Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions — #12

Dear America, We Need to Talk…

By Chris M. Barkley: Hey America, rough weekend?

Yeah, I was watching and listening. Now, we need to talk. About what happened in Charlottesville.

And other things.

I am an African-American man. I was not born of privilege. Each day, I know that I am a marked man.

Marked as a threat by white people. Marked as a security risk by store owners. Marked to be maimed or murdered by fascists, racists and white supremacists. Marked for scrutiny (or worse) by various agents of law enforcement.

All because my skin tone is darker than their own.

But each day I awake, rise and step out my door, America. I do so with the full knowledge that I may never return to the embrace of my loving partner, my family and friends. I may fear all the things that may happen to me in the course of a day, but that is leavened by what I know:

  • That my parents, loved me enough to bring me into this troubled world.
  • That they provided me with a comfortable home, the love, guidance, education and love to be a kind and thoughtful person.
  • And that these things were given to me, my life, beliefs, associations and citizenship, are protected by the Constitution of the United States of America.

I was born a child of the administration of Dwight D. Eisenhower; smack dap in the middle of the past century. My father, Erbil Augustine Barkley and my grandmother, who hailed from Birmingham, Alabama, came north to Cincinnati as part of the black diaspora of the 1930’s. My mother, Alice Elder and her four orphaned sisters came to Ohio to attend school. When they met, in a corner drugstore in the neighborhood I grew up in as a child, it was love at first sight. The best and worst of American history lay ahead of me.

I grew up in the age of science and science fiction. Vaccines. Lasers. Computers. Jonny Quest, Fireball XL-5 and Star Trek! Actual men flying actual space capsules, solo, in pairs and then, more. Neil Freaking Armstrong and Buzz Freaking Aldrin walking on the freaking MOON in the summer of ‘69, America! And all of this was balanced out by my constant fear of being vaporized in a nuclear war, the ongoing communist menace, the Vietnam War on the evening news everyday and the constant threats from the nuns at school and in the bullies on the neighborhood streets.

I mostly kept to myself, riding my bike, walking, watching old movies on television and reading. I read throughout the Silver Age of DC, Marvel, Gold Key and Charlton comic books. I read the adventures Danny Dunn and Alvin Fernald. I also dabbled in young adult books by Madeleine L’Engle and Isaac Asimov and Eleanor Cameron. These pursuits were not as frivolous as my parents made them out to be; they were essential tools that led to my being who I am today.

In 1976, I had the good fortune to fall in with sf fandom, which changed my life forever. Author David Gerrold recently described sf (and fandom, too, I think) as, “our private little secret, sniffed at by those who ‘knew better.’” Fandom has been my second family for over forty years and I have never regretted my association with these wonderful people who greeted me with wide and open arms.

But lately America, the stresses and strains of these modern times have tested even the strongest bonds of the best of families.

Nowadays, with social media and modern communication systems, a misunderstanding, a rumor, faked news or blatant lie can circle the globe a million times before the truth finishes rubbing the sleep from her eyes.

I am the direct descendent of people enslaved here. I don’t want revenge. I don’t want reparations for the actions of people I have never met or seen.

You know what I really want, America? I want all of us dwelling here to have a lengthy conversation about slavery, Native American genocide, immigration, the treatment of the veterans of our armed services and the basic right to just be FREE.

Free to explore places I’ve never been. Free to love my partner and friends. Free to hate the New York Yankees (in a benign way, of course), free to assemble peacefully, free to protest, free to make mistakes,  free to watch, comment, read and speak. These freedoms should be extended to everyone without reserve; to those I agree with but ESPECIALLY to those of whom I disagree with.

As I wise person I encountered once said, The First Amendment and the freedom to speak isn’t a private dance party limited to the elites, best buds or your social clique. Everyone dances and no one should be excluded.

I know that these freedoms come with a price and that while I am free to speak and express myself, I am not free from the consequences of any of my decisions.

And if the fascists, racists, opportunists, fear and hate merchants have their way and change to Constitution, to place legal limits on the freedoms we hold so dear, I am afraid that I and many of my family and friends may come to a parting of ways with you. This is a shame, because while 241 years is quite a run for a freedom loving people, I expected you to last far past my lifetime and far into the future.

I never met the late Heather Heyer, but I consider her to be my sister. According to her friends and family, she was an advocate of the poor and disadvantaged in her city.

I mourn her death because she did not have to be downtown in Charlottesville on a beautiful Saturday protesting the presence of fascists, nazis, and other merchants of hate and fear. She WANTED to be there because she wanted to show them that she was not afraid of them and to show them what the true face of democracy looks like.

Her martyrdom and the injuries to the wounded were sudden, brutal and so unnecessary.

What have we become, America? Can we honestly look in the mirror and call ourselves “that shining city on the hill” anymore?

We are no longer the envy of the civilized world. We are no longer considered the gold standard of liberty.

The slow erosion of American manners and civility, in the course of our everyday lives, in our business and trade practices and especially with our politics, makes us out to be a country to be loathed and feared. The current occupant of the White House and his minions are reinforcing this heinous message with each passing day.

We are on the verge of a new Civil War. But what will be different about this new war is that won’t be fighting about borders or slavery, we’ll be in conflict between the haves and have-nots, the disenfranchised verses the uninformed, the rich and bigoted against the poor and minorities of all races and beliefs.

And so America, the battle is on. The battle for your heart and your soul. Who will prevail?

And despite the pessimism and grief I have expressed in this letter to you, I believe in my heart that there are more Americans who want to maintain our shores as a beacon of freedom and prosperity than there are those who would seek to tear it all down.

For the sake of my families, my friends and fellow freedom fighters, I hope it’s us.

See you in the streets. Best Wishes,

Chris B.

15 thoughts on “Barkley — So Glad You (Didn’t) Ask: A Column of Unsolicited Opinions — #12

  1. “We are no longer the envy of the civilized world. We are no longer considered the gold standard of liberty.”

    This is such a strange view. US has never been seen as a gold standard for liberty during my lifetime. But yes, there has been envy. And we are fighting the same battle everywhere nowadays. What happens in US resonates with us in Europe.

  2. Chris, it sounds like we are of an age (I was born in the last few months of the Truman administration (a simple fact I didn’t figure out until my late twenties), but even not being raised as a racist, I was taken by surprise by my mother trumpeting that my first girlfriend was black. I didn’t think she would have cared, or maybe it was a shock thing for her friends. My daughter certainly doesn’t care, but we raised her to be as pissed as we are that we somehow ended up with a clueless, privileged idiot in the White House.

    In this day and age I still don’t understand how Philando Castile got shot because he simply warned a cop that he had a license to carry. I drove past where that shooting occurred today, and it made me sick all over again. I worry about my coworker Robert who is also licensed to carry, because it turns out ‘Minnesota Nice’ just isn’t that nice if you’re black. I thought the crap with white men in tidy white shirts, with clubs and shields walking into an obvious baited confrontation was a thing from history and not something that our daughter would have to deal with in her lifetime.

    I still think there are fewer of these idiots ( I’m also glad to see it cost them their jobs and families as their names are revealed) then in my childhood, but I’m horrified that our President didn’t immediately call their actions what they are- terrorism. I think the world is a better place then it was, just not soon enough for either of our tastes.

  3. I WAS privileged. I went to a prissy prep school where there were no blacks and only a tiny handful of Jews (which would have been strange if Jews were as rich as their detractors claim). Yes, it was racist. I had to go away, and see what other places were like to realize how racist it was, because it was so silent, invisible and insidious.

    When I attended the Cincinnati branch of the Martin Luther King March, most of the people I ‘knew’ looked puzzled. “But why? We don’t have racism here,” they said. But the servants at my grandparents condo building laughed and asked me if my family knew what I was up to. That broke my heart.

    To this day, I do not know what light caused me to see that the situation was neither fair nor right.

    In the 60’s and 70’s we were outraged, but we were sure we would win. (Like in the song, “We’d live the way we choose, we’d fight and never lose.”) After a while we thought enough progress had been made that we could at least rest a little. I, for one, got old and tired and almost as smug as my grandparents, god rest their souls.

    And here it all is again. It never went away. It cowered out of sight, and lurked until the political climate grew sufficiently angry and disillusioned to reemerge.

    I am old and tired, and no longer confident we will win. But I really don’t want to live in a world where this shit is all right. So. . . “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”

  4. Chris, this is… I’m sad it’s necessary, but it is, as they said in our youth, “right-on”.

  5. Having grown up surrounded by people working on the Civil Rights Act (I grew up in the DC suburbs) I always thought America would move forward and continue to do so. It’s terrifying to see how rapidly the country is regressing and how difficult it is to stop the downward slide.

  6. thanks for sharing Chris, I’ve often wished that the utopian visions of the future predicted by my favorite authors would start to occur but it worries me that humans seem to be taking a darker path.

  7. I grew up an Air Force brat. We were in Panama City, Florida when Jim Crow was alive and well. My father was in WW2. One of his brothers died in that conflict, an uncle I never knew. I’m white, yes, but I’m also lesbian, a disabled elder, a proud SJW from my early adulthood (and late teenagehood), and poor.

    I never, ever thought we’d have to fight these traitors all over again. I knew it hadn’t gotten entirely better. I knew there was work to be done. But we’re going to have to fight to regain ground lost that we fought for in the fifties and sixties. We’re going backwards down this dark path. And I have a target on me too because I can’t sit down and shut up.

    Thanks for stating this so well.

  8. I’m white, I grew up in a middle class suburban lifestyle. I know I was privileged. I didn’t quite understand that until I actually got away from that town and started living my life on my own and actually interacting with people of other cultures who didn’t share the same background as me. I realized there are people who are still being oppressed in this country. There is still real racism, institutionalized racism, true hatred in real people. When I was growing up, I was taught that this was all a thing of the past, history, done, we now lived in an age of progress and harmony where all races got along.. What a lie that was. Now I see. There has been progress, but we can’t pretend that it’s over, and we can’t teach suburban white kids that it’s just a thing of the past and pretend everything is fine and dandy while cities riot and people die in the ongoing fight for equality.

  9. I grew up in, mostly, an urban suburb of Boston. My parents had some pretty racist views.

    But my dad was a merchant marine navigator. He traveled the world and worked with and interacted with people from all over the world and widely different backgrounds.

    I think he was in Japan (but I was still a young child and I’m a little vague on details) when he discovered that to a lot of untraveled Asians, in the early 1960s, Europeans, including Americans of European descent, all looked pretty much alike, in the same stereotypical way that all Asians stereotypically looked alike to Westerners. And for the same reasons, of course. It must have made quite an impression on him, because I remember him telling me about it, and making sure I understood.

    My parents had also spent some time traveling the US and Canada, before they decided they needed the better income of my dad going back to sea.

    At some point, certainly when I was very young, if not before I was born, they decided the world was changing and that I would be better off not growing up with their views on race. So they tried to raise me without them.

    Did they succeed? Not 100%. My rational mind doesn’t believe any of that crap. Well, neither did my dad’s, not really, not after he’d been around the world a few times–but the part of him that did believe it was closer to the surface. It made more decisions for him than that buried part does for me, or for my younger sister.

    But it’s there in me, and in my sister, I think because it was harder for my parents to hide what they felt than what they thought, while trying to raise us to believe differently than they did.

    Yet I looked at my niece growing up, and saw how completely at ease with things she was that we had to think about, and I thought, the next generation is going to be so much better off on matters of race and culture, and I feel so hopeful…

    And now we have this crap going on. Actual fucking Nazis marching in our streets, and a Nazi or at a minimum Nazi sympathizer in the White House.

    And I am sad and scared and angry. When my niece has kids, what kind of world will they be growing up in? Not the one I hopefully envisioned. 🙁

  10. Excellent post, thank you.

    @Hampus: that’s a world view that we’ve been taught/been teaching since at least the end of WWII. We’re the greatest, everything we do is right, the world looks up to us and respects us, leaders of the free world, streets paved with gold, shining beacon on the hill, yada, yada, yada.

    The aspirational part is a good thing: I think most Americans want our country to be that, when we remember what our self-appointed role is supposed to be. But the belief that we’ve achieved it (and innocently, without negative effects) gets in the way of actually getting there.

  11. You know what I really want, America? I want all of us dwelling here to have a lengthy conversation about slavery, Native American genocide, immigration, the treatment of the veterans of our armed services and the basic right to just be FREE.

    I not only want this, I want this to be the norm and not a controversial opinion.

  12. @ Lis Carey. Thanks for your post. I really have to admire your parents for trying so hard to do the right thing.

    @Chris. Powerful post.

  13. @ Matt Y: I second that sentiment. Too many people see honest discussion as a threat. I wish it weren’t so.

    My merely wishing isn’t going to help, however.

    Chris, this is a fantastic piece.

    I think we’re nearly of an age; I was born late in Eisenhower’s presidency.

    My first wife (unfortunately no longer with us) was black. I vividly remember the stares, the glares, the comments … and also learning that the brunt of the microaggressions were directed at her.

    For many years I thought things were getting better.
    For the last few years I’ve known differently.
    I fear for my nephews and niece, and their children.

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