Don Rogers: Fourth’s promise unfulfilled
Raymond Victor’s big brother was my first teacher.
I remember him looming over us. “What are you doing?” he demanded, talking to Raymond, eyeing me.
Raymond and I were little guys. Small enough my mother had brought me over even though we only lived up the block in Aina Haina, a Honolulu neighborhood.
We were sitting on the floor in the living room and playing with cars or trucks or plastic Army men, something like that. Raymond’s big brother was a big kid, maybe even a teenager, a kind of god.
We stopped. I wondered what I’d done wrong.
“Nothing,” Raymond whined and cringed. “He’s my friend.”
His brother cuffed him. “He’s a dirty Haole. What’s a dirty Haole doing here?”
“That’s enough, John,” their mother said. “His mother dropped him off for awhile, that’s all.”
“We let Haoles in the house now?”
“Leave your brother alone.”
The big brother studied me, plainly not liking what he saw. Raymond shrunk and wouldn’t look at me. Their mother wasn’t exactly rushing to my side. Their father was at a table, reading the paper, undisturbed by anything he’d heard.
I’d done something wrong or I was wrong somehow. None of them liked me, only Raymond.
Of course, this is only a wisp of a memory now, the actual words, what people looked like, the house itself long lost. Only a gust of a hard feeling remains, the opposite of welcome. Here was a space where I didn’t belong.
The United States is hardly the only place where the dominant culture actively diminishes others. Ask the Uighurs and others not Han in China; Palestinians; Shia or Sunni, depending on the country in question; Rohingya in Myanmar; the wrong caste in India; Jews everywhere and for forever outside of Israel, a microcosm where the scales have turned, speaking to lessons going unlearned.
The dominant race in America has some additional historic blood on its hands, wiping out the indigenous populations before it and bringing in slaves, lots and lots of slaves.
These poison thorns are not ours alone, of course. World history is rife with one people destroying another to make way for new lands and lives. It hasn’t stopped yet.
Nor was the United States unique in its reliance on slavery. The Silk Roads might have been more truly named something else back when the Rus captured Slavs for sale and delivery along these dusty trade routes in far greater volume than any fabric.
An estimated 10% to 15% of the people in Northwest Africa’s Mauritania today are slaves, though the government banned slavery in 1981. There, the owners are white Moors among several other distinct ethnic categories Americans would label black. Chad criminalized slavery in 2017.
But most of the world already had outlawed slavery by our Civil War, and in no other developed country has this poison lingered for so long or grown so venomous.
Raymond and I remained fast friends until I moved at age 9. By then, we were long used to running to each other’s home and sing-songing our buddy’s name outside to come out and play.
My friends in Hawaii ran as multiracial as the state itself, and it wasn’t unusual to be among the few Haoles in a classroom or a bus stop or a surf line. I wasn’t caught aghast at the occasional stink eye or taunt. I tended bar alone among an affable band of Filipino bartenders who taught me the craft at a Waikiki hotel.
I knew how to fit in, to be warmly accepted, though mindful from experience of how quickly the welcome mat could be pulled out from under me. A word, a bad mood, any misunderstanding. All suspicion.
I remembered this in a flash during a local Zoom discussion shortly after the police officer asphyxiated George Floyd. A friend from basketball was talking about life in his hometown Nevada City as a black man. His town, and he’s always at least a little on guard.
It took me longer to realize the short limits of my understanding, a Planck length. I hadn’t accounted for the poison. I don’t fear the police.
Black-white is far more fraught than negotiating another cultural space. The resentments of the minority and defensiveness of the majority go to a whole ’nother level in a country where the black was not fit to drink the same water as the white, and the white had the power to make this so across a whole region into the 1960s.
Within the lifetime of many of us, this basic indignity was allowed by our nation’s dominant culture. America, freedom a lie.
Can it be a surprise that fellow citizens remain outraged? This is not some old scar from slavery. This is still fresh, an active indictment. The simple truth.
But for cell phone videos, we could claim some measure of innocence. We could deny today’s everyday abuse, even murder.
We — we whites — would almost have an excuse for wondering aloud why the phrase has to be “black lives matter” and not some banal platitude pretending at color blindness.
We know better, though, don’t we? Finally?
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299.
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