AND STILL WE RISE

AND STILL WE RISE

Hearing stories recently from so many young black men and women picked at emotional scabs from invisible wounds accrued over the years. We — meaning black Americans — are remarkably adept at rising above slights and insults, deliberate and unintended. Over 400 years resilience has been built into our DNA.

We’ve become adept at seeing bigotry for what is, navigating it, and moving on.

Like the time my brother was taken to an expensive dinner by three New York Times hotshots who were interested in him as a staff photographer. Fred enjoyed the hospitality, ate with all the right utensils, said all the right things, and parted amicably from the power trio.

Fred, who was already a photo editor with Associated Press, had driven up to The Big Apple from D.C. for the interview. He was waiting for the valet to bring his car around when a smartly dressed male Caucasian pulled up to the valet station in a BMW, tossed Fred the keys and asked that his sassy car be parked carefully, noting the probability of a generous tip.

Fred assured the man that he would tend to it right away and put the keys — there were several — in his pocket. Fred’s car came around, and he and the keys were soon off on his return to the nation’s capital. We laughed bittersweet laughter. Fred too had been nattily attired, right down to Italian loafers with tassels.

Didn’t matter.

Among too many personal experiences in my time at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, one incident stands out in particular.

As an accommodation to White Flight in the late 1950s, rapacious developers built houses 90 miles a minute in South St. Louis County where blacks were historically excluded.

What they didn’t tell all-too-willing buyers was the fact that the houses were built in a 100-year flood plain. Unfortunately no one checked to see where new residents were in that crucial century.

Turns out it was the bad part.

When the rains came they were merciless. Skinny rivulets became mighty streams; lazy streams roared to life; the Mississippi’s banks overflowed. Cars were swept away. People drowned.

One of them was the son and only child of a couple who had bought one of those houses. The boy had wandered down to the stream he knew so well to see what it was doing. What it did was snatch him up in an unanticipated torrent and deposit him in a treetop a half-mile down. When the flood subsided firefighters found his body tucked among the branches. I was dispatched to write the story.

“Cars were swept away.

People

drowned.”

Nothing like a double shot of vodka with orange juice, toast, and scrambled eggs to calm pre-interview jitters. The parents were understandably distraught. I sat in the kitchen with the mother as she peeled carrots, then potatoes. When the father came home he joined us.

He talked about how his son loved that spot by the stream. At last the father buried his face in his hands and sobbed. “If I’d known something like this would happen I’d have stayed with the niggers,” he said. His wife continued peeling potatoes. 

I closed my notebook, declined the invitation to stay for dinner, expressed condolences and thanked them for their time. Once in the car, I burst out laughing. I figured right about the time I got to the highway, the wife was turning to her husband and asking “What did you just say to that reporter?”

Chastising a father who is mourning the death of his only child, a son, would have been out of place; he’d already been through enough. My job was to get a story. I did. But when the laughter subsided, the wound remained.

So don’t ever, ever ask a black person whether he or she is angry, unless you really want the answer. The Ivy League, Seven Sisters; the PhD, the DDS, the MFA — none of it matters to still too many out in the real world.

I’ve heard passengers say that if they’d known the flight captain was black they’d have taken a different flight.

I once met a black female navigator on another flight who said she’s always the last off because some passengers assume she’s somehow less competent.

Unless we capture the moment now, the time for honest conversation about race might not come again peaceably. And it’s only meaningful if we’re honest with ourselves. No big convocations need be called. Make a lunch date with someone of color — not necessarily to talk race relations, but to have a conversation with another human being who is not like you.

 

Don’t tell me you were raised by a black housekeeper who was just like a member of the family unless you never called her by her first name; unless the kids played together; unless you shared Thanksgiving; went to Six Flags together. Unless you can have a conversation about race without apology, brace yourself. It’s a learning curve for all of us.

I share these tales not to guilt anyone, but to ask for awareness that our congeniality often masks a lifetime of sleights that are unique to us. The Irish and Africans are the only ones whose ancestors came to America involuntarily. Know American history. All of it. I often refer to White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg. Learn about Irish slaves brought to America by Brits.

We grow up knowing about great white scientists, authors, statesmen and composers, but how many know of Grant Still, Crispus Attucks, Ethel Payne, Percy Julian, Mamie Phipps Clark, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor?

We’ve come a long way from being denied education to being, as some like to say, over-educated — whatever that’s supposed to mean. Meanwhile, we’re at a tipping point.

Jesse Jackson used to say that we might have come over on different ships, but that we’re in same boat now.

So do we sink or swim?

New. Year. Count. Down.

New. Year. Count. Down.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I know exactly what I’m wearing to the first celebratory anything I attend when this wretched pandemic ends. 

 

Hanging in my closet is my favorite purple dress and the funky wrap I bought more than a decade ago from my favorite Dallas shop. Both are wrinkle-free and ready to be worn.  

I want, no, I need, to dress up and feel pretty. I want to go to a restaurant I’ve never been to, the reopening of the symphony season or a fancy fundraiser.

I mean it.

It’s one thing to go braless and wear flip flops, jeans, and t-shirts to shop or see a movie, but it’s another thing to live braless in jeans and t-shirts daily for months without end, stuck under what-the-hell-who-cares house arrest.

I will get a haircut, facial, manicure, pedicure. I will dredge up my sparse makeup kit and wear nice lipstick instead of Burt’s Bees chapstick. I will hug all the people I used to hug. I might even kiss a few.

I tend to be unpredictable, so I might also hug a stranger or two, especially if I can finally do my own grocery shopping, some poor unsuspecting clerk restocking the frozen vegetable aisle. And when the store manager summons law enforcement because a crazy woman is randomly hugging employees, I might even hug the responding cop or firefighter for the unadulterated heck of it.

I’m not sure, but if confident lightning won’t strike, there’s an outside chance I’ll even slip into somebody’s place of worship for a more quiet expression of gratitude for family members who were spared Covid’s miserable reach. Maybe sit for a moment more to remember those whose families weren’t.

There aren’t enough thanks in the world for hospital workers who slogged through the last 10 months and have continued to do so, even when they weren’t doing it for anyone I know.

I know for sure I’ll never be able to adequately tell friends how much it meant to get chatty phone calls from time to time — even those made too early in the morning or almost too late at night. I can’t wait to cook for them again.

I forgive my daughter for enlisting friends to spy and report on my well being (for heaven’s sake, don’t let her know I know). All mothers should have daughters who care that much.

Such random musings pretty much sum up 2020 from my tiny space in the universe. All things Trumptopian will soon be in the hands of jurisdictions from which there is no escape. I can’t clutter my little pea brain with anymore thoughts of that man and his ilk.

The countdown has begun. 

The dress awaits.

En garde, 2021.

Eight Minutes. Forty-Six Seconds.

Eight Minutes. Forty-Six Seconds.

Ask anyone who has ever had cops for friends, and they will tell you the reason they all stick together is because so few understand or appreciate what they do, what they see, how they cope. 

I do. 

I worked city desk of The St. Louis Post-Dispatch for several years before I begged off and went to features. Hard news is where you can meet, date and marry either a cop, firefighter, lawyer, doctor or judgethe people you run into when there’s a fire, homicide, major court case, or you’re cited for contempt for not surrendering notes at trial.  

They also become “reliable sources” who provide off-the-record information that makes the difference between Page 1, and being buried inside, among ads for used cars and vacuum cleaners. 

I learned this when I was assigned to cover a general alarm fire at a senior complex where firefighters brought out so many charred bodies they had to take turns going in. One guy threw up on the grass, walked away a few feet and just stared into space, while another sat down on the curb and sobbed. 

I scribbled frantically in my reporter’s notebook, capturing the scene until I could no longer stand it. I remembered how my mother cautioned years ago to always wear clean underwear and take Kleenex in case there’s no toilet paper wherever. 

Mother’s first admonition didn’t seem relevant at the fire, but I could offer the guy something to blow his nose on other than his shirt sleeve. I sat down beside him and probably said something stupid, like “Are you okay?” as I handed him the last of my tissues. 

We dated a few times and just drifted apart, but in that time, I learned about what firefighters have to endure, including people more concerned about saving their stash than their partners; the neighbors who want to save their house next door and try to commandeer the hose; scantily clad women who offer to show their appreciation later. 

The homicide guy was pretty darned special. At 6’6” he towered over my 5’1”. Our paths crossed at a triple homicide. It doesn’t get more romantic than that. Two men and a woman had been shot in a flat above a store.  

The building was old and the floor slanted so that blood from the two male victims trailed from the kitchen into a narrow hallway. Blood-spattered scales sat still where the deceased had been measuring and bagging heroin.  

“Our paths crossed at a triple homicide. It doesn’t get more romantic than that.”

At the other end of the hallway was a bedroom where the third victim, a woman who had been nursing her newborn, lay. She had been shot in the face at close range. When a cop pulled back the covers to see if there were other woundsthe baby woke up bawling. It scared the daylights out of everyone. 

It was then that everyone seemed to notice me and handed me the swaddled infant, thinking I was a social worker. At that point I had to own up to being a reporter.  

The lead homicide detective was apoplectic. He chewed me out. He yelled, he cursed, he threatened me with arrest for impeding an investigation. I let him vent, at which point he made the mistake of asking me who the hell did I think I was. 

I looked up into his very red face and replied, “A working stiff, just like you, trying to do my job.”  He was so angry he couldn’t decide which was worse: my quiet response or the fact that I called him a working stiff. He escorted me down and out of the crime scene, by which time the actual social worker was arriving. He escorted her up, completely ignoring me. That, I thought, was that.  

But no. He called the next day to apologize for his street-cop language and offered to take me to dinner. The story ran above the fold in page 1. The next year or so was exciting and informative. 

Some time after that romance ran its course, I got another assignment that drew me into a relationship with a command rank lieutenant, who in the course of our four years together, became a captain.  

He was an extraordinary man. We liked the same music; we did museums, dinner parties, and concerts. We took walks along the riverfront and just plain enjoyed each other. Even my friends liked him, once they recovered from the fact that I lived with a cop. 

Upon his promotion, he was assigned to one of the city’s more problematic districts— half black, half white, half wealthy A quarter were upwardly mobile blacks and whites, and a quarter were poor blacks. He also got the uniformed cops nobody else knew what to do with. 

Day after day we swapped horror stories. It was easy for me to move on to a less stressful job, and I did. All I really cared about was raising my daughter who, until I met him, was my responsibility. She was bused to and from school. The bus dropped her at the police station where she napped in his office until one of us brought her home. 

The men and women under the captain’s command flourished. He promoted based on merit, not political connection. He insisted that officers who needed therapy get it, with the understanding they had a job waiting once they made it through. 

He organized community fish fries with spaghetti, slaw, and cornbread. The guys let kids sit in squad cars and turn on lights and sirens. Kids could do homework at the station. Crime plummeted. Community policing worked. 

I write all this because I know what cops go through. They see and experience stuff I don’t ever want to see again. Only the men and women in blue know what it’s like. 

Some make it through just fine. My homicide guy who was white (and probably still is) was extraordinary. He was tough if he had to be, but not if he didn’t. He was smart, decent, and kind. We talked honestly and openly about race and about some of the bone-chilling cases he had to handle.  

The lieutenant who became a captain was only the fourth or fifth black captain in the St. Louis Police Department. The pressure on them all was horrendous. They couldn’t afford to make a mistake. In turn they had to manage uniformed officers who did. 

I am delighted that the massive demonstrations over the summer resulted in a long, hard look at how law enforcement works — or sadly, how it often fails to work.  

With a new administration we’re possibly closer than we’ve been in my lifetime to getting something akin to positive change in policing. I know my limited experience with men and women in blue is not representative of anything other than my personal experience. I also know the impact of what bad cops do too often outweighs the good.  

If we can just get the good ones to speak out against the bad ones — and get the bad ones out altogether, the light at the end of the tunnel will no longer look like an oncoming train.

How providential that a courageous young woman with a cell phone camera made change happen.

How fortuitous that eight minutes and forty-six seconds can change the world. 

George Floyd.
Say his name.   
Say all their names.