Who Gets To Be A “Real” American? Not Anybody Black.

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My late sister used to love a song by Lee Greenwood, “God Bless the U.S.A.” Whenever we were driving someplace—she had the license; I was in the passenger seat—she’d turn up the radio and sing the chorus loudly: “And I’m proud to an American/where at least I know I’m free…”

I’d join in, but after the song ended, we’d laugh at ourselves. As the daughters of Black Nationalists, we’d been taught, a song like Mr. Greenwood’s wasn’t really for us.

Our parents had schooled us on the history of American black folks so we knew about Crispus Attucks, the first man to fall in the Boston Massacre of 1770.   We knew about the black men who had fought in the continental army during the American Revolution. Though George Washington did his best to try to stop black military participation, there were approximately five thousand African American soldiers in the Revolutionary War. That was just on the American side.

In my family, there was my paternal great-great-grandfather who had fought in the Civil War in a “colored” Union company. My father served in World War II as a first lieutenant, becoming one of the early black commissioned officers, and on mama’s side of the family, every one of her brothers were veterans.

But regardless of those histories of military service, my parents would stand, fists raised, Afros tall, at football games while the national anthem played. They never put their hands over their hearts.

At the time, I didn’t ask what they were doing and for some reason, they never explained. Years later when I saw a documentary about the 1968 Olympics, about when John Carlos and Tommy Smith protested the treatment of American black people by raising their fists on the medal podium, I understood, finally. My parents had been showing solidarity with two, young men whose entire lives had been ruined because of a protest that didn’t even last ten minutes.

In my family, we talked a lot about what “black” meant. My parents argued that anybody who had ancestors from Africa was a “black” person.  For example, there were Spanish-speaking folks who lived in the Caribbean, but to my parents, they were black folks. It didn’t matter if their skins weren’t as dark as Africans’ or if somebody could pull a fine-tooth comb through their hair. All those Puerto Ricans? They were black, my parents insisted.

The history of Puerto Rico does prominently include the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It was a Spanish colony (founded by the geographically inept Christopher Columbus). Enslaved Africans were brought to the island in the sixteenth century and worked crops that included sugarcane, coffee, and tobacco. Soon, Africans outnumbered everyone else. A recent study of inhabitants of the island found that the average Puerto Rican has 20% African DNA.

After the Spanish American war, Puerto Rico was transferred from Spain to the U.S. Of course, this happened without any real input from a majority of the island’s inhabitants. (That’s how things work with colonialism.)

Puerto Ricans gained citizenship in 1917 and the island was named a U.S. Commonwealth in 1952, and many Puerto Ricans have honorably served in the American military. Yet a surprising number of their fellow citizens on the mainland don’t know—or recognize—Puerto Ricans as “real” Americans. Not many of us mainland black folks understand the intersections of our African history with Puerto Ricans’, either.

Kids are embarrassed by their parents, and I was no different. As an adult, I looked back at those football games, at my parents’ raised fists. I muttered many “Lord Have Mercies” in remembrance. I laughed at my hardcore, fierce mama and daddy.–And yet now, there is new generation of African American men and women protesting while the National Anthem plays at sports events. They don’t raise their fists, though. Now, they take a knee.

Now, for an entire week, while people of color in Puerto Rico have suffered the after effects of two back-to-back hurricanes—going without food and medicine, walking through contaminated street water they can’t even drink, breathing the stench of dead bodies that have been unearthed from their graves—our president has ignored them. He’s ignored his own citizens.

President Trump’s voice has remained calm while he says, he’ll get around to helping Puerto Rico. In a week or two, maybe. He never explains why he was quickly on the case about Texas and Florida, when earlier hurricanes hit those places. He has never acknowledged them as Americans; instead he’s distanced himself by tweeting about the island’s “broken infrastructure” and “massive debt,” as if those issues don’t directly correlate to over a century of mainland exploitation of Puerto Rico.

And I think of my parents insisting, those people in the Caribbean are black. They are just like us, and I wonder, is their African heritage why Puerto Ricans are getting treated so badly?

Is this African heritage why Puerto Ricans are going without clean drinking water, while President Trump fights with Colin Kaepernick, some mainland black kid forty years younger than he is, about how Kap should act when an arguably racist song plays?

Like African Americans, Puerto Ricans are not treated as “real” Americans, and this week, I’ve wondered, just what exactly are the standards for that “realness”? What is the high bar that must be met?

Must one be born on American soil to be a “real” American? That doesn’t seem to cover it for people of color.

Must one’s birth parents—and previous ancestors going back three or four hundred years—be born on American soil? That doesn’t cover it, either.

Must one be a veteran of American military conflicts or be descended from veterans? Nope. I guess that doesn’t count.

Twelve years ago, African American survivors of Hurricane Katrina were called “refugees” in their own country.  Americans citizens were labeled with vocabulary one reserves for foreigners.

I remember pictures of the aftermath of Katrina. Dark people, standing on tiny plots of dry land, waving their arms and looking desperate and parched. Walking through flood water. Labeled criminals for foraging food. There were signs of huge letters that had been drawn on rooftops. The words begged someone—anyone—to come help, in the names of God and decency.

This past week, I saw the same images from Puerto Rico, only the signs were begging in Spanish.

And I think of those young black men and women who have been vilified by our president for protesting the treatment of people of African descent in this country, who keep asking, “How long until we are considered ‘real’ Americans?”

These young black folks are courageously risking their livelihoods while our leader—who is supposed to be the President of all of us—calls them names and urges their white bosses to fire these uppity, dark individuals. Let them love this country that consistently spits in their faces. Show some gratitude for dodging bullets fired by police officers.

Is it any wonder there is a new generation of quiet revolutionaries, that a new group of black kids are so eager to protest?

 

 

Teachable Racial Moment: A Black History Lesson Behind “Son of a Bitch”

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I’m sure by now many (if not most) of us have heard about the President of this country calling football player Colin Kaepernick a “son of a bitch” at a political rally in Alabama. As I looked at the Twitter feeds of some of the President’s supporters, many of them said, “President Trump didn’t call out Kaepernick’s name. He only said, ‘someone who kneels during the National Anthem.’”

As the kids say, let’s keep it one hundred, shall we?

We all knew to whom the President was referring when he referenced a “son of a bitch” kneeling. Because Brother Kaepernick was the one who started the kneeling protests in the first place.

But let’s look at the term, “Son of a bitch.” As all of us know, it is a slur that has animalistic implications. A “bitch” is a female dog. Thus, a “son of a bitch” is the child of a female dog.

“Son of a bitch” has obvious, gendered implications as well. In fact, the insult is less about the son and more about the mother who established lineage. The mother must the original animal to create another animal.

Now, calling somebody the son of a female dog is always an insult to anyone of any racial or cultural background–I feel safe in making that blanket statement–but there is a peculiar, racialized, historical, and legal context to using this term to describe the mother of black person.

Jennifer L. Morgan, author of Laboring Women: Reproduction and New World Slavery, has written and lectured about the change of patriarchal laws in the (then-colony) of Virginia in 1662. Before that time, English common law had established that a child took on the status of his or her father.  That meant that biracial children of free, white fathers and enslaved, black mothers could, conceivably, be free born.

In 1655, a biracial woman in Virginia named Elizabeth Key Grinstead sued for her freedom based upon, among other things, English common law. Her father was a white man, and she wanted to make sure that her free lineage was established for her own children. She won that suit, but seven years later, the colony of Virginia passed a law called Partus Sequitur Ventrem, which made biracial children of enslaved black mothers permanently enslaved.

Here’s where it gets even worse.

The term Partus Sequitur Ventrum is a barnyard term, used for animals. It literally means, “Offspring Follows Belly.” Thus, black women were legally animalized during slavery. And maybe this animalistic status of black women is why, while writing on the difference between black and white in Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson accused black women of engaging in bestiality with great apes:

The first difference which strikes us is that of colour…And is this difference of no importance? Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white, the expressions of every passion by greater or less suffusions of colour in the one, preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immoveable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Oranootan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?

The irony here, of course, is that Kaepernick’s mother is white. Thus, many of you reading this might say, how does this racialized history of animalizing black women connect with white women? In fact, it connects quite tidily.

Those familiar with the history of White Supremacy in this country know that white men were and have been obsessed with white women’s sexual purity, which depends upon those women keeping a very far distance from black men. (I’ll point you to the original, 1915 film version of Birth of a Nation.) Several American mass murders of black people were started because of the (still unproved) charges that black men had raped white women, including the Tulsa, Oklahoma race riot in 1921 which left at least three hundred African Americans dead and leveled the black neighborhoods in that city.

On the flip side of this White Supremacist female sexual purity rule, white women who engaged in voluntary sexual congress with black men—as Kaepernick’s mother has—were stripped of their white privilege and white racial status. Many times, white women were beaten or driven from towns for consorting with black men.

Most recently, we saw the murder by vehicle of Heather Heyer, a young white woman who was protesting a White Supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. She was doing so alongside black people (including black men) when a White Supremacist decided to drive into a crowd of protesters. The murderous actions of this young, white man were praised by his racist colleagues.

I know that many young women of all complexions revel in reclaiming terms such as “bitch” and “hoe”, and in calling themselves and their friends by these terms. I understand the youthful exuberance and thus, I’m not trying to shut anybody down. Do you, young sisters. Do you.

But when I see and hear the President of my country call somebody’s mama out her name at a rally, in front of television cameras, I’m put in mind of gatherings of white mobs whose goal is violence. (We saw that violence at Trump rallies during last year’s campaign.) Remember, the President was in Alabama, in the deep south, the location of many lynchings and mass murders of black folks.

And right next door to Alabama, there is Georgia, where one lynching that took place has continued to haunt me for years. It is the murder of an eight months’ pregnant black woman who, in May 1918 was killed alongside her husband in or around Valdosta, Georgia.

After she was hung, the woman’s body expelled her baby. Instead of stopping in horror at what they had done and trying to rescue the child, the white mob then took turns stomping the newborn infant, who was still connected by the umbilical cord to its mother’s body.  This woman’s name was Mary Turner.

I thought of this poor lady and her child, as I heard what I can only assume was an all-white crowd cheering as the President of this country of mine, essential calling the mother of a black man a “bitch.” An animal.

How long are we going to pretend that these gatherings of white racists are simply political rallies of those who just happen to differ in party and opinions from the rest of us who want peace between the races? How long are we going to pretend that this current President is harmless, when we have a long history pointing to similar activities, and that long history tells us this behavior is not harmless, not in the least?

These gatherings are where racist mob mentality is nurtured, and where, even those who call themselves “pro-life” have proven time and again that there are specific, racist rules for the sanctity of life and those who provide. That rule is whiteness. And any woman connected to black people–even a white woman– has no place in their world or is worthy of their love or respect.