The Akron We Know

Backstory:

The day after the 2016 Presidential election, I wasn’t so much angry and dismayed as I was still drunk, coming to from an upright position on my couch where I’d watched Donald Trump make his victory speech before apparently passing out. After double-checking Facebook and Twitter to see whether anything I’d written in my stupor would require an apology, I crawled into bed and slept soundly for another 45 minutes before Maddy, my five-year-old daughter tried to wake me. I didn’t budge. Instead, I listened in as my wife Heather explained to Maddy that Hillary Clinton wouldn’t become the next President of the United States.

“But why?!” Maddy shouted.

Which is when Heather explained the reasoning for and functioning of the Electoral College. Nope. Sorry. Our kid hugged her mommy and cried.

A couple hours later, a friend texted. Could we get together for lunch? We. Multiples of us. Lots of us. She wanted friends. So we met at the Mustard Seed Cafe. They moved us to a private room because the group was too numerous for seating in regular dining area. Looking around at this randomly assembled ensemble of some of Akron’s most active and engaged folks, I again grew deeply grateful for landing in Akron, Ohio three years ago, a sentiment that springs up frequently. These folks have become family. This is my home.

Recognizing how much better these people have already made my life, I joked that I want to Make America Akron Again. I still do, though I’m sure there’s a better way to word that. Parallel to this gratitude, I began to understand that our little magazine, The Devil Strip, can and should do more to embrace and support this community’s incredible diversity, and help it grow.

I’m from a place steeped in the rhetoric and history of division, which is why I believe it’s our past, not our future. My evidence is our present and Exhibit A is in this current issue of the magazine.

We scrapped or shifted most of our existing plans for the final issue of 2016 to accommodate this new (or renewed) perspective. We ended up with almost three dozen previously unplanned profiles on some of the people who make Akron so damn unique. This is a preview of the way The Devil Strip will go about our commitment to Akron, practicing what we call “narrative placemaking” in the belief that the best predictor of what we’ll become together is to examine who we are now.

My Pub Notes for the December issue:

A couple summers after my folks divorced, Mom got enough money together to get the three of us kids a membership to the neighborhood pool so we’d have somewhere to go while she worked. Half the thrill was the half-mile walk down our street. The other half, for me, was discovering Lance’s White Cheddar Popcorn. Even with the sweltering middle Georgia heat, I didn’t care much for swimming but I do love to snack.

That’s what I was doing at the pool when three young black dudes walked through the gate. They weren’t dressed for swimming, but that wasn’t why they were being turned away. They weren’t members. Until that moment, I hadn’t noticed that despite our neighborhood being a pretty representative mix of black and white working class households, there were no people of color at this pool. One guy offered to pay for his membership on the spot. They were still turned away but he had a smirk on his face as they left. He was proving a point.

The pool closed a few years later. I heard someone sued the owner for discrimination and he was ordered to open to everybody. He filled it in with concrete instead. As the great philosopher and theologian Howard Thurman observed, “Hatred is destructive to the hated and hater alike.”

Sometimes it’s also instructive. I was a chubby, popcorn-loving white kid absorbing someone’s hand-me-down racism, unwittingly a participant in the ongoing effort to keep whites and blacks apart. Estrangement is the aim of bigotry. The less we get to know each other, the less likely we are to see each other as human and the quicker we’ll default to thug, bitch, homo or terrorist instead of sister and brother. Disunity begets disunity.

About three miles from my neighborhood pool you’ll find a shopping center called Baconsfield Plaza. It was named for Baconsfield Park, which once belonged to US Senator Augustus Octavius Bacon. He deeded the land to the city upon his death and it became the nicest park in Macon. However, a stipulation in his will allowed his family to reclaim the land after integration was federally enforced. His heirs sold it to developers.

In his will, Bacon wrote, “I am not influenced by any unkindness of feeling or want of consideration for the Negroes, or any colored people, but I am of the opinion that in their social relations, the two races should be separate and that they should not have pleasure or recreation grounds to be used or enjoyed together and in common.”

That might be the earliest recorded use of “I’m not racist but…”

Since the election, I’ve worried with my friends who fear that the threats against people of color, women, immigrants, refugees and members of the LGBTQ community will be made against them next. Or worse, acted upon. Over the past month, I’ve learned that the overt bigotry most expect in Georgia isn’t hard to find here. Evidently, the President-Elect’s hateful rhetoric has encouraged some of our fellow Americans to behave in very un-American ways.

Richard Spencer is one of those, a white nationalist who says he views Mr. Trump’s election as progress towards the “white ethno-state” desired by the “alt-right”. Speaking to the National Policy Institute’s conference this November, Spencer said, “We recognize the central lie of American race relations. We don’t exploit other groups. We don’t gain anything from their presence. They need us, and not the other way around.”

That’s the lie of bigotry. It’s the lie of racism, misogyny and sexism, of homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia and hatred in general. We all benefit from each other’s presence. Whatever friction Spencer sees between races, I think, is actually caused by the continued efforts to keep us apart. Humans are wired to connect and cooperate. If you want to end bigotry, commit to community.

One of my heroes is Will Campbell, a Southern writer and Civil Rights activist who abandoned organized religion but not his faith. Whenever he preached to the choir, the choir got nervous. In a 1984 sermon, addressing other activists about race in America, he said, “Whether we know it or not, whether we live like it or not, we are already brothers and sisters. Not perhaps, maybe, someday, if we be good boys and girls, but already. Then our vocation becomes to be, not to do but to be what we already are… …to be what we are by our nature, reconciled to God and all his creatures, and unable to endure the indignities and injustices that are heaped upon them.”

When you connect with and care about someone else, you can’t ignore their suffering. Maybe this explains why I maintain greater faith in potlucks and parties than politics. It’s why I started The Devil Strip and why we share stories about the Akron we know.

That’s what I hope you find in this issue: the Akron we know. Inside, there about three dozen of the coolest, most interesting people we know. Some are women. Some are people of color. Some are members of the LGBTQ community. Some come from other countries. Some are our editors and contributors. All of them are Akronites. All are proof that we’re stronger together.

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