I am not Trayvon Martin

Are we all Trayvon Martin? White people all over the United States have taken up that slogan, and put on hoodies for a day, in a well-meaning expression of dismay and anger and a well-intentioned show of support.

But, no, I am not Trayvon Martin. Not even close.

I am not Trayvon Martin. I am a middle-aged white man. I’ve been pulled over by the police a few times in my life for minor traffic violations — I lived for many years without incident in a place where, as an African-American friend told me several times, a black motorist was at high risk of being pulled over by the state police for “driving while black.”

I am not Trayvon Martin. Neither are my children.

My three kids could walk through the streets of that Florida neighborhood at any time, night or day, and not be followed in a car and then on foot by a wannabe cop carrying a concealed weapon. If, say their elderly grandfather lived in a gated community in Florida, and they went to visit him, and they decided to walk a few blocks to the convenience store, chances are excellent that they would not wind up shot dead on the street.

We are not Trayvon Martin, thank God, as the land of the free and the home of the brave has turned into a place where — as Bob Dylan puts it in his great song “Blind Willie McTell” — “power and greed and corruptible seed seem to be all that there is.”

From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, from Bull Connor standing in the doorway to the U.S. Supreme Court’s shameful ruling allowing states to return to the days when intimidation and and double-standards were used to keep minorities from the polls, what has changed in America?

Some things have not changed. People in this country are still measured by the color of their skin and not the content of the character. A black teenager walking down the street, day or night, runs the risk of never coming home every time he or she walks out the door — gunned down, perhaps, by a stray bullet in the streets of Chicago…gunned down, perhaps, by a gun-toting stranger in a gun-crazy land.

And some things have changed for the worse — like neglect of the poor, repression of those who pose a perceived threat to the power elite, and an awful apathy, stunning self-absorption and sad self-deception that grip the heart and soul of this nation, from sea to shining sea.

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Lost in Yonkers

Getty Square in Yonkers, New York
Getty Square in Yonkers, New York

I love my childhood home — Yonkers, N.Y., a gritty industrial city on the banks of the lower Hudson River, where I lived from age 3 through the end of my college years. I’ve still got family there.

I’ve many fond memories of the place. Every time I visit, including last week, I take time to drive through my old neighborhoods in South Yonkers: Seminary Hill, where I lived in the now-razed Mulford Gardens public housing complex; Park Hill, the old Italian neighborhood, where I went to school and where my father grew up; Nodine Hill, which had many Eastern European families when I lived there; and Getty Square, where I spent many boyhood hours at the main branch of the Yonkers Public Library and  fondly remember shopping at the three department/variety stores at the heart of that old business district, Green’s, Grant’s and Woolworth’s.

Getty Square and the neighborhoods have seen better days. There’s a lot of crime and poverty. Much of the housing is rundown and dilapidated.  It wasn’t an affluent place when I lived there years ago. And it’s less affluent now.

The ethnic and racial make-up of South Yonkers had changed, too. Both Park Hill and Nodine HIll now have populations that are mostly Latino, the latest in wave in the waves of immigrants who have come to seek a better life in America — just like my Italian grandparents when they left their impoverished and isolated village of Scerni in the province of Chieti.

Deep racial and ethnic divisions in my old city resulted several decades ago in traumatic battles in federal court over housing and school desegregation and equality. Sadly, as I was reminded again recently, those racial and ethnic divisions — and the accompanying ignorance and hatred — still remain.

A few years ago, I discovered a Facebook page called South Yonkers Photos, which featured great old photos of my old stomping grounds — now-defunct movie theaters and stores, old buses I rode so frequently, buildings now fallen victim to the wrecking ball…great stuff…I don’t know who created and runs the site, but I’ve loved visiting the page and looking at the vintage images of bygone days in a city that, in a certain sense, no longer exists.

Recently, a photo of a school play at St. Mary’s School prompted a comment from someone who remembered taking part in those school plays — including one in which some pupils were painted in blackface and performed an Al Jolson number, and then had to work home through Getty Square while still wearing that offensive makeup.

Another “friend” of the Facebook site then opined (I paraphrase) that it was a good thing that back in those days African-Americans were still referred to not as black people but as “colored.” To which she added: “LOL!”

Then,  a few days ago, the proprietor of the Facebook site posted a photo of thousands of Latino people, probably Mexican, celebrating Cinco de Mayo. The caption described the festivities as taking place in Getty Square.

The clear implication was that this was a commentary on the notion that Spanish-speaking immigrants have “taken over” or “overrun” or even “ruined” our beloved, old, used-to-be-mostly-white city of Yonkers.

I posted a comment on this thinly-veiled racism, calling it insensitive at best, bigoted at worst.

The only response: The same woman who posted the commented about “colored” people replied with a sarcastic slur written in pidgin Italian!

When I checked back a few hours later to see whether the unidentified person behind “South Yonkers Photos” on Facebook had perhaps risen to the occasion, had maybe taken a stand on the side of tolerance and against racial and ethnic hate, what did I find?

I found that I’d been “unfriended” — blocked from access to the Facebook page.

Here’s a quote for these small-minded people to ponder as they seethe and stew and angrily snipe at anyone who doesn’t look like them or speak like them or believe like them. It’s the greatest commandment, the most golden of rules: “Love one another.”

Where the cotton and the corn and the tatoes grow…

The title of this blog post is also, believe it or not, the title of the longtime official state song of the Commonwealth of Virginia. The song was written by an African-American named James Bland back in the 1800s. And the lyrics go like this:

Carry me back to old Virginny,
There’s where the cotton and the corn and tatoes grow,
There’s where the birds warble sweet in the springtime,
There’s where the old darkey’s heart am long’d to go,
There’s where I labor’d so hard for old massa,
Day after day in the field of yellow corn,
No place on earth do I love more sincerely
Than old Virginny, the state where I was born.

CHORUS:
Carry me back to old Virginny,
There’s where the cotton and the corn and tatoes grow,
There’s where the birds warble sweet in the springtime,
There’s where this old darkey’s heart am long’d to go.

Carry me back to old Virginny,
There let me live ’till I wither and decay,
Long by the old Dismal Swamp have I wander’d,
There’s where this old darkey’s life will pass away.
Massa and missis have long gone before me,
Soon we will meet on that bright and golden shore,
There we’ll be happy and free from all sorrow,
There’s where we’ll meet and we’ll never part no more.

Yes, suh, and yes, ma’am, you read that correctly. Virginia’s theme song celebrates slavery and features an “old darkey” who loves his “old massa.”

Here’s some interesting stuff. Bland was from Long Island, N.Y. He also wrote the song “Oh, Dem Golden Slippers.” And through the years there have been numerous attempts to replace the song with one that did not glamorize or romanticize slavery. When those efforts failed, others tried and failed to at least change some of the words: “dreamer’s” instead of “darkey’s,”My loved ones” or “Mamma” instead of “ol’ Massa” and “Papa” in place of “Missis.”

If I got this right, I believe the song was finally designated as Virginia’s
“state song emeritus” and replaced with something a little less, um, what’s the word I’m trying to think of….Bigoted? Narrow-minded? Cruel? Redneck? All of the above.

Regardless, I have no doubt that “Carry Me Back…” still tugs at the heartstrings of plenty of Virginians.

Here’s Eddy Arnold singing this truly terrible song of pride and prejudice:

More about Virginia in the next few days. Why? Because I was just there for two weeks, and it’s on my mind, especially because the weather forecasts of about 3 feet of snow — which prompted me to end a wonderful stay at a great writers retreat one day early — appear to have been right on target.

So, in the next few days, I’ll write about that old-time religion I encountered in west-central Virginia, my stay at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts (and a few of the amazingly talented people I met there), “hidden” rural poverty in Virginia and the South, the Blue Ridge Mountains, the “Old West,” Civil War battlefields, the Walton’s Mountain Museum and my fellow shoppers at the Super Wal-Mart store outside Lynchburg, Va., home, God help us, of Reverend Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University.