Interview by Kyra Steck
For white people, there’s no problem. Everything’s fine, everything’s fine. And you know what, compared to, I’d say a lot of places, but probably most places out there, it really isn’t a huge problem here. I mean, on a scale of one to 10, it’s pretty close to three or four, maybe two. But it’s still here. It’s still here. There are places where I don’t feel comfortable here. And I grew up in a totally freaking white world. I grew up in Kingston, Massachusetts. It was an extremely white town; there were two Black families in town.
Racism is everywhere. It was in that little town. I mean, as a matter of fact, it was all over that little town. I got the s___ beat out of me on a regular basis there. And you come here, and it’s still here. But it’s livable. It’s not going to be in your face, every minute of every day.
The thing is, I look in the mirror and what I see first is human, what I see second is a woman, and what I see third is a Black woman. Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t see it that way. And I have to be aware of how the rest of the world sees me. So that’s where I’m coming from, and I am the mother of Black men, and there is s___ going down out there. That scares the crap out of me. I lost a cousin to this violence. He was shot to death in Boston, and his family received nothing in terms of explanation, assistance — all the things that they should have gotten legally, they were not allowed to have. They weren’t even shown the autopsy report for nine months. This was 2011. So I worry for my children.
My mother bought a house here in 1973. When I graduated from high school, this was the place that I wanted to come to. I wasn’t going to college. I had been dissuaded from that by all of my counselors at school. Oh, “you won’t be going to college.” Of course, back then I just followed what I was told. So I came here and it was great. It was a completely different Island than it is now. It was a lot more open. You could go anywhere. Back then, it was a very different place. There were still problems. I remember my friend had a Black boyfriend, and the neighbors complained because they didn’t want a mixed-race couple.
My partners have all been white. I’ve never had to deal with any of that. I’m lucky I haven’t had to deal with a lot of nasty things that other people have had to deal with. But I still know it’s there. I still get the silly things like, “Can I touch your hair?” or “Oh, you must be from Oak Bluffs,” or — and I love this one — “You speak very good English.” Yes, I do. Quite possibly better than you do, sir. What makes people just come out with this? You know, there’s a stop button. Press it. Don’t let it out. I don’t understand it. And this whole, “Can I touch your hair?” thing. Can I squeeze your husband’s balls?
For me, it comes from my mother. My mother was something else altogether. If you were to mate a tiger and a pit bull, shrink it down to 4 foot 10, 90 pounds, and have it raised by nuns, that’d be my mother. She was remarkable. She grew up a little tiny Black woman in a very white world in the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and she saw a lot, but she never backed down from anybody.
I saw her one time go chin to chest with this huge former cop who had moved down the street from us. Big-ass white guy. He had been a police officer, and had been canned from the police. Now, what could you possibly do that would get you canned from the police in the ’60s? None of us ever knew. We just heard the rumors about him, and he was nasty. He was a bigot. He had a very sweet wife, a beleaguered wife, and these two kids who were the age of myself and my brother, so we played with them. The son was allowed to play with my brother, because “you might learn some sports from him.” But anyhow, I was at a friend’s house. I was probably 12 years old, and I borrowed a bracelet at school. And I was at this friend’s house, and one of the kids had taken the bracelet from me, and I had to get it back because it belonged to somebody else. I’m trying to get this bracelet back, and one neighbor guy happened to show up and grabbed me from behind.
I went home and I told my mother. My mother stepped out the door, and this guy happened to be going by with the former cop. My mother was on f______ fire. This man had touched her daughter, and he realized he made a mistake. He starts to apologize to my mother, and the former cop said, “Don’t you apologize for that n_____.” I was so shocked by what she said that I don’t remember her words. But it was just a lot of volume. She went up to him. She was like, chin to chest with this guy. He had to be 6 foot 2. And she was right up in his face screaming at him. And he just backed away. She was a bundle of fury, an absolute bundle of fury, and the other guy is backpedaling as fast as he can. My mother was a force of nature, and I never forgot that. She never stopped fighting. Me, I was content to just sit back and watch for the longest time, until I could no longer sit back and watch.
It’s been interesting the responses that I’ve gotten from people standing out on Beetlebung Corner for the past month. So many people come up to me and say, “I had no idea.” If you live the life you live, you don’t know what’s going on on the other side. It’s OK. Learn about it. Don’t just push it aside and say, “Well, it doesn’t concern me.”
I had someone who said a friend of hers had written to her saying that she had an issue with white people marching with Black Lives Matter. So she said, “What do you think about it?” You know what, we’re all human. If they care, that’s all that matters. And it’s going to take white people to help change this. But it shouldn’t matter. We’re human. We should be in this together. I don’t want anybody feeling bad about my experience, and you know, I had some s___ experience when I was a kid. My life sucked. When I was a kid in school, I got punched every single day, and called n_____. It was a routine. Same two bullies every day from second grade to sixth grade. But you still have to take people one at a time, and if you want to care, if you want to come and care about this particular cause, baby, I’m opening that door. You’re welcome in. Because we’re all in this. If life is not better for me, it’s not going to be better for you. Well, actually, it’ll be better for some of them. And they want to keep it that way, but we won’t talk about them.
There is a place where my partner goes. We used to go in the morning. My partner still goes. And I mean, these people, they’re good people. They just don’t get it. They think Trump is the best thing that ever happened to this country. Ed goes because he needs to hear what people are saying and what they’re thinking. I stopped going when they referred to Obama as “that monkey in the White House.” Or when Trump was elected, and they said “Finally we’ll have a good-looking First Lady.” That was when I realized I’m not welcome there anymore. I don’t feel welcome. I mean, these people, they’re nice enough to me. They say hello. And, you know, they would never consider themselves bigots. But they’re just using cloudy mirrors, I guess. People will say, “Well, you know, no more of this political correctness,” and my feeling was, “It wasn’t political correctness. It was called good manners.”
I remember, it was the Fourth of July, and we did our usual things — a speaker spoke, we told another horrible story, we said the person’s name. And while I was kneeling, I thought about this song that I loved. A song I loved all my life, but that has never made a whole lot of sense. “America the Beautiful.” It was the Fourth of July, we finished saying their name. I walked out into the middle of the road, and I turned and faced everybody, I said, “You all know this song,” and sang “America the Beautiful.” When I was done, I said to them, “I know that I will never be able to, and I don’t think my children will ever be able to, but I can only hope that if they make it to my age, my grandchildren will be able to sing that beautiful song without the same sense of irony with which I just sang it: ‘God shed his grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood from sea to shining sea.’” I don’t think so. I mean, it’s a wonderful idea, but it is potential that has been unmet. And that for me is really sad.