Saturday, October 16, 2010

BLACK LIKE WHO?

BLACK LIKE WHO?
by Charlene C. Duline

Recently in our local Catholic weekly newspaper, there was an editorial that was very much ado about nothing. The writer was harshly critical of a statement made by the U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Miguel Diaz, who needs no lessons from anyone on how to speak or to conduct himself. I don’t pretend to know what was in Ambassador Diaz’s heart when he uttered the words, “Once Americans elect a president, they must stand behind him – no matter what.” I doubt that he thought anyone would write an editorial diagramming and dissecting every word, and conclude that the Ambassador was somehow speaking about morality or abortion! Good grief! What a stretch for the journalist to conjure up a long editorial critiquing the ambassador because he asked for simple respect for President Obama.

The writer said he “assumed” that Ambassador Diaz “was simply overstating the importance of giving the president the respect that is due to him as our elected leader.” Well, good for the ambassador! It is high time that somebody spoke up about respecting President Obama because from where I sit, I see nothing but total and utter disrespect for the man and for the office since he became president.

The author said he found it “troubling” that Ambassador Diaz used the words “no matter what.” He said it’s OK if the ambassador meant that all of us must stand behind the president, but he draws the line at “blind obedience” as if President Obama will order the citizenry to march off a mountain into the sea like lemmings.

President Obama has become a lightning rod for everything that is wrong with America. There is a lot of hate out there. The numbers of militia groups running around in the woods with guns has increased from 170 before President Obama was elected, to 500 and still counting.
It is with incredible sadness that I finally have to recognize what my black sisters and brothers have seen for over one year – that our nation is drifting back to the bad, old days when black people were treated as second class citizens. Ah, you say, “But we have a black president.” Surprise! We do not have a black president.

Let me tell you something that most people don’t know. President Barack Obama is not a “black” man. Let me be emphatic: Obama is not a black man - at least not as white Americans traditionally think of African-Americans pas being “black.” He did not grow up in the mean streets of some rundown neighborhood in the U.S. He grew up in a Caucasian family, and lived in Hawaii and Indonesia. His father was a black African from Kenya. His mother was white and from Kansas. Obama is “black” only in that he has more than “one drop of black blood,” which decades ago our nation’s majority race decided meant that one is officially “black.” His life experiences did not expose him to the segregation, the ignorance, and the constant reminders that if one was not “white” then one was not intelligent, industrious, or beautiful and could never be. He grew up in multi-cultural societies, and his worldview is as different from that of his U.S. brothers as - well, as different as day and night or black and white.

Nobody was more surprised when he was elected president than “black” Americans. None of us thought a black man could ever be elected president, and certainly never in our lifetime. And we were right. The vast majority of Americans did not see Obama as a typical “black” man, and indeed he is not. Fast forward to today. Many white Americans who voted for Obama thought of him as being an extraordinary black man who has risen above the heap. They say he’s “intelligent” as if the country has never seen an intelligent black man. They say he is well educated. Well, I could introduce you to quite a few black men and women who are “well educated,” present company included. Some point out that his charisma is welcomed by our European allies as an antidote to the Bush years when diplomacy and common sense were seldom seen and almost never practiced. Some probably thought that after eight years of Bush/Cheney anybody would be better. Certainly our European allies greeted Obama as a man they could relate to.

The little putdowns of the nation’s first “black” president began on Inauguration Day. As cameras were poised at Blair House waiting for President-elect Obama and his family to leave for the Capitol, a television reporter told us how many minutes late Obama was, and he said, not without disdain, “This will be the last time he (Obama) will be late. From now on his time will be [handled] by the Secret Service, and he will always be on time.” That crack did not go unnoticed by black people. We are acutely aware that blacks have a reputation – deserved or not – for being late. For the record, the president is in charge, not his handlers.

Then we had the ridiculous spectacle of the Secret Service allowing a couple - a white couple - to enter the White House for a state dinner without an invitation. Talk about chutzpah! They sashayed into the White House, passed through two sets of Secret Service agents even though their names were not on either list, and managed to hobnob with the rest of the guests, along with President and Mrs. Obama. They left only when they realized they would have no seats at the formal dinner. I asked myself why the Secret Service was so lax when a black president is in office. Can you imagine that happening with any other president? Try real hard to imagine that. What if I had ambled in, dressed to the nines, and had no invitation? An alarm would have been sounded immediately, and I would have been hauled off to a DC jail faster than a speeding bullet. No, they would not have let me pass. Why? Perhaps because I’m “too dark to pass.” Remember that famous line in West Side Story?

The next spectacle was the congressman shouting at President Obama in the middle of his health care address before Congress and the nation. Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC) shouted, “You lie!” as the President spoke. We have never witnessed such incivility and disrespect of a president. And then Rep. Wilson did what others do who should have bitten their tongues before opening their mouths and sticking in both feet, he apologized for his outburst. Those apologies are becoming old and ringing false.

During the debate about the health care bill, cameras caught some Republican congressmen as they leaned over the balcony taunting black members of Congress, and at the same time urging on the protestors to new lows. Some protestors took great pleasure in calling our black Congressmen derogatory names. For the most part, these were elderly black men who paid their dues during the Civil Rights struggle. They were taunted and spit upon. What a spectacle that was.

And then came the sickening display of people openly carrying guns in Arizona and New Hampshire. As the President spoke at the convention center in Phoenix, outside some protesters were filmed carrying guns. One tough customer had a rifle on his back. What a message that sent. Nobody seemed the least bit concerned except black people. Yes, we were alarmed at armed protesters near the president. That is asking for an “accident” to happen. As I recall during the Bush years, protesters protesting against anything (!) were swiftly hustled away. For protestors to carry firearms near a President is totally unheard of. Yes, in Arizona and New Hampshire it is legal to carry guns openly, but no one has ever dared or been permitted to carry them near a president. A Washington Post columnist, Courtland Milloy, wrote recently:

”Had [a] black rifleman showed for, say, Ronald Reagan's "states' rights" speech
in Philadelphia, Miss., back in 1980, they might still be dredging the Pearl River
for his remains.”

I find it extremely troubling when the citizenry begins carrying guns to or near events at which the president is speaking. Yes, they are making a political statement- albeit a provocative one - which they have a right to do, but it is the beginning of something we Americans are unaccustomed to. Our active and moneyed gun lobbyists have gotten gun laws passed that allow more and more people to carry guns in public, to the workplace, to bars, etc. This sorry spectacle is an additional omen of the unraveling of civility, and a return to rule by gun. Bush was not a particularly popular president and people grumbled and groused, but never did they take up arms and cart them around in his presence. They knew better. People were “invited” to his town hall meetings. None of his public appearances were ever open to the public. Members of the audience were “invited.” And the instant there was an outburst, husky men quickly reached the protestor and he was out on his butt. No dissent was tolerated from the citizenry, at least not in the august presence of President Bush or Vice-President Cheney. Cheney was especially scary. He kept his own records; answered to no one, including the president; had his own Shadow Kitchen Cabinet, and basically thumbed his nose at anyone daring to point out to him the “openness” part of the executive branch of government. We still have no idea of the extent to which he damaged the country.

Something scarier is happening. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center that monitors militia groups, many of these hate groups use a photo of President Obama for target practice. Milloy says:

“Imagine that the inauguration of President George W. Bush had sparked an explosive rise in African American militia groups. Suppose thousands of heavily armed black men began gathering at training camps in wooded areas throughout the country, devising military tactics for "taking back their country" after what they believed was an electoral coup. Do you think Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney would have reacted to a black militia buildup as coolly as President Obama has to the phenomenal growth of white militias?
'If the people we saw running around armed to the teeth were black, I think their organizations would be destroyed in a matter of hours,’ Mark Potok, director of the So u Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Project, [said]. ‘If people saw on their TV screens photos of black militia members shooting at images of a white president, I don't think they would last.’ ”

Blacks and whites somehow usually manage to see the same happening with different eyes. One viewpoint comes from white privilege. The other viewpoint comes from a black perspective in which one can be certain beyond the shadow of a doubt that if a black did the same outrageous thing as a white, we would very soon find ourselves back in slavery. I'm not so sure that such is a long way off. I exaggerate to make a point. I often felt that we were heading that way during the years of Reagan, and Bush/Cheney.

Some say those among us who are the most flawed – i.e., racists - can change. Yes, they CAN change, but will they? I have my doubts. It’s a nice thought and a pious hope, and I want to believe it, but history tells me it is not going to happen. We are seeing more stories in the news about black men being dragged to their death. The blood lust continues. Instead of lynching by hanging, now it’s lynching by dragging a human behind a moving vehicle leaving skin, blood, and body parts all along the road. How cruel can we become?

Let us not forget the Florida urologist, Dr. Jack Cassell, who placed a sign on his office door:
“If you voted for Obama…seek urologic care elsewhere. Changes to your
health care begin right now, not in four years.”

When was the last time you saw something like that? Cowards get bolder when somebody else sets the pace. Then they crawl out of their holes in wild abandonment of the rules of civility.

We then had the Wal-mart incidents. On two occasions a New Jersey teen used a courtesy phone at two different Wal-Mart stores to announce: “All black people leave the store now.” The latest incident was in April. The 16 yr. old boy’s identity was not released due to his age. The identity of his parents should have been blared all over the state and surrounding environs. People need to know who he is. His photo should be circulated to every store in the state so that when he enters a store, he will see his picture, and be on notice that his nonsense will not be tolerated. Obviously his parents cannot control him, unless, of course, they concur.

A few weeks after this incident a 14 yr. old girl in a Whole Foods Market, also in New Jersey, grabbed a mike at the courtesy desk and ordered “All blacks leave the store.” What kind of people are being spawned in New Jersey? Again, her identity is kept secret due to her age. Again, some parents get to hide behind their teens’ atrocious behavior. Outrageous!

One of the most unsettling events occurred when General Stanley McChrystal, head of our armed forces in Afghanistan, waxed ineloquently and rudely to a magazine crew about his Commander in Chief and White House staff. That is a definite no-no and a scary scenario. When a military commander begins flapping his gums about his commander, in some countries the next step is an army takeover. When a civilian leader, such as in a democracy like ours, is held up to ridicule and contempt, those around the man with the mouth begin to believe that everybody else is ignorant. Then those with the guns encourage their followers to savor ideas of “what could be” and as they become more and more critical of their civilian leaders, conditions become ripe for a coup. Arrogance does not make for a good military commander, and neither does bashing one’s superior. Be careful, America, be very careful. I have seen democracies and dictatorships fall for far fewer reasons.

Prejudice will always be with us, but so should common decency. Let us be true to ourselves and recognize that some of us harbor evil feelings toward those who are not the same color or creed. Let us pray that we as a nation can move beyond hate and feelings of superiority.

Thank you, Ambassador Diaz, for the gentle reminder that one who holds the highest and most honored office in the land deserves our respect even if he is not of our political party, or has other distinguishing characteristics unpleasing to us.

"We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others that in the end we become disguised to ourselves." Fran├žois de La Rochefoucauld



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Saturday, October 2, 2010

A VACATION TO FORGET






If anything simply cannot go wrong, it will anyway.
-Murphy’s Law


During life as a Peace Corps volunteer (PVC), another volunteer, Lucy St. Cyr, and I saved our living allowance money for a grand vacation. We gave up smoking and buying American canned food, our only luxuries, and we saved a bundle. We took a bus from Cuzco, Peru to Tacna, a border city. It should have been as simple as walking across the street from Peru to Chile, but it was a holiday on the Chilean side.

Chile was celebrating its retention of Arica taken during a dispute between Peru and Chile in the early 1900s. It was a dispute settled in 1927 by U.S. President Herbert Hoover who made a proposal that both countries accepted. Under Hoover’s proposal, Chile returned Tacna to Peru, but retained Arica. It was our misfortune to arrive in Tacna on a day that Peru had little to celebrate. Accordingly, the border was not open, but we were assured that since we were Peace Corps volunteers, that we would be allowed to cross into Chile. First, we had to hunt down the official to stamp our passports, and to authorize the border opening. Since we were PCVs our search was made easier, and we quickly found the official who stamped our passports after wondering aloud why we would want to go to Chile. Finally we walked across the border to Arica to get a plane to Santiago. In Arica we had an indescribably delicious five-course meal, including a marvelous Chilean wine, for about $2.00.


Our plane was five hours late leaving Arica because of bad weather in Santiago. I thought if the plane couldn’t leave Santiago, how was it going to get back? I hoped the airline would cancel the flight, but to my chagrin they did not. Finally I told Lucy that I would fly only if none of the arriving passengers looked upset. They all strolled into the terminal looking very relaxed and quite happy. Too late it occurred to me that they were probably so relieved at setting foot on the ground that of course they would look happy. And so against my better judgment I flew, and the flight was wonderful. We didn’t hit one air pocket. Of course I stayed awake because everybody else was sleeping and I didn’t want the pilot to get any ideas about napping too. The cockpit door was open, and I actually rattled the pages of the magazine I wasn’t reading, cleared my throat, and even coughed a bit so that the pilot would know that somebody was awake and had an eye on him.

Santiago was a lovely city. People stared at us, but not in an unkind manner. I assumed it was because we were so different. Lucy was blonde and white, while I was black and brown. We definitely stood out. People everywhere immediately identified us as Peace Corps volunteers and welcomed us. It was as if we wore signs. Hotel rates, restaurant prices, and even train rates were reduced for us. It was incredible. Those were the days that the Peace Corps name was magical and opened all doors. We walked and toured the city and thoroughly enjoyed being in Chile. I also noticed there were no other black people around. Once again I stood out. Later I learned that years ago Chile killed off its Indian and black populations.

I looked forward to flying from Santiago to Buenos Aires, Argentina. The morning was clear and the skies were bright. It would be a short trip, only two hours and 45 minutes. I sat in the air terminal and began a mystery story about a plane crash. I felt great. My fear of flying was over. And then I got on the damned plane. Five minutes out of Santiago we started dropping. We climbed back up and dropped again. Something was obviously wrong. I wondered why the pilot didn’t go back to the airport before we got too far from it. The skies darkened and he gamely continued. Fool! I thought. Soon I noticed something new. We no longer dropped straight down, we were now dropping sideways. I wondered if we were about to spin. So I closed the curtain at the window and looked at Lucy. She was sprawled in her seat napping. The two stewardesses had retired to the rear of the plane and sat down. Only the tall, handsome steward patrolled the aisle. I kept peeking over the seat ahead of me to see if the “fasten seat belt” sign was on and it remained on. Finally I held my stomach with one hand and clutched the seat with the other. With each drop I would snatch the curtain back, glance out, rip the curtain shut and collapse against my seat.

Suddenly I looked up to see the steward smiling down and saying something silly, “What’s the matter?”
I managed to show a tooth or two and said, “Heh, heh, is it always like this?”
He played innocent: “Like what?”
“This bumping up and down.”
“Bad roads,” he grinned and walked on.

I wondered why the pilot didn’t go up. I didn’t want to consider his going down! The steward kept taking little bags to the woman seated in front of me. I wondered if she was sick or writing farewell messages on them. Finally that damned seat belt sign went off and we sailed along smoothly. The crew brought out lunch trays and began serving. I couldn’t eat, but I managed to enjoy two glasses of delicious Chilean red wine.

Lucy surprised me by saying, “Whew, was I scared.”

Suddenly the stewardesses snatched away the lunch trays as the plane started hitting “bad roads” again. I wondered how much more buffeting the plane could take, not to mention me. I closed my eyes, gritted my teeth and prayed. Soon the steward announced our landing in Buenos Aires. As we descended, I opened the curtain and peeped out. It was early afternoon, but outside it was pitch black. On our first attempt, we overshot the field. That means we were almost on the ground, not the runway. We could clearly see airport personnel standing in doorways waiting for our plane to crash. We zoomed back up. The steward announced that due to a bad storm we would have to circle for a few minutes. We circled for 30 minutes. I decided that in the event that they had to return to Chile, they would probably have to knock me out. I wanted off that plane.

I never did believe the song, “All God’s Children Got Wings” and I certainly wasn’t ready to test it then. Lucy and I clutched hands as tears streamed down our faces. We were thinking of our families so far away. The steward leaned over us and said something. I didn’t hear what he said, but I had had enough of him. I waved him away. Let us die in peace.

Just before our third attempt to land, the steward announced, in a voice that I can only describe as one of certain doom, that the pilot was going to land. His voice sounded like this is it! Somehow we landed safely. Lucy and I staggered off the plane on jelly legs. For some reason in Latin America often there are photographers at planeside when one lands. True to form, in Buenos Aires there was a photographer who took a picture of us as we descended the steps of the plane, and we looked like two wild, wild women who had escaped from an execution squad. Lucy and did not discuss the flight because we both were painfully aware that we had to return to Cuzco. But I knew what she didn’t know: that my return would not be on a plane.

That evening we went to see Alfred Hitchcock’s, “The Birds.” In the middle of the movie Lucy, who had been relatively calm during that wretched flight, suddenly became ill and we had to leave. She was having a delayed reaction, whereas I, who had nearly whooped and hollered throughout the flight, was perfectly fine. The next day I called our director in Cuzco and told him about the flight. I said we were making train reservations, but some of the passes the train had to cross were closed due to snow, and I frankly didn’t know when we would get back to Cuzco. I told him that we might have to stay in Buenos Aires till spring.

Buenos Aires was a gorgeous city. It looked exactly the way I imagined European cities looked. Here was the home of the famed Argentine gauchos (cowboys), pampas (prairies), incredible beef, and the tango. There were lovely boutiques, fine wines, wide boulevards, and the stunning Casa Rosada, The Pink House, the equivalent of The White House. I could have lived there happily until spring or until our money ran out.

We strolled down the world’s widest avenue, Nueve de Julio, with its centered Obelisk that resembles the Washington Monument. We bought souvenirs such as mate (an herbal tea) cups trimmed in silver, along with a matching silver spoon/straw, some inexpensive leather goods, including a leather stationery case with the map of Latin America on the cover. What better place to hunker down until spring? I bought tons of souvenirs, my plane and train tickets, hotel rooms, food, etc. and I only spent a grand total of $250! We took a fabulous five-day train trip from Buenos Aires to Cochabamba, Bolivia. We played cards, chatted with fellow travelers, ate, and napped. We were just going to overnight in La Paz. What a mistake that was!


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