The South Will Rise Again

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I’ve been running ever since
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

It’s been too hard living but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there beyond the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

I go to the movie and I go downtown
Somebody keep telling me, “Don’t hang around”
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Then I go to my brother
And I say, “Brother, help me please”
But he winds up knockin’ me
Back down on my knees

Oh there been times that I thought I couldn’t last for long
But now I think I’m able to carry on
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

      “A Change is Gonna Come” — Sam Cooke

The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) has left the building for the summer, but not before handing down a pair of significant and — depending upon your orientation (pun intended) — earth-shaking decisions. By striking down both a key provision of the Voting Rights Act and the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the High Court might appear to some observers to be suffering from some sort of judicial schizophrenia. Others may see these rulings as reflections of American society’s increasing acceptance of homosexuality on the one hand and its deep ambivalence about race on the other.

I am not a legal scholar and am by no means qualified to expound upon the Constitutional implications of these decisions. Rather, I am fascinated by the possibility that these judgments could have a profound effect upon my native region of the country: the South.

Obviously, it is not necessary to review here the South’s disgraceful history of racism and homophobia. Academic and legal careers have been and continue to be built upon these twin pillars of shame; and the popular media have made and continue to reap billions depicting Southern culture and exporting it to the world. Southerners continue to be the butt of jokes and are pitied/hated as hopeless relics of an age long past and best forgotten. (Consider the latest Exhibit A: the Paula Deen controversy.) Black Southerners, in particular, are in a bind. On the one hand they decry the Voting Rights Act decision as a blatant attempt by a conservative Court to roll back one of the most momentous outcomes of the Civil Rights Era. On the other, they denounce same-sex marriage — not to mention the very existence of homosexuality itself — as an abomination before God. (I have more to say about Black people and homophobia, but will save those comments for another time.)

As I pondered the consequences of the Supreme Court’s rulings in these cases, it occurred to me that SCOTUS has handed the Southland a unique opportunity to change not only its “brand” (to use modern parlance), but also its soul. Finally in the second decade of the twenty-first century, my beloved Dixie can lead the nation into the post-racial, post-sexual orientation Promised Land. Who will be the New Moses to lead us on this fantastic journey? Perhaps it will not be a politician or a preacher or a prophet who will (or should) do this. Perhaps this Utopian goal will be achieved instead by neighbors meeting and getting to know each other in the sames ways our parents and grandparents did — and through the new platforms brought to us in the Age of Social Media. If change is gonna come, it must start at the kitchen table, around the water cooler, in the pews, on main street, in Google+ Hangouts, on Twitter, on Facebook, and anywhere else that We the People gather and exchange opinions.

Let me be the first to admit that this idea — this fervent prayer — seems at best far-fetched. But then, sometimes the best ideas are like that — just beyond our grasp, but not beyond our imagination. And to my fellow pessimists out there, I leave you with this grain of hope: it was a loyal son of the South who, as President, signed Civil Rights legislation, including the Voting Rights Act, into law. Surely, we can be as tough, determined, persuasive, and creative as Lyndon Johnson was half a century ago.

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You Can’t Come Home Again

“It’s a great shock at the age of five or six to find that in a world of Gary Coopers—you are the Indian.” – James Baldwin

The arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates as he tried to enter his own home last week marks the official end of the post-racial honeymoon that followed the election of President Barack Obama.  Black is now the same old Black, especially if you are also male.

Professor Gates’ humiliating ordeal flooded my mind with memories of several incidents that happened to me during my undergraduate years at Yale and doctoral study at Princeton.  And like Gates, I was utterly stunned because in each case I was part of an elite academic and cultural community and believed (foolishly, it turned out) that my race no longer mattered.

The episode that came to mind immediately when I heard about the Gates incident occurred while I was in graduate school at Princeton University.  The year was 1988; and I was a first-year student in the Department of History.  I was at the time the Department’s only student of color and one of only four students of color who chose to live in the Graduate College, a magnificent Gothic edifice at the edge of campus.  Situated next to a golf course, the GC, as we called it, was peaceful, majestic, and a marvelous place to engage in the life of the mind.  I loved it.

One evening after dinner, I escorted a friend, a young White woman studying political science, back to her room.  Upon reaching that destination, we stood outside her door for several minutes and talked—about what I no longer remember.  While we were standing there, a uniformed Princeton University Public Safety officer approached, handed us a flier, and said that there had been several recent assaults on campus.  The officer then went on his way, presumably to hand out more fliers.  My friend and I looked at the handbill and simultaneously laughed at the description of the alleged assailant: “black male with dark complexion.”  I even remember saying something like, “Why, this describes me!”  We laughed some more, and I bid my friend good night.  I then returned to my room to finish my reading assignments for the next day’s classes.  About half an hour later, there was a knock at my door.  I opened it and discovered my friend.  She looked deeply troubled, and I invited her in immediately.

“Darryl,” she said, “Public Safety just left my room. They sent someone to see if I was okay.  They wanted to know who you were and where you lived.”  She did not tell them anything and, knowing my friend as I did, I am sure that she gave the Public Safety officers a piece of her mind.  We deduced that for some reason the officer handing out the handbills must have thought it strange that we were having a conversation in the hallway.  (Why?  Who knows what thoughts lurk in the minds of those who wear the badge.)  He might even have heard my comment about the vague description of the suspect in the assaults.  Whatever it was that got his spider-sense tingling, he acted on it.

My friend was horrified by what had happened and kept saying how sorry she was.  I was conflicted.  Of course, I wanted campus security to do its job.  What if the dark-skinned person the officer had seen with my friend had been someone who meant to harm her?  He followed his instinct and had been wrong.  But maybe the next time he did so would save someone’s life.  Maybe mine.

I comforted my friend as best I could.  I think I even made a joke, saying that if I had been arrested, I would not have to finish all of the reading I had to do for class the next day.  Inside, though, I was deeply hurt.  It was not the first time that my identity—my belonging—had been called into question by policemen; and I knew that it would not be the last.  What pained me more was the cruel realization that my Ivy League education and all of its purported advantages had not—and could not—shield me from racism, be it targeted or casual.

The experience of Professor Gates is an unwelcome but necessary reminder that though African Americans and other peoples of color have made impressive strides in American society, we always have to worry if the keys to the kingdom will actually unlock the doors before us.  Because if they do not (and sometimes even if they do), someone else might call the police.