I knew it wasn’t cool to, in my texting conversation with my friend Marco, to right after I asked him if he saw Birth Of A Nation the night before, ask if he wanted to meet me in line outside the new gourmet donut shop in our neighborhood. From slave rebellion film to over-priced trendy sweets in one text bubble to the next?
Our neighborhood, Fox Point, in Providence, RI, was a historically diverse one for over a hundred years–one of the first and largest Cape Verdean communities in New England, with people from those islands coming here to live and work in the whaling and shipping industries off of India Point Park, and in nearby New Bedford, Massachusetts. I learned much about that richness of history and heritage during the I WAS THERE oral history arts integration program a friend and I founded at our daughters’ former elementary school in Fox Point. Gentrification has forced the majority of Cape Verdean and other ethnic communities out of Fox Point, and as a white person now living here, my presence is a result of that process.
I remember Marco, a Black Studies scholar and community activist, saying some months ago that he’d like to create a reverse gentrification process, whereby Fox Point would be filled once again with the people who used to live, work, and play here. I also remember and let this statement of Marco’s run through my mind constantly as I awaken ever deeper to the facts of how white people have what they have, and Black people have been kept from affluence-building, and all that that brings to one’s life in terms of wealth, education, and career opportunities: It all comes down to property…who owns the property.
The texts continued as I stood in the 1/2 a block-long donut line.
Marco: Who owns the donut shop? Who owns the property? Do they have any Black people working there? And, I just saw Birth Of A Nation last night..How am I going to be willing to stand in line for a donut, and not be willing to stand in line with my people?
Me: I know…
And, as the following slipped out of my mouth, I couldn’t believe I said it..these words that when I hear them on other white people’s lips, I know they’re being lame..
Me: It’s a new, small, family-owned business..I think just one woman owns it, and she barely has any employees..
Marco: That’s what white people always say..”it’s a family-owned business…”
Me: I know. Christopher Johnson says he won’t go to places that don’t have any black people working there. He won’t go to Seven Stars Bakery..
Marco then called me on the phone. while I still stood, inching ever so slowly along, with the cramped line of mostly white young families and college-aged kids patiently waiting for their pumpkin chai donuts.
Marco: I’m re-reading Satter’s book, Family Properties..again, it’s all about who owns the property..and why is it it takes a white person to write a book about this for people to take note?
Family Properties is a book we read in a social justice book club we’re a part of. In the book, which is part family history and part urban history, it tells how the “promised land” for thousands of Southern blacks, postwar Chicago, quickly became the most segregated city in the North, the site of the nation’s worst ghettos and the target of Martin Luther King Jr.’s first campaign beyond the South. Satter identifies the true causes of the city’s black slums and the ruin of urban neighborhoods throughout the country: not, as some have argued, black pathology, the culture of poverty, or white flight, but a widespread and institutionalized system of legal and financial exploitation. (Amazon Book Description)
Me: I know..and remember we were talking about how someone I, and I think you do too, know, Mark Santow, was helping to facilitate a Community Safety Act (regarding policing policies) dialogue here on the East Side last week. Well, he said, that after that event, the mayor jumped right on it, with a meeting about it the next day..I think it’s disgusting that here we are, fifty years later, and it still takes white people on the wealthier side of town for people to listen…
Marco: Yeah..what would your boyfriend Shaun King think about this? (Marco has been teasing me that activist Shaun King is my boyfriend whenever I share one of his posts on-line) And, how’s the donut line? Are you going to bring me one?
Me: So, what, you won’t come down and get one, but it’s okay to eat donuts made from white hands?…and, the only King I care about is MLK..
Marco: ..well, what are we going to do about this? ..and, FYI, yes, I will eat the donuts, but I will not let my proud Black ass stand in line for them..
Me: Okay, I’ll see if I can get you one..they have a six donut limit per person..and, I know..we have to break down the systems..
Marco: How are we going to do this? Are white people going to be willing to do this?
Me: White people need to do this. I feel like they’re too afraid to give up their privilege…what they have..and I can’t keep saying “they.” I’m white, so I am part of the “they.”
Marco: So, what are we going to do? Black people are the most patient people..we’ve been so patient…
Me: I don’t know…I don’t know how to do the big stuff…
Marco: I know you’re saying this in a cute…and loving tone..but white people are the ones that have to do something..it can’t be on Black people to educate white people, and do it, or tell them what needs to be done..
Me: I know you’re right.. but I feel like I really don’t know..I don’t understand politics or bigger systems..I’ve always worked with people from marginalized communities, but I don’t understand the bigger structures and how to make big things change like the program directors and executive directors of these organizations understand..I always can only see things in a smaller, more personal way..When I’m working, it’s me and the person in front of me that I’m working with..that’s what I know how to do…
Marco: Well, are you just going to do nothing? What’s going to happen when your daughters grow up and in twenty years, we’re still dealing with the same issues, and they ask you, “well, what did you do about it, Mom..? and you say, I don’t know..nothing…I ate donuts..”
Marco and my conversations aren’t always him being so directly challenging to me personally, but I could hear the urgency in his voice today…I wanted to say but it’s not like I haven’t done anything. I wanted to tick off the checklist of things I’ve done…of how Blackness, Black history, culture, and the treatment of Black people in this country have held a central place in our household, but the words didn’t come. I didn’t want to sound like I was saying, “but wait, I have Black friends..”
Me: I know..(and I wanted to insert some buts…but in the moment realized there’s no longer room for any). I want to do more. I want to do more than just having dialogue about all of this. I know I need to do more, and I have to figure out what that is.
Marco: Okay, well I have to go for now…we’ll talk more later and figure out how to change the world..
Me: Okay, thanks for this…I’ll try and bring you a donut..
Epilogue: I’ve let Marco’s and my discussion simmer. I deeply value our conversations, and all the conversations I am able to have with people about the whys of why Black people are kept from making the same gains as other racial and ethnic groups in this country, about the continued violence against innocent Black people, about the structures of white supremacy and institutionalized racism that didn’t get broken down after the end of slavery, after the end of Jim Crow laws, after the end of the civil rights movement, and how we need to address this now, before another fifty years of injustice passes by.
I came to the conclusion that I need to step further into action. That I can’t solely rely on my conscious Black friends to guide me in this, or feel that our talks are enough. I’ve always felt more comfortable depending on, and asking others to lead and show me the way in all areas of my life, to feel like I’m not capable of figuring things out on my own. Now, I know it’s on me.
Finally, I was able to use my white privilege, a tilt of the head, and a please, can I get just one more donut, to secure one for Marco, having to dole the remaining half-dozen maximum donut purchase to my daughter and the five girls that slept over our house the night before. I didn’t get to eat one myself.