For the writer, there’s nothing so frustrating as to sit in front of a
keyboard and find oneself at a loss for words. To know there are a million
things which need saying, and yet, you can’t think of even one. Having
experienced this often, I’ve devised a few strategies by which to allow myself
to remain productive.
Two which almost never fail, and about which I’m not at all proud, are to
turn on the television-preferably to an "all news" channel-or to get
in the car and drive. The former, because there is always something so
maddening being said that it would inspire even the least loquacious to pour
forth social commentary; and the latter, because one sees multiple absurdities
from a car window: folks in the throes of road rage, attempting to position
their cars at the front of the barely-moving parking lot called traffic; or
gas stations charging more for the same gas in the poorest neighborhoods than
only two miles away in the wealthiest. Interesting, and all potential
inspirations for the social critic.
And so last week, devoid of ideas, I began flipping channels; and just as I
thought I would never find anything to anger or amuse me enough to write
something unique, I stumbled across "Talk Back Live:" a CNN
production, in which the host asks questions of guests, interspersed with
comments from audience members, who sit in uncomfortable chairs, wearing large
buttons with their first names on them, in what appears to be the food court
of an Atlanta shopping mall.
There I was informed by the host, who was discussing the Kosovar refugee
crisis, that "We as Americans don’t know how it feels to be driven from
our homes, to be refugees, and we shouldn’t take that for granted." And
that was all it took. After all, when someone explains what "we"
have or have not experienced-particularly if that person is white-it’s best to
pay close attention, and ask just who is this "we" anyway? Who
comprises this family to whom all of "us" theoretically belong?
Fact is, there are quite a few of "us" who need not be told to
take seriously the thought of being uprooted from our homes, nor lectured to
about ethnic cleansing. I’m thinking here of that part of "we" that
is black, and knows that their very presence here "as Americans" can
be explained by an act of forced removal; nor that part of "us" that
is indigenous Indian, and has known little else since the white man first
arrived; nor that part of "us" that is Chicano, and carries the
collective memory of the theft of a large portion of what was Mexico.
And for more recent variations on the theme, there’s always "urban
renewal," which from the 1950′s to the 1970′s destroyed 20% of all urban
black housing to make way for shopping malls, office buildings and parking
lots; or "Operation Wetback," launched in 1954, under which nearly
four million Latinos-including American citizens-were deported to Mexico; or
the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, which assuredly
involved removal from one’s home on less than a voluntary basis; or Indian
"boarding schools," which took in Native children stripped from
their homes, so as to "Americanize" them and eliminate attachments
to their indigenous cultures.
Yes, I think some of "us" know about life as a refugee; what it’s
like to be uprooted. But the ones who know aren’t typically the ones writing
copy for CNN, or the history books, and so it goes. If there’s a better
example of how history is written by the victors; or how the white
perspective, flowing as it does from white experience, is usually passed off
as the collective experience of all "American families," I, for one,
would be surprised.
Given which fact, it’s fortunate I like surprises, for I was about to
receive one. No longer suffering writer’s block, but rather, acid reflux, I
ran an errand-a short trip to the post office-where I glanced at the
commemorative stamp display above the counter. The Malcolm X stamp was nowhere
to be seen-it having been promoted less thoroughly than the last Shaun Cassidy
album-and in its place was the "1950′s package": a collection
picturing various elements of life in that most sanguine of decades. The
promotional tag line said it all: "The 1950′s: Family Fun, Suburbia and
Now maybe I was a bit oversensitized from my CNN experience; but unless I’m
mistaken this is a bit incomplete as a description of what the 1950′s were
like for some of "us." Family fun? Well sure, I guess families of
color managed to have fun even under Jim Crow and other forms of oppression.
From what she wrote, it appears Anne Frank managed to have "fun" in
her attic hiding place too, but I’m thinking that misses the point-and would
be seen as missing the point-if Germany issued a stamp extolling wartime
Europe as a "fun" place to be.
Suburbia? Sure, if one was white. After all, the loans that subsidized
families to move there during this decade, were virtually off limits to people
of color. Less than 2% went to black families, thereby providing
opportunities-and a bunch of that "family fun" -only to certain
Americans, rather than the collective "we."
And "nuclear threats?" Well sure, my parents told me about the
old "duck and cover drills," that were part of their childhood. But
what they forgot to mention-because no one mentioned it to them-was that the
"nuclear threat" posed by the much heralded "missile gap"
favoring the Soviets, was a fraud. To continue trafficking in the notion that
"American families" were at any real risk for nuclear annihilation
during the 1950′s is to ignore the fact that it was the government financed by
those same "American families" that posed the greatest nuclear
threat during this period: a government which had used atomic bombs twice and
would threaten to use nuclear weapons on a half-dozen occasions in the ’50′s,
according to declassified government documents. Nuclear threat, indeed, but
not the one to which the Postmaster’s alluding.
And as I drove home, thinking about those stamps-one of which pictures
three kids (two white and one black) saying the pledge of allegiance in
school, but fails to show the white parents outside the building threatening
to kill the next black child who tries to join them-I remembered something my
grandmother told me: bad things come in threes. And that’s when I did it.
That’s when I turned on the radio. And there it was: number three-an
announcement about the excavation of the original house Andrew Jackson lived
in on the property which is the site of his mansion, the Hermitage. The
announcer encouraged folks to "come and see what life was like in
It reminded me of a few years ago, when I came across a brochure from the
Hermitage tour, which handles Jackson’s role in Indian removal by saying
something to the effect that when "pioneers first settled this
region," there were thousands of Indians: Cherokee, Creek, Choctaw and
Chickasaw. But after Jackson’s Presidency, "most of them had left."
And as I laughed at having experienced such a grand historical distortion
trifecta for the day, I found myself thinking that if that brochure writer
ever gets tired of working for the Tennessee Tourist Commission, he or she has
a fine job waiting at CNN.
Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer and political activist, and the
founder of the newly formed Association for White Anti-Racist Education
(AWARE). He can be reached at [email protected]