friend by that hateful action long ago, but I'm glad that you have channeled your anger in ways that grab people by the balls and give them the means to change when they listen to and understand your messages. And I'm thankful to learn from you too, my friend.

26th-Jul-2006 12:53 am (UTC)
wow, that's hardcore. Thank you for sharing. *HUG* I consider myself lucky to grow up in the time that I did. And though I grew up in a hick town in the 80s and 90s I still NEVER had to deal with anything on that magnitude. Holy shit. That's crazy. Sad thing is, racism is still very strong to this day. Such a freakin shame.
26th-Jul-2006 12:55 am (UTC)
I am so very sorry for what your friend Scooter and his family were put through and I am sorry that you had to experience such a vile, hateful thing. I am unsurprised that a cross burning happened in 1979, though.

I grew up on the east coast and I lived in a pretty integrated neighborhood. My family was rather like the way you describe yours; color wasn't an issue. My parents didn't hold such attitudes and as a result neither did us kids. I am very grateful for that now.

I never saw anything such as you described but I know the hurt and fear that my best friend Carol went through. She was the only black girl in my small Catholic school class and she also lived three houses down from me. There wasn't any trouble at school, but there were kids from a few blocks away that would ride their bikes down our street and call her and her brothers names (us as well, but I don't think the comparison is apt at all) and sometimes throw rocks at us. Some of them were high school age boys and they were the scariest ones, saying things that, at our age, we didn't understand except for that they were nasty. I remeber one occasion where my father, leaning out of the window to call us in for dinner, heard them and he came out and got in his car and went after them. I never knew what happened, but those boys stayed away for a long time after that.

When I read your post, all these things came back full force, though I have never really forgotten them. Carol and I have stayed in touch over the years, first with letters when she and her family moved to North Carolina, and now we e-mail pretty regularly and call each other a few times a year. When we talk about 'the old days', we don't usually talk about those kids and their thoughtless cruelties, but it comes up once in a while swhen something of a similar nature happens to her, or her kids.

Nothing puts my back up faster than racist, bigoted assholes that don't think twice about who they hurt or how badly they hurt them.

I never find anything offensive about your blog; what I do see is an outspoken and strong-minded person who isn't afraid to say just what is on his mind (and in an eloquent way, too, I might add). You keep posting and I'll keep reading.
26th-Jul-2006 01:07 am (UTC)
Thanks for sharing.

It's sad that there are SO many people still with us today who take it upon themselves to ruin other people's lives, and worse, feel right about doing so :(
26th-Jul-2006 01:17 am (UTC)
I don't think one has to necessarily experience what you've experienced to be a civil rights activist.

I was raised by a racist. I have never had any experience remotely like what you've had. I grew up in an all white town and went to an all white school and lived an all white life.

But still, I am like you in my view, in my actions, and in my words.

I attribute that to growing up gay and facing the kind of ignorance and hatred that we still face. Now as an adult, I feel more discrimination and bias and hatred against me as an atheist than I do as a gay man. But it's all the same.

So, as sad as your story is, and as much as it might have sharpened your senses at an age where they needn't be sharpened, I think you would be who you are, and think what you think, and get to where you are now, even if it hadn't happened. There would have been a catalyst sooner or later.

You don't need to use this experiance as an excuse for your passion and vehemence and anger.

It is all justified and appreciated.

And anyone who is annoyed by it or put off by it or worst of all "weary of it" can bury their heads back in the fucking sand and go fuck themselves.

Anyone NOT angry, is part of the problem.
26th-Jul-2006 04:43 am (UTC)
Thank you for sharing this. I always read what you have to say; you make me want to be a better person. No kidding.
26th-Jul-2006 12:28 pm (UTC)
The sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality.
Martin Luther King, Jr.

Keep fighting the good fight.
27th-Jul-2006 04:38 am (UTC)
The most shocking thing that happened here related to this story is a recent incident (last year) of more burning crosses...

Burning Cross Signal Return of Klu Klux Klan

May 2005 and it continues to happen? I was fucking floored and so was the rest of the community. Bewilderment might be a better word actually. It really shocked the entire area that this happened.

Incredible how the hatred can perpetuate.
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