Racism is the bogeyman
America is not a young land: it is old and dirty and evil before the settlers, before the Indians. The evil is there waiting.
William S. Burroughs — Naked Lunch
I started having a nightmare when I was 11 – not nightmares – just a single, vivid reoccurring dream. In it, I answered the door to my parents house. A man wearing a cap raised his shotgun and blasted me in the gut. Reflexively, I reached down and could feel the hole. My innards started to spill out. The man, a guest, walked past me into the living room. I fell to the carpet clutching my ruptured abdomen.
The shooter had harassed and bullied our family relentlessly. My dad called the sheriff many times but nothing happened. Finally, the sheriff thought it would be a good idea invite him over to settle things once and for all like “civilized men.”
Four more shots pounded out. One for my little brother who was five and still sucking his thumb, another for my mom, my dad and the good ol’ sheriff. Holding myself in, I crawled under a ledge beneath the fireplace to hide. The killer walked into the room, paused, then walked closer.
“I wonder where the little nigger could be,” he said playfully as he poked the shotgun barrel under the ledge hitting my legs. “What’s this?” He poked my side. “Maybe he’s right here.” He put the gun to my head. I grabbed the barrel and started to scoot down and away. Then, boom.
My waking thought was always, “kick your legs so he’ll think you’re dead.” This was my bad dream for the next few years. Above is the short version. The long version involved stalking, threats, a burnt cross, broken windows, blocking entry to our family business and a variety of intimidation tactics by the man in the cap.
Where’d this come from?
How does an 11-year-old kid new to the States have such vivid and violent images in his head? Maybe TV? Every show had a “racism” episode – a very special episode. You know the one, where some caricature with a southern accent moves into town and won’t let his kids play with the black kids. Or the one with a stoic black father standing defensively in front of his house as the Klan stands behind a burning cross. One by one, the good white neighbors show up and join the dad in solidarity on the porch. “You’ll have to go through us if you blah, blah…”
For a medium that plays up the mundane and sensationalizes the normal, it dangerously trivializes reality. I think TV merely provided the backdrop for the long version of the dream.
Maybe the news? White supremacists were in the news on a regular basis in the ‘80s. Alan Berg, a Jewish radio talk show host was killed in his driveway by white nationalists. White supremacists were everywhere, especially in the Pacific Northwest. They envisioned a white only country called Cascadia that was comprised of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana. They had a map and everything. I saw it on 60 Minutes. Hell, the Aryan Nations plopped their headquarters in Hayden Lake, Idaho until the Southern Poverty Law Center and Morris Dees shut ’em down.
Maybe real life? Friends told me that their parents were racist. We could only play/hang-out in secret and would never have a sleepover. I saw swastikas and iron crosses painted on trucks and motorcycles, worn as pins on jackets and graffiti. There were Confederate flag t-shirts, bumper stickers, belt buckles, even little coke-mirrors at the novelty shop in the mall. Dudes wearing red suspenders and combat boots, the skinhead uniform, could be seen lopping about Olympia from time to time. White supremacists were everywhere. They were bold and felt totally fine showing their faces at public events.
Wherever it came from, it wasn’t completely unique to me. Over the years I’ve shared the dream with other people of color. Turns out they had their own nightmares. One woman told me how she was afraid to get out of bed after lights-out because she thought a Klansman was under her bed. An Asian guy dreamt he was chased by a mob of racist townsfolk. Another guy would see lynching victims swaying in the breeze outside his house. He started having this dream after seeing a picture of white families posing in front of a lynching in a history book. Racism was our bogeyman … is our bogeyman.
Dreams are weird.
All this and puberty
Not all of the dreams ended violently. They still scared me. Sometimes the man in the cap would be watching me from across the street. Other times I’d catch him walking or driving by my house or school.
I had the dream once the night before track try-outs. When Maria rebuffed my affections I went to sleep heartbroken and had the dream. I was caught cheating on homework and the two nights before my parents found out, I had the dream. It came when I experienced normal teenage stress. I’d wake up kicking my legs though when I experienced some form of racism in real life. Like the time …
- … I played bass drum in marching band competition hosted in a small hick town. A parent in the crowd pointed and shouted, “look at that little nigger with the drum!” People – parents – around him laughed as we played the Muppet Show theme and stepped through our routine. I never marched again, quitting abruptly, too ashamed to tell my band instructor why.
- … I was frustrated at a track meet, I cussed loudly as I crossed the finish line. This was common practice among the rest of the white runners. It was the one time and place it seemed acceptable for an eighth-grader to cuss. Not for me. An official grabbed me by my tank top, yanked me off the track and yelled at me. I was disqualified and threatened with suspension. White runners continued to cuss. The same official was there and did nothing.
- … the star soccer player shoulder checked me and called me a “fucking nigger” every time he saw me in the hall for an entire quarter. He didn’t whisper. His entourage would surround me. Other white students definitely heard it but went about their business. Nightmare.
I learned to live with it – the racist shit and the dream – had to. I had a few lucid dreams where I flew and could breathe under water but never when the man in the cap showed. That shit with the captain of the team? It ended only after my Samoan friends – my very big Samoan friends – saw the confrontation and threatened the soccer-jock. Faafetai tele lava, 4eva.
I did have a few good friends who made life better. It was their love and friendship that I believe helped me shake the dream by the end of high school – about the time David Duke ran for President.
It sure as shit wasn’t because “things changed.”
So why bring this up now?
Donald Trump has activated and emboldened white supremacists in the United States. The various supremacist groups aren’t just pledging support for Trump, they’re issuing press releases, have podcasts – even Facebook pages. As in the ‘80s they’re recruiting, they’re rallying, and they will grow. Donald Trump and his campaign have created the moist, dark, warm environment needed for this social e-coli to multiply. Even if he’s not elected, the damage is done.
Our report found that the campaign is producing an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color and inflaming racial and ethnic tensions in the classroom. Many students worry about being deported.
That’s the thesis statement for The Trump Effect, a study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center. It gets worse.
[…]In Oregon, a K-3 teacher says her black students are “concerned for their safety because of what they see on TV at Trump rallies.” In North Carolina, a high school teacher says she has “Latino students who carry their birth certificates and Social Security cards to school because they are afraid they will be deported.”
And worse …
Another teacher reports that a fifth-grader told a Muslim student “that he was supporting Donald Trump because he was going to kill all of the Muslims if he became president!”
And worse …
[…] In Tennessee, a kindergarten teacher says a Latino child — told by classmates that he will be deported and trapped behind a wall — asks every day, “Is the wall here yet?”
I wonder what those children dream? What is the American Dream, even? It used to be a shared ideal – an empathic bridge between diverse groups of Americans – even if false. It’s being claimed by the fringes while families of color have to give “The Talk” to their children. Just having The Talk is a lesson in inequality – be wary of the people who are supposed to be protecting you.
I haven’t had the dream in decades but I think about it more often than I’d like. Sometimes it comes randomly because your mind does shit like that. Mindfulness is amazing for dealing with those arbitrary brain-farts that squeeze out of the primitive corners of your noggin.
Other times I think about it when I’m stressed. I don’t get that dead feeling in my gut now. It’s a benchmark for me. “Is what I’m going through now worse than having the dream?” Usually the answer is no.
It may seem like race/sex/gender bigotry are everywhere these days. It is, and this is a very good thing, but it isn’t new or different. It’s good because now we’re hearing about it and talking about it. We can’t dismiss videos of cops abusing their authority, politicians making less-than-veiled racial statements and blackface-themed frat parties. There’s also Black Lives Matter, the white reaction to Beyoncé and how the political rhetoric of the Right mimics racial bigotry. But let’s not fool ourselves. It’s not new. It has always been there.
With all that’s going on, I think about the dream where I get shot in the stomach and hold my slippery guts as the man in the cap kills my family, the law and my future … a lot.
Dreams are weird.