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Veronica and Ivan: Civil Rights Leaders

September 2, 2011

I love my friend Jennifer’s blog, My Life on Mars. She does not live on Mars. A few years back, she moved to St. Cloud, where I grew up. Her jaunt was from the hipness of the trappings of the Hungry Mind Bookstore to the confines of the place where I grew up, the place I left and soon after landed at… the Hungry Mind, after a couple of sessions at the Minnesota State Senate and odd jobs and avocations that almost used my talents.

She is back in St. Paul and in her latest blog post, “Dog Days in Frogtown,” she talks about her children’s end-of-summer experience—the one that comes just before school starts and the summer programs have run out and you really need something compelling and constructive for kids to do and a good place for them to do it. Her kids encountered and embraced an experience that most of us avoid: being a racial minority of one or a couple and having to navigate being the “other” and maybe finding out if there is even an other in spite of the fact that our social structure tends to enforce that otherness, especially on the less privileged and less powerful.

Her kids, Veronica and Ivan, had an experience that reminded me of two things: one, what it was like for my siblings and me to grow up constantly being the other and being a minority of one, two or a few. The other thing it reminds me of is of Bill Bradley. Some of you will remember him for his run for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 2000 and for his years as a U.S. Senator. Others will remember him for his years as a player for the New York Knicks NBA basketball team. I remember both, well.

Bradley had a unique experience which he met with the totality of his exceptional intelligence and his education. He tells the story much better than I, but he, as a white male who came from more privilege than even most white males, found himself at the top of his profession which was largely populated with exceptional African American athletes. He was, numerically, a minority.

In a speech at the National Press Club in Washington, in July of 1991, “Race and Civil Rights In America,”Bradley said this about the many times he was confronted by, as he says, mostly white Americans about how his understanding of race evolved:

       “Listen,” I’d say “traveling with my teammates [mostly Black men who had given their life to be at the top of the elite in the world] on the road in America was one of the most enlightening experiences of my life.”

       And it was. Besides learning about the warmth of friendship, the inspiration of personal histories, the powerful role of family in each of their lives and the strength of each’s individuality, I better understand distrust and suspicion. I understand the meaning of certain look and certain codes. I understand what it is to be in racial situations for which you have no frame of reference. I understand the tension of always being on guard, of never totally relaxing. I understand the pain of racial arrogance directed my way. I understand the loneliness of being white in a black world. And I understand how much I will never know about what it is to be black in America.

Read Jennifer’s post (and her others; she’s funny and smart) and Bill Bradley’s speech, and you will see how Veronica and Ivan have begun that transformation that, I hope, is a more common social evolution and not just that of two smart kids or a smart Princeton grad cum U.S. Senator and Presidential candidate. Below is my response.

**********

Growing up in St. Cloud, part of one of three black families that moved there AND STAYED, I can give you a clue about walking into the all-white room of strange kids, made even stranger by the fact that the apartheid was of cultural intention if not by the design of the parents who filled the room with their kids. My sister and I were Veronica and Ivan’s ages in the late 1960s and early 1970s. EVERYONE was white or at least hid the fact of their Native American past–the relative(s) that don’t get mentioned, left behind.

It was hard knowing that everywhere we went, there were children who had learned form their parents and elders not to like or want to be with us. It was also hard that the kids who had not learned that destructive lesson yet had no clue about our tentativeness at letting our feelings run freely into a fray of barbed wire hostility hidden in a few meager hay stacks of fun.

We did not dive in. I carefully poked around, tested each pile, checking to see if it was okay to plop down and almost relax. Even with an invitation from someone who was not versed in the racism, I needed to tentatively walk through that door, look to all corners of the room and poke around for land mines of hate.

It was different for my sister, who was more extroverted, a born dancer who dared (me and the rest of the world) to accept her dancing at the bus stop, so conspicuously–and even more so as a deep-brown skinned child. Meanwhile, I lived with the illusion that we could ever be so inconspicuous.

Having fun in those situations was an issue of navigation and management: finding and navigating sources of hostility and unwelcome (more than the “We’d rather not hang out with you—you are not cool enough for our club.” It has a tone more like “We don’t want your kind in our parts and it is only our Minnesota nice that lets us wait for your ‘other’ to be uncomfortable enough to leave”). Manage emotions, mine and theirs; manage perceptions; prove I’m a good person, better than they expect, better than the picture that was painted by their parents’ fears or base hatred.

Ivan is lucky. He is young enough to have escaped that lesson of reflexive hostility, one that is so pervasive and gets to people as they begin to merge into adult-like (and often immature) consciousness. We were not so lucky, maybe because our lesson was so stark, immediate and too often uncloaked, even in that Minnesota Nice. I knew it before I went to pre-school. My sister, if she did not know before, learned it the next year when the woman who we suspect is a relative-in-law of a current Congresswoman who will not be named here decided that my sister could not ride in her car with the other four-year-olds to the Bethlehem Lutheran Nursery School with her grandchild. Her “Christian” attitude created more than just an inconvenience of car-pool disintegration.

Dis-integration. Segregation. Yes, it is easy for us progressives to say we have not problem with race, gender, ethnicity, religions identification, gender issues, social views, class, privilege and the rest when we don’t have to deal with it: when we are in the comfort of ourselves; when our nice German Catholic town was suddenly “overrun” with THOSE Vietnamese refugees who came to our school; before a transformation of economic realities that ended the days when a dad’s high school, college or professional diploma was enough to support the family, and mom was supposed to stay home and wait for the bacon to fry; and before we even knew what gay was.

And the legacies of that fueled the car pool complications have been ushered in nicely to present day.

Today, Veronica and Ivan are a mile ahead of us, better equipped to deal with the real world and the people in it–their lives, feelings, rights and dreams. Not that they will have it easy—for them and the other children on this journey. But being a civil rights leader never is.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. Daniel Gabriel permalink
    September 2, 2011 11:08 am

    Penetrating stuff, Clarence! Great glimpses into the “tentativeness” of trust, when situations can bear so many hidden elements, especially for children.
    And MY earliest memories of Bill Bradley come from his college days, when he led Princeton (Princeton?!) to the Final Four & set a tourney record by scoring 58 points in the 3rd place game.
    Daniel

    • September 2, 2011 12:12 pm

      Daniel, my memories are more of Willis Reed, Walt Frazier, Dave DeBusschere, and Earl Monroe and getting to stay up late with dad–or trying not to fall asleep, as Willis Reed walks back on court after coming out because of a serious injury in the championship. “Dollar Bill” has a story and perspective that is truly instructive, compelling way beyond his success and even his intelligence.

  2. September 2, 2011 11:15 am

    I often see the residue of childhood mistreatment on the adults around me. I wish you healing and empowerment as you continue to struggle with these issues. XOXOX

  3. September 2, 2011 7:19 pm

    Ah, the notable, quotable Clarence. You’re all too modest, but that is one your most lovable characteristics.
    And don’t I wish you and I and jennifer and others were still selling books together.
    Bill Bradley was one of my heroes and would have made a terrific president but, like the great Adlai Stevenson, he was far too intellectual for American tastes.

    • October 5, 2011 9:22 pm

      David, I remember back in 1999, when Bill Bradley was still running for President. He came to Minnesota, escorted by a few of my friends in my political world. It was my birthday, and he showed up at a DFL Central Committee meeting. He spent the day, walking around, talking to people, being sure to be introduced by whomever was guiding him from person to person.

      He was not there to make a speech, like so many others who would have. He was doing what I like to call “personalizing.” (A woman once asked me if I socialized or dated. I told her not really; i personalize.)

      As he went person to person, he listened. I realized what he was doing: he was collecting stories. Stories from real people. He wanted to know. He wanted to hear us talk. Not himself.

      But in the politics of today, actions do not speak louder than words.

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