When Silence Is No Longer an Option...
It’s not something I can pretend is someone else’s problem any more. Just because it happened in another part of the country doesn’t mean it can’t happen here, in parts of California: outright bigotry, racism and intolerance, complete with symbols of a people who exterminated millions of souls during World War II as if they were vermin.
The smelly underbelly of right wing extremism is fast creating a stench on city streets, is all over the Internet and is finding its way into our lives whether we want it there or not. While in past decades of my life it seemed mostly suppressed and contained, witnessing what happened this past week in Virginia has made my head shake in disbelief that the foul odor of swastikas and arm salutes is still alive and well after more than 70 years of exposing what they stood for.
Oh, it’s easy to justify staying fairly quiet about it up until now, as if it doesn’t affect my life. After all, none of my relatives came over here until the early 1900s, long after the slaves were freed. I mean, modern Greeks didn’t own slaves. Only the ancient Greeks did. So we should basically be off the hook.
But come here we did, leaving our old country behind for the promise of a better life. Our people became proud citizens, and no matter which ethnic background anyone shares nor how shallow their roots, we Americans are indeed our brothers’ keepers. E pluribus unum. Out of many, one. The “huddled masses” had to know what that meant as they raised their hands and took their oaths to defend and embrace the blessings of the new land they began to call their own.
Back when my paternal grandfather finally (after two tries) got through Ellis Island and made his way to a small Midwestern town where his cousin lived, his 2nd grade education and heavy accent made him a target of hate, just as anyone Jewish, Italian, or any other immigrant might have been regarded who bore no resemblance nor sounded like the people around him. Starting out with a horse and an ice cream cart, he earned enough money to send for his wife and two sons, proceeding to live out his own version of the American Dream and going on to have more children born with American birthrights. Soon he owned a shoe shine stand — one at which he paid his black employees more money than he paid his sons. The shoe shine stand became a dry cleaner and hat shop. Eventually he owned a half a city block, where three of his grown sons and their families were able to run businesses and support their own families.
Along the way, however, my grandfather got put on a list somewhere that indicated he was not as American as the people who made up that list. In a town where the Jewish synagogue had to take down the sign indicating the identity of the place they worshipped, one day my grandfather found a cross burning on his front lawn. Men in white hoods stood there, spewing hate and telling him to “go home” — just like the ones we witnessed last week. Then my grandfather looked down. And he recognized the shoes of the KKK haters who spit unintelligible words at him. He began to call them by name, citing which ones had children who played with his own and which ones he thought were friends. Soon the cross came down and they walked away. In shame, I hope. But I’ll never really know.
You’d think by the time the baby boomer generation came along, stories like that would just be just a blip in history. And in some ways they are. But other, more subtle behaviors showed me that the same variety of hate was alive and well. You see, my father moved us all back there from California at one point. The place we called “back East” suddenly became home because my father wanted to start his own business in the town in which he grew up.
By high school age, I would hear some of my classmates talking as they walked by the family dry cleaner ridiculing my uncle, who had olive skin and kinky, dark hair, calling him “Bosco” — at the time the name of a chocolate mixture you poured into milk.
I was asked by a teacher about my family and realized by the smirk on her face as she asked it that the reason I did not get chosen for the high school chorus had nothing to do with my ability to sing.
Scratchy-voiced old women would walk up to the department store layaway window where I I was employed part time and ask where the “little girl” was. I looked at them, perplexed. I was the youngest employee in that department. Then I realized they were referring to the 50+ year old light-skinned black woman I worked with.
And my father, who owned a piano business and employed a piano tuner would sometimes be told to find someone else to tune their piano because they did not want a black man in their home.
It was there. It was always there. It just went underground, huddling itself around kitchen tables. Outwardly, it remained as ugly expressions on faces that heard strange accents, recognized foreign faces, or hated religions not their own. And now it’s simply coming out of hiding.
Is it because of a presidential candidate who didn’t condemn these odious types enough (or at all) when he campaigned for president and then went on to name known racists to his administration? I doubt it. It just never went away. When people like this are not openly condemned by those in high places or that condemnation is not instantly and vehemently dispensed, however, they take it as tacit approval. They can see that it was because of public pressure, it wasn't our leader's gut reaction. The result is what we are seeing now.
Remember the children under the robe of Charles Dickens’ character of the “Ghost of Christmas Present?” They are shown in ragged in clothes, depicted in the book or portrayed in the movie The Christmas Carol as dirty and starving. “‘They are Man's,' said the Spirit, looking down upon them. ‘And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom.’”
Like Dickens, I see these haters as symbols in human form. Impoverished of spirit. Clueless regarding the beauty and richness of people, places and cultures not their own. Insecure and unaware of how hate drives them.
One only hopes we could someday take them by the hand and individually show them the error of their ways or their thinking before another innocent person gets killed as a result of their feckless marches. Educate them. Point out how they are a product of brainwashing or isolation.
But we can’t. All we can do is donate to causes that support the rights and blessings of all people, try to show them how love can overcome, and refuse to let their words have an effect on the nation we have all come to know and love. We are indeed a country of immigrants, whether our ancestors came over ancient land masses from Asia, filled up boats from Cuba, waved flags from immigrant ships sailing from Europe, or snuck across borders so our children would not starve or be killed by drug dealers.
We are Americans. And we can fucking DO something about this.