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.

White Privilege, Part…II? XVIII? Who’s Counting?

The US election of 2016 ushered me, like a lot of folks, into a new era of reading, listening, and discussion, all aimed at understanding, to paraphrase Hillary, “What the Hell Just Happened (And What Does it Mean)?”

I quickly figured out that it was mostly my fellow white people who were asking that question. People of Color (whom I’ve mostly just been reading and listening to, since leaving very-colorful Tacoma for this very-white island 7 years ago) not only sounded less surprised on the whole, but also less shook. The overall message seems to be more along the lines of, “Really? Didn’t see this coming?”

For these thinkers, Trump isn’t the blacklight lighting up the creepy-crawlies in the sofa cushions; he’s just one more creepy-crawly in a house whose infestation was built into its foundation-which some of us have been noticing only intermittently. I realized I had something to learn.

One of the most powerful passages of one of the most powerful books I’ve read this past year comes from Ta-Nahesi Coates’ Between The World And Me. He writes of the Dream—NOT Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream,” but quite the opposite. This Dream, to Coates, is the illusion of fundamental American fairness, decency and democracy that middle class whites cling to in order to feel good about living the way we do when we know others have not been, and still are not, able to live that way.

The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge those horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown.

Coates concludes that stark paragraph with this statement:

It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind. —pp. 88-89

I think I might change that last word to “soul,” or perhaps “heart,” because I feel Coates’ challenge more there than in my mind. And for me the challenge is not to change my opinion about America so much as it is to change my focus. To think about what I haven’t had to think about. And to let new voices have my ear.

One such new voice I heard recently on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show: Grammy-winner Chance the Rapper, debuting his new song, “First World Problems,” accompanied by Daniel Caesar.

Son One likes Chance and Caesar, and urged me to listen. I now urge you to do the same. Not your style of music? It’s not mine either. But give this song—pun intended—a chance. And pay attention to the lyrics.

These lyrics especially–notice the connection with Coates’ Dream?

Now—think about what you are thinking about. And let me know. Keep the conversation going.

 

White Privilege for Dummies (Like Me)

I have been thinking about white privilege, trying to articulate its meaning…then here comes this teacher who just sums the whole thing up visually:

(…with thanks to Allison Snow, from whose Facebook page I first saw this, and datniggakel, whose YouTube I used.)

As this worthy teacher/coach would probably say after a lesson: “Any questions?”