For my Grandmother: Thoughts on Progress

“As I consider this picture, it warms my heart, because I don’t really see an awkward family snapshot…I see progress.”

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.

RELATED POST >> Blackface and Redface: Or Why Names Really Do Matter

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.

Was there really any doubt that I would become an academic?

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

Served Notice

The NCAA has just been served notice.

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has laid claim to the 2009 Men’s DI basketball national title, though the season is officially months away. In the interest of preserving the integrity of Division I basketball programs nationwide, coaches at other institutions should immediately start prepping their athletic directors, boosters, and fans to be completely annihilated by UNC this coming season and set their sites on a conference championship at best. ACC teams, particularly you idiots up 15/501, take a season off. Challenging the Tarheels in 2009 is just a silly idea.

Hubris? Of course. But wholly justifiable after Danny Green, Ty Lawson, and Wayne Ellington announced today that they will all return for another season at Carolina. If you are not a UNC fan, get ready for a long season. Tarheels, hang on and get ready to enjoy the ride.

Still Black and White

The game has just ended and I have to admit that there is a smug warmth in my gut as I watch the Johns Hopkins Men’s Lacrosse team celebrate a 12-11 victory over Duke in the NCAA Division I championship game. Yes. The charges against three of Duke’s former players were dropped. Yes. The nation seems to have moved on to bigger and more sensational news. Still, the media commentary surrounding Duke’s season and commendable return to the national championship game adds insult to a deep cultural injury inflicted by last year’s events.

One phrase in particular stings each time I hear it endlessly and effortlessly uttered by commentators and reporters alike. A phrase continuously used to exculpate and lionize not only the current team of athletes, but those who were accused of sexual assault last year. Over and over a nation of sports spectators are asked to sympathize by considering “what the Duke Lacrosse team has been through” this past year. Sadly this line of commentary is a reminder that, as a nation, we are thinkers in black and white.

The bizarre and abruptly ended legal process surrounding this case makes it wrong to consider Collin Finnerty, David Evans, and Reade Seligmann rapists. However, logic and even the most vaguely defined sense of moral decency makes it just as wrong to consider these men innocents.

We know that the Duke Men’s Lax team threw a party at the home of three team captains and as anyone who has ever been to college knows, parties full of college men are frequently frenzied, alcohol-soaked occasions. We know that an entire team of young men spent $800 to procure the services of two exotic dancers for two hours, lying to the women saying there would be only a handful of men in attendance. We know that the men specifically asked for one White and one Hispanic dancer and when faced with the disappointing reality of two Black women, one player thanked one of the dancer’s grandfather for his “fine cotton shirt.” We know that “tempers flared” as the dancers tried to leave the party after discovering that near 40 and not 4 drunk (not to mention racist) men would be watching them dance. We know that in an email written just after the night in question, Duke Lax player Ryan McFadyen spoke of killing and skinning strippers while he was “cumming in [his] duke issue spandex.”

With all that we do know, it is remarkable that we have allowed the questionable character of the accuser to release these men of all accountability. In this situation there are no winners, there should be no black and white – simply two sides marred in gray. While the media asks us “What kind of woman would take off her clothes for money?”, lets also ask ourselves, What kind of team leadership hosts a party involving alcohol, strippers, and underage team members that breaks any number of team, University, and State laws? What kind of men use deception to bring two women into a house where they are outnumbered 20 to 1 by big, strong, drunk, sexually expectant men? What kind of team culture fosters outward expressions of hate-motivated violence (as evidenced by McFadyen’s email and Finnerty’s earlier conviction in a gay-bashing assault in the Washington D.C. area)?

Do we really have to prove that there was penile penetration to see that this event clearly involved reprehensible sexual aggression, lies, and intimidation? Do we really have to color this event by pitting a tragic, misguided, disadvantaged black woman against the gleaming upper-class white men of Duke University? Can we honestly say this would have played out the same way if we were dealing with a group of young black football players and a white woman from an upper-middle class family?

The media should not be asking audiences to consider what the Duke Men’s Lacrosse team has been through. We need to hold this team accountable for their actions, considering what the team has put THEMSELVES through. Let’s not make heroes of these men, rather use their self-inflicted struggle as a lesson. Violence and deceit will have consequences (sometimes more than what is deserved) – so don’t ask for them by conducting yourselves in despicable ways.

Finally, I propose an answer to one of the aforementioned questions…What kind of woman takes her clothes off for money? Perhaps the type who has not been groomed by a life of privilege, as is so common among the ranks of the players on the Duke Lacrosse team. The type who is not afforded the benefit of the doubt because of the color of her skin or the size of her trust fund. The type who has no chance of being lionized in the national media, held up as a testament to enduring the hardship of “what she has been through” over the last year.