Who Lives, Who Dies

(Note: This was mostly written in early November 2018, after the White Privilege Symposium that took place in Denver November 2-3.)

“Words make worlds.” This from poet Dominique Christina, in a YouTube video that I’m watching because I’m hoping to find a piece she performed this weekend, one about the social coercion that the mere threat of violence has on a community. Her talk on Friday was not about words at all, but about the mute spectacle that is Emmett Till in an open coffin, Michael Brown uncovered on a Ferguson street, David Jones hung from a lamp post in a town square in 1872. Darren Wilson didn’t plan to kill Mike Brown that day, but leaving his body out on the street for his neighbors to see? What message was that? What do we hear from Emmett Till, who lives still, a ghostly reminder of What Could Happen To You? Broken black bodies follow Dominique and her son through the world. Another speaker this weekend, Theo Wilson, spoke of the anger and powerlessness that threatens to eat you when you realize how quickly a police officer having a bad day (or, let’s face it, having any kind of day) can ruin your life. He spoke of how many friends he’s had to bury.

If you’re a white person learning to talk about race, maybe you’ve noticed that it’s really hard to get white people to talk about race? But you can play Telephone. When black people talk to me about what it’s like to be black, in the background–especially if you’re listening to a black person talk about racism–there is a white person, talking about race to a black person. Those are the messages I listen for, because that is the behavior I’m trying to undo in myself. It’s easy to have compassion for Emmett Till’s mom. She’s central in the story that’s told about him. But I’m a white woman. I will always be on the other side of this interaction. Emmett Till was not my son. Emmett Till is not my phantom.

My phantom is Carolyn Bryant Donham, who looked at Emmett Till and said, “That boy put his hands on me.” Who shaped whole worlds with those words. She said those words (or something like them) in August 1955, said them again at a murder trial to get two white murderers acquitted, and then said nothing more for sixty years, when she admitted that it wasn’t true, that the boy hadn’t done what she said. In the meantime, Emmett’s mother had died. She never had another son.

My phantom is white women who call the police on black children for doing things like selling bottled water or mowing lawns or playing with a pellet gun in a park. On black adults for doing things like using a barbecue pit, or shopping in Target, or sitting in Starbucks.

A tweet went viral awhile back that goes something like, “I have a new game, especially for other white people. It’s the ‘don’t call the cops’ challenge, and basically you start by not calling the cops, and then continue to not call the cops for the rest of your life.” These days we don’t call up a lynch mob. The police have taken the place of the lynch mob. They pass immediate, deadly judgment every time they roll up on a call. We don’t have to call the local Citizens Council; we call the local police non-emergency number. Who called the police on Tamir Rice? Was he white or black? I have a guess.

It’s not that simple, but also it is. As a woman I have to be able to name threats to my safety. Carolyn Bryant Donham, who named Emmett Till a threat, was physically abused by her husband, who killed Emmett. But it was Emmett, not her husband, who she targeted with her words. It was Emmett, not her husband, who she had power over. It was Emmett, not her husband, that she could name as a threat, and have that statement be believed, and acted upon.

One of the oft-stated reasons for lynching was to protect white women from black men, but it generally wasn’t black men that we needed protecting from. And yet, the power of a white woman to call a white man (whether her local police officer or her local Citizens Council) and say, “This black person is bothering me,” and bring the oppressive machinations of society crashing down on that person’s head, has remained unchanged for the last hundred years.

Words can make worlds. Silence can send messages. But I want to, hope to, need to skip the 1955 words. Skip the sixty silent years. Start, in 2018, with truth that is not imbrued with fear, with words that will not destroy anyone else’s world.

A Random Cycling Entry

t1lbwd7I bought a car last year (a 1993 Volvo that cost 700 whole dollars), and as a result, I haven’t been riding my bike hardly at all. Turns out I am really really lazy. I still think like a cyclist, though, and am always checking bike lanes and crosswalks for errant cyclists. I hope that I’m the driver that I wanted drivers to be, back when I was biking everywhere and trying to co-exist with car traffic. Anyway, I was going through a folder in which I had a whole bunch of half-written blog entries, and came across this, and figured I’d throw it out there:

As a cyclist, I hope that drivers can keep in mind that whatever their frustration with me—going slower than them, taking the lane, needing to cross three lanes of traffic in the span of one block so I can turn from 18th onto Larimer—I’m causing you perhaps 10 seconds of inconvenience. You have the power to KILL ME. Some people seem to think that cyclists think we’re invincible daredevils, and maybe some are (I can’t speak for all cyclists, obviously), but I am hyper-aware of the fragility of my meat suit whenever I’m biking in traffic. On the contrary, it seems like car drivers are the ones who are apt to forget their potential to injure and maim. I’m not saying that there’s not badly behaved, unpredictable cyclists out there—there’s about as many irresponsible cyclists as their are irresponsible pedestrians and irresponsible drivers—but when you, Mr/Mrs Driver Person, catch yourself about to lose your shit at some poor schmuck on a bicycle, please take a breath and remember you’ll be past them in ten seconds, it’ll all be over, and you can go about your day.

Some days it just feels like there’s no way for a person on a bicycle to win. And not just in a collision, where I am obviously going to be the loser. If I run a red light, I get yelled at for running it. If I don’t run it, I get honked at for holding up traffic. If I take the lane, I get honked at, never mind that the reason I moved left was to not get doored by someone lurking in a parked car, or because there’s gravel on the road, or because cars were blowing past me with barely a foot to spare and I wanted to force them to give me more space. If I stick to bike paths, I unintentionally goose pedestrians who are walking there; if I stick to the roads, I get yelled at and run the risk of getting plastered. It can be both dangerous and frustrating when all you want is to get home from work in one piece.

That said, it seems a shame that cyclists and cars so often let the bad incidents define the discussion. I ride my bike just about every day, and I have to say, my close calls and angry incidents are few and far between. So:

THANK YOU for pausing and letting me ride by when you’re trying to back out of your driveway.

THANK YOU for waiting to take your right turn and letting me go by in front of you, even though I was going slower than you thought I was.

THANK YOU for pulling a little to the left when you’re passing me to give me space.

THANK YOU for waiting patiently behind me at a light while I start from a standstill.

THANK YOU for stopping last week when I wiped out in the rain, and checking to see if I was okay.

THANK YOU for seeing me signal that I wanted to take a left and letting me cross the lane in front of you.

THANK YOU for when you who lift up your hand and let me know that you’ve seen me.

THANK YOU for pulling your dogs closer to you when you see me coming so I don’t have to worry about getting clotheslined (and I did slow down as much as I could so as to not scare your dogs, I hope that was okay).

THANK YOU to the kids who were waiting for the bus, saw me pushing my way up a steep hill, and started clapping and cheering–that was hilarious.

Thank you all for, so far, not killing me. Thanks to everyone who hasn’t thrown bottles at me, honked their horn for no reason, or yelled at me out a window. I do very much appreciate it.

Thanks. And let’s, when on the road, all just try to be patient with each other. Me included.