liveonearth (liveonearth) wrote,

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Racism: Blacks in Tennessee and Natives in Arizona

In the last 2 days I have been barraged by the suggestion of Barack Obama running for president in 2008. The International Herald Tribune headlines that he admits that he inhaled (as a "confused" teenager). One republican pundit called him "the most dangerous man in America", fueling the hype. Obama is half Kenyan with roots in Hawaii, and he's young and culturally adept. At present he is a junior Democratic Senator for Illinois. He is against the war in Iraq, and gives that as his main difference from Hillary Clinton. There's a notion that they could be running mates. What a combo that would be.

Perhaps it is a good time for a black man to pursue the presidential seat. With the xenophobia directed at Arabs, gays, and Mexican immigrants, maybe everybody has forgotten about the Africans. I wouldn't be surprised if my own ancestors had kidnapped many of them from their continent, and kept them as unpaid servants and field hands. My own great grandmother Lucy had a slave that she inherited. She told me about her slave. It wasn't that long ago.

I am from Tennessee, which counts as part of the Bible Belt. Tennessee is culturally part of the South, in spite of the fact that it was split by the Mason Dixon Line. There are many blacks in the South. I remember feeling comfortable with blacks, though we didn't mix freely as races do in large cities. In my hometown most of the blacks still live in one neighborhood. I had one good black friend in high school. He was a "white black" meaning that he hung out with the whites in general. That was an insult coming from the brothers. But the cliquishness that I remember from high school was not in evidence in the streets. Blacks and whites mixed easily at the movies, restaurants, grocery stores and county fairs. I felt no unease, and detected no disrespect. And I gave none.

It is also true that one of the last hideouts of the KKK is in Tennessee. The town of Erwin, near to the Nolichucky River, is a place where no informed black person would get off the highway. It's not safe. So it's not gone entirely, the extreme racism is concentrated in small areas.

My mother was brought up to believe that "niggers are stupid" and can't swim. Over the years she has come to respect, and even befriend, black coworkers. She no longer believes what she was taught as a child, but it took a while for experience to prove that blacks are people too. And both my sister and I worked on her, because somehow we knew that her early training was incorrect.

When I moved to Arizona I had a new experience of racial tension. The population of Flagstaff is 19% native, and a good portion of those natives are Navajo. I was suprised at the hostility I experienced at the grocery store and in the streets from Navajos. I had no reason to expect it, but now I know I am "white eyes". I recognize that we have different body languages and speech patterns, and I do not interpret every little difference as hostility. I have experienced real hostility. An aggressive beggar berated me for being "rich" while I was sitting at a picnic table across the street from Macy's. A beggar at a gas station spat at me. A girl behind a desk at NAU did her nails while I waited. A bunch of girls in a car downtown pulled forward far enough to hit the back tire of my bike at a stop light, and revved their motor at me. They could have been white but they weren't. The cumulative experiences create a rascist in ME. I don't like it, but now I am defensive when encountering natives. I don't know what they might do. It took several class meetings for me to relax around a Navajo in my recent Art 298 course. She was refreshingly openminded.

I have also spent quite a few weekends visiting the Apache reservations in the White Mountains, to boat the Salt River. The tribal rangers at the Salt river have been suspicious, accusatory and insulting. I try to be diplomatic, to be compassionate, to be real. I want them to see that I am a person and I see them as people. I don't respond when they try to pick a fight. Perhaps if I fought back they would respect me more. Perhaps I am exhibiting cluelessness about their culture. I have a special respect for the Apache fighting spirit, because Geronimo is a hero of mine. (Hero #427: Ever since I read Watch for the on the Mountain by Forrest Carter, I recommend this book.) It hurts a little bit every time a tribal person treats me like scum when I want to be an ally.

Of course to the native there is little more despicable than a white eyes who wants to be a pretend indian. It's "cool" to be tribal. It's new age fashionable and hip. And that just pisses off the real tribal folks. I can dig THAT.

Here in Arizona I have experienced more "reverse" racism than I did back in Tennessee. Perhaps the blacks are nearly done hating the whites. The tribes here in AZ seem to have some revenge left to execute. I don't know, but I think that the reservations and the isolation and poverty of them is part of the reason that there is such a racist divide. It's not fair. I get that. But guess what: my life hasn't been fair either. So be it.

Each person has a choice about how they treat "others". My mother has proven to me that one can overcome racist programming. I challenge myself and everyone who reads this to give each person an openhearted chance, before you decide a single thing about them. Jesus would. He's another hero of mine. Good people come in all colors.
Tags: arizona, heroes, isms, natives, obama, race, tennessee, tribes

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