Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Racism on my mind

I've got racism on my writer's brain today. Have been reading Michelle Alexander's disturbing, The New Jim Crow - Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, watched part one of the new series about the abolitionists on PBS's American Experience, then all the hoopla around the brilliant film "Lincoln," and the awareness that I live in the nation's most segregated city, and the racist vitriol from some gun rights nuts who cannot believe the "black man" in the White House wants to limit access to assault rifles and huge ammo clips and are preparing for the uprising against the federal government...

yea, and on and on and on... Hard to get away from it these days.

Local writer Barbara J. Miner wrote a long piece in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel's Sunday Crossroads section entitled, Segregation and a tragic silence. The connection here between deeply embedded racism  and entrenched poverty spreading out from the city's northwest neighborhoods is beyond obvious; it's the plan, the intention, of far too many of our citizens around these parts (is it the Germans? the Slavic descendants? I have that blood in me and I know my people only too well).

I lived elsewhere for 25 years, though returning often to visit family. Still, I was shocked to see what had occurred here during that time - neighborhoods where I once hung out with my old school friends now broken down, white homeowners gone to the suburbs, the boundaries between white and black about as fierce as the walls Israel is erecting in what was supposed to one day be Palestine.

The fences along the US southern border, as if that could ever make separation actually real, actually separate our fates out from one another.

Our fates here are not separate from one another. No, instead we are sealing them.

Out in New Berlin they are resisting affordable housing development and there is no public transportation from the City of Milwaukee to the town. I mean, God forbid those people from the city show up in their 'hoods, right? It's one of those places where you can be stopped by local police for the crime of "walking while black."

Speaking or writing this out into the world can get you into a boatload of trouble. I once had a letter to the editor published. It was responding to our Sen. Ron Johnson's public statements denying human-caused climate change. I received a postcard from an "anonymous" old relative (I could tell this by what this person called me and the language they used, intelligent things, like "fart"), and a threatening racist message left on my phone insulting me and "that n....r in the White House." (See, I'm a writer, and I still can't actually type out that term).

We are shying away from the truth of this, but an armed racist response to the swiftly changing demographics of the nation and to an African-American family in the White House is gaining steam. A lot of these people (Ted Nugent, for example) aren't holding back anymore, aren't hiding behind Second Amendment b.s. and the need to defend our families from criminals. They are saying they need to stockpile weapons to get ready to fight the federal government.

Charles M. Blow bravely wrote about this on Saturday in the NY Times: Revolutionary Language.  He concludes:
James Yeager, the C.E.O. of a Tennessee company that trains civilians in weapons and tactical skills, posted a video online Wednesday (since removed but still viewable at rawstory.com) saying he was going to start killing people if gun control efforts moved forward. He said, and I quote:

“I’m telling you that if that happens, it’s going to spark a civil war, and I’ll be glad to fire the first shot. I’m not putting up with it. You shouldn’t put up with it. And I need all you patriots to start thinking about what you’re going to do, load your damn mags, make sure your rifle’s clean, pack a backpack with some food in it and get ready to fight.” 

Again, calling the “patriots” to arms is, I think, no accident.
No, it's not. This is no joke. This is real. It's getting pretty scary out there and we've been ignoring this at our peril. Blow includes a graph from the Southern Poverty Law Center that ought to frighten the living daylights out of us. Makes pretty clear exactly what's going on.

Miner uses the term "hypersegregation" and it really stuck with me. Seems an apt description of what we are becoming - hypersegregated.

I ask myself what words can do. And then this word appears - hypersegregation. I woke up with it in my head at 4 in the morning. Couldn't get back to sleep. I attacked it a couple of hours later, trying to break it open.

as if              fear
as if              not-knowing
as if              it could ever be true

could it ever
                          be true?
This goes on a while, trying to become a poem. I kept playing with whatever surfaced - neat white worlds, gas-powered edgers that make a nice well-ordered, cleanly sculpted lawn, sprayed with chemicals each year to kill the weeds...
I remember
that happened
                              when order
and then all order...

Well, you remember
                                   the ashes
                                   the explosions
                                   the firestorms
They won't love me in New Berlin if this ever works itself into a poem and gets published. Just sayin.'
      East Jerusalem
      Milwaukee and its suburbs

all sorts of ways to do it.

Peter, "I swear, I do not know the man!"
and so they left him               alone.
What can words do?: What can a writer do? Miner and Blow gave us one kind of narrative. But some things require poetry because they are too horrible to be held in an opinion piece in a news article, to be said straight out. The graph published with Blow's piece is so powerful with the truth of this that it practically burns off the page.

That's what our words need to do.

So I will keep working on this poem. I will listen deeply to the word "hypersegregation" and let it burn through, right to my core. I don't know if it will make any difference, but it feels necessary.

Margaret Swedish

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