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On Thanksgiving, #BlackLivesMatter, and what it means to be an “American”

(This is a personal post. It’s about my  journey to make sense of a few particular aspects of the world around me. I’ve thought long and hard about what I could say that might be of value to the much larger conversation about race that is happening in the US. I’m not sure what the right answer is, but my hunch is that speaking honestly about my own experiences is a good place to start.)


I’m 6 years old, walking along the brick path to my grandmother’s front porch. It’s Thanksgiving day, 1989, and wind is whistling through the cornfields. I’m wearing a paper pilgrim costume I colored at school. My cousin is wearing an Indian feather headdress and vest made of a paper bag. I have a vague sense that his is the better outfit, but I’m not sure why. I roughly understand that our outfits represent some historical gathering of two kinds of people. We’re celebrating this, right?

I’m 16. I can’t say I fully know what happened to the pilgrims and Indians, but I’m pretty sure it didn’t end so well for the Indians. I see pictures of my younger self in the hand-colored pilgrim costume. I feel filled with shame.

I’m 20 and I don’t want to celebrate Thanksgiving. Give thanks for genocide? How messed up is that? I take the train to my aunt’s house in Petersburg, Virginia. Nearby, there are civil war reenactments – I try not to think too much about what is being reenacted, or why. I love my aunt, and I know she cares about social justice. I make vegetarian stuffing and try not to think about genocide. My cousin is serving as a marine in Iraq. I did my part as one of so many student activists – I tried to stop the war. It wasn’t enough. I don’t want my cousin to die, but I don’t believe the war is just.

I’m 16, and I’m studying AP US History. I like my teacher but sometimes the subject matter just makes me so mad. I act out by writing a flippant paper using Disney song lyrics to criticize – and trivialize – historical events at the time of the Revolution. I don’t know how to express the deeper despair I feel to be a heir to a legacy that encoded some people (slaves) as not fully human into the Constitution. I don’t want to pretend anymore that what’s important is whether or not I pass this class. We get our papers graded. I get a B- and a weary look of disapproval from Mr. Hasty.

I’m 4 and I attend a nearby preschool while my mom teaches high schoolers during the day. My best friend is named Margoleila and she has hair that poofs out between her ponytail holders. The student body is very diverse at the preschool but I don’t know that yet. I mostly tell people apart by the sounds of their voices, contours of their smiles and caliber of their laughter. Skin color is vaguely like hair color to me – a spectrum I don’t yet have names for. I go to her house for her fifth birthday; her family is loud and boisterous and loving and I feel warm in her living room. I am sad when we go to different elementary schools for 1st grade.

I’m in 7th grade and I learn that, through circumstances or fate, Margoleila and I are now attending at the same middle school, both having moved into a new school district. At first I’m thrilled – destiny! I’m reunited with my early childhood best friend! But it’s not the same. Like a bucket of ice, I’m chilled by the realization Margoleila is black, and I am not. To be “black” means something, to be “white” means something, and all I feel is a tragic sense of loss. I have other black friends at Belzer Middle School, but she and I never quite manage the transition.

I’m 19 and I’m walking down a side street in northwest Washington, DC, next to my college boyfriend. We’re 30 feet away from a larger thoroughfare when sirens begin going off. I quicken my pace toward Wisconsin Ave to see what’s going on. I turn and realize Jordan is half a block behind me. Confused, I turn back and ask him what’s happening. “White people are crazy! We were taught not to head *towards* trouble. When we hear police sirens we run the other way.” I’d never even considered that.

I’m 8. I’m 9. I’m 10. How does a child even begin to make sense of what it means to live on land that was stolen, to benefit from an economic system that depended on slaves? What does it mean to grow up in “Indiana” but not know any Indians? In 4th grade I transfer to a magnet school called Indian Creek. My teacher’s breath smells like stale cigarettes. I squirm when she looks at my work over my shoulder.

Jordan isn’t actually “black” anywhere but the color of his hair. His skin is more like medium-dark chocolate. It’s beautiful. His father is white. His mother’s ancestors were slaves, so some of their sires were white, too. But we live in a country that doesn’t see color on a spectrum. For the two of us, there are only two categories – white and black. It’s no use pretending otherwise.

In high school, every morning, we are supposed to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. A television in every classrooms shows footage of a waving flag.  “I pledge allegiance, to the flag, of the United States of America, and the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” I experiment with relatively tame forms of resistance. Sometimes I omit “under God.” Sometimes I mouth the words. Sometimes I refuse to stand up at all. This pledge doesn’t sit well with me. I don’t buy that there’s truly liberty and justice for all. In my heart, I do not pledge to this flag.

I’m 19 and I’m traveling on an alternative winter break trip with college classmates. There’s another Emily on the trip, and I like her a lot. She’s 100% Navajo, and she’s smart and funny and brave. I’ve never met a Native American before. She tells me how tired she is of being the “token Indian” in all her classes. I listen and empathize, and silently promise myself to try to never tokenize someone else. I secretly fear I do it all the time.

I’m 10 and my parents move into a new neighborhood. It’s beautiful, tree-lined, filled with creeks and woods and places to play. All the properties have names. It’s Indianapolis, so my middle class parents can afford a house with 4 bedrooms and a big yard. I love it here! I play for hours in the wood and pretend there are fairies and goblins. In my explorations I find old ruins. I’m 12 and I go spelunking in the archives for the neighborhood history, founded more than 100 years ago as an estate 15 miles north of downtown. Some facts fill me with pride – like when the 9-hole golf course was turned into a Victory Garden during World War II.

I’m 14, and I learn from my mom that there was a black family considering buying one of the houses in the neighborhood, and they decided not to because the neighborhood association still has rules (though not legally enforceable) against non-whites buying property. “Why don’t they change it?!” I ask, certain that this can be easily fixed. She explains that it’s not easy to change the neighborhood bylaws, people are arguing that it’s too hard, or that it sets a bad precedent for changing other rules in the neighborhood, especially since those rules are negated anyway. I tell my mom this is wrong, but I can’t yet fully articulate why. Later, I realize why it bothers me so much. The people in power – in this case the neighborhood association – are quite literally saying that honoring the legacy of a racist and unjust system is more important than making the neighborhood safe and inclusive for all families.

The black family moves away. Nobody seems to think this is a big deal. Inside, I feel rage.

I’m 15 and I feel full of despair. I  wonder – were things better during the Depression? I mean, I know people were hungry, and there was hardship, but maybe people took better care of each other? Maybe families had more time to be with each other? I look around at relative economic “privilege” at my high school, but the kids who get BMWs on their 16th birthdays don’t appear to be that happy at the end of the day.

I’m 31 and I’m agonizing over a Facebook status update that I am writing but I will not post. I don’t know how to use my words to bridge the gap between the worlds I straddle.

Jordan tells me how his mom always jokes that she can’t find his dad in the crowd because “white people all look the same.” I feel hurt – I don’t look the same as other white people! It takes me an embarrassingly long time – months? – to get that he isn’t insulting me, he’s pointing out how painful and dehumanizing it is when people say things like “black people all look the same.”

Really, I’m no more “white” than Jordan is “black.” My skin is a sort of light peach/tan, and my cheeks get rosy when I run or drink a glass of wine. My hair is straight and I sunburn easily. My ancestors weren’t “white” because that wasn’t a thing in Europe 500 years ago. They were Irish and Scottish and German, and perhaps some Jews that later converted to Christianity. I like to think they were forced to convert to Christianity to save their lives. My capacity for an active imagination and desire to align myself with the oppressed goes to comical depths. I’m 31 and I’m still working to untangle it, even as I get better at laughing at myself.

I’m in the 7th grade and the OJ Simpson verdict is announced on the television stations in the lunchroom cafeteria. Half the room erupts in cheers, the other half decries it. I don’t have an opinion, but I’m aware something big is happening. It’s not til years later that I make sense of what was happening, why the verdict was interpreted in such radically different ways depending on one’s point of view.

In 4th grade, students learn Indiana history. Here’s what’s emphasized:
– the geological, archeological, meteorological and agricultural origins of the state
– Indiana’s role as a northern state in the great battle to end slavery
– all the brave Hoosiers who served as important stops on the underground railroad
– Indiana is the crossroads of america
Here’s what’s not emphasized:
– what happened to the people who originally lived here
– how doctors in Indianapolis were leaders in the eugenics movement of the early 20th century, pioneering the practice of compulsory sterilization of undesirable poor families
– the tens of thousands of Hoosiers who participated in Klan activity in the 1920s
– how the interstate highway system that gave Indiana its nickname cut apart poor black neighborhoods and facilitated white flight to the suburbs
I know, I know – some of these ideas are easier to explain to 4th graders than others. Some of these ideas don’t sit very well.

I’m 30 and I’m staying up late at night reading articles about reclaiming white indigenous roots. I allow myself to acknowledge the thrill of excitement I feel to learn I am not the only one who thinks about this. I’m thinking more and more about what it means to embrace a culture that was lost, when my ancestors traded cultural and spiritual identity for the privilege of being “white”. But I don’t quite know where to begin.

I’m 17 years old and I’ve fallen in love with Kurt Vonnegut’s writing. Like my dad, he comes from a German family who settled on the east side of the Indianapolis. He writes at the beginning of Slaughterhouse-Five that writing a book against war is as futile as writing a book against glaciers, but he’s going to do it anyway. Now here’s something I can believe in. In another of his novels, he writes of a privileged white woman that she was “a traitor to her class.” I know at that moment that that’s what I want to be – a traitor to my class, my race, to all the privilege I was born into but never asked for, anyway.

I’m 21 and I’m studying abroad in Mali, West Africa. Perhaps now, for the first time, I will know what it feels like to truly be in the minority. There are days when, not attending school with my fellow study abroad students, I don’t see a single other white person. I feel conspicuous, to be sure. Some kids call me “toubabu” on the street. But I quickly realize I can deflect calls by engaging with the kids, I’m treated kindly by strangers, and welcomed heartily into the neighborhood. It doesn’t take long for me to recognize that being white in West Africa does nothing to tell me what it might be like to be black in the United States.

I’m 19, and it’s the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I’m taking a course on the poetry of witness. It affirms my proclivity for paying attention to the dark and difficult aspects of human relations, yet makes me wonder if I can quite survive the heartache. I go for a run in the woods near my school, and I stop and sit on a log, sobbing. So many deaths. So many massacres. So many genocides. Will it ever end?

I’m 31 and I’m reading reactions to the ongoing situation in Ferguson, Missouri, the death of a young black man and the non-indictment of the police officer who killed him. I am filled with so many strong emotions. I have so much I want to say and so little certainty of what I should say. I read the words of friends and family and I don’t know whether to focus on amplifying the words of those with whom I agree, or finding some way to start genuine dialogue with others whose reactions scare me. What I most want to do seems the most difficult – how do I find a way to connect with my family members who don’t believe that the justice system is fundamentally unjust? For folks who see young black men through the dark lens of their own projections?

How can I – with the utmost compassion and love – find a way to reveal to those who cannot quite face it that everything about American history has set up a system of white supremacy, which is really just a fancy term for the idea that so-called “white” peoples’ lives matter more? Because I am convinced that this is a not simply a case of a missing rational conversation, or getting people on the same page with “the facts.” As citizens of the United States we cannot yet have a rational conversation about “the facts” because we have yet to fully reckon with or heal from a history so dark and cruel that it is easier to deny the humanity of others or pretend that no discrimination still exists. These are fantasies, and they are powerful ones.

I’m 31 years old, and I’m back in Indiana. It’s Thanksgiving Day, 2014. I do feel grateful for so many things, people and places in my life, not to mention the larger ecosystem, the planet, the stars, the sun, the moon, the universe. I feel grateful for all I have learned about the world, and all the ways I am growing. I am grateful to be connected to the growing movement of people working to raise their voices to affirm that #blacklivesmatter across the United States. I’m grateful for indigenous activists and their allies across the United States and Canada who are working to protect the land from new oil drilling, pipelines, mining and deforestation. I’m grateful that today I’ll get to spend time with my grandmother, aunts, brothers and cousins. But I also don’t want to pretend anymore. I don’t want to pretend that this country belonged to the people who look like me who settled it a couple hundred years ago. I don’t want to pretend that it wasn’t built on the backs of Africans shipped across the ocean, murdered, abused and raped. I don’t want to pretend that actions like that don’t have consequences that ripple down through the generations, and still affect us today. Those realities have shaped us, our institutions, and the land itself. Truly, there is so much work for us to do. I don’t think it’s easy and I don’t think it comes quick, because the challenges we’re dealing with were centuries in the brewing. But I do think we can find meaning in the process, and facilitate healing as we work with some of the trickiest, most challenging and thorniest aspects of what it means to be American and engage in the giving of thanks.

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