Sunday, September 23, 2007
My "Journey to Jena" and the Specter of Racism
I met some wonderfully, friendly people from a lot of different places and as it most often is with Black people, it was like we'd known each other all our lives - because we have. Our cultural identities as Black Americans are so intertwined that it really doesn't matter where you're from, no one of us is a stranger to the other. From the staff at the Holiday Inn Express, to the cop who escorted me from the hotel to the Convention Center to buy my bus ticket to Jena so I wouldn't get lost, the people of Alexandria were very gracious.
As I was driving home to S. Florida on the 22nd with many miles to go before I slept, I heard Mr. Baisden announce on the radio, that Mychal Bell would not be released on bail as we all thought. I wasn't surprised. As a matter of fact, I expected it. Having been born and raised in the Deep South (SC) and having gone to college in the Deep South (AL) before I headed north to live, I'm more than familiar with how the white judicial (and I use that word loosely because there's rarely any justice involved) system operates, particularly when Blacks
forget their place by actually standing up for themselves. But it was alright, because in the last 24 hours, I'd just spent THE MOST overwhelmingly fulfilling time with my people and I was convinced we'd just begun. Then, I hear Mr. Baisden say, "For people to say this is about race, it's so stupid!" Alright went right out the window in that instant and I got off at the next exit because A.) I needed gas and B.) I needed to process what the hell he'd just said!
Before any of you get your underwear in a bunch, let me just say this. I applaud and respect Mr. Baisden's concerted and successful efforts to mobilize the over 50,000+ people who answered the call and marched peacefully on Jena. He was phenomenal in that quest. That being said though, if he thinks it's "so stupid" for people to say what happened in Jena is about race then go ahead and call me stupid because that is EXACTLY what it's about. I understand he may not want to offend whites, Latinos or Asians who showed up to support the Jena 6 or maybe he believes he needs to be a consensus builder because we need them to make this work or maybe he believes Jena's merely about right and wrong. He has a right to his opinion, as do I - "You cannot change what you don't acknowledge."
Don't get it twisted. I know there are people of other races who are family. As a matter of fact, I've had white family for the past 27 years I've been married. And while I'd hoped in the beginning that it didn't matter that I was Black, it did and still does to some of them. Whether it matters or not, I talk about that big, pink elephant of race in the corner rather than skirting the issue with "we are all family" talk that doesn't address how people are really feeling. I'd rather live in the light uncomfortably at times than spend my time in the dark pretending a problem doesn't exist when it does. Through talking about it, some of them have acknowledged their own inherent racism as I have acknowledged my own prejudices (there is a difference between the two). From there, some of us were willing to go forward and some were not. And that's okay too because I don't have to live with them. But they know where I stand and I know with whom I'm dealing.
To take racism out of the Jena discussion is to marginalize the pain it has inflicted and continues to inflict on Blacks in America. What's happening in the courts and in that town is institutional racism so deeply embedded in the psyche of its people it caused them to close all their stores (with them inside and red or yellow tape as a boundary between us and them!) and lock up their parking lots with shiny new locks and chains on rusty gates when we all descended on Jena. It may not be all whites, but it's enough of them that the Jena 6 stand accused and Mychal Bell sits in jail though the adult charges have been vacated and no juvenile charges have been filed. They think what they're doing is right, we think what they're doing is wrong and because of racism, there will be no meeting somewhere in the middle – not without legal intervention brought about by the passion and conviction I saw on that absolutely beautiful September day in Jena.