Sometimes we have to talk about the things that haunt us and remember the things we would rather forget. Bravery comes in all forms. Speaking out is not easy for everyone, but it is necessary for change to take hold.
It was the fall of 1994 and my mother’s best friend, Cynthia, had come to the city to see a match-up between the New Orleans Saints and our hometown team, the Washington Redskins. I was excited to see her and even more excited to show her around the French Quarter. She loved to shop, and I loved to spend time with her, after all, I grew up with her daughters, and my mother was godmother to her son. We were family. It was a lovely day out, and we made our way through the streets catching up on what was happening back home in Maryland and lamenting the fact that the Saints, who had not won a single game that season, just happened to win the only game they would take that year against the Redskins. We were headed for the French Market to see what treasures she could find for souvenirs when we heard someone speaking through a bullhorn. Now, I am used to protesters and gatherings of people, since I grew up just outside of Washington, D.C. and was frequently in the city, but I had not found rallies of the same kind commonplace in New Orleans since starting at Xavier University of Louisiana in July of that same year. Cynthia was curious about the chanting of the crowd responding to the man on the bullhorn and so was I, so we followed the sound of the speaker. Of course, we couldn’t make out the details of the hubbub with the garbled speech from the bullhorn. When we got to the street where we could see people gathered down a few blocks, we walked toward the gathering. That was a mistake. Two generations headed toward something terrible. We both slowed as we realized that there were people in white—and some red—hooded garb. The hoods had defining points at the top. We looked at each other. We both knew what it meant.
There are many Confederate monuments and statues to Confederate leaders in New Orleans. I had not realized, until that day, that there was one right in the French Quarter. There were many streets to explore, and I hadn’t yet been down all of them. There is a good chance I may not have paid it any mind if David Duke was not riling up a crowd of KKK members and white supremacists right in front of my eyes with people holding up white power signs and placards with Duke’s face on it. I had seen documentaries about the KKK, and I had seen them on talk shows. Viewing these people in the media was jarring, but seeing them with my own eyes was terrifying. Still, we were frozen for a moment before Cynthia shook her head. She was as shocked as I was, probably more so because she had grown up dealing with the reality of the Civil Rights Movement and segregation along with my mother. She took my arm. “Oh, no, no, no…we’ve got to go another way,” she said. I was in complete agreement. We did have a good day after that, but how can you not discuss a thing like that as two African-American women (one a college-educated teacher and one just starting that journey) in this country when you come across it? The reminder that no matter how old you get, or how many opportunities open up, you will always be viewed by certain people as less than just because of the color of your skin is not something you can just get over. History won’t let you get over it, and those who continue to teach such principles and twisted ideas of separation don’t want you to get over it either because they refuse to get over it. No matter how much time goes by thinking of that experience makes me shudder. Why? We were aware of who David Duke was. I was born in 1976 and if I knew who he was, people born before I knew who he was, even if it was just by hearing it on the news. It struck me as false when Donald Trump said he didn’t know who David Duke was during his Republican Presidential primary campaign of 2015. The people at the rally were excited; some of them were red-faced and snarling as they screamed in agreement with Duke’s assertion that the white man is superior--he uttered the N-word several times. I will never forget it, and I hoped that I would never have to run into such a display again. However, I came home and worked in Washington D.C. I have seen Klansmen on the Metro. I have seen people with hate signs traveling to the Supreme Court. I see protesters on the news every day, it seems.
Many say that since Barack Obama was elected the first African American President of the United States of America, we were supposed to have progressed and moved into some post-racial era in America: they are wrong. The election of Donald Trump has proven that white supremacists have re-doubled their efforts. They have rejoiced that he has given them cover to come out of the shadows by his hesitancy to outright repudiate them even in the face of events like those which took place in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 11-12, 2017. There are two sides here: there are those who champion or tolerate injustice and those who speak out against it. You cannot be neutral when it comes to prejudice; you either stand up to it in a million different ways or let it continue through silence or demonstration. I cannot remain quiet because I have seen what silence does. I have felt the fear it propagates. I have even seen the self-hatred it spawns among people of my race. I have been accused of thinking I am better than other African Americans on sight and without provocation because I have light skin. Racism is a poison. No one is superior to another because of the lightness or darkness of their skin. No one is superior because of their genetic makeup, or ethnic roots. Supremacy of any kind is ridiculous unless you consider that love is superior to hate. On the day that 32-year-old Heather Heyer was run down and killed in Charlottesville, Virginia by a 23-year-old Neo-Nazi, I was on my way home from vacation with my husband and two sons, and we had to drive past the exit to Charlottesville, Va. All I could think of was whether my seven-year-old or three-year-old would ever come upon a crowd of KKK members or white supremacists in their future…Here these grotesque people already were an exit away and on the news in their lifetime. The hatred has to stop, the silence has to end, and America has got to step up and do the hard work of acknowledging these issues and stop trying to pretend it is going away; this needs to happen from the bottom up because it is clear that the infection has already reached the top. America has got to grind down the pillars of bias, no matter how hard it is, or how long it takes. We, as a whole society need to establish a new foundation. It is time to call out the racists, the religious zealots, and the selfish among us who threaten our right to be who we are from the heart and then move forward with a better sense of justice and fairness.