Sunday, March 25, 2012

What to Say to Our Black Children to Keep Them Safe

One day in 1996, when I was working a 9-to-5 job at Head Start, I received a phone call from my friend S., who lived about 45-minutes-drive from town. S., who is part Black and part Native, was in a panic because her son, R., who was maybe about 20 at the time, had called to tell her he had been arrested for “making an unsafe maneuver on his bicycle.” She begged me to go to the jail to make sure R. wasn’t mistreated or injured before she could get into town. She was terrified he would be beaten. It was late in the day and I was about to leave work to pick up my boys from afterschool daycare. My boys were about 8 and 4 at the time. I promised S. that as soon as I had gotten my boys I would go to the jail.

As I drove over to retrieve my own Black sons, I suddenly realized that I would have to explain to them why R., who often babysat them and whom they adored, was in jail. And to explain that, I had to explain why the police arrested him on a fabricated charge. And to explain that, I had to break the news to my children that the police were not always your friendly neighborhood helper if you happened to be a Black boy (or a Black man). And if I did that, it meant that their dad and I would have to have the talk with them, the talk that I didn’t think we needed to have until they were older, about the precautions that Black young men should take to attempt to stay safe in a racist society. It broke my heart. They were so young, so trustful.

We later learned that R. (who wore his hair in a huge fluffy Afro) had crossed the street in the middle of a block (instead of at the corner) on his bike. A police car immediately bore down on him. R. was in front of the house where he rented a room from our friend J. (who had a son R.’s age) and he was terrified when the police pursued him. He threw his bike on the front lawn and ran into the house. Within moments (this seriously happened), a half a dozen police officers forcibly entered J.’s house, with a snarling police dog and weapons drawn no less, threw R. on the floor, cuffed him, and accused him of resisting arrest! Meanwhile J. (who was physically restrained in her own home by officers) was screaming at the officers that they had no legal right to enter her house without a warrant. In the end, the city offered to drop all charges against R. if he agreed not to sue them. R. wanted to put the whole awful experience behind him and he agreed to the deal. S. didn’t want him to have a criminal record and the agreement would ensure that his record remained clean so she didn’t protest either.

Why am I remembering this story today? Because of Trayvon Martin of course. It brings all of my thoughts on this subject to the fore. The most insightful, moving, and downright useful words that I have read yet in the wake of the murder of this Black child in Florida were written by Touré in this week’s Time Magazine in an article entitled “How to Stay Alive While Being Black.” My Black husband takes exception to this overly dramatic and inherently defeatist title, and I don’t blame him, but the article behind the title is the most healing discourse I have yet read. I would dearly love to just put the whole article up on my blog, despite the copyright. I think this is where I’m supposed to tell you to pick up a copy of Time Magazine. Here is an inside tip: the article has been lifted in its entirety and posted elsewhere on the Internet. (Click here to go to one of those places. Don’t tell anyone who sent you.) I wish to respect the copyright, but I feel compelled to share some of Touré’s words because they touched me so deeply as the parent of Black children. He provides ideas about what to say to young Black boys about what happened to Trayvon, including excellent advice to Black young men regarding how to respond in potentially life-threatening situations. Here is an excerpt from Touré:

It's unlikely but possible that you could get killed today. Or any day. I'm sorry, but that's the truth. Black maleness is a potentially fatal condition. I tell you that not to scare you but because knowing that could save your life. There are people who will look at you and see a villain or a criminal or something fearsome. It's possible they may act on their prejudice and insecurity. Being black could turn an ordinary situation into a life-or-death moment even if you're doing nothing wrong.

There is nothing wrong with you. You're amazing. I love you. When I look at you, I see a complex human being with awesome potential, but some others will look at you and see a thug--even if their only evidence is your skin. Their racism relates to larger anxieties and problems in America that you didn't create. When someone is racist toward you--either because they've profiled you or spit some slur or whatever--they are saying they have a problem. They are not speaking about you. They're speaking about themselves and their deficiencies.

What if it's the cops who are making you feel threatened? Well, then you need to retreat. I don't mean run away. I mean don't resist. Now is not the time to fight the power. Make sure they can see your hands, follow all instructions, don't say anything, keep your cool. Your goal is to defuse things, no matter how insulted you are. We'll get revenge later. In the moment, play possum. Say sir. They may be behaving unjustly, but their lives aren't in danger. Yours is. If you survive, you will be able to tell your lawyer what happened. If you don't ...

I have often wondered if Emmett Till’s mother had had “the talk” with him before he left Chicago and went to visit her people in Mississippi in 1955, if something she said would have stuck in his mind and prevented him from risking and losing his life at the age of 14 by casually flirting with a white woman he did not know. If you don’t remember the story about Emmett Till, look it up. He was brutally beaten to death. His death was a significant event in the advancement of the civil rights movement. But if you were to ask me to choose between having my sons make history and having them alive and well, you can guess which result I would choose. I have emailed Touré’s article to my children. I do not exaggerate when I say that his words could quite possibly save their lives sometime (although I would prefer that they are never in a situation where they must use his advice). Thank you, Touré.

Trayvon Martin. Such a loss. Such a beautiful child.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Edwin Reminiscence

My friend Phyllee and her daughter Bonnie (who is 24) made a StoryCorps recording in August 2011 of themselves remembering Phyllee’s husband and Bonnie’s dad, Edwin Lockhart. The recorded conversation was aired on KZYX radio yesterday evening. Listening to Phyllee and Bonnie talk about Edwin brought him, and those times we spent together in the year before he died, back to me vividly. Unfortunately for me and Ron, we didn’t become good friends with Edwin and Phyllee until the last year of Edwin’s life, so we missed out on all the years before that during which we could have enjoyed his company. Edwin was a Native Pomo, part Hopland Band Pomo and part Pinoleville, I believe, if I remember correctly. He was known in our community because every month, at the full moon, he made a bonfire at his home on the Pinoleville Reservation and people came to share the warmth of his fire from near and far. He called it the Full Moon Burn.

My boys were friends with Edwin and Phyllee’s girls. Bonnie and Akili were the same age and grew up together as did Sequoia and our Sudi, who were also the same age as each other. When Edwin died suddenly of a heart attack in August of 2003, our families became extremely close, with the children spending a great deal of time together in what could only be described as a sibling sort of relationship. In their StoryCorps conversation, Phyllee and Bonnie talked about working through their grief in those first months and years after Edwin passed over and how they have reconciled themselves with their loss and remade their lives. It was clear from everything they said that Edwin is, and has been, very much with them in these years since he died. I know he has been with me.

At the time that Edwin passed over, I was working on The Call to Shakabaz. I had abandoned writing an adult novel called Penelope’s Odyssey in 2001. I had begun Penelope shortly before 911 and couldn’t get back into it after the Twin Towers fell. Once I completed The Call to Shakabaz, Edwin sort of took over Penelope and became my spirit guide as I returned to it and continued writing. I completed Penelope in 2009 (still looking for a publisher for it). I think Edwin is continues to hover in my energy field. Last year I was asked, out of the blue, to write a grant for the Hopland Band of Pomo to expand their tribal court so that it could hear domestic violence, child dependency, juvenile delinquency, and nonviolent drug/alcohol offense cases. We got the grant. I want to note here that Edwin worked as a facilitator in the Victim/Offender Restitution Program. The court being established at the Hopland Rez with the funds I got them (called the Family Wellness Court) is based on restitution and healing. It would have delighted Edwin. Right now I am working for the Hopland Pomo again to write a grant to allow them to assist three other area tribes in setting up their own tribal courts. Go Edwin!

I learned so much more about Edwin as I listened to Phyllee and Bonnie talk yesterday on the radio. One of the things that Phyllee said that resonated with me is that she loved the way Edwin recognized and modeled the importance of spending time with others for no purpose other than just hanging out; and that he would drop in on people spontaneously and people he knew would do the same at their house. Phyllee said, “It’s unheard of for someone to turn up at someone else’s house unannounced these days.” So true. With our high tech rapid communication systems we have lost the value and the skill of spontaneous visitation and hospitality.

Had Edwin lived, I am not sure that I would have ever grown so close to Phyllee, Bonnie, and Sequoia. I sometimes think of the relationship that our families have, the friendship of our children, the friendship I have with Phyllee (who I think of as a sister), and the love our families have for each other, is a gift that Edwin gave to us. After we moved beyond the grief, and even as we were moving through it, and even as we still feel it, we have laughed and danced and share food and watched the flames of many a fire together with spontaneity, joy, and delight. Edwin would have SO approved.

Here is a photo of me, Phyllee, and Bonnie at Bonnie's graduation from CSUMB in May 2011.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

On the Occasion of Ron’s 60th Birthday

My husband Ron turned 60 this past week. As my gift to him, I picked up the tab so our children could come home as a surprise to be here for his party last night. He had no idea they were coming. First to arrive were Akili and his girlfriend Tina from San Diego, who turned up in the evening Friday and we took Ron out to dinner, where Sudi (drove up from Oakland) appeared during the meal. Later, at home, we sat around the kitchen table talking. Ron was suspicious that our daughter was also coming but we tried to put him off the track. Then at about 9PM, I got my own surprise when the front door opened and closed, someone entered, and began to play “Fur Elise” on the piano. My baby brother Dan, who lives in Pennsylvania, was coincidentally at a business conference in San Francisco this week so he checked in with Sudi about plans and drove up Friday evening. I took one look at him and said, “What the hell are you doing here?!” At 9:45 the door opened again and Ron knew it had to be our daughter (she had to work and had taken a commuter flight from Santa Monica in the evening) and sure enough she appeared in the kitchen a minute later. The final surprise of the night was that my stepson Brian, who lives in St. Louis, had picked my daughter up in Santa Rosa on his way North and brought her to us. He waited until Ron greeted her to show his face. Ron was blown away that all his children came home to celebrate his birthday.

Several of my dedicated blog readers asked me to write on today’s blog what I said before we lit the cake last night. I doubt I can be as eloquent as I was last night since I am running on very little sleep at the moment, but I’ll make an attempt to write down the thoughts I expressed last night.

As we grow older we begin to look at the things we hoped to accomplish in our lives and to assess what we actually did and did not do. We all have things we wanted to accomplish that we just couldn’t do and I know that there are things that Ron had hoped to accomplish that he has not done. But one of the biggest reasons that he did not get all of those things done is that he was pretty busy raising our beautiful children, all of whom have come home to be with him for his 60th birthday and I thank them for being here. Being a dad to these guys is a pretty big accomplishment.

Last week I said to Ron, “I think we’re going to have close to a hundred people at your party. We have over 20 guests who are coming from out of town.” And Ron said to me, “Why are so many people coming to celebrate my birthday?” It’s so like him to wonder why he’s so popular. I told him it was because we know how to throw a really good party! But seriously, it’s because he’s a really really good guy. A lot of people like him. A lot of people love him. He’s just been there for a lot of people. Sometimes I wish there was an award that regular folks would get to recognize them for just being a really good person who leads an upright life. I didn’t mention this last night, but the word “integrity” comes to mind when I think of how to describe Ron. He’s a man of integrity. He’s also a heck of a lot of fun. I’ll say it again. He’s just a really really good guy!

I think that everyone here [at the party] pretty much knows that Ron struggles with serious health issues and he has struggled with them for 20 years. Some of you have the same health problems so you know from the inside how tough it can get. But Ron works incredibly hard to manage his health conditions so that he can be here for his children, and for me, and for all of you, for many more years to come.

None of us knows how much more time we have left in this life or what will happen tomorrow, but with someone like Ron, who has so many health problems, I am particularly grateful for every day that I have him with me. And I wanted to celebrate his 60th with a big celebration because I don’t know if I will have him for another big birthday, but I hope I will and I think I will because he is determined to stay here with us, so you’re all invited back next year, no just kidding! We will have been married for 30 years in August and tonight I’m celebrating that I still have Ron with me. That he made 60. And thank you to all of you for coming out and celebrating with us.

Well, it was something like that. Now I need to get some sleep….

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Language Can’t Keep Pace with Technology

I once saw a cartoon of a guy holding a hammer walking away from a demolished computer. The caption read, “The server is down but I’m feeling much better.” There oughta be a word for the specific type of anger and frustration one feels when the computer won’t act right.

My lovely husband Ron the computer technician sent me an interesting quote this past week from the beginning of a technical manual about databases. The author was bemoaning the fact that we have only one word for database and that it would be so much more efficient if the English language contained more descriptive terms to describe different databases. For instance, he said we need a word for a home database of friends and family and a different word for a database in which we are storing a CD collection. Yet another word would be needed for a large-scale database used by a business. The author likens this to the fact that Eskimos don’t have one word that means “snow” but instead fifty or sixty different words for “snow” and each one refers to a different type of snow. The geek who authored the technical manual would like to have multiple words for “database,” each one defining the exact type of database in question.

This set me thinking about the fact that our technology is moving at warp speed and we lack the language to communicate effectively about many aspects of our lives in the technological age. I find myself saying “when I spoke to him yesterday,” when in fact I never actually spoke to him. He sent me a message on Facebook. We communicated, as if we spoke, but he “Facebook messaged me.” When I research something on the Internet, I say that I “googled” it, whether or not I actually put it into Google and looked for it with that search engine. If I tell people to fax me something, they sometimes fax it to my phone number and it doesn’t reach me because I have an e-fax service (the fax number is on the signature in all my emails) that sends faxes to me via email as a PDF. So when I say “fax it to me,” I mean fax it to my e-fax service and I won’t actually get a hard copy, I’ll get an electronic copy that I can print. That’s so complicated. You probably stopped reading this by now. Not my usual spiritually charged ruminations on life, huh?

I am at heart a student of English and, as such, language continues to fascinate me. Language is a tool that assists the brain in processing the world. I have to wonder if our inventions are outpacing our ability to talk about them.

Imagine trying to comprehend what the Internet was before it came into common usage? What language could possibly be used to describe what the Internet was and what it could potentially do back in the 1990s? This YouTube video was going around Facebook a few months ago. Here it is again. These people in this video (which is not actually a video at all but that's what we call it and so I rest my case) have no idea what the Internet is. And who can blame them? At that time, there was really no language to talk about it.