Why I love Black History Month. An Apology.

Feb. 19, 2015 Sometimes I got complaints from students at PSU who were unhappy with their grades or just wanted to see if they can take me down a few notches. One of my favorites was an annonymous complaint that I made fun of Black History Month, saying there was a sale on cottonballs at Walmart.

I know, it makes absolutely no sense. First of all, I have a better sense of humor than that. And second, I LOVE Black History Month! My joke about it is racists put it in the shortest and coldest month of the year. It should be in May. Give us 31 days, Honky!

But I got called into the “Office of Equity & Complaince” (Kafka reference here) and was interogated. It all blew over but I had to explain to the well-meaning bureaucrat in charge that my whole life has been dedicated to undoing biases like racism and sexism. It’s a feature of each of my classes. I went undercover in some of the most violent white supremacist groups in the world to learn how to do this.

Anyway, my trust in the institutions like that to be partners in that journey, instead of just “management,” died on that day. But it hasn’t taken anything away from my love of Black History Month. My favorite part of it is learning about cool things invented by African-Americans. It’s the nerd in me. One time there was this chubby skinhead chowing down on a bag of Lays Potato Chips. I told him he was a shitty Nazi because potato chips were invented by George Crum, a black guy. He looked sad.

But I wanted to tell another story today. It’s probably the best story the explains why a chose a path dedicated to anti-racism. When I was a freshman at Oxford College (a part of Emory University), winter quarter had a required thing called Oxford Studies. Everybody on campus reads the same book, goes to presentations and lectures and has a general conversation about it. Like an Ivy League Oprah’s Book Club.

DICKEYMe reading in front of Dickey Dorm.

The winter of 1982 it was Why We Can’t Wait, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s important 1964 book about the state of civil rights in America. Since it was a required book assigned to a bunch of young college kids (most from the South) who would rather be drinking hunch punch than reading another “important” book, there was a great celebration when the Oxford Studies term ended.

Someone in my dorm marked the occasion by ripping the book in half and throwing it into the urinal in the bathroom on our hall. I walked into the bathroom and saw our black janitor, who we all loved, standing in front of that urinal in tears. Here is a guy who cleaned the toilets of privileged white kids who go off to college at 18, not off to work. And here were the words of the man who wanted every child to have that chance in a dirty urinal. It was heartbreaking on a massive scale.

I tell this story because the 18-year-old kid who ripped up that book and dumped it in the john was me. It was just an impulse. Not meant to be racist. But I saw the impact that thoughtless act had on another human being and suddenly the whole thing became clear to me. I was a racist, the product of a racist culture that had the privilege of not thinking about the reality of race in America.

I became anti-racist activist in that moment, to make amends to that janitor who I never had the guts to apologize to. It’s 33 years later and I still cannot think about that moment without tears streaming down my face.

When I was a 16-year-old kid living in Stone Mountain, Georgia (the birthplace of the modern KKK), I was given an assignment in my journalism class to write an editorial. Here’s what I wrote. “If there’s a Black History Month, why can’t their be a White History Month?” If the teacher would have just said, “Randy, every month is ‘White History Month’,” I might have started on this path earlier and spared the knife I slowly pushed into our janitor’s back.

My daughter will know about race. She will know about the white privilege and the obstacles her Latino relatives and other people of color still face. Most of all she will know that these issues are very real and matter to people in the deepest ways.

Oxford83DOur janitor, on the left.

And to the janitor of Dickey Dorm at Oxford Collge in 1982, I want to say I am sorry. I will continue to make it up to you. I promise.

This book by Dr. King is available at Powell’s by clicking below. I plan on buying a new copy.

My little MLK story: Skinheads and feminists

January 19, 2015

Being from Atlanta I get to claim Martin Luther King, Jr. as my homeboy. I’ve spent a lot of time on Auburn Avenue, and not going to Ebenezer Baptist Church. The Royal Peacock Club was there, where the Supremes and James Brown performed. And the band I managed, Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ too! I was hit by a car on Auburn in front to the Sweet Auburn Rib Shack. I was on my Vespa scooter and sent flying. I ended up at Grady Hospital, now a Walking Dead location.

But before Atlanta, I was from Stone Mountain, Georgia. Our little town was mentioned by Dr. King in his famous 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech, but not because it was awesome. When I was a kid, I thought it was because it was awesome. (Stone Mountain has a giant granite mountain with a lazar show the ends with “Dixie” that I doubt MLK ever saw.) He mentioned my town because it was the birthplace of the modern Ku Klux Klan in 1915. Sad trombone.

Growing up around the Klan was the beginning of my interest in extremism and oppression. As a grad student at Emory University, I chose to go undercover in the late 1980s to study a new racist group, Nazi skinheads. My first study was a 13-month observation of a racist skinhead gang in Orlando, Florida called the O-Town Skins.

Much to my surprise, these rabid bigots were not morons, or bullies (although a few were sociopaths). They were reasonably intelligent kids who just had been given the wrong explanation for why their world was changing. (“It’s the Jews!”) The right explanation had something to do with Ronald Reagan. I would listen to them gripe about The Cosby Show and how this black family had so much more than their own.

I bonded with these guys, drank beer with them, and talked to them about their girl problems. I began to get too close to them and lose my objectivity. So, while I was home on a break from the study, I rode my scooter over to Martin’s tomb on Auburn and sat with him for a while. I wanted to reflect with the man by the cool reflecting pool and remember why I started the project. He once said, “I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.” I wanted to understand these skinheads so I could liberate them from their burden of hate. We sat together in the hot Atlanta night and I felt ready to go back into the field.

It was this study that turned me into a feminist. It became clear, as the research progressed, that the racism was just a vehicle for them to perform their masculinity. They saw black men, lesbians and feminists taking “their” white women. And Jews outsourcing “their” manufacturing jobs. And gay men threatening “their” sexual propriety. As the 80s became the 90s, they became obsessed with that “bitch” Hilary Clinton, who signified, to them, the end of the divine right of men. Hateful violence was their defense of their fragile masculinity, not far removed from the rhetoric of the conservative right. Much of this research ended up in my 2001 book with Wayne Wooden, Renegade Kids, Suburban Outlaws.

Martin Luther King’s love ethic is all around. It’s in the philosophies of bell hooks and Cornell West. It’s in the actions of youth outreach workers and gay rights advocates. And it’s in the work I’ve been doing since I interviewed that very first skinhead. Love undoes hate. If you try to understand the hater, including the misogynist, through love, you can turn them toward the light. As Dr. King told us long ago, “Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend.”

The following book was mentioned in this blog. You can buy it from Powell’s by clicking the cover image below.