It’s 5:15 am. A half an hour ago, I woke up from a dream. In this dream, I received a letter telling me that I would not be considered for a grant that I had applied for. I was hoping to get this grant for a project exploring racism in the U.S. The letter said that I needed to get a score of 65 on the test to be considered for the grant, and I had only scored 60. I could not understand how I had done so badly on the test. I ALWAYS ace tests.
And then I woke up. Awake, I was STILL upset that I had flunked the test. I could NOT accept that, even in a dream, I had done so badly on that test. Why why why did I have this dream on flunking a test on RACISM of all things?!?
In my actual waking life, I studied so HARD! I have been drawn to read about the history and culture of African-Americans. The truth is, people of my Boomer generation received absolutely no education about slavery or Black history. So when I sat down with Frederick Douglass’s autobiography about 30 years ago, I was quite blown away with the reality of slavery in the United States. Douglass is a powerful, very emotional writer. I’ll never forget reading about the moment when, as a child, he realized he was a slave. Reading is my great pleasure and preferred method of escape, and since that moment of revelation with Douglass, I have felt that I needed to understand the history and culture of African-Americans if was going to understand my country.
My latest revelation: An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves & the Creation of America. Washington KNEW slavery was wrong. He said so in his diary and letters. But: (1) He felt it would be too disruptive to the new country for him to act upon his feelings, and (2) He was hooked on the money.
Most recently, I became obsessed with Ida B. Wells, the great anti-lynching activist and journalist who is FINALLY getting the recognition she deserves. I created a powerpoint lecture on her life and work, that I delivered at Drexel University and the Ida B. Wells Continuation High School in San Francisco.
So I really thought I was woke before that terrible day, May 25, when George Floyd was murdered.
But I wasn’t. For all that my mind was furiously involved in learning more, studying about the experiences of Black people…. Something was missing.
What has changed in me since George Floyd died? What does it mean to me to be woke?
This is it:
My heart has opened.
Yes, I knew. I studied. I read. I lectured. But yet I still kept a barrier inside me. I never allowed myself to feel the pain that is part of being Black in this country. I did not want to feel it. But in immersing myself in the enormous wave of columns and articles and writings and videos after George Floyd’s death, my heart broke open. It wasn’t one article. It wasn’t like everything moved me. It was the cumulative effect of so many words and images. The five-minute video, “A Conversation with My Black Son” was definitely part of my awakening.
What does it mean to me that I am woke, that I have found a new empathy with Black people? It means that I see my own past actions differently.
Memories rise up, memories of incidents that hardly registered with me at the time they happened. I see now that I was choosing to use my white privilege to make my life better, easier.
TWO MEMORIES IN PARTICULAR:
FIRST MEMORY: In 1970, my boyfriend Steve and I were looking for an apartment in New York City. As you can imagine, it wasn’t easy to find something decent in Manhattan that two young people, working in an after-school program, could afford.
After we’d been searching for a while, we walked into a real estate office. There were a lot of people sitting waiting. They were all people of color. The white realtor motioned for Steve and me to come to the counter. He had a battered book open on the counter in front of him. That was the listings book. He closed that book, shoved it aside, reached under the counter and brought out another book. He thumbed through it, found something for us, wrote down the landlord’s phone number on a slip of paper. We called the landlord from a pay phone, went to see the place, and ended up moving into a small three-room apartment in a decent building in a decent neighborhood in Washington Heights for $125/month.
I think it was excruciatingly clear to everyone in that office that the second book was for white people only. Steve and I never talked about it. I mean, we were very progressive and political and all. Steve was even a MARXIST. But come on, finding a cheap decent apartment in Manhattan? You did what you had to do to survive, right? I never felt a DROP of remorse. Not one drop.
Until I got woke two months ago, fifty years after I walked out of that realtor’s office. Suddenly that memory rose up. I think I’d feel better about myself now if I’d felt even a little guilt then. But I didn’t.
I googled to find out when New York state passed a law banning discrimination in housing. It was in 1968. So there was a law on the books making what happened in that office illegal. When the realtor pulled out the second book, Steve and I could have walked out and reported that man. But that thought never crossed my mind. I was TIRED of looking for a place!
After all, what’s the point of privilege if it never gets you nothin’?? I was entitled to use whatever I had in my arsenal in order to find a place to live! And if it was my white skin… well, I could handle that! And I didn’t lose a wink of sleep over it for 50 years.
SECOND MEMORY: In 2004, I was the Green Candidate for U.S. Congress. There was a lot of intense activism in the Bayview neighborhood of San Francisco, against the polluting power plant there and around other environmental issues. The Bayview was mainly an African-American neighborhood. I had never been there before my campaign. It’s the southeast edge of San Francisco, but San Francisco is NOT a big city. Somehow the Bayview seemed very far away, with few bus lines serving it (Surprise!).
These neighborhood activists were a devoted, passionate group. They welcomed me, an outsider. I think they felt/knew that they would never get any traction as long as only Bayview residents were protesting what was happening in the Bayview. And in fact I was very shocked by what was going on in a neighborhood in my own city, only an hour bus ride away from my home in Noe Valley. It was very clear to me that some of these things would never be allowed to happen in MY neighborhood.
For example, the Bayview had the very last old-fashioned pollution-belching PG&E power plant in San Francisco. There was a dark plume coming from the smokestack day and night. The wind blew the smoke directly horizontally into a nursery school and a large housing project on a hill at about the same elevation as the top of the smokestack. You could SEE it. It was not subtle.
And guess what! Many children in the projects and all over the Bayview suffered from asthma. In fact, the leader of the activists had moved across the Bay because of her grandson’s asthma. So she commuted into the neighborhood. The Bayview was an unhealthy place to live because of that damn power plant.
People rallied, people marched, people blocked roads, people signed petitions, people wrote letters, people called politicians. PG&E, that behemoth utility, absolutely insisted that they needed that power plant and refused to negotiate.
And the activists weren’t just about their own health. There was a lot of vacant land that had been a Naval base. Lennar, the biggest developer of residential housing in the U.S. wanted to develop Parcel A by building a lot of condos on it. There was one teeny problem: Parcel A was an EPA Superfund site. The Superfund was set up by Congress to handle hazardous waste sites needing long-term clean-up. Parcel A was one of the most polluted pieces of ground in the U.S.
You see, the Naval base had been the location of some of the first experiments with nuclear energy, and it was rumored there were lots of irradiated things, including a horse, buried there. I’m not sure if the story about the horse was true, but it WAS true the ground of Parcel A had caught fire, and the Fire Department couldn’t put it out. It just burned and burned. The GROUND burned. There were no trees or shrubs. Somehow this never came to the attention of the media until one of the activists wrote a blizzard of letters to all the newspapers. Eventually the fire burned itself out. The Navy insisted they had cleaned up the site, and they had the report of a company that had tested the site to prove it was safe. But the activists said it still wasn’t clean enough for residential housing.
Now understand, the Bayview activists were not protesting in their own interest. You could even say that it would have been BENEFICIAL to them for the housing to be built. It would have raised everyone’s property values. But they did not believe it was safe to live on Parcel A, seeing as it had the singular distinction of having spontaneously combusted. The activists were fighting for the right of the future residents of Parcel A to live in safety.
I was asked to be on a panel to discuss this issue. In the audience was a “consultant” from Lennar. Charlie Walker was highly paid by Lennar to “consult.” This is how he “consulted” during that panel: He screamed and yelled and overturned tables and threw chairs in an effort to stop the panel from continuing. Eventually, he left. But he had made his tantrum the main event. I doubt if anyone remembered anything the panelists said.
When my political campaign was over, I considered staying involved with the Bayview activists. I had met so many wonderful people. And clearly the problems in the Bayview were much more dramatic and pressing than those of Noe Valley. But… but… It was such a long bus ride! And, truly, I was tired of feeling the pain of the community. I didn’t HAVE to. I lived somewhere relatively pain-free. I had the privilege of turning my back. And I did so.
It is only now that I am at least a little bit “woke” I can look back at those two decisions — the first to take the nice apartment and run, the second to walk away from a Black community I had connected with. I see I could have made different choices.
So if I see and feel so much more now, WHY DID I STILL HAVE THAT DAMN DREAM ABOUT FAILING THE TEST???
I think my subconscious was telling me that truly waking up to my white privilege and Black pain is a journey. Maybe next time I dream about taking the test, I’ll score 66!
But I’m not there yet.