Road Trip VIII, Days 24-27, Asheville to Durham, N.C.: The White Privilege of Road-Tripping

Like a lot of Americans, I’ve been trying to up my game since the election, using reading to deepen my understanding of the America experienced by People of Color. If you’re doing the same or just looking for a great read, I highly recommend Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer-winning book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration.

Must-read.

One section of this book hits particularly hard at the moment, as it concerns a road trip…by a Black man—or colored, as he was called in 1953—crossing the desert  alone. Since we have recently, and frequently, traversed the region described in the book, I found myself sharply reminded of how even the simple act of driving contains an enormous racial divide.

Dr. Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, starting from segregated Louisiana, has crossed through Texas at last, and is ready to celebrate his escape from Jim Crow. But here’s what happens when, exhausted, he tries to get a motel room in supposedly un-segregated Arizona.

“I’d  like to get a room for the night, please,” he said.
The man looked flustered. “Oh, my goodness,” the man at the front desk said. “We forgot to turn off the vacancy sign.”
Robert tried to hide his disappointment.
“Oh, thank you,” Robert said.
He climbed back in the car and drove away fro the motel and the vacancy sign that continued to blink. He had been in the South long enough to know when he had been lied to…
…He drove to the next motel in the row, a hundred or so yards away.
“I’d like to get a motel room,” he said, stiffer than before. He was cautious now, and the man must have seen his caution.
“I’m sorry,” the man said, polite and businesslike. “We just rented our last room.”

A third motel owner turns him down, “sweetly.” By now night has advanced; his is the only car left on the road. The doctor is on his last legs.

“He didn’t want to make a case of it. He never intended to march over Jim Crow or try to integrate anybody’s motel. He didn’t like being where he wasn’t wanted. And yet here he was, needing something he couldn’t have. He debated whether he should speak his mind, protect himself from rejection, say it before they could say it…
…He pulled into the lot. There was nobody out there but him, and he was the only one driving up to get a room. He walked inside. His voice was about to break as he made his case.
“I’m looking for a room,” he began. “Now, if it’s your policy not to rent to colored people, let me know now so I don’t keep getting insulted.”
A white woman in her fifties stood at the other side of the front desk. She had a kind face, and he found it reassuring. And so he continued.
“It’s a shame that they would do a person like this,” he said. “I’m no robber. I’ve got no weapons…I’m a medical doctor. I’m a captain that just left Austria…and the German army was just outside Vienna. If there had been a conflict, I would have been protecting you. I would not do people the way I’ve been treated here.”

The woman listens sympathetically, so Robert continues to plead with her, in all his dignity. She calls him respectfully by his title, and goes to confer with her husband. Robert’s hopes rise. And then…

“We’re from Illinois,” the husband said. “We don’t share the opinion of the people in this area. But if we take you in, the rest of the motel owners will ostracize us. We just can’t do it. I’m sorry.”

Later in that interminable desert night, Robert stops for gas. The attendant asks him what’s wrong, and Robert breaks down.

“Yes, there was an evil in the air and this man knew it and the woman at the motel knew it, but here he was without a room and nobody of a mind to do anything had done a single thing to change that fact. And that made the pain harder, not easier, to bear.”  (pp. 207-210)

This was ARIZONA. Not a Confederate state. Yes, Dr. Foster’s experience happened in 1953. But Black families continued to be rejected by motels and restaurants well into the 1970s, in Arizona, New Mexico, California…and probably every other supposedly integrated state…states through which the Mate and I, two generations ago, could have been zooming without a care in the world about where to lay our weary heads.

We’ve always been able to stay wherever we wanted. Because we are white.

Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird, said you never really understand someone until you climb into his skin and walk around a while. Sometimes just driving a car through the desert, with an aching head and a full bladder, is enough. God bless America. She sure needs it.

The Final Four and “Religious Freedom”: Why I’m Grateful to Indiana

If you’re a fan of neither basketball nor equality, you won’t be interested in this post. But if you’re a fan of either, or like me, both, read on.

Dear Hoosier Legislature,

Thank you for passing your state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which would, in its current form, allow Indiana businesses to refuse to serve LGBT citizens.

Thank you for doing so exactly when the nation’s sports mega-spotlight is trained on Indianapolis for the Final Four.

Thank you for bringing to the fore the moral fibre of folks known usually only for their defense patterns. Folks like the coach of defending national men’s basketball champion Connecticut, Kevin Ollie, who is boycotting the Final Four. Granted, Ollie was following the directive of Connecticut’s Governor Dan Malloy’s executive order banning state employees from traveling to Indiana on state money. But Ollie made it clear he was doing more than “caving” to his governor’s demand (as the Connecticut Post put it).

UConn’s University Herald states,

“In support of Governor Malloy’s travel ban to the state of Indiana, Kevin Ollie and other members of the UConn men’s basketball staff will not travel to Indianapolis for the NCAA Final Four and events surrounding it,” UConn President Susan Herbst said in a statement. “UConn is a community that values all of our members and treats each person with the same degree of respect, regardless of their background and beliefs and we will not tolerate any other behavior.”

Given the expected attention to himself and his program at this year’s Final Four, Ollie’s boycott carries great weight.

Another unlikely hero: University of Southern California’s Athletic Director Pat Haden, who announced he will boycott a national football meeting in Indiana in honor of his son.
To quote the Washington Post,

Pat Haden, the athletic director at the University of Southern California, will skip a meeting of the College Football Playoff committee this week in Indiana because of the state’s recent passage of a controversial Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“I am the proud father of a gay son,” Haden announced on Twitter. “In his honor, I will not be attending the CFP committee meeting in Indy this week. #EmbraceDiversity”

All this attention is now turning to pressure on Indiana to do the right thing. In fact, Governor Pence, who signed the law while insisting it was never intended to discriminate, is right now working with the Legislature to rewrite Indiana’s RFRA and–one can only hope–rein it in.

(Orig. photo courtesy Mike Mozart, Flikr Creative Commons)

(Orig. photo courtesy Mike Mozart, Flikr Creative Commons)

When my Mate used to teach Constitutional Law, he helped his students remember the acronym RFRA by referring to it as “the noise made by a small, angry dog.” There are a lot of small, angry dogs in our country, apparently: people who feel themselves persecuted because they don’t happen to be taking part in the great national shift toward tolerance of LGBT rights.

I, personally, am grateful to the Indiana Legislature for highlighting that small-mindedness on a national scale, and forcing even those who would prefer not to have to take a stand to do just that.

 

 

Why Michael Sam Makes My Husband Cry…OK, and Me Too

One of my favorite things about my Mate is that he’s a total softie when it comes to sentimental stories. The fact that most of his choke-up moments come while he’s watching TV sports means nothing; that’s pretty much all he watches.

Since I’m a total softie about almost everything, all he has to do is call me in, “Oh, you gotta see this,” and pretty soon we’re both wiping our eyes and laughing at each other.

The other night, Michael Sam got both of us. I blame the ESPYs.

For those of you who may not know: Michael Sam is the former University of Missouri linebacker who announced in February that he was gay. The ESPYs are ESPN’s version of the Oscars. “Best Athlete,” “Best Team,” “Best Moment,” yeah, those are fun, lots of great highlight film. But the real meat of the evening, for people like me (and I imagine most others, else why would ESPN devote so much time to them?), are the handful of inspirational awards.

Like the Arthur Ashe Award for Courage, awarded to Michael Sam. A mini-documentary walked the audience through Sam’s childhood–single mom, a brother and a sister dead, two brothers in prison–adversity that would be mind-boggling if it weren’t so wretchedly common among Black American boys.

Then, the clincher: in college, where he went to play a sport he identified as life-saving, a sport emblematic of macho, homophobic culture, Sam discovered the truth about himself. He was gay.

At the end of his junior year, Sam revealed his truth to his team. And they embraced him.

Sam played like a demon his senior year, a consensus All-American, winning the 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year. All through these months, he kept his truth within the Mizzou “family.” Until February, when, knowing the spotlight of the NFL draft would soon be upon him, Sam announced to the national media that he was gay.

In May, the St. Louis Rams drafted Sam…just barely. He was the among the final eight of over 200 players drafted. His emotional reaction, sobbing into the phone when he finally, finally–after three days of waiting!–got the call, had me and the Mate in tears.

But that was nothing compared to his acceptance speech of the Arthur Ashe Courage Award. I’m going to let Sam’s words say it all:

“This year I have a lot of experience being part of something a lot bigger than myself. At times I’ve felt like I’ve been living in a massive storm, and I know the storm will end. I’m here tonight to tell you that the lessons I learned about love, respect, and being true to yourself will never leave me.

The late great Arthur Ashe wasn’t just courageous, he was brilliant too. He put all the wisdom in the world into three great sentences: ‘Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.’ Those are words to live by whether you’re black or white, young or old, straight or gay.

…’Use what you have.’ What I have is the privilege to play a game I love with all my heart. Football raised me, taught me about hard work, about discipline, and about teamwork. Whatever passion or talent you have, follow it. I followed mine and it got me all the way to this stage here tonight so I can look out and see so many of my heroes looking back at me.

Finally, Arthur Ashe said ‘do what you can.’ Those have been very meaningful words to me, and the way I see it, my responsibility at this moment in history is to stand up for everybody out there who wants nothing more than to be themselves openly.

To anyone out there, especially young people feeling like they don’t fit in and will never be accepted, please know this, great things can happen when you have the courage to be yourself.

 Recently a friend asked me to talk to his sister, a young woman who was considering killing herself, rather than sharing with her loved ones the fact that she was gay. When we spoke she told me she would never consider hurting herself again and that somehow my example had helped her. It’s amazing to think just doing what we can we can call touch, change, and even save lives.”

The day after watching this speech and analyzing my own emotional reaction, I came up with these truths:

1. Seeing other people suffer makes me cry. For far too many, for far too long, gay and lesbian folks have had to suffer rather than be themselves. Sometimes the suffering is emotional, sometimes physical. It’s suffering, either way.

2. Seeing a wrong finally righted makes me cry. The fact that the Missouri Tigers and their fans, then the St. Louis Rams, and then the larger, glitzy, TV sports community itself, celebrate Michael Sam’s courage instead of bashing him…it’s right. Just like Jackie Robinson slowly becoming a hero for breaking the color barrier, something wrong is finally becoming right.

3. Redemption makes me cry. Knowing suffering has not been in vain, knowing all those gay kids’ futures will be easier because people like Michael Sam have stepped forward…I feel hope for my country.

The Mate and I weren’t crying about football. We weren’t crying about sexual identity. We cry about freedom, love, acceptance, harmony, possibility. If a Black, gay football player is honored for courage–what else can we accomplish together? That’s OUR America.

Do you cry from joy? Hope? Relief? Or are The Mate and I just weird that way? (It’s okay; we already know.)

 

I Now Pronounce You…Equal: A New Kind of Pride and Joy At the Altar

If you’ve attended many weddings, you know the applause line: “I now pronounce you husband and wife; you may kiss the bride.” Since December of 2012 when Washington State’s Marriage Equality initiative took effect, thousands of marriage officiants have spoken varying versions of that line all over our state. But, as I noticed the other day at a wedding of some old friends who have really been “married” for 24 years, the applause has moved up a little earlier in the ceremony.

The officiant said, “By the authority vested in me by the State of Washington–” and we all busted out applauding.

We were happy. We were proud. We were relieved. And we were hopeful.

Happy that our dear friends could fully celebrate their love and commitment at last. Proud that our state has become one of only 16 that offers that opportunity to same-sex couples. Relieved that this right cannot be taken away, as it was in Oregon in 2004, when a voter initiative nullified our friends’ Multnomah County marriage license. And hopeful that one day in the not too distant future, Oregonians like our friends will not have to cross the Columbia River to marry their partner.

(courtesy alwaysquestionauthority.com)

(courtesy alwaysquestionauthority.com)

Love is beautiful. Commitment is beautiful. Pride is beautiful. Combining them all together? Makes me want to applaud again just thinking about it.

How about you? When’s the last time you’ve been able to feel pride or joy in watching a step of progress be made? Please do share. These are the best stories of all.