I can only remember feeling loved by my nanny, Thelma. At 3 years of age you don’t question the sociopolitical implications of a black woman leaving her own child alone and crossing town by bus in order to come to your home and nurture you. My mother, however, did. When she left my father, that same year, and went to live with my nana – she took Thelma too. Thelma brought Gregory to work with her at my Nana’s house.
He was my first love, a tall black boy with dreamy green eyes. I announced to the world that I would marry Gregory when I grew up. Thelma looked nervous but my mother never said a word, she just smiled at me. We moved to a small house in the rural outskirts of Tampa and all the neighbors were black, so all my playmates were black. I had heard the “n” word and I remember mother saying if we EVER used that word she would wash my mouth out with soap and paddle our asses. My little brother said it once, 3 times in a row, because he was really mad at mom. I later learned we were the last “white” house on the road. If I had walked left out of the driveway my playmates might have been white, but I went right, and walked on into “black town” where everyone looked like the people I loved most when I was barely walking.
We were dirt poor in 1959. Deadbeat daddy (a sitting Criminal Court Judge in Tampa Florida) didn’t pay his child support and back then a female school teacher made half what a man did. Mother knew $4,000 a year and a cracker box shack in the woods wasn’t going to cut it. She had to improve her earning power,
We lived a gypsy bohemian life after that. As mother went back to school to earn a couple of master’s degrees, a broad ethnic mix of domestics and foreign students became our babysitters and nannies. Black, Hispanic, Hindu… among my favorites were a Seminole Amerindian gal with long braids and a gold tooth, she made fried grits for me, which I love to this day, that was also the year they shot and killed President Kennedy and my mother came home from work weeping because other teachers in the faculty lounge at Dixie Hollins were rejoicing. Martin Luther King, and Bobby Kennedy followed him into the trinity of martyrs. But we all know there were many more.
Then there was a Thai gentleman named Plong when we were living just off campus in Gainesville (Go Gators). That was the year that me and my besties, the only two black kids in my class, were all held-back, all three of us flunked out the 6th grade. Now my 6th grade teacher, Mrs. Goldwater was best friends with my 3rd grade teacher Mrs. Atwater. Atwater had called me “filthy as a nigger” in front of class because, as a tomboy, I had dirt on my knees and arms coming in off the playground. It took me a year to have the nerve to tell that to my mom my teacher cussed me. Upon flunking 6th grade mother took me to P. K. Young Laboratory School at the University of Florida, where my performance and IQ scores forced Azalea Elementary to rescind the failing marks. Apparently I was passing 12th grade science and English classes that summer. Too bad there was no one to advocate for my black friends. Mom knew I, even I knew that I was being punished for socializing with blacks. By junior high mom was busy defending her doctoral thesis, we were supervised by a pair of Iranian brothers, college students of mother’s - one who was a world class violinist, Gasim Denai, great guys. I loved the Persians.
You see, my childhood home was like the United Nations. I grew up in the home of a liberal Democrat, a radical Jesuit-leaning Irish ex-nun who fled Cuba and got a Papal Dispensation because of her observation that the church aligned itself with the rich and powerful, and ignored the hideousness of poverty and exploitation, that knew no bounds, in a two-class society. We were quietly a pro Castro family in Central Florida.
I did Sunday school as a Unitarian, and I hung out at my mother’s cocktail parties in the 60’s and had more friends among intellectuals, college professors and ex-priests than I ever did among kids my own age. They were white, black, southerners, northerners, foreigners. The entire summer of my 14th year I volunteered to man the front desk in the Guidance Department at Student Services, BCC (now Eastern Florida State College). It was 1968 and I explained the financial aid applications and distributed them to students of every color and ethnicity conceivable. I fell in love with the custodial staff and learned about their plan to attempt collective bargaining with the cretins in administration. I can still taste the Rev and Miss Geneva’s barbecued chicken melting in my mouth. Hell, I even stopped a race riot in the locker room at my junior high simply by asking to borrow a black girl’s comb, and standing there in front of the entire racial divide and running that Afro and Ultra Sheen grease through my long straight hair. Oh yeah, I was that cool a customer in 1969.
Fast forward 25 years, I’m ten years into running a battered women’s program, rape crisis and family shelter – one of the first jointly operated programs by a predominantly white Appalachian county and the Eastern Cherokee Indian Tribe – I won one of 5 sabbaticals granted by Z. Smith Reynold’s Foundation in 1995. I’m going to get to study at Penland, at Arrowmont, at John C. Campbell Folk School, I’m going to bum around New England with my mom and eat crab cakes and lobster. I’m going to paint, wail on an anvil, work in clay and travel.
The Z. Smith Reynold’s winners gathered that summer to talk about our work, our vision, and what we are going to do with the next 8-12 months off. That’s us in the portrait above. From left to right, Pauline Frazier, Executive Director of SE Raleigh Community Development, Raleigh, NC; Page McCullough, Director of Planning for Literacy South, Durham, NC; Deborah Greenblatt, Executive Director of Carolina Legal Assistance, Raleigh, NC; me, Lisa Bocook, Executive Director of Swain/Qualla SAFE, Inc., Bryson City, NC; and Dorothy Graham Wheeler, Executive Director of The Best Choice Center, a substance abuse prevention program for kids in Winston-Salem, NC. My proudest moment, was followed by deep internal shaming.
I sat there in a room at the ZSR Foundation, listening to these women talk about their accomplishments and vision, and I realized something. Pauline Frazier had at least 10, maybe 20 points on my IQ and I was certain Dorothy Graham Wheeler had at least 30 points on me. These women were so brilliant I was floored. Then it hit me. The realization that my IQ was dwarfed by these women of color surprised me. Did I think Shirley Chisolm was an aberration, a freak of nature? Had I never considered the possibility that there were black folk that were brighter than me? What the hell, Lisa Lynn. WTF is wrong with you my sister?
Imagine my shock, my abject horror, when, at 40, I realized that I was a covert racist. I understood the privilege my white skin came with. What I didn’t know was that I had absorbed some racist ideas, through my lungs, or maybe I swallowed it with the ice tea and Jack Daniels here in the south, but it was waiting in the weeds like a bad recessive gene, waiting to strike my 9-5 consciousness.
We are so inculcated by this society and its history of denigration and discrimination that subtly I actually absorbed the notion that whites were automatically smarter than blacks. If I can be a racist, coming out of my childhood, raised as I was raised, believing as my mother believed – well damn, people. It means these prejudices inhabit all of us. And like tumors we have to excise them, find the medicine that shrink and eradicate them. A very bright friend of mine said recently that every black should understand his entire race will be blamed for his actions and behaviors. He never once considered then, under that logic, that the entire white community should then be judged for the actions of any one of them. The inherent racism of his statement totally escaped him.
Black Lives Matter is a movement to shine a light on the very real dangers that African Americans face, the rate to which they are targeted and subjected to abuse and the way we, without video to expose it, tacitly accept that the police are always doing their job to protect and serve us, and a report of “black man with a gun” creates an automatic image in our head of a criminal. It is why 22 year old John Crawford III, was shot to death, without warning or question at Walmart holding a BB gun he was buying . It is why Tamir Rice, playing on a playground with an air pistol wasn’t questioned or counseled. A cop simply rolled up on him, stepped outside his patrol car, aimed his gun, and shot this child dead in one smooth move, 3 seconds, bang. We have to look at prejudice. This week we have had a double dose of its lethality both with the execution style deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the Dallas sniper who randomly murdered five innocent police officers. Our collective horror and grief must be made into a solid, positive, turning point. American we have to agree on something here. Enough is enough.
Are we going to have to do for black Americans what we used to do to keep girls safe on college campuses at night, are white folk going to have to set up a volunteer body guard service so that blacks can get from point A to point B safely. Are we willing to live in a country where a can of ice tea and a bag of skittles will cost a black boy his life after dark? Is America the place where black folk selling loose cigarettes or CDs on the street, or having a busted tail light or headlamp means they’ll die in jail without medical aid or take 4 slugs to the chest?
Confronting our past is the only way to get through this. They did it in South Africa after Nelson Mandela was released. They had panels for Truth & Reconciliation. People came out and spoke their truth, they educated others about the reality of their lives under Apartheid. America hasn’t done this, instead it denies, demands we pretend it doesn’t exist. That’s all in our past. Right, until we went and elected a colored man. What a trouble maker he’s been right? The nerve. We have never faced and apologized to our Native brothers and sisters. Never has our government apologized for genocide and failure to honor treaties, or faced the inherent and continued legacy of slavery. There’s an “Oh My God, I’m a Racist Too” moment waiting for everyone. Truth makes us uncomfortable but it does have to precede before reconciliation can proceed.
I’m calling on everyone to push for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the United States. Native Americans and the descendants of African slaves have been waiting longer than our 240th anniversary. Time to lance the boil and let that bad boy drain. We are a festering wound and if we don’t address it and clean it out we are going to succumb to gangrene, we face amputation, a splintering of Tribes and factions. Fear and hate is the enemy and it is inside us, not outside. There is only one race, the human race. We need to exorcise these demons.