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Late Night Thoughts on West Chester, PA

Prejudice is inside the statistics, and inside me; and, towards the big rock candy democracy.

The Village Voice had a story about Bayard Rustin on January 17th. Rustin came from the same town as I did, West Chester, PA, born 62 years before me. West Chester was the “Athens of Pennsylvania,” the town with the teacher's college and the courthouse, and racist as could be.

Some West Chester memories: when I was 4 a little girl at the community center slapped me across the face hard and called me a honkey, then took my soda. When I was 6 my mother pointed to the lighter colors on a Black friend's palm. His palm was lighter than my summer tan. “See,” she said. “We're all each different colors.” When I was 12 I listened to White kids tell jokes about Black penises and laughed with them. I learned that my grandfather on my father's side was a star of minstrel shows. We did puppet shows in the Community Center basement.

Later my mother was given an award by the NAACP in the same room. Someone - a doctor, I think - was giving an endless talk, and Eva Rice, who was old, scary and cranky, but nice to me, said loudly “I wish he would shut up so we could eat.” I remember that they had just expanded the Daily Local News to two pages of comics, and Eva said at the same dinner, “I don't care about that, I never read the comics anyway,” which upset me, because I did read the comics, and I did care. White linoleum floors, acoustic-tiled ceiling.

My mother hung the plaque on the house on Franklin St, which was later sold. The next year we did a shadow puppet show of The People Could Fly, about slavery, with a woman my mother's age and her son. He and I played spirituals, him on trumpet, me on trombone, while his mother read the story and my mother moved the puppets against a white sheet, to audiences in the dozens.

I was in a protest or two, usually the only kid along, carrying signs to the courthouse. Mom would bring me, at 12, to watch court cases for changing the voting system. One day, as I sat on the hard benches, listening to lawyers petition for the change from an at-large system to a ward system, proving that the at-large system had been put in place strictly to disenfranchise Blacks and keep them from serving on the borough council, Dr. Johnson, an activist and chemist, gave me a green hardbound copy of Mathematics for the Millions and explained the Pythagorean Theorem to me. You can do that to kids, just pop out of nowhere with the Pythagorean Theorem and they'll listen to you. I still have the book somewhere. Dr. Johnson had a huge television set in his house, the biggest I'd ever seen, and we went over there to watch the Superbowl.

When I was a little kid, 6 or 7, I had a lot of trouble understanding prejudice as a concept because, being an activist's son, many of the Black people in the civil rights movement had bigger houses than my house, and worked as doctors, chemists, lawyers, and school principals. I guessed that prejudice, whatever it was, came out of jealousy, out of white people wanting nicer houses like the ones where Black people lived.

.  .  .  .  .  

Many of that 50s and 60s generation of activists are dead now, along with Rustin. When I was 6 I met Rustin and rode along with him in my grandfather's golden station wagon. I don't remember meeting him, though. I went to his service in 1987 at the Black church across from the Community Center, and my mother spoke. I didn't understand what he meant then, either. Now I can see him more clearly. He was Black, and gay, a conscientious objector during WWII, and a socialist. He apologized for none of these things. He had a genius for organizing: the 1963 March on Washington was his brainchild, and he taught King about nonviolence. He couldn't be in the spotlight because he was gay, but he made his presence known anyway.

It would make a good science fiction novel to take Bayard out of the equation and write an alternative history of the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King had armed guards at his house before Rustin appeared in Montgomery, and I think American history would be radically different had King not adopted nonviolence. The major civil rights battles of the 1960s might have been fought with guns instead of through marches and at lunchtable counters. Perhaps that would have been better in the long run, and the nasty, pustulent, still-festering boil of racism of America's face could have been popped with a few rifle blasts and assassinations. But we might also still be in a state of war, and America might look more like Israel, fighting always within its borders.

Now they're naming a West Chester high school after Rustin. There were protests and the name was nearly retracted, because racist West Chester is still racist West Chester. But they did the right thing. Good for them. The students with whom I went to school will send their children to Bayard Rustin High School, and generations of West Chester citizens will know that Bayard Rustin organized the march on Washington, that he was born in the town and went on to worldwide greatness, that he saw people as equal.

.  .  .  .  .  

It is engaging for me to see the intersections of my life with Rustin's, and to think through my own experiences with prejudice and racism, but as I write I can only look at my radical origins and my current middle-class maunderings, and think, so what? Why would anyone care about this?

I'll tell you what I was trying to do. I was hoping I could use Rustin's life as a bridge to some other point about racism in America, but I can't find the link. The grandness of Rustin's struggle seems to have no equivalent in modern America. It has equivalents elsewhere, in Israel, in the fight for Palestinian rights, in Pakistan for women's rights, or in the building of a South African state. But right now in America, race is usually discussed in terms of Confederate flags over state capitals and numbers relating to income disparity: symbols and statistics.

So as a fairly well-educated White person, I hear the news on race in terms of these symbols and statistics, and it seems to take place in strange, abstract battlefields like the debates over affirmative action. I do not experience prejudice directly, although every person of color I've ever met has stories about it. I experience it through my capability for empathy, and by reading novels like Octavia Butler's Kindred or her Parable of the Talents. In general, though, I find it hard to feel the facts of racism.

Learning that someone makes thousands less because they are colored differently is unsettling, and shameful, but it doesn't have the same effect of those images of laughing white people pouring ketchup on the heads of protesters who came into a segregated restaurant in the early 1960s, a only decade or so before I was born. The statistics generate a general, abstract anger over social injustice (“something should be done!”) where the pictures give me a visceral pulse of rage (“kill the motherfuckers!”). The Confederate flags flying on government buildings, the lack of Blacks in management, the income disparity can't be addressed by quitting your job, getting on a bus, and registering voters door to door.

You might ask, if I am content in my life and stable, why seek to understand at all? The answer is almost embarrassing, and I will lose any progressive street cred I have by stating it out loud: I seek to understand racism because I am patriotic. At some level I still believe America can fix things, can work as promised. I still believe that America has progress in its constitutional bones, despite the ignorant backwardsness of its current leadership. I believe the country can improve, can become better.

.  .  .  .  .  

Yes, I am naive, and lately as I read the news, it feels like I'm watching the dismantling of our potential as a country, watching the lead find its way into the drinking water, heralding the end of empire. Yet activists like King and Rustin, lives marked in granite monuments and memory, lived under systems even more drastically stupid than the one with which we are now burdened. And they were patriotic; they believed in the system enough to want to change it - perhaps to change it radically, to find some core of truth in all the legislations and circumlocution. They took Jefferson at his word, and not by his actions, and had faith in democracy as an idea, even if its practice was, and is, corrupted.

The passive resistance they practiced is a form of argument, a way of making others listen by using the presence of your body where it is not wanted, along with clearly stated words. To practice it, you must believe your opponent is human, is capable of reasoning and of understanding your point. To protest like Rustin and King was an act of faith performed under the risk of extreme physical violence. It was an act of faith in me, in people like me, in my forebears, that White people could see beyond skin color and work with Black folks to fix things. Rustin was a smart and capable man who could have chosen a quiet life in New York. Instead, he fought without raising an arm, and risked his life knowing that progress would be slow or non-existent, that he would be confounded by ignorance and anger at each march-step.

In a Studs Terkel oral history, a Black soldier stationed in Paris after fighting through WWII described how the white Parisians treated him, for the first time in his life, as a human. He was beloved, respected as a musician, given money and could find lovers of any color without fearing lynching. He stayed in France for years, and then decided to go back to America. It was a hard decision. He knew he was in for segregation and poor treatment. But he missed it too much. It was more important to be home than to be treated fairly, and now he knew what it was like to be respected. He knew what to insist upon.

The people in Montgomery were able to struggle and get integration on their buses for a simple reason: ten years before they could not have done it because they did not believe in themselves. When they believed in themselves they could be socially affectionate to the opposition while at the same time they could be extremely militant and walking and being prepared to sacrifice, I think this is most important....

- Bayard Rustin, “Bayard Rustin Meets Malcolm X”, radio interview, 1960.

- Bayard Rustin, “Bayard Rustin Meets Malcolm X”, radio interview, 1960.

I think as a political human I've made a metaphorically similar journey, lacking the drama of the consequences of that soldier, and lacking as well his bravery. But at different times of my life I've rejected my country entirely, decided to throw the baby out with its Indian-killing, slave-holding bathwater, and wanted to leave in disgust, find some country with health care and fewer handguns. Maybe I still will, save that I am a patriot, and if I leave I will still be entirely American, partial to Budweiser, classic rock, and television. Also, I feel I have a lifetime of votes to cast, protests to attend, and letters to the editor to write ahead of me.

So I want to plan my life as a citizen, and to do that, I have to choose the America in which I want to live. I choose the one proposed by Bayard Rustin and Martin Luther King over the one we now have under Bush. Rustin's America is a fantastic, mythical place: one where anyone can go to an emergency room if they get hurt, where no one is hungry, where women are respected equally to men, and there are no concerns for their physical safety. It's the America of the Statue of Liberty, the beacon calling the world, instead of the country which sends its aircraft carriers to lurk off the edge of other coasts; it is a country where it doesn't matter if your ancestors were slaves or their owners, because each person has the same opportunities regardless. And it looks at the truth of its past - the truth about slavery, about exploitation, about various kinds of genocide - and acknowledges those truths along with the great accomplishments. It is a place with an ambiguous history but a gleaming future.

It does not exist. It could. Parts of it have been sketched out, parts are actually here. Some aspects have yet to be revealed. I doubt the entirety could come into being while I live, if ever. And yet I want to live there, and so I'm going to keep trying to get to the place, to the big rock candy democracy, for as long as I can. I am naive, perhaps to the point of idiocy. And perhaps it's not my problem because I'm a well-fed, White middle-class straight man.

But I'll point to Rustin now and say, here was someone society rejected three times, once for his skin, once for his sexual preference, and once for his beliefs, and still he refused to budge because he saw something better for everyone and wanted to make it happen. Still he believed that people could change the place in which they lived. And he did effect change, to an extent which must have alternately pleased him with its scope and saddened him by its limits. Working with thousands of others, he remade some part of the psychic framework of America into what he envisioned. His patriotism was not misguided, nor were his fantasies foolish. Without the fantasies of Bayard Rustin there might still be segregated water fountains and whites-only lunch counters and whites-only golf clubs -

Well, we have a long, long way to go. But that's why you have to have the dream, because the regular news is so tiring, so mired in statistics and symbols, that you must see through to the better world and prepare yourself to build it. The way I try is through language, through communication, through voting, and through hoping. These is more I can do and much I will never do, because I am lazy and lack greatness. But I can honor my betters, and I hope that this is a fitting way to honor Rustin. That I met him means nothing at all; I was 6 and can't remember the man. But while his body leaves no trace, his mental journey is something I am permitted to share. With my meek and scritching voice I can chime along with his loud song of protest (he was a baritone, he sang with Leadbelly) and share his patriotic fantasies. What a privilege to live in his America and have my work cut out for me.

.  .  .  .  .  

“...we can expect true rehabilitation only when we have rejected punishment, which is revenge, and have begun to utilize the terrific healing and therapeutic power of forgiveness and nonviolence.” - Bayard Rustin, Twenty-Two Days on a Chain Gang , 1947.

.  .  .  .  .  

The only other world-class person to come out of West Chester was Samuel Barber, who was also gay. It makes me almost pity the town, which can claim its fame only from those it exiles.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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