Monday, January 16, 2012
Privilege: A Story to Illustrate
Jimmy and Ollie Wicks
Today is Dr. King's day. I've been reading a wonderful book that shares some of the stories of millions of black Americans who beginning with WWI began migrating out of the South. I recall Jim Crow, having grown up in a world with separate facilities and a host of "rules" that enforced a caste system as rigid as anywhere on this planet. My grandpa lived in Northeast Texas back when. I remember him telling me how he encountered a group fo "Night Riders" one evening. He hid from them, because when they were riding, sometimes innocent white folk got hurt too. He rushed home and his daddy scolded him even though he had not done anything wrong. One story he shared was of a black man who had been accused locally. He had been locked up in jail. The mob told the sheriff to get out which he did. They then opened fire from all directions, sending bullets all through the jailhouse and killing the man inside.
But one story stands out from my grandpa that illustrates privilege as well as any. Grandpa had been kicked out on his on before he was grown, the act of a stepmom. Needing to survive, he became a sharecropper. His name was Jimmy. He met a woman named Ollie and they married. Now as sharecroppers, they were paid the same as the black workers. In other words, rarely paid at all as the books always seemed to balance for the owner. This one fellow Jimmy worked for told him to be out of his house in one month because he was planning on leveling the shack and planting on that ground. Grandpa had to leave to go find work elsewhere, another sharecropping gig which is all there was to do in those days in his part of the world.
After he left, grandma Ollie hears a knock on the door. It is the crew with their dozer and they are ready to tear down the shack. She tells them the owner said they had a month, but the guy is persistent and says he has his orders and she needs to get out. She tells him to wait while she gathers a few things, went back inside, and walked out with a shotgun leveled on the crew. She then says firmly they need to get off her land and come back at the end of the month as agreed. They could tell she meant business and left.
Imbedded in this story though an example of what the word privilege means. Had Grandma been black, they likely would not have left. Someone would shoot her dead, or set fire to the house with her in it. If she were black, no one would ask questions. But if you did that to a white lady, the rules were very different.
In Tyler, I remember too well the day Dr. King was assassinated. The police set up patrols outside the downtown businesses and set up checkpoints around the black section of town (yes there was a clearly defined section called Tiger Square.) Now when JFK was killed, nobody was restricted in that way. Or any of the other political assassinations. But the fear, a legacy of an oppressor who had held down an entire group of people for so long, ruled over common sense. I mean come on, riots in Tyler, Texas? Are they nuts? (rhetorical, I know the answer to that one.)
So slavery was knocked down and there was Jim Crow. Jim Crow was finally overruled though some are trying to bring it back today. In order to keep the low wage earners locals needed to turn their huge profits, society turned to a "prison" society. Ask anyone about "driving while black." Illegal searches occur regularly and often. Black men particularly are incarcerated at an alarming rate, and comparison after comparison shows their sentences are proportionately worse as well. Prisons now are big business. When they get out, the only jobs available are those low paying jobs. Whether we call it slavery, or Jim Crow, or incarceration, the net result is the same. The gap between the privileged and those who are not is as big as ever, and plugging our ears yelling "I can't hear you!" won't change that. Some people go on about what Black Americans need to fix this. This is not something Black Americans need to fix! This is something White Americans need to fix! We carry the privilege because it is convenient. That's got to change, and to change it, we must change ourselves. Not just our actions, but our hearts, our systems, our souls. Dr. King said that love illuminates the soul. That's a pretty good start I think.
In memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. May it be sooner rather than later.