(Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 71)
I am thankful, once again, for Black America leading the cry for dignity and justice in our country at a time when many Americans might forget that in less than four months the wealthiest nation on earth has lost more than 100,000 lives to a health-care system built on class and therefore racial lines.
The American ideal of equality for all, and indeed an attempt at democracy anywhere, cannot survive if not for protest at the first sign of unequal justice. Black Americans have reminded us of this burden for centuries, and are rightfully angry at still having to carry such a burden into the 21st century, when instead of perpetuating racialized inequality our nation should be leading the charge towards meeting the more existential crisis of global warming and rising sea levels on the horizon.
Protests over these last few days—similarly to protests from six years ago following Eric Garner’s death at the hands of yet another white police officer in Staten Island–may remind some readers of the radical 1960s, but for this column, an earlier call beckoning the American government to honor its promise to all Americans, however preposterous the notion of governments actually honoring their oaths to their people may have sounded even then, is also instructive.
In Frederick Douglass’s first speech against slavery in the U.S. south, delivered in Nantucket Island, MA in 1841, Douglass begins his lecture by describing one of his experiences at a New Bedford church with newly Christianized white and Black residents:
…among those who experienced religion at this time was a colored girl; she was baptized in the same water as the rest; so she thought she might sit at the Lord’s table and partake of the same sacramental elements with the others…[the deacon] handed the girl the cup, and she tasted. Now it so happened that next to her sat a young [white] lady who had been converted at the same time, baptized in the same water, and put her trust in the same blessed Saviour; yet when the cup containing the precious blood which had been shed for all, came to her, she rose in disdain, and walked out of the church.
The anecdote demonstrates how the American psyche separating humans by race affected life in both “northern” and “southern” states. The New Bedford church was in “Northern” Massachusetts, and Douglass went on:
Another young lady fell into a trance. When she awoke, she declared she had been to heaven. Her friends were all anxious to know what and whom she had seen there; so she told the whole story. But there was one good old lady whose curiosity went beyond that of all the others–and she inquired of the girl that had the vision, if she saw any black folks in heaven? After some hesitation, the reply was, ‘Oh! I didn’t go into the kitchen!’
I admit that however laughable and “backwards” such attitudes may seem for life in this country circa 1841, I only have to remember walking out towards Virgil avenue or Sunset boulevard on “a regular day” in 2020 to see whites–many of whom are clearly not from Los Angeles–casually taking seats at one of the posh new restaurants in town while Black and Brown hands serve them their plates of food.
On a sunny day, Los Angeles can certainly gleam like heaven. And I can recall on my walks through the neighborhood stepping past white patrons eating well, growing large, and running up bills that most of the Black and Brown bodies around them couldn’t dream of spending on food.
Is it inherently wrong for people to eat? No, but it is ironic when only a few can eat well in a country that’s supposed to afford equal opportunity to all.
More importantly, even when many patrons like those of my anecdote haven’t been in L.A. long enough to know who their local council member is, they still quickly grow used to being served by those familiar Black and Brown bodies in the kitchen! And those Black and Brown hands cleaning up the tables after them! And those same Black and Brown bodies getting out of the way when they see them on the street! As Amy Cooper in Central Park expected.
If some of them were asked what their conception of heaven today might be, I can’t even imagine what they might say. But such realities thus show that people in Los Angeles have much to share with people protesting in cities all across the country today, in the same way that our country still bears so much resemblance to that church in New Bedford 179 years ago.
In that case, thank you Mr. Douglass, Black Lives Matter-L.A., and all purveyors of justice still calling for a better way of life in this scarred land.
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