The Q at Parkside

(for those for whom the Parkside Q is their hometrain)

News and Nonsense from the Brooklyn neighborhood of Lefferts and environs, or more specifically a neighborhood once known as Melrose Park. Sometimes called Lefferts Gardens. Or Prospect-Lefferts Gardens. Or PLG. Or North Flatbush. Or Caledonia (west of Ocean). Or West Pigtown. Across From Park Slope. Under Crown Heights. Near Drummer's Grove. The Side of the Park With the McDonalds. Jackie Robinson Town. Home of Lefferts Manor. West Wingate. Near Kings County Hospital. Or if you're coming from the airport in taxi, maybe just Flatbush is best.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Reading Ta-Nahesi Coates in the Land of Cheese and Maple Syrup

First, an apology. I'm going to attempt a hamfisted post about race from the whitest place I think I've ever been. And it's not the first time I've been. I love Vermont, and I've been coming here for five years straight, to the same little “corner house” down by a stream. I don't come here beCAUSE it's so white. I come here because it's pastoral and quiet and olde tyme. Though in America, and particularly in the America as painted by the favorite son Norman Rockwell, they're one and the same. I like to joke that Vermont is America's historic district, cuz it is y'all. There are laws preventing all kinds of stuff that would change it's basic homespun nature. In the Green Mountains there are no billboards, no clear-cut areas on tree covered hills, relatively few roads, no tall buildings. Everything's quaint, eerily so, and it's perfectly suited to some sort of New Brooklyn transporter back-and-forth, yet there are precious few NYC folks here. It's far enough away to be far enough away. We ride down to the Town Hall to get internet. That's where I'm sitting right now, in a rented car, bugs hissing all around me.

It's gotta be over 95% white as bone here. Though coming from Flatbush, the bones seem few and far apart. I'm pretty sure the cemetery up on the hill has more headstones than there are people living in this valley. By two-to-one I reckon.

So yes, I read the book. The whole book. It's short, and almost hypnotic to read. I promise to not generate some sort of David Brooksy patronizing book review “response” to the brilliant consciousness-raising letter to his son by the Atlantic Magazine correspondent Ta-Nahesi Coates called “Between the World and Me.” I just finished the book, then went to the Dairy Barn for one of the Clam Boats they serve at these ma 'n' pa feed-troughs that pass for eateries. [They look so tempting and charming from the road, til you realize everyone around you is 75 or more pounds overweight. I mean, they call it the Dairy “Barn” after all. Those clams are frozen by the way. Just cause you're vaguely (4 hrs) near the Cod (as I like to refer to the Cape) doesn't mean you're getting fresh clams and fish. Actually it was only tonight, when my daughter asked what they were, that I realized a “corn dogs” are named that because they're a hot dog wrapped in corn bread. I don't know what I thought before. Maybe that it was like a hot dog shaped like an ear of corn? Actually it's more like a banana than corn. Banana Dog. But sometimes you do eat corn on a stick. Anyhow I'm not ashamed to admit when I don't know something as obvious as that. Like Vermont. It was just last year that I realized it meant “Green Mountain.” You know, like in the French class where we learned the colors? But then you get kicked out because you're joking with Steve McCall all period every period and as you skip out the door before dismissal the French teacher, who all she ever said was “Dominique, tais tois!” since that was your French name, yells down the hall “No More French For YOU young man!” and you yell back “is that a promise or a threat?” If only I'd known how to say that in French! How parfait would that have been?] French. France. Ah yes, the book. At one point Coates goes to Paris. Actually, that was my least favorite part, for all sorts of reasons, but it's a decent segue back to the post at hand.

Again, to my apology. I want to apologize, not for being white, or for slavery, or the steroid-pounding police state and aggressively racist ideology of our country, the country that Ta-Nahesi and Trayvon and Barack and Cornell and Naz and I share, and anyway I don't pretend I could do justice to such an apology and it's not really mine to make. Or any one individual. It takes, as Chuck D says, a Nation of Millions to hold black folks back. Only a nation of millions could push things forward. But again and again and again you have to admit that the will isn't there. It's never been there, not during Reconstruction, not during the era of MLK. Only begrudgingly have we ever given one-drop-of-black-blood a chance to flow unhindered. In contemporary Flatbush, and Brooklyn and now-desirable urban America, the cover story is the inevitable victory of capital, which means as it always has, the victory of White, because whites hold the capital and they're not handing it over. Are you, white reader, prepared to hand over YOUR white privilege and cultural advantage? And inherited cash? Sure, the nation needs to get its act together, but in the meantime who's to fault you for taking every available opportunity to prosper?

The nation, actually any rich nation, was built on the blood and guts and shoulders of slaves, either slaves by name or deed. So no, Paris doesn't get a pass, even if our particularly heinous version of white bondage of Africans escapes direct comparison. The Irish were slaves and peasants, whole ethnic groups throughout Europe slaughtered and/or enslaved. Hell, my Norwegian grandparents fled starvation at the hands of tyrants. Egyptians, Romans, Macedonians, Vikings, Vandals, Brits, Russians, Germans, and yes Africans of all stripes - have all brutalized their subjects. You don't have to look hard to find examples of abduction, torture, rape and forced labor. Even mass extermination on unthinkable scales - even between rival African tribes - with machetes, for god's sake. In the 1990's! Historically, globally, the struggle for Black liberation and dignity is not unique. Hardly, it's emblematic of humankind and economic development. But for a few things, a thousand years from now it may be a blip in the a textbook. Because right here right now (Jesus Jones!) the richest nation on earth, with a nearly free press, has a Constitution, and a claim to a moral compass. Whether from God or from philosophers and poets and Ronald Reagan, we've noted on more than a million occasions our exceptionalism and our unparalleled strength. A Judeo-Christian theology pervades our legal precepts, our own Shariah Law, and most important of all there is a critical difference between what is past and what is present. For better or worse, moving towards a “more perfect Union” is ingrained in our code. Not code as in DNA. Far from, the DNA is working against us. We're still tribal and base and beastly and cruel. Our code is found in our laws, and our laws have for the most part kept us heading in the right direction. But we fight against them, warp them, turn them in our own citizens, because the Law often runs counter to our more immediate concerns. Me. My family. My station. My job. My legacy. My...tribe. The law, at least as I've come to see it, is actually on the side of progress, despite what Scalia might write in his increasingly 19th century diatribes.

Sometimes it's useful to remember that there continues to be an enormous white underclass that believes itself a part of the wealthier Tribe of Whites simply by not being black. Maybe that's what prevents revolution? It's the most stunning con ever conceived. Despite your poverty and ignorance, you actually get to be BETTER than a huge swath of America. Put the oppressed whites, blacks, latinos etc. together and NOW we're talking numbers capable of revolt! No wonder the Republigarchs work so hard to pander and gerrymander and lobby their asses off and keep us divided and weary. Just like in the Jim Crow South, you gotta work hard hard hard to keep the people down when you're in the minority, especially when an MLK wins them the vote! Think Johnson did that? He was terrified of King, enough to turn the South over to the Republicans. To think Martin Luther King held that kind of power. Had he not been killed we'd have seen a black president 30 years earlier. But I digress. It's my natural state. But it's my blog, dammit.

So as I was saying I apologize not for anything else but for allowing myself to be tricked. I was conscious once. In college, at liberal arts school, and for a few years after. They taught me to deconstruct the narrative, to look behind the curtain, to recognize the Dream for being dream, like the dream-drenched cars in the front of the train in that awesome allegorical movie about the train that perpetually circles the earth after it froze over? What's it called? Ice Train? Steam Train? The Train That Never Stops and Has All the Poor People In the Back and James Caan Is the Evil Overlord? Polar Express? No, that's a kids movie. Snowpiercer! That's it, stream it! The Dream allows us middle-classers to imagine ourselves special enough to deserve a tranquil, safe life of plenty. And get this! The Dream, in a wild twist of absurdity, allows the middle class to be (feel?) free enough and entitled enough to get pissed at the other white Oligarchs for having even more than plenty! The audacity of these half and full billionaires for hoarding SO MUCH when we have only plenty! Even it out, we say. Actually, isn't taxing the rich a form of reparations, not for blacks of course whose great greats never got paid for their misery and labor and might actually be entitled, but reparations for the middle and upper middle whiners who want a bigger piece of the pie? Oh, and if you're against the idea of reparations because it would be paying people for doing nothing, you gotta ask yourself...are you also against the idea of passing along wealth to children and grandchildren? Because THAT would be consistent. Think about it. Know anyone who has money they didn't earn? Did it, maybe, come from the labor of someone from a previous generation? Hmm. Reparations isn't just an idea whose time has come. It's actually completely consistent with our laws and practices.

So yes, there is a nation within a nation, not the Aryan Nation, that's just a highly marketable subset whose numbers probably quadrupled on Obama's inauguration day. But rather there is the Nation of Whiteness, a whiteness that defines blackness and without blackness can't even BE whiteness. White privilege, white values, white culture can't exist without black. Black is the necessary grease for the White machine. We made it. Africans weren't black, we made them black. We imported blackness, enslaved it, beat and raped it, subjugated it, tossed it bones, ghettoized it and imprisoned it in staggering numbers, all so we could hold tightly to whiteness, truly the only thing that makes us special, because I'm sorry but we're WAY too varied to have any other single quality that makes us special and capable of ruling effectively, what with our ever decreasing majority. And blacks are WAY too varied for us to have any logical reason to insist on knowing how many there are on our census, for which sometimes I feel the sole reason to conduct the damn thing is to find out how many of us are white. And other than a few great works of art in various media, there's not a whole hell of a lot to be proud of, white culture. We exist. We celebrate birthdays. We dance poorly. We pillage the earth. What's not to love?

This is the BIG picture. It should be noted that I love each and every one of you dearly, please never doubt it, white, black or zebra. Love the sinner hate the sin! But within the big picture there are a trillion stories that keep us from seeing the Big Picture, from really FEELING the Big Picture, because if we did, if we truly felt the immensity of what we've done and continued to do in the name of our Free and Decent nation, we'd stop doing anything banal or take meaningless and unrelaxing and therefore futile vacations and we'd do everything in our power to right the wrongs. We wouldn't rest til we made things just, atoned, made reparations, reached into the void. And we wouldn't stop there either. We'd make amends to the earth itself and to the billions of people who suffer so that we can live what Coates calls “the Dream.” We know it to be serious, we occasionally acknowledge it, but we rarely ever act as if we have something to be ashamed of. We're dreamers. Maybe there's a new dream that would be even better! Frankly, we dreamers may feel compelled to dream, because to wake up is to sink into a deep and intractable depression. Maybe you've been there. Maybe you ARE there. Maybe you're part of the struggle. But more likely, we're dreaming, unnerved by true protest and concerned only for our own families and legacies. So much easier, and besides, it's not without personal struggle. This always being comfortable is hard work. Always so much to do to stay comfortable. And the definition keeps changing. One can ask it a million different ways. Am I happy? Am I at peace? Am I enough? The other option, of course, is to look outward and pitch in. My generation. My poor, miserable, lazy fucking generation, is now up to bat. Expect no miracles. I've seen them at indie-rock shows. Not a lot of...pizazz.

So I apologize for unconsciously, or worse consciously, forgetting what I know. For taking the easy road. For letting life in all its ridiculous mechanics stop me from being, feeling and acting awake. And it wasn't just me. I had friends! We were there. We saw the avarice and injustice. Some of my generation, classmates even, ARE the levers of power. And the damnedist thing, some of them are black! The president is black for cryin' out loud. There are black bigoted policemen even. Capos? Too harsh a word. But like the seemingly endless supply of Morgan Freeman characters in Hollywood movies, there's a pernicious offer out there for any person of color willing to fully endorse and encode the Dream. You get to dream it too! Not with all its dreamy dreaminess, but damn near. But, um, don't forget this one thing. You're still black!!! So don't get TOO dreamy. Or as Chris Rock put it, you can be a black dentist and join the Show. But you'll have to be a dentist who...invented teeth. The bar, it would appear, is quite high. Clarence Thomas high. Barack and Condoleeza and Colin high. Even entertainers get a pass only because they're so essential to the Dream. Without them, the Dream gets really, really dull, if not a little bit profitable.

What I always like to say is “we're the adults now.” It's our turn. We're blowing it, big time. As philosopher-queen Katy Perry puts it, by standing for nothing we fell for everything. And by quoting Katy Perry, I'm proving my case. We earnestly wrote and sang and smashed our guitars but we didn't do the one thing that our white privilege really had the power to do. Change the whole bloody system. Because...we were still, after all the education and awareness and cynicism, too afraid and too selfish to act. We were, and are, the System, the ideology, with a persistent desire to listen to music by bands that sing out of tune with rhythm sections that provide only the bare minimum of syncopation. Neutral Milk Hotel? Sheesh. That's the sound of Miles Davis rolling in his grave. The National? Why so glum, chum? Cha-ching.

Word to the wise, if you want a taste of the Dream and you don't ooze Whiteness, we will ask that you hand over your cultural passport upon leaving your house each morning, at work and at the obligatory socializing events. You must fully assimilate. We reward assimilation, in doses, and to those at the front of the line. The Irish? Took a couple generations, but White eventually relented. (That whole Irish Policeman racket didn't hurt). Italians? Jews? Next up Hispanics, Asians? Guess who's still at the back of the pack? What the FUCK is wrong with us? The majority of us were displaced light-skinners just a couple generations ago. Guess what my grandparents were doing in their young-age? Risking life and leaving family, getting on creaky boats with nothing but a trunk of clothes and heirlooms and money for a train ticket to Minnesota and Illinois. How quickly we forget. How little time it takes, if you assimilate properly and look white enough to pass for White.

If in fact, an integrated and egalitarian society is what we're after, we haven't (to quote Stevie Wonder) done nothing. It's still the '60s, the '50s, the '90s. When Stop & Frisk became front page news, did you too say to yourself “well, you can never be too careful, and some of those guys really ARE the bad guys” or “it's a small price to pay” to be safer. Let me ask you though to consider the scenario closely the interaction of a perfectly law abiding black man being stopped by a cop who is merely “doing his job,” all part of the tactic which stems from the system. He's not going rogue. He's the good cop, doing a good job. We can see that image, we might even be able to accept it as part of the gig. Tough, but necessary.

BUT. What if instead of an NYPD cop it were a fat white Southern Sheriff with a drawl thicker than peanut butter saying “Boy, what you doin' over t'here? Show me some ID, boy, and don't give me no lip.” Wouldn't you surely be outraged? Is it any different? How brainwashed are we to think it's even remotely acceptable? Never, EVER, let 'em forget who's in charge. When Alabama denied the rights of blacks to vote for decades, did it even occur to the Governor to simply imprison so many that their votes could neverbe counted? Get 'em on a Felony, drugs are best, and take away their vote FOREVER. All you need is a conviction, and how hard is that? Hell most of 'em will cop a plea and admit to the felony anyway. Do hard time. Like fishing in an aquarium! More felons, less votes. Voter restrictions. Racist policing to mirror racist system. The perfect crime, and the Republigarchs get the House. It's 1964 all over again, except the House part. Cue the marches and assassinations and riots. I blame Reagan. War on Drugs. The Dream. The destruction of the labor movement, the glorification of Wall Street, the backlash against progressive ideology. He really was effective, that RR. Damn effective. And the greatest irony? He was Irish! His father was as good as black in his day. It's a crazy, crazy world. Only humans could make this shit up and tear a whole in the sky at the same time.

There will be a reckoning. There's always a reckoning. This is not a media-made state of events, by the way. It's what's been happening all along, it just became to painful not to notice. Are we waking up? Well, the alarm is going off, and there's no snooze button. I'd like to think I can be part of the solution, but my, but our, past performance isn't making me hopeful. There will be begrudging this, and token that. There will be no reparations, no Affirmative anything, no easy-access to guaranteed low-rate mortgages, no G.I. Bill for young black students, no real reform of anything. The only hope I see, really, is the schools. And maybe it's because it's where I'm at, where my kids are at, that I see enormous potential. The progressives saw it in the '70s when they implemented capital B Busing. Like most social engineering it backfired of course, creating whole new school districts for white families to move to. The flight from the Cities only continued, to the point of Gary and Flint and Detroit. (But Detroit's coming back, the college kids and artists are moving there! Don't know it'll do the black folks living there much good, but you'll finally be able to buy a decent cup of $4 coffee!) I do believe that integrated schools, where the parents actually work and break bread together, could matter a lot, if it happens on a scale big enough to tip the balance. It could happen in NYC even, if the parents of privilege considered it a real priority. I'm watching a school go through the painful integration process up close, and it's not always pretty. In fact, I'm watching as white parents show their cultural ignorance, even as they bemoan the ignorance of others. I'm being that parent, trying desperately not to be either. I suppose you could say I'm trying to be a credit to my race!. But I say the wrong things sometimes. I miss the cues. I think I know what's best when what's best is to keep my mouth shut. As a white person in Brooklyn in 2015 trust must be earned by actions. You can't just fly your Liberal Arts flag and expect the world to beg you for your wisdom and leadership. This is HARD. This is uncomfortable. But it's deathly important. Physically, yes, and spiritually. (And while Ta-Nahesi may be a devout atheist, he's a deeply spiritual dude. Someone I'd love to meet and rap with, and maybe go see a high-charged documentary. It's not out of the question, and I hope he takes me up on it. Yes, Mr. Coates, that's an invitation. We'll go Dutch.)

I recently met with the new principal of my zoned elementary school, Jackie Robinson. She was quick to set a meeting, but understandably wary of me and my motives. I decided to lay it out all on the table, everything I'd learned over a dozen years in the neighborhood, the things people say about her school, the reasons gentrifiers give OTHER than race for why they don't attend. Though sadly, I've come to believe that race is 90% of the issue, because as I've seen in other schools and districts, the principal can either be persuaded to meet parents halfway on issues affecting the school, or more often than you'd guess, they can get the boot from an organized parent body. The only truly good reason for a well-meaning liberal white parent not to attempt to integrate their local school good reason at all. Parents make the school, and if you want it to be more one way or another you go and engage. At the age of 4 or 5, kids are kids. They don't yet need PhD mentors - they need warm, nurturing teachers, and the vast majority of early education teachers I've encountered are just that. The bad ones? Lobby to have them removed. You really DO have the power. Get to know your district peers, the higher-ups. Tell them what's going on. They WANT to know. As a School Leadership Team guy I'm amazed at what parents can do, and when they don't get satisfaction, they get the principal canned. Ask the families at PS282, the last majority-minority school in Park Slope. And Jackie Robinson? I can't even tell you the whole story of why their longtime principal got the boot, cuz I barely believe it myself. And Buffie Simmons, the District Superintendent? Let's just say a few people read the Q.

What kids need, in my wholly unexpert opinion, is a solid foundation in the realities of cultural difference, getting along, collaborating, and maybe most important watching their parents reach out to people outside of their comfort zone for friendship, advice, learning and playdates. Kids don't necessarily do what we say, but they will do what we do. If we don't show them that we want to live harmoniously and respectively with others, what chance do we have to expect anything different from them? The one thing I'm sure of with this education's not just the children who are “going to school.” The parents are going to, with their fears and ambitions stuffed in their kids' bookbags.

As to the System, the police, the harassment and humiliation, I think it's time to start listening. The answers aren't going to come from the white liberal establishment. Because try as they, we, might, we're just one end of the political spectrum of that very system. We help nurture it by being the intellectual “cover.” I'd love to see a black candidate, one versed in “the struggle,” come forward during this election. Because admire as I do Barack Obama, he hasn't flexed much muscle in the area of race relations. Perhaps wisely, in order to get things done that he sees as crucial to the nation's survival. But Obama is ultimately the perfect cover for the System, and that's what people may be waking up to. He's the exception the hides the rule. As to the police, well...they're just following orders. The orders need to change, and it needs to come from on high. Last I checked, the Mayor runs this town. And hell, his wife and kids fit the profile for profiling. Again, a little flexing please?

In our neighborhood, LPG, Lefferts Prospect Gardens, I'll continue to follow the state of housing and schools as barometers and weather vanes, pointing to deep freeze, or Spring's thaw, or more likely - long, hot, sleepless summers, where Dreaming becomes harder to indulge and sustain. Cold bucket of water? Read Ta-Nahesi Coates.


Liz said...

Wow. Just started reading it today on my vacation to the upper peninsula of Michigan. 100% there with you.

Stacey Paradiso said...

We just bought a "weekend home" in Bennington VT, which is only about 3.5 hours out on a good day. It was literally half the cost of anything we looked at upstate, and we love the refreshing lack of ex-pat hipster priced-out brooklynites. Which, uh-oh, is why I moved to PLG in the first place...which now suddenly makes me want to keep Bennington a big secret! : )

Anonymous said...

Bad news Stacey - you are now the irritating ex-pat hipster with a "weekend home" in Vermont. YOU are the "problem," according to your own peculiar definition of it. Just be proud of who you are. This collective, delusional hypocrisy amongst hand-wringing white Brooklyn liberals is just weird.