Teachable Racial Moment: On Fingers Pointed in Black Faces

Usually, my blog posts deal with African American community or political issues, and I talk as one cultural insider to another cultural insider.

However, I’ve realized that sometimes, well-meaning, really nice White people (of which there are many, by the way) want Black folks to talk to them in non-angry, non-confrontational, and patient ways about Black cultural issues they don’t understand.

So I wondered if it might be useful for me to write blog posts that break racial things down for good White folks who mean no harm—and who either have Black friends or are in the midst of acquiring friendships with Black people– and are just trying to navigate these racial waters that ironically (and to me, bewilderingly) have become far more treacherous since the election of our first Black president.

Sidebar: I use “race” as a shorthand because that word usually means “Black” or “People of Color” to White people. But really, “race” is not a real, like, biological thing. It does not exist except in people’s minds. What I actually mean when I say “race” is “culture.”

I hadn’t even planned to post again this week, but I’ve noticed the online furor on Black social media concerning Governor Jan Brewer’s pointing her finger very close to President Barack Obama’s face. The response from White folks? Some are upset, but I get the impression they don’t really understand why we African Americans are so troubled. Some of us are even enraged.

So I thought that it might be time to write a Teachable Racial Moment post.

Ok, here goes: If you are wise, you will not ever put your finger–or your whole hand– in a Black person’s face, unless you know you want to immediately engage in a knock down, drag out, fight-to-the-concrete physical brawl. It’s actually a well-known signal for “let’s fight right this moment” in the Black community. When I say “ever” I mean not in this present lifetime, or even after death, if you encounter another Black angel in Heaven. Because that angel is still liable to get into it with you and risk being de-winged.

I don’t know when the finger point in the face became such a grave insult to Black folks, but it has been for at least fifty years. And what does the gesture mean anyway?  It means derision. It means disrespect. And above all, it means power to the pointer.

Sidebar: Have you ever seen a mother (of any cultural background) in the mall with her disobedient toddler? She finally gets exasperated and leans down and begins to scold the child—by pointing her finger in his or her face. And what happens? The toddler starts crying, and then gets it together and starts behaving better. Thus, the finger point in the face is not a gesture between equals. She who does the pointing is establishing herself as a superior to the person being pointed at.

Okay, and now, I’m about to reveal a Racial Secret. Are you ready? I’m going to put this in italics so you really get it.

Because the finger point gesture establishes superiority, the gesture is even worse if a White person does it to a Black person, due to the history in this country of White supremacist violence and cultural demeaning of Black folks.

Nice Non-Racist White folks, this may seem silly to y’all. And I get that. Right now, you may be saying, “Dang, Black folks got too many rules! It’s so hard to keep up with y’all!” That’s true. I won’t deny it. So many rules, even I have a hard time keeping up.

But consider that, individually, we all have rules that help create a space in which we are happy.

For example, I despise egg whites. (No racial pun intended here, I promise.) I will eat whole scrambled eggs willingly, or baked into cookies, cakes, etcetera, but if given a boiled egg, I will only eat the yolk. The thought of an egg white omelet is one that moves me almost to physical pain.  It’s so slimy and disgusting.

So one day, I was visiting my mama and she was making potato salad. And she was chopping up boiled egg whites to mix into the potato salad. Now I live to eat my mama’s potato salad. Nobody makes it better. So I was watching her chop up those egg whites and I felt tears come to my eyes, because I knew I wasn’t going to eat that potato salad with those egg whites in it. I was so disappointed and I felt really betrayed, too.

Mama looked up and saw my face and said quietly, “Honi, you know I already made your potato salad without the whites, darling. It’s sitting in the refrigerator right now.”

That’s what I mean.

Mama could have said, “Look, get over it. I’m not making two separate potato salads to please your rusty grown behind. What am I, your personal chef?” But she didn’t. And just like she knows I won’t eat egg whites, I know she despises the dark meat of chicken and I’d never try to serve a chicken thigh to her. It’s these little things that lead to understanding between two people.

And this leads us back to Governor Jan Brewer. After she pointed her finger in President Obama’s face she followed up in a media interview by saying she “felt threatened” by him. But remember when I said above that the finger point in the face was both an aggressive act and one attempting to establish superiority?

If anyone felt threatened, it would be President Obama, threatened by Governor Brewer’s attempt to not only belittle him, but also because he probably suspected that later, she’d try to flip the racial script on him. Which she most certainly did.

Here’s that flipped script:  she, the Little Helpless White Lady, felt afraid of him, a Big Ole Scary Black Man. (Refer to the film, Birth of a Nation if you aren’t familiar with this tired script. It’s only a bit more tired–and dangerous–than the Big-Breasted Loving Black Mammy Who Lives To Take Care of White Folks Kids With No Pay script in Gone With The Wind.)

So, let me get this straight.

Governor Brewer felt afraid of President ObamaShe felt threatened by him. After she poked her finger in his face and attempted to humiliate him. And let’s not forget this was going on in front of cameras.

Yeah, okay. I completely believe her.

This flipped racial script of Governor Brewer is very old, and has several versions, but it has proven useful throughout the years for the shell game of White supremacy, as when a Black man was lynched whenever a White woman accused him of looking at her funny.

I’m not playing here mentioning the funny look. It was the unofficial law of “reckless eyeballing” created by White southerners, and many a southern Black man swung at the end of a rope for committing that supposed crime. The case of Emmitt Till was a variation of “reckless eyeballing,” because he whistled at a White woman and ended up murdered.

Just because President Obama doesn’t talk about that racial script doesn’t mean he isn’t well aware of our nation’s troubled history concerning White women and Black men, which is why he walked away from Governor Brewer. I’m pretty sure that, as a Black man, he was angered by her culturally transgressive act, but he had the presence of mind to get himself together before he broke all the way fool on the tarmac with that lady and not only ended up in jail, but went down in history as 1) the first Black president and 2) the first president who physically assaulted a woman in public.

But he saved himself, because President Obama is an Old School Brother. And it is never acceptable for an Old School Brother to hit a woman, whether or not she has committed an act of aggression. And let me tell you that you don’t really want to know what would have happened if Governor Brewer had pointed her finger in the face of another Black man—not an Old School Brother but one of these Young Knuckleheads With No Sense.

Eh, Lord, it would have been so ugly. And that’s all I’m going to say.

Polite, kind, respectful, self-controlled, and full of common sense: that’s how Old School Brothers get down. And by the way, that’s why I really adore them. And that’s why, despite the fact that President Obama hasn’t been a perfect leader (at least in my opinion), as a Sister, I feel extremely proud of him. And I bet Mrs. Obama does, too.



Because I’m From Georgia, I Remember Murder (for Troy Davis)

A while back, I posted a “Decent People Action Alert” about Troy Davis, the African American man who was convicted back in 1991 for killing a White police officer, Mark MacPhail. The foundation of this case was shaky from the start.

I meant to post again a couple of weeks ago about Mr. Davis and urge folks to take action about his case–and you can still do that by clicking here and please, please take action. But I told myself I was really too busy to post.

That isn’t the truth. The truth is, I stayed silent because I just didn’t want to think about Troy Davis; I knew it would bring me down real low. But I’m already there: I woke up this morning to the news in The New York Times that Troy Davis had been rejected clemency by the Georgia Board of Pardons, which means he will be executed tomorrow, barring a legal miracle.

I don’t mean to be defeatist, but it’s hard not to be because I’m from Georgia and I know the ways of that state. Along with my summer memories of crispy fried chicken, shamefully delicious peaches, beautiful landscapes, and traditional spirituals sung in clapboard churches, I remember the stories about the murders of Black folks told by the members of my African American Georgia family.

I hate to put this so bluntly and (perhaps) rudely, but White folks have been killing Black people for blood sport in Georgia for a very long time.

Take the lynching of Mary Turner in Valdosta, Georgia in 1918. Miss Mary was eight months pregnant when a mob seized and lynched her husband, Haynes. When Miss Mary threatened to call the Law, the mob turned on her. They hung her and cut the eight-month-old fetus from her womb. The baby cried out, and then, the mob took turns stomping the baby to death. There is now a full-length book about this event, Mary Turner and the Memory of Lynching by Julie Buckner Armstrong.

Or, let’s take the story told in Fire in a Canebrake: The Last Mass Lynching in America by Laura Wexler, the story of the murder of two Black couples by a group of White men in Walton County, Georgia in 1946. It was discovered that one of the men was (possibly) having an affair with a young, White woman and the White outrage over this led to the killing. Though the FBI got involved, no one responsible was ever named or convicted. Incidentally, my mother was thirteen-years-old when this killing happened, and she vividly remembers the news of it.

And then, there are the stories that never made it into the History books, like that of one of my mother’s neighbors, a school janitor. He would stay late after school, ostensibly to clean, and a White lady schoolteacher would stay late, too, ostensibly to prepare her lessons. But everybody in the Black community knew the truth, that they were going together, and I guess one of them informed, because one day, a White man found the couple making love. So the lady schoolteacher accused my mother’s neighbor of rape, and eventually, he ended up in the electric chair.

This is Georgia. This is what we Black Georgians remember in the blood. And there are literally hundreds of these stories from back in the day. But now, in Georgia, they just murder Black men using the legal system; they don’t need to lynch in secret anymore.

When I heard about Troy Davis, I didn’t have a lot of hope that he would escape execution, and neither did my mother. After all, he’s Black, he was convicted of killing a White police officer, and he’s in a pro-death penalty state that has a long history of executing Black men, both legally and extra-legally. However, I signed a petition against the execution. But now, it seems that Mr. Davis is going to be murdered under the guise of “execution.”  I suspected it was going to happen; still, it hurts me just the same.

In The New York Times article today, Anneliese MacPhail, Mark MacPhail’s mother was quoted as saying, “I’m not for blood. I’m for justice. We have been through hell, my family.”

I feel badly for Mrs. MacPhail and I mean that sincerely. I can only imagine her pain. I’m not a mother, but I do know what it’s like to lose a family member, and I’ve lost friends to violence. I don’t want to seem unsympathetic, because every mother’s child is important to her; yet, when I focus on that word “justice,” something inside me shifts to irony .

Executing Troy Davis is about Mrs. MacPhail’s  wanting the person who killed her child to suffer. I understand that desire. And that’s why I believe in life incarceration for murderers, because I’m not one of these folks who think a Bible held in a killer’s hand and a quick “I’m sorry” is going to wipe away a crime and the need for a criminal to make amends. No matter how racist the American justice system is against Black men, I wholly support criminals “doing time.”

Mark MacPhail won’t be coming back, but his mother’s grief will return, even if a mother’s son won’t. And that’s why she wants justice–but her grief will be back whether Troy Davis is innocent or guilty of killing Mark MacPhail, and whether he is executed tomorrow at 7pm.

So really, is executing this man about justice?  Supposedly, justice was done when Troy Davis was found guilty of murder—if indeed, he was the actual culprit. (And frankly, there is a lot of doubt about that). What justice will be had by killing him, especially since there’s so much doubt lingering in this case?

And what if I decided I wanted Mrs. MacPhail’s kind of justice for what was done to Mary Turner, Haynes Turner, and Unnamed Turner Baby?

What if I wanted that kind of justice for those four young people lynched in the canebrake that day?

What if I wanted that kind of justice for my mother’s neighbor, electrocuted for falling in love with the wrong White lady?

Who dies because of them–who dies because of all those hundreds murdered in our Black past?

If we are all honest about the death penalty, it’s not about justice—it’s about retribution, a blood cost. An “eye for an eye.” But if the White citizens of Georgia are honest, there are plenty of us Black folks out here who could start tallying up our own blood cost—in the names of our own murdered dead—if we were so inclined. Fortunately, we are not. At least, not the sane Black folks among us.

When some of us African Americans ask for reparations for slavery, and reparations for the racial terror our ancestors endured in the aftermath of slavery in the South—the forced labor of Black men in the southern states, the lynchings, the rapes—make no mistake, it’s not money we really want. It’s remembrance. It’s justice for our dead.

We don’t want some Disney-Goes-to-Hollywood portrayal of our ancestors’ pain like we saw in The Help movie. But at the same time, if we Black folks start really remembering all that horror done to our kin in the past, it might drive us crazy. And we might seek our own retribution, but we know that’s not the way. That’s why we talk about reparations instead.

I think about Mrs. MacPhail. She’s been in pain for a long time, over twenty years. Her child is dead, and the man she believes—knows in her heart—killed him is still alive and walking around, even if he’s walking in prison. That’s not right to her. She wants her own justice.

Believe me, I know exactly how she feels. I want my own justice, too, for the hundreds of my Georgia Black folks who didn’t get their day in court, the way Mark MacPhail did. Who were murdered and dishonored. Sometimes, their blood cries out so loudly to me, it screams a song in the middle of the night. I’m not exaggerating here for the sake of my argument. I’m telling you the stone-cold truth.

So I just do the only thing I can: I think about a Black man who is probably going to die tomorrow, even though I hope he won’t. Then, I pray to a good God who has an infinite memory and who knows what really happened. After that, I forgive my own trespassers. Then, I write a blog post and hope it touches one person’s heart–just one. Then, I try to forgive again.