This is a photo that has been buried in one of my albums for years. It’s one of those remarkably average family snapshots. It’s not the kind of thing you put in a frame, rather something that you hold on to and use to identify relatives to future generations.
My oldest bother is on the far right, kneeling below his wife, holding a bottle for my nephew (who has recently graduated from high school…where does the time go?!). My other brother, the improbable red head is sitting on the upper left, behind his wife. They will in time give birth to three amazing little girls. They are gathered in small home tucked away in rural Alabama, where the woman on the far left gave birth to and raised 13 children. Clarether, a woman of Cherokee and Choctaw heritage, is my grandmother, and I sifted through my photo albums to find this picture because I have been thinking about her a lot lately.
I never got to know my grandmother very well. When she passed away in 2003, I had not seen her in more than a decade. As a child, I formed just a handful of vivid impressions of her. I remember being truly awed by her capabilities. I remember that she seemed quiet and loved to fish. I remember not being able to comprehend how she single-handedly managed her small homestead after twice being widowed. I remember being unable to put together how 13 children, even if they weren’t all in the home at the same time, fit into that tiny house with just three cramped bedrooms–how the addition of hot water and electricity were upgrades my mother remembers vividly. I remember how she seemed to make biscuits without looking at what she was doing, to this day the best biscuits I have ever eaten (I suspect it had something to do with the white tub of lard she kept in the kitchen). I remember a porch swing, not hung on the porch, but from a tree in the front yard, where she sat and brushed out feet of jet black hair that would have hung to her waist if it were not tucked into the impossibly tight bun she seemed to wear everyday.
I never knew what, if anything, my grandmother thought about her native heritage. The kind of Jim Crow segregation that typified the Alabama she lived in surely lumped her in with her “colored” husbands. And as I continue to monitor and take part in conversations about the name of my favorite team, the one in Washington, I find myself wondering what she might have thought about all of this. I suspect she wouldn’t have. I suspect she wouldn’t have given a damn about the concerns of white folks up north, of activists or politicians…or academics for that matter. I suspect she lived a life where the utterance of the word “Redskin” would have ranked impossibly low on the list of struggles, hatreds, slights, and ignorances she dealt with during her years on this earth.
I realize today that I am angry, really angry, that women like my grandmother are being used to justify the incomprehensible obstinacy of Dan Snyder and the Washington organization’s leadership. I am angry that the fiery and often hateful opposition to progress and positive social change are being hung on her shoulders, because “she wouldn’t have cared about the name.” As if somehow being a woman, in poverty, in the rural south, swallowed up in pre-civil rights racial inequity in a state where almost 300 Blacks were lynched between 1882 and 1968 (years spanning much of her lifetime and most of her husbands’), and tasked with surviving with a lack of access to basic infrastructure, services, and amenities that I have never had to contemplate, qualifies as giving her “blessing” to the team in Washington.
I know that my grandmother was proud of her family and her children who became ministers, military officers, police officers, businesswomen, engineers, government employees, and more. I know that she was proud of her scores of grandchildren and great grandchildren, many of whom have earned or are on the way to earning college degrees. I know my grandmother was proud of my family’s progress.
And this, for me, is the heart of the “name” issue that is being conveniently missed (or ignored) by so many. The issue continues to be framed as a debate about the appropriateness of a single word, as if the only thing at stake here is a football team, a football team’s traditions, and whether or not that team’s merchandise and signage must be replaced. The issue continues to be framed as one of trivial “political correctness,” as Americans dread the inconvenience of having to publicly speak about other groups of people as if they actually respected their humanity.
This issue is not about the utterance of two syllables. Rather, what those two syllables authorize and have authorized for more than 80 years. Words have power. They shape reality and influence action. And this word has for decades allowed us to think about native people as cartoon characters, as animal-like mascots with props, as halloween costumes.
It has allowed fans to engage in the mockery of a people, its sacred traditions, and its history–a history that includes a horrific genocide about which Americans are incomprehensibly ignorant–and to shuck the uncomfortable reality of racism in the name of fandom. The team name, the merchandise, even the misguided Original Americans Foundation, are all shortcuts around having to take seriously the bleak reality of structural inequality that began with the decimation, and persists in the silencing, of the native population of this country.
As I consider this picture, it warms my heart, because I don’t really see an awkward family snapshot. I see my grandmother, stolid as always. I see my brothers, the sons of a retired Electrical Engineer who put himself through Tuskegee with a wife and two young children by working nights at the morgue. The sons of Clarether’s daughter, my mother (pictured left), who in her 30s earned her first degree in the Community College system in which I served as a professor for three years. I see my beautiful nephew (he and his little sister are both lookers), who is the product of the kind of marriage that was illegal not only in Alabama, but also Virginia and 14 other states until 1967. I see change and I see progress. I see the beauty of what can come when people stop resisting change because things “have been that way for a long time.” I see in my family, histories worth remembering, stories to be proud of, and a world of reasons why we would all be better off without the ugliness of two syllables.
#ProudToBe #NotYourMascot #NotAllWashingtonFans