In October 1980, I was 10 years old. I lived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and attended the now-shuttered 38th Street School. At that time, the slide from middle-class neighborhood to decrepit ghetto had just begun. I was a white face amid a sea of African-American students. I can recall one, two, or three white companions, but most of my friends had a darker skin hue than mine, which isn’t to say I felt isolated or different; as a child, what you are surrounded with is “normal.” To me, having more black than white friends was what I knew.
There is one child whose name escapes me but whose face I can bring up any time I choose. One morning, we stood outside a classroom talking. Without warning, he whispered:
Mamma says if Reagan gets elected, black people gonna be back in the cotton fields.
I didn’t really comprehend his words. They were inserted into our conversation out of the blue; we hadn’t been talking about the election or politics at all for that matter. As a 10-year-old, what he said held no historical context for me, but I understood his wide eyes, the nervousness in his voice, and his hesitant body language. My friend was afraid. The way his mother said those words instilled a chill in his bones, which he transferred to me.
My friend walked off, leaving me to digest the sentence: Why would Reagan send black people to a cotton field?
Within a couple of years, my family would move twice. While remaining in Wisconsin, we landed first in a small city and then in an even smaller town. The transition from big-city urban to small-town rural was informative; I learned more about bigotry than I ever wanted to know. Slurs were tossed around casually, with the worst of the worst punctuating the air anytime black people were mentioned.
I was confused. I didn’t know how to articulate my thoughts, but I knew that everyone in town was white and they seemed to hate a race of people they never interacted with.
Given my background, I had no clue where the attitudes came from. I didn’t know ignorance was handed down generation to generation. I didn’t understand isolation or the fear of interaction. I definitely wasn’t familiar with media manipulation and how it feeds fear and stokes flames.
When confronted with racist attitudes, I remained silent. As a child, I wanted to fit in and be liked. I never joined in the hatred jubilee, I just bit my tongue. As an adult, I am probably more outspoken and belligerent than I should be. That doesn’t always win me fans.
With the debate over Confederate symbolism raging, the overwhelming consensus on my Facebook and Twitter feeds show support for the removal of statues and flags. Unfortunately, even the most open-and-shut cases of integrity will have detractors.
On Facebook, I saw a post by a white woman in her 20s. She lived in Ohio and was cute enough to never have had to self-examine or learn what white privilege is. Her words were a mix of vitriol and arrogance in defense of Confederate statues that ended with, “If you support the removal of the flag, then tell me so I can unfriend you!”
I’m a stand-up comedian by trade; I knew this woman through touring because it’s my job to forever expand my base of contacts. Doing so helps me promote shows, sell merchandise and grow my brand. But at what cost? This woman was someone I was supposed to be courting. When I’m in town I can post, “Hey, bring all your friends to the comedy club this weekend!” on her wall. As a child, I probably would have ignored her words. As an adult, I don’t allow bullshit to go unchallenged.
I frowned and then jotted down a quick, “If supporting a symbol of racism is that important to you, feel free to delete me.”
Looking back, I probably should have just deleted her from my list. Wouldn’t that have been the prudent action? Many things on Facebook (or any other form of social media) generally devolve into heated exchanges at best and all CAPS arguments at worst. Knowing that, why would I poke the bear that is Confederate ignorance?
Within minutes, her thread descended into chaos, anger, and horrible grammar. People generally surround themselves with like-minded folk, which means when she was posting in favor of Confederate symbols, she knew her audience. Ignorance is a glue that binds people. The like-minded find one another and cling together using “safety in numbers” as a shield against outside influence; they circle wagons and latch arms.
My “delete me” response was ridiculed, and soon many of her friends were flying the flag of the Confederate bandwagon. All the usual terms were spewed forth: “Heritage!” “Freedom!” “Censorship!”
I responded with the standard rejoinders: It’s a symbol of racism, meant to signify the treasonous exit from the United States. It was founded solely on the idea of white supremacy. Censorship means mandated silence; the government isn’t approaching private businesses and telling them to remove Confederate symbols.
Unfortunately, you cannot argue logic against passion, and passion can bring out the worst in people. When you think you’ve seen the nastiest slander possible, they surprise you with just how rotten they are. I knew I was dealing with ugly, but even I was taken
aback when I read her next words: “Why can’t they just get over it? They’re not in the fields anymore!! Jews went through worse! Yet you don’t hear Jewish people bring it up every single damn day they breath!” (“Breath” being her choice of words, as opposed to “breathe.”)
I stared at the screen in furrowed-brow silence. Who would ever believe something so misguided, much less want to expose their spite to the world? How do you respond to deep levels of ignorance? It is near impossible.
I could have explained that the “cotton fields” of today are impoverished schools and gerrymandered voting districts that deny representation, or that “cotton fields” is a metaphor for a justice system that incarcerates African-Americans at a disproportional rate than their white counterparts. Instead, I pointed out Jewish people aren’t witness to Nazi flags flying everywhere, especially on government buildings. While I didn’t want to speak for anyone Jewish, I do believe if she were to ask some Jewish people if they’re over the Holocaust, her bubble might be popped.
In my frustration, I also posted a popular meme insinuating those on the wrong side of the matter were stupid. To that, I was called a bevy of names.
So be it.
I don’t know how to challenge ignorance without resorting to brutal shaming. I do not know how to teach those who ostrich their heads in the ground and act like children with fingers in their ears shouting, “La-la-la-la I am not listening to Jeffrey but he is still talking!”
It is OK to defend beliefs. It is not OK to throw on blinders and ignore history.
True to her word, she unfriended me on Facebook, and I was a mix of happy and sad. Happy, because someone like that is no longer even in the periphery of my life. To quote John McClane: “I got enough friends.” Sad, because it means the woman is entrenching herself further in a mix of unawareness and willful stupidity. Sad, because these people will vote against their own economic interests simply because they have misguided beliefs instilled in them from their parents and support circles. Sad, because it shows that racial progress is made in millimeters, not leaps and bounds.
Symbols of racism and treason shouldn’t be debated or voted on; they should be removed, destroyed, and remembered in the history books as a dark period of our history we are supposed to have moved beyond.
The last time I drove past the 38th Street School, in maybe 2008 or 2009, the building was boarded up and the neighborhood looked like a war zone. It was a bleak area of economic ruin with little hope of a better life for any child living within its radius. When I Googled my old stomping grounds before writing this piece, the listing came up “Milwaukee College Preparatory School.” The grounds are groomed, and it is offering the hope of education to residents attempting to break free the chains of poverty.
Here’s hoping every day is further away from those cotton fields.
This post was previously published on NathanTimmel.com and is republished here with permission from the author.
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