White kid, black avatar

Stardew

“These villagers are giving Kevin a hard time. I bet it is because he is black.”

A, my 6-year old, toggled the control to the Playstation 4 as he bounced up on to his feet, unable to hold still. He had his newly created character, Kevin, walk through the sparsely populated Pelican Town, chatting with strangers. I had explained to him that talking to everyone was important because relationships in the game were built slowly over time, by speaking with people and occasionally giving them presents. He could even learn what kinds of presents each person liked, like jewels, fresh fruit, or fish, and then give those specific gifts to strengthen the friendship bonds. A was getting the hang of it. But the villagers didn’t know Kevin at first and were saying coy and dismissive things to him.

A was playing Stardew Valley, a kid-friendly game that involved farming, building wealth, planting seeds, purchasing animals, building friendships, foraging, and even mining. He had been watching his older brother, J, play it for a few months and had wanted to try out his own character.

A had been thinking about his character Kevin for a few days before he brought it up. He waited for a quiet evening then asked if we could design a new game for him, and the boyfriend and I enthusiastically agreed. We opened up the design screen, typed in the name Kevin at his request, then moved to select the character specifications.

“I want him to have brown hair, a blue shirt, brown pants, and black shoes. And I think he should have brown skin.”

I had turned to him, surprised and pleased, and asked him why.

“Well, the town has a bunch of white people in it. I’ve watched J play and there are only a few brown or black people. They need more.”

I nodded, pulling in A for a squeeze as I changed Kevin’s skin color. And then A had gone about learning how to play the game. Kevin settled into a small house on a wide piece of land. He learned how to chop down trees, hoe the ground, purchase seeds and plant them, and water.

“Man, Kevin worked really hard on his first day!” A had said before sending an exhausted Kevin to bed for the night. And when the sun rose the next morning, A focused on taking Kevin around Pelican Town to meet new friends.

When A made the comment about Kevin’s race being the reason that the villagers weren’t being friendly, I turned to him surprised.

“You think it is because he’s black? Why do you say that?”

A didn’t look over as he took Kevin down to the beach to forage for shells and clams. “Well, you and Mom taught me about slavery. White people used to own black people and were super mean to them. And now white people are mean to black people sometimes. So maybe that’s why they aren’t being nice to Kevin.”

I hesitated. “A, it’s just a game.”

He looked at me with an expression that said ‘duh.’ “I know. But it’s like real life. And black people have to work harder sometimes. That’s why we need to be nice to everyone.”

My thoughts were spinning. I had made a strong effort, in the lives of both of my children, to teach them about the components of social justice. We had gentle, kid-friendly discussions about feminism, homophobia, racism, and disabilities, always with the very strong message that we are never to be bullies and that we embrace and stand up for everyone around us. While I had mentioned racism to A before, we hadn’t had any lengthy discussions about it, and I wondered if it had been something on his mind.

A turned to me. “Did you know that there were slaves a long-long time ago, too? The Egyptians had slaves before Moses freed them.”

My eyes opened wide, and I looked at him confused. “Where did you learn about that?”

Another ‘duh’ look. “Daddy, I go to school. Me and my brother both.”

I remembered that J, his older brother, age 9, had been learning about Hebrew stories in his class lately, and they had probably been talking about it at home. The boys went to a charter school with an alternative education curriculum, with sections on mythology and historical stories. I nodded, accepting the answer.

“Slavery is horrible. It’s one of the worst things in human history,” I said.

“Yeah, I know. I’m glad people are free now.” A said with startling insight.

Later that night, after the kids were asleep, I thought about the implications of this discussion, cleaning up the kids’ toys. I thought of my older sister, who was raising three adopted kids, two of them the same age, one who is white and one who is black, and the differences in how the world will treat them growing up. I thought about two friends of mine, a gay couple, who are raising a black son and daughter, and I thought of a dear friend of mine, a black woman who had been raised by white parents. I wondered how all of these people in my life would feel about my white son choosing a black avatar, a 6-year old boy wondering if there was racism built into his video game. I didn’t come to any conclusions. I just felt the feelings, a mix of pride, fear, anxiety, and discomfort all at once. A had approached the topic from a 6-year old understanding, a place of empathy, not impatience or superiority, and that felt okay for now. He’d seen the need for more diversity in his video game and had made that happen, and that part thrilled me.

My sons, with their gay dad and straight mom, with their black cousin and lesbian aunt, with their Mormon grandparents and ex-Mormon parents, were being raised to see the world from a wider view than the one I’d be raised with.

As I laid down that night, I found sleep evasive. Strangely, I was just a bit worried about Kevin.

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Heaven

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“Hey, monkeys, I heard your great-grandpa died. How are you feeling about that?”

My sons, now J (age 9) and and A (age 6), thought about it briefly.

A set down the toy crocodile he’d been playing with. “I’m sad. But he was really old, like 85, so I guess it’s okay.”

J didn’t look up from the pad of paper where he was drawing. “I’m just glad he is with great-grandma in Heaven now.”

Later that evening, I gave thought to Heaven itself. Growing up, I’d thought of it as some sort of city in the clouds with golden gates and marble spires, where everyone was white with white hair and flowing robes. For most people, Heaven was a simple construct, a nice cloudy place for the dead to keep existing and to relax forever.

But I’d been raised Mormon, a religion that taught that all of mankind existed as spirits before coming to Earth, and that in Heaven, after the judgment, those who were worthy would get to live forever in their resurrected bodies. But there also some kind of in between life, which Mormons called Spirit World, where the good and evil spirits were divided into paradise and prison before the final judgment. Then, after the judgment, there were various kingdoms where humans would get to live depending on their worthiness, and men could only aim for the very highest through obedience to complicated rules. Married heterosexual couples who were worthy would stay married and would be bonded to their children and their parents, and on and on forward and backward, creating a family chain from beginning to end. The unworthy were severed from these bonds, yet they still had their own version of the afterlife, just a little less nice, a shack instead of a mansion, or a mansion instead of a planet. In the end, the most worthy would get to live on Earth again, which would be made paradise and its own version of Heaven.

All of that, with afterlife and varying levels of worth and reward, suddenly made Heaven very complicated. And that was before introducing the concept of Hell.

My children, in their short lives, have already seen more death than I had in my childhood. By 9, I didn’t really know anyone who died, not personally, until I was a teenager, but they have lost five of their great grandparents (the other three having died before their births). Death, to them, is something that happens to the old, as a natural part of existence. They don’t seem overly impacted, sad, or distressed, they just know that someone who was a parent to their grandparents is now gone on. To them, Heaven is still simple, a place to rest and be happy.

I’m not sure what Heaven is to me now. As a therapist, I often have spiritual discussions with my clients, helping them discover their own truths and sort out the complexities of their religious upbringings in their own lives. When asked to give a label to my own belief structure, I often tell people that I’m a “spiritual atheist” and that, while I don’t believe in God or religion, that I do believe in the human spirit and its capacity for progress and change, for peace and purpose. And while I don’t believe in cloud cities and white flowing robes anymore than I do in winged beings with harps, I also don’t believe in a great void of blackness where souls just slip away into oblivion.

It’s hard for me to sort out thoughts on Heaven without being influenced by my upbringing, where eternal rest was equated directly to obedience within a narrow set of rules. “Do as you are told, and you get to have the best afterlife” no longer sits well with me. And there are billions and billions of human souls who have come before me. In a world where millions have been killed in concentration camps or by atomic bombs and were told that they deserved it because of their heritage, where millions spent their lifetimes in the bonds of slavery and were told that they deserved it because of their skin color, or where millions were ravaged by AIDS and told that they deserved it for their lifestyle choices… what is the afterlife for them? Is it a place that white Christians have determined is primarily set up for white Christians? I can’t reconcile those untold millions into the Heaven I was raised to believe in, and so I reject that concept completely.

If my children were asking me about Heaven, I wouldn’t list any sort of merit-based system. I wouldn’t discuss a premortal existence, or God, or fire and brimstone, or higher or lower degrees. I would instead describe the very images they are likely to draw. A place where we are happy and love the people we love. And there can be clouds and trees and peace, human development in healthy relationships, free of war and pain. That’s the place I want them picturing their great-grandparents.

An uncomplicated space of love and health where every voice is heard and every person is loved.

In fact, maybe I won’t ask them to draw it, and maybe I won’t draw it for them. Maybe we can draw it together.

Minty, Harriet, and Moses

Her parents called her Minty. Their names were Rit and Ben, and they only met because their mutual owners had married each other, placing the two on the same plantation. Minty knew who her mother and father were, but she didn’t belong to them, she belonged to her white owners. In her younger years, she was fed and clothed and housed, an investment for a few years later when she would be required to work for her masters, like the other pieces of property she lived among.

Rit’s mother, Modesty, had crossed the ocean on a slave ship the generation before. Rit herself would work mostly as a cook and would go on to have nine children, Minty being one. Three of Rit’s daughters were sold to other white owners and never seen again. When a man came to take away Rit’s youngest son, Moses, Rit hid him for an entire month, and she threatened to split the head of her owner if he took her son away, though she could have been whipped or killed for her resistance.

As a young child, Minty was loaned out to a white woman named Miss Susan, who had a new baby. Minty was whipped when the child cried, even at night, and whipped again when she couldn’t clean something to Miss Susan’s liking. As an old woman, decades later, Minty could still show others the scars she still bore from those beatings she received as a child. Minty was regularly beat as a child by her white masters. As a young teenager, one man hit her so severely with a metal weight upon her head that it did permanent brain damage, leading others to believe she was slow. For the rest of her life, Minty had headaches, seizures, and powerful dreams and visions. She was only 5 feet tall.

A deeply religious woman who believed in deliverance, Minty spoke often to God and believed that he answered. She saw her father join the ranks of free black man living around them when he reached the age of 55, he having been manumitted, or set free by his previous owner through a stipulation in the will. Minty’s mother was later freed by her husband, who purchased his wife’s freedom for $20, hard-earned.

Minty married a free black man named John Tubman, and she changed her name from Araminta, for which Minty was short, to the more Christian name, Harriet. Free black men and women lived all around the slaves in their community, there for the slaves to watch and envy. Harriet knew that any children she had would be born into slavery despite the free status of her husband, based on her laws at the time. Considered of low value because of her health struggles, Harriet faced being sold to another plantation in the deeper South and away from family, and instead she risked her very life and chose to run. Using the informal Underground Railroad, she found help from slaves, free men, and abolitionists like the Quakers and, avoiding the slave catchers, found her way to the free North.

Within a few years, Harriet became known as a veritable legend, a secret woman who led escaped slaves through the wilderness with her quick and careful pace and her gospel songs. Harriet soon became known as Moses, leading her people from captivity to the promised land: freedom. Though most of her adventures remain private, it is estimated she guided several dozens of slaves to freedom, and none of them were ever recaptured.

Harriet saved fathers and mothers, children and infants, who she sometimes had to drug during the long journey so their cries wouldn’t alert nearby slave hunters. She saved some of her family members, those who wanted saving, including brothers and nieces, but her husband married another woman (and was later killed by a white man in a dispute). It was only decades later that Harriet gave interviews about her time on the Underground Railroad. She shared only a handful of stories, highlighting the hopes and the dangers.

Moses planned her escapes in the uncomfortable winters, when slave hunters would not want to follow, and she generally left on Saturdays, since missing slave notices wouldn’t show up in the newspapers until Monday. She hid and slept during the day, and walked endlessly at night, over hundreds of miles, dozens of times, to the North, often all the way to Canada. Moses blended into crowds when she needed to, using disguises and props to lower suspicions. She carried a revolver for protection, and would threaten to kill any slaves who wanted to turn back as that would put the entire group at risk.

Years later, during the inevitable Civil War, Harriet provided intelligence to abolitionists and even lead armed assaults in a battle or two, saving thousands more lives. While on a military trip, white men in a train assaulted her, breaking her arm.

In her older years, Harriet was lauded as a hero, but she lived most of her life in poverty, giving much of what she had to others. She married Nelson Davis, two decades her junior, and they stayed married for decades, even adopting a child. Harriet went on to fight for women’s right to vote alongside Susan B. Anthony and others.

Harriet Tubman died when she was in her early 90s. Despite her poverty status, she inspired the opening of a home for the elderly who were in poverty.

The 5 feet tall disabled black girl grew up being beat by masters, told she was worthless and never good enough, and she went on to save hundreds of lives. Heroes show up in the most unlikely of places, and I am thrilled to call Harriet Tubman one of my heroes.

harriet

Black Lives

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“The hardest part is seeing all these parents with their children.”

Gloria folded her arms and nodded. “Yes, but there is no other way. The children have to know.”

My eyes scanned the crowd, looking over a veritable sea of African Americans of all ages and sizes. In front of a large display of a man being lynched, a mother clutched her son tightly. I saw her place her hand over his eyes initially as if to shield him, then she slowly took it away and leaned down to explain why this had happened. I heard two ten year old boys near her debating whether or not the man in that photo had escaped his noose. A bit earlier, I had heard a boy of 12 brag to his teacher that “My great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather was a slave who fought in the Revolutionary War!” Although he had a few too many ‘greats’ tacked on, I was both thrilled and saddened that he knows his family heritage. I watched a mother hold hands with her two daughters, one on each side, reading a display about a black woman who was raped by policemen, men who were later acquitted of the crime, and wondered how she felt.

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I looked back at Gloria. “I was never sure I wanted children,” she said. “And then I had my daughter, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. She changed my whole life. And I learned that I couldn’t raise a black daughter without her knowing her history. Thing is, you can’t hide from history, and you can’t make the mistake of not teaching it.”

I nod, sullen. “I’m a dad, too. I try to teach my sons the things they need to know. I taught them about Martin Luther King, and they just can’t understand why another man would try to kill someone who stood for something so good.”

“I know. But our children go on to do amazing things. We teach them right, we raise them right, and then they surprise us.” A proud look came over Gloria’s face. “My daughter, she works in the White House now. That’s why I’m here in D.C. from my home in Atlanta, to attend some events with her. Just the other day, I got to meet President Obama, and let me tell you, he was the nicest man.”

“He has surely been our finest president.” We shared a smile.

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And that had been the very best part of being in this museum, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. It had been an hours-long wait to get in. A large crowd of us had been lead into the deep basement level, where we learned about black history in the Americas from 1400 on. Beautiful and stirring displays, with perfect music and ambience and light and shadow, showed peaceful industrious families in African villages being kidnapped and forced on to slave ships. Those who survived the journeys were then owned for life, whipped and raped and beaten and killed and worked, for generations. Displays told stories of poets and statesmen, soldiers and teachers and martyrs throughout the sordid and violent history, through the Civil War and into freedom, through poverty and segregation, through the fight for Civil Rights to mass imprisonment. A woman on the ground floor had told me it would take a full 22 hours to go through the entire museum, reading everything. I had been here for 3, and my brain and heart were in a spiral. Yet at the top, I got to see black families standing in front of pictures of the Obamas, in a massive hall lined with black celebrities and powerful figures from history. I could feel the pride emanating there.

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I confided in Gloria a bit, as her friends stood near her. “I can understand all of this, but only on my own level. I am a gay father to two sons. They are amazing and wonderful and individual, but they are growing up with a gay dad. It sets my family apart, gives us difficulties. My own family doesn’t always understand me, and I’ve faced discrimination. But my skin is white. I could never understand what it is like in this country to face all of this. And I cant imagine how it feels now that Trump has been elected. To go from seeing the first black couple in the White House to seeing a candidate endorsed by the KKK.”

Gloria put a hand on my arm, less to console me and more to get my attention. “Look. You understand more than you think you do. People are people and should be treated as people. It’s 2016 and this museum is just now getting built. It should have been here years ago.”

My eyes lit up. “I can’t believe it is as close to the Washington Monument and the White House as it is!”

She kept on topic. “As far as Trump’s election goes, I fully believe that everything happens for a reason. We are going to learn the lessons we need to learn, and we are going to keep on going on, because what else can we do? We have to, and that is just the way it is.”

I nodded in agreement, but I couldn’t help but think of how different this place would be in a few weeks. Now it felt celebratory. Would it be like this after the White House was staffed with nearly all white millionaires? I sighed.

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The line shifted forward. I was glad it had moved slowly, because I wouldn’t have met Gloria otherwise. We finally entered the room where Emmett Till’s coffin was on display, with no body inside it. Emmett had been 13 when he had allegedly whistled at a white woman. A group of white men had kidnapped him and savagely beaten him before tossing his mutilated body in a river, where it was later found. Emmett’s mother, Mamie, had allowed the bloated body to be put on display for the public to witness the atrocity. The murderers were put on trial and all exonerated in the courtroom. Being here now, feeling this now, 1955 didn’t feel all that long ago. I could still feel the outrage.

A quote from Mamie Till on the wall brought me to tears. “Two months ago I had a nice AnAn ouapartment in Chicago. I had a good job. I had a son. When something happened to the Negroes in the South I said, ‘That’s their business, not mine.’ Now I know how wrong I was.”

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An hour later, I walked away from the museum, after hours inside, contemplative and deeply moved. Images of Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass and Bayard Rustin and Harriet Tubman and Barack Obama and Shirley Chisholm and Martin Luther King and Crispus Attucks and, most of all, Gloria, ran through my head. I thought of the real American history, and legacy, and the present, and the future.

I looked at the gorgeous architecture of the museum behind me. And then I looked at the placement of my feet on the ground beneath me. And then I looked up at the skyline ahead.

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Dark America: 5 painful responses to Trump’s election

darkamerica

Without revealing any individual’s identity, here are five genuine responses from people that I have heard from in private conversations since the election of Donald Trump. As you read this, I ask you to simply hear the experiences of others, without justification and without comparison. Pain isn’t meant to be compared to the pain of another, everyone’s pain is valid. And no matter what your personal feelings and reactions to all of this are, I invite you to recognize that these are real people who are in pain that is different than yours.

1: “When I was a teenager, I was raped. I’ve been dealing with the consequences of that rape my entire adult life, and it has affected my self-esteem and a lot of my personal relationships. When I tried to talk to others about it, I was blamed. I was told that maybe I was asking for it, I was told that boys can’t be expected to be responsible for themselves when girls put themselves in particular positions, I was told I should have said no or fought back harder, and I was told that a lot of girls go through the same thing and it was no big deal. I was even told by one person that maybe I was asking for it and maybe I learned some things and maybe deep down I enjoyed it.

Since the Access Hollywood tapes were released about Trump, I have been hearing those same excuses about him, excusing his behavior, all over the media and all over the Internet. He dismisses it as locker room talk, his son says women in the work place should expect it if they want to interact with men, and people keep saying it is no big deal. I’ve been a nervous wreck for months. And now, now that he has been elected, I feel like the rape is happening all over again. Not literally, but emotionally. I can’t be silenced this time.”

2: “When I came out of the closet, my family disowned me and I had to leave my faith, after I attempted suicide a few times, in order to find peace. A few years later, I found a partner and learned to live happily. We made a home and a life for ourselves. We had to wait ten years to get legally married. We have always wanted to be parents and because of state laws, we couldn’t adopt together or be foster parents together until we were able to be married. Now we have two kids in our home and we are going through the adoption process. With Trump, and worse, Pence, in the White House, I am genuinely scared for my family. We are on our own. Are they going to try to cancel my marriage? Take my children from me? I’ve been walking around nervous for months. Now I am downright scared.”

3: “You have no idea what it is like to be Muslim in this country, especially in places where there is a lot of white people around. I’m not a practicing Muslim. I don’t wear the head covering or go to worship. But just by my face, my coloring, people know I am from the Middle East. I’m small, and even though I have a family through marriage who happen to be white, I constantly fear just a bit for my safety, especially when I’m on my own. In crowds, at sports games, especially in airports, you should see the looks people give me. I can’t be deported, I’m a citizen now, but is this government going to require me to register in a database? Are there going to be witch hunts like there were for the Japanese in World War II or the Communists during McCarthyism? What does this mean for me? And what about those who are more vulnerable, more isolated than I am? What about those who waited years to escape war zones and refugee camps, only to arrive here to discover they aren’t safe after all? And now, with Trump as president, I’m scared I’ll be getting more than looks, that those who hate Muslims will be braver in expressing that hate. I feel vulnerable all the time lately.”

4: “I found my son crying in his room on Wednesday, the day after the election. He’s only 8. We hadn’t really talked about the election, but he came home from school crying. When I asked him what is wrong, he told me that a few of his friends in his school class who are Mexican were upset at school because Donald Trump was going to send their families back to Mexico behind a wall and they didn’t want to leave their school and their friends. My son is white, but he doesn’t understand why his friends might get sent away. I had absolutely no idea what to say to him. I still don’t.”

5: “I’m a mess. An absolute mess. And it has taken me hours of contemplating to figure out why. The last several elections haven’t upset me like this. I had general respect for George Bush and Mitt Romney and John Kerry, even if I didn’t like their politics. They are good honorable men with families and histories of public service. They were accused of flip-flopping and inconsistency and their public service careers were widely scrutinized, and their campaigns lost on fair ground. (And all of these men came out against Trump!) Donald Trump hasn’t had a public service career, and his professional life has been combed over but no one seems to care about sexism, homophobia, racism, law suits, tax evasion, bigotry, infidelity, or narcissism. Democrats and Republicans have come out against him and no one cares. Sarah Palin would be a better president than Trump–she’s ridiculous and illogical, but at least she has experience in public office!

I sat there watching the election results this week, seeing the numbers of people voting for Trump all over the country, and my senses were reeling. I expected those results from Utah and Idaho perhaps, but seeing the close margins all over the country, well, I felt like a giant spotlight had suddenly exposed this country I love for the ugly place it is. All the pockets of muck and cobwebs and skeletons, all the history of lynchings and slavery and genocide and everything that has happened here, it just all came gurgling to the surface. How could this have happened?

And I guess the reason I’m so upset is in seeing America for what it really is. Even Obama and Clinton are giving messages of ‘just be optimistic and patient and it will all work out’, but I can’t look at my neighbors the same. My mother, my sister, my best friend, they all voted for Trump. And after all these years of progression, with gay marriage passing and health care reform and discussions about the one per cent, I have gradually felt safer in  a country that was making slow and consistent change over the years. Well, that is at a screeching halt now. I naively assumed Hillary would win and progress would continue. But now I know the real America. And I’m not sure I want to live here anymore.”

that time in 1872 when a feminist and an escaped slave ran for president

In 1872, a woman ran for President of the United States with an escaped slave as her running mate.

Victoria Clafin suffered abuse at the hands of her father as a child.  He was a con man who pulled his daughter out of school when she was 11, and he was run out of town shortly after when he burned down his own home and tried to collect the insurance money.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery in his grandmother’s shack. Though he never knew his father, it was believed that his owner had fathered him biologically, but because of his black skin, Frederick would be property rather than an heir. As a child, he witnessed slaves being whipped, interrogated, worked to death, sold, and murdered.

At age 14, Victoria met and soon married Canning Woodhull, a doctor twice her age, and she had two children, a son and a daughter, Byron and Zula Maude. Canning liked alcohol and women a bit too much, and Victoria divorced him. Though she later took a second husband, she later advocated for free love, the idea of having sex as the heart dictates, not strictly confined to marriage or commitment. She kept Canning’s late name, Woodhull. She saw a society where women either belonged to a man in marriage, or were ostracized for being divorced, and she loudly proclaimed that women should be given the right to own their own bodies and choices. She was jailed for speaking too loudly.

Frederick was sold to a new master, and the man’s kind wife taught him to read, but when his master found out, the lessons stopped, as it was believed that an educated slave was a dangerous one. Frederick taught himself to read after that, through guile and dedication, and he fell in love with the New Testament. He began teaching other slaves to read in Sunday School. At 16, he was given to another new master, who beat and whipped him regularly, promising to break him.

Victoria and her sister, Tennessee, opened their own stockbroking firm in 1870, and were hailed as “the Queens of Finance” as they coached their clients toward riches. Victoria used her money to start her own newspaper, which she ran for six years. Its primary purpose was spreading the message of feminism, and it advocated for legalization of prostitution, sex education, women’s suffrage, women’s right to choice, and spirituality, and it even printed Karl Marx’s Communism Manifesto. Victoria used her influence to expose a church leader’s marital affairs, a man who had advocated for monogamy and marriage over the pulpit.

In 1837, Frederick met a free black woman, Anna Murray, and fell in love. It took several months, but he ran away, risking his life, and escaped into the north to be free. He took Anna as his wife and they remained married for 44 years, and had five children. Frederick became a preacher, an abolitionist, and an author. His first book, about his time in slavery, became an international bestseller, and Frederick began traveling the world to speak about his experiences; he was still subjected to violence and hatred at times. He spoke loudly against the hypocrisy of Christianity in the South, Bible-reading men who prayed and paid tithes and then beat and raped and sold and killed their slaves under the protections of religion. He started a newspaper and began giving speeches, like one called “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?” He also advocated for women’s rights, and stayed very politically active through the Civil War.

Deciding to run for president, Victoria stood before Congress and argued eloquently that since all citizens were equal, women already had the right to vote. She ran on the ticket of the newly formed Equal Rights Party, and Frederick Douglass, through no initiative of his own, was voted as her running mate for Vice President. Ulysses S. Grant was elected president in 1872. Women would receive the right to vote approximately 50 years later, and the Civil Rights Movement would take place closer to 100 years later.

After the death of his wife Anna, Frederick took a second wife, Helen Pitts, a white feminist nearly 20 years younger than him, a union which caused much public scandal. He died in his late 70s, fighting for equal rights for others until his last breath. Before his death, he made peace with his original owner, the man believed to be his father.

Victoria lived into her 80s and lived overseas for a time, taking a third husband in England. She remained much quieter in her later years.

A black man, Barack Obama, was first elected president in 2008, and a woman, Hillary Clinton, was first put on a presidential ticket in 2016. Gender and race equality remain ever-present issues in today’s politics. But it was 1872 when a black man and a woman first teamed up, unwittingly, to run the country. We are long overdue.

 

 

 

Man in a monkey cage

The sign read:

The African Pigmy, “Ota Benga.”

Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.
Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the
Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Cen-
tral Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Ex-
hibited each afternoon during September

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On September 8, 1906, the Bronx Zoo in New York City added a new exhibit, a small coffee-skinned African man named Ota Benga. Placed with the monkeys, the man had an open cage to sleep in. Delighted visitors came by the thousands, the tens of thousands, bringing their friends and children to see the African man. Many of the spectators believed him to be some sub-species of man, somewhere on the evolutionary scale between monkeys and human children. And the spectators didn’t just want to see the man, they wanted him to perform. They wanted to see him hunt, play with the orangutan, dance and climb trees. If he hid, they threw rocks against his cage to draw him out. If he sat, they yelled racial slurs and insults to spark him into action, something their children could clap over and tell their friends about later. “Dance, monkey, dance,” they seemed to yell as an adult man sat behind bars, listening to their unfamiliar foreign words, yet their intent all too easy to understand.

Word spread quickly, throughout the country and then internationally: the Americans had an African man on exhibit with monkeys. New York had been a free state long before the Civil War, seeing African American citizens as deserving of equality and equal rights. And now, decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, a man was in a cage.

It took them time to figure out what had happened, and language barriers, direct lies, poor record-keeping, and time have kept many of the details hidden.

The man who came to be known as Ota Benga grew up in the Congo, then under Belgian rule. Under harsh sanctions from the Belgian people, the Congolese tribes were exploited and forced into labor. Samuel Verner, who had served as a Christian missionary in the Congo previously, and who had also spent time in a mental institution, was sent to the Congo to acquire willing men to be brought to America to be put on display at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. Benga was among them.

A bizarre series of events led to Benga being placed in the Museum of Natural History before he was placed on exhibit at the zoo, exploited and stared at.

Verner told story after story, each contradicting the others, in an effort to make himself sound heroic. He told how he had rescued Benga from slave traders, how Benga trusted only him, how Benga had asked to come to America and be placed on display. Yet in truth, Verner was a swindler and a liar. Not only had he fathered children with women while he was in Africa, he had racked up debts and exploited money. And Benga was not the first Congolese boy he had brought to the United States.

I learned about Benga only recently, when I chose a book about him at random off of a shelf. I read ravenously, devouring the words and images of this story that I had never heard before, these forgotten horrific moments of American history.

How could this have possibly happened, I wondered, in a country that is founded on Christian principles, equality of all men, and dignity of each person. And then I recalled the very founding of our country, a mix of declaring liberty from foreign powers while asserting our foreign power over the Native Americans with violence and blood; a mixture of welcoming foreigners, while building the country on the backs of foreign slaves.

The violent opposition of it all makes my head spin. We who consider ourselves the great democracy, founded on the principles of free speech and choice and religion, the greatest country in the world with equality and opportunity for all, priding ourselves on the American dream, yet we have entire presidential campaigns running on premises of refuting gay marriage, opposing women’s health care options, restricting immigration by building walls, and banning religious groups.

Ota Benga was a small man, but he was not a child nor did he have limited intellect. He had filed his teeth to fine points not because he was a cannibal or a savage, but because that was a custom among his tribe, a rite of passage for men. He communed with the monkeys in the exhibit not because he considered himself one of them, but because they were his only solace and support as the white Americans jeered.

After Benga was released from the zoo, he was taken in by an educated group of black Americans who gave him companionship and work and taught him the language. Benga lived among these citizens, whose ancestors had been forced from their homes to be slaves, belonging and yet not belonging; they had history in America, he was a refugee. It is believed Benga had lost a wife and children in the Congo, a result of cruel white men, before coming to America. He lived in relative isolation here for years, using an American-ized version of his name, Otto Bingo.

Until, in 1916, Benga found a gun and shot himself through the heart, a poetically tragic end to his story.

As I finish this story, and reflect, I’m left to wonder how we, as an evolving society of Americans… how much have we really changed?

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Women in Hot Water

“A woman is like a tea bag. You never know how strong she is until she’s in hot water.” –Eleanor Roosevelt

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Christopher Columbus sailed around the world with a ship full of men, and hundreds of thousands of men followed, each seeking to stake a claim in a new land. America was founded on the principles of a fresh start, escaping poverty and oppression and building a new life in a new world. Civilization spread over the next two hundred years from coast to coast. Men came, men conquered.

And eventually, an organized civilization formed in the name of revolution. Wanting freedom from other men, these men declared war and, in time, won, declaring independence. These men formalized a government, wrote a Constitution, elected a president, put a court system in place, and began to govern the people. America was a nation of immigrants, unified in the cause of governance.

The land of the free, they called it. The home of the brave, they said, where all men were created equal. Except for the Native Americans, slaughtered, given diseases, and eventually shoved onto small pockets of land to contain them. Except for blacks, gathered on ships and stolen from their homes, then forced into slave labor for generations. Except for Mexicans, killed and manipulated in the need for acquisition of more land. And except for women, who were expected to bear children, serve in the home, and not participate in governance.

It took ‘the land of the free and the home of the brave’ until 1920 to give women the right to vote. Around 135 years after the formation of the country on the premise that all are created equal, the other fifty per cent of our citizens got their most basic right. (Keeping in mind, this was after we went to war to end slavery, decades before the Civil Rights movement, and nearly 100 years before same-sex couples would be granted the right to marry).

In 2016, population wise, there are more women than men by several million. Men make up most of the prison population, commit nearly all of the violent and sexual crimes (including, obviously, rape and murder). Men run most of the American businesses (around 85 per cent) and are paid more than women in nearly every position, often including fields where women dominate the work place (like social work and nursing). Men run most of the religious organizations in the country, almost exclusively.

And perhaps most shocking, men dominate in nearly every category of elected officials in the United States. A recent study showed that the United States ranks number 69 in the rankings of the world’s democracies in elected positions for women. In fact, Afghanistan has more women in government than the US. As does Pakistan. And Uganda.

In our presidential running this year for the Republican and Democratic primaries, we saw a bit more racial diversity among the candidates, though it was still dominated by white men (though some of them had racially diverse spouses), and one female candidate on each side. One. Carly Fiorina for the Republican party, and Hillary Clinton for the Democratic.

I, personally, am saddened and a bit horrified at the idea that we are still so far from having equal representation in our government. Men have been making mistakes in our government for  a very long time. And the only way women can break in is by playing by the men’s rules in the men’s systems, with men as their peers. And the country is still, by and large, very patriarchal and misogynistic, and makes it very hard for a woman to succeed.

It is with this awareness of history and focus on social justice that I went about researching Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton. Clinton was raised in Chicago by a hard-working father who taught her self-reliance, and a courageous mother who had been abandoned by her parents and abused by her grandparents before staking out life on her own terms. Hillary’s mother raised her to believe in herself, treating Hillary and her two brothers as capable in every capacity. Hillary was raised with an awareness of privilege and social justice, and knew very young that she would make something of herself someday.

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Hillary married the handsome young Bill Clinton and moved to Arkansas, building a life for herself there as a successful attorney as Bill ran for various government positions. Hillary is now nearly 70 years old. During her life span, she has been the First Lady of Arkansas for nearly 15 years, the First Lady of the United States for 8 years, a Senator in New York for 8 years, and the Secretary of State for 4 years. That is a total of 35 years in public, over half of her life. She has also run two Presidential campaigns. She has championed education, women’s rights, children’s rights, LGBT rights, free information rights, and health care. She has survived public scandals and inquisitions, media feeding frenzies, and decades in the public spotlight. She has shown up time and again with courage, clarity, and strength in the face of opposition at every turn. And in my opinion, she has done so with grace, strength, and openness.

As Secretary of State, Hillary traveled the world, interfacing with male world leaders, many times as the only woman in the room. She negotiated with men who weren’t allowed to shake her hand because she was a woman, due to their own customs. She was courageous and strategic in each instance, and she stood for social justice in each encounter. She has a deep sense of history, change, initiative, and responsibility.

I don’t thank that any presidential candidate is spotless. But Hillary Clinton has my vote for three primary reasons: 1. She is simply the most qualified candidate up there. 2. She knows, first hand, what being president entails. She has, quite literally, lived it. 3. It is long past time we had a female in office.

Centuries past time.

It’s time to put more women in hot water so we can see how strong they are. z47

Joe America

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I’m an American, and I have an opinion about everything. 

I live in the greatest country in the world. We have the strongest values, the biggest military, and the best schools. We are the country that the other countries want to be like. Here, we fight for what we believe in and everyone has an equal shot. 

This is the home of the American dream. That means it doesn’t matter who you are, what color your skin is, if you are a man or a woman, that you can be anything you want if you just work hard enough. Even if you grew up in the poorest city in the world, you can come here and grab yourself by the bootstraps and work and work and work and become a millionaire or a doctor or a lawyer or anything you want. 

America is the land of freedom. Everyone is free here. We don’t have to fight for it. We are free to be whatever religion we want. We are free to say whatever we want. We are free to vote. I bet you can’t name another country where that is possible. Yeah, I can’t either.

It’s not all sunshine and roses here for me, though. I got a wife and two kids. We both work and go to church. We are hard-working Americans. But I can’t pay off all my student loans, and the mortgage is a little bit too much. We can hardly afford vacations, maybe just one big one per year, and we only have two credit cards. We have two cars and a truck, but we don’t own any other property. We have health insurance, but it’s expensive for a family of four. My mom always told me I should be thankful for things like running water and electricity and Internet and that, but I work hard to pay for that stuff, why would I be grateful for something I work hard for? My wife got her Masters degree. I barely finished high school and she’s frustrated that I make more than her, but that’s just the way things are. 

I just want what every American wants. Lower taxes and the right to do as I please. I want paved roads, public parks and buildings, a good police force, a good school for my kids, a fair legal system, libraries, and all that, sure, but I shouldn’t have to pay so much in taxes. And I especially don’t want to have my taxes to go toward taking care of other people. Medicaid and Medicare, Food Stamps, feeding people in prisons, bailing out poor people in other countries–use someone else’s money for that. I’m trying to take care of my family. They can take care of themselves.

I live in a place where there is mostly white people. I’m so sick of all the political correct baloney that goes on. People keep saying that someone of another race doesn’t get the same chances as someone white, but I think that’s crap. We all have an equal chance. We need to focus less on this stuff and more on making life easier for regular American families, families like mine. If the police shoot someone of a different race, it’s probably because that person deserved it. Okay, we had slavery way back when, but I wasn’t a slave owner, and we give Native Americans their own lands to live on. I’m sick of hearing all the complaints about stuff that happened a hundred years ago or more. 

I keep hearing about all these topics in the news, like gay marriage and abortion, and I’m so sick of it. We need to get focused on the real issues again. Look, if someone chooses to be gay and wants to be gay with other people, that’s fine, I just don’t want to see it. Go live together and do what you want, but me and the rest of the world believe in the Bible, and it says you shouldn’t get married. And abortion is just wrong. If a woman is gonna let herself get pregnant, she should have the baby, don’t abort it and give it to scientists who are gonna do terrible things to it. Planned Parenthood needs to go. 

I don’t really like Donald Trump, but if he gets the Republican vote, he’ll get my vote over Hillary Clinton. Trump comes on strong, but he has the right idea. I deserve the right to own guns without interference. Muslims aren’t all terrorists but they should at least wear badges so we can see them and be prepared. And Mexicans need to stop crossing our border and taking our jobs–they can immigrate properly just like anyone else. Hillary is just gonna Email all the American secrets to everyone from her home computer again. 

And that stupid war on terrorism needs to end already. Just wipe out the Taliban and ISIS and get our troops home. I’m so sick of hearing about American troops over there. Get the hell out of those countries and let them handle themselves. We have plenty of problems around here to fix. Some lady was trying to convince me that problems over there are problems here. But it isn’t my problem that ladies in Saudi Arabia aren’t allowed to drive or that gay people in Russia can go to jail for years. Those are foreign problems, and we have enough to worry about here. 

I miss the 1960s. Things were perfect back then. Everyone had jobs, everyone was proud to be an American. We landed on the freaking moon back then. Why can’t America be more like that now. 

So anyway, I’m a normal American. I believe in God and Jesus. I love my kids. I work hard. And all I want is for the government to make my life easier, but stay out of my affairs. I’ll take care of me and mine, you take care of you and yours. It’s time to get Obama out and get someone new in. 

Sincerely, Joe America