Coast Chronicles: 
The not-yet-United States

Dorothy Counts makes her way through a witheringly insulting crowd on her first day of (desegregated) school in 1957 in Charlotte, North Carolina.

This is a quote attributed to James Baldwin, gay, Black, American writer and thinker (1924-1987: ) who grew up poor in Harlem and decamped to France in 1950 because he knew he needed to get out of a toxic racial environment in the US. He wrote essays, novels, poetry and plays, eventually settling in Saint-Paul-de-Vence in the south of France where he was visited by friends Harry Belafonte, Nina Simone, Miles Davis, Josephine Baker and others.

“Jimmy,” knew a thing or two about the “not-yet-united States” not only from his own family’s racial struggles but also his own. Being Black and gay was two strikes against a bright guy with too few options. He reportedly said, “I knew I was black, of course, but I also knew I was smart. I didn’t know how I would use my mind, or even if I could, but that was the only thing I had to use.”

When the desegregation movement started in the South, Baldwin saw a photo of a young Black girl walking to school in the midst of a spiteful and humiliating mob. (Dorothy Counts, one of four black students selected to desegregate the school in Charlotte, North Carolina in September 1957, was cursed, spat on, and ruthlessly ridiculed.) Baldwin decided to return to the US to get a first-hand view of the situation.

He was nervous about the trip, but when he arrived — first in Charlotte, North Carolina — he began interviewing people. (The result was several essays, one “Nobody Knows My Name” for the Partisan Review, as well as a series in the New Yorker.)

The fissures of racial inequality run deep in the still-not-united States, so perhaps Jimmy would not be surprised that there is an ever-widening racial divide in our country. What might be shocking to him, though, is that the neo-Nazi demonstration in Charlottesville, VA was even more explicit and violent than some of those of the ‘60s; that the tone of the malevolent fervor — the torches, the chanting — was so blatantly and openly racist; and that the president of the not-yet-united States was unwilling to call out the horror of it. Even worse, that he seemed to condone the behavior.

We are experiencing our own version of racism on the Peninsula right now. Sydney Stevens has been writing a brave series of stories that put a human face on the numbers of our Hispanic neighbors who’ve been rounded up in unwanted ICE raids. I know that many feel if our immigration policies have not been followed then “off with their heads;” even though many studies show that hard working immigrants contribute economically to the well-being of our nation. And not only that, but the jobs most immigrants are willing to fill are not jobs that Americans have an interest in: they are primarily low-wage manual labor — restaurant work behind the scenes; agricultural jobs harvesting or processing crops, whether produce from the land or sea; ad hoc construction work.

The US has policies in place for deporting immigrants who have been involved in criminal activity; and I agree that enforcing deportation may be the correct action in these cases. But for minor misdemeanors like a traffic ticket, or a late car registration, or simply being in the country illegally — no! We must find a way to keep our Dreamers and our Hispanics families here.

Think about it. Are we really willing to support the free-speech rights of torch carrying neo-Nazis in the streets; and yet hustle off families with kids in school and hard-working parents? Somewhere along the way we’ve gotten our priorities skewed. We’ve lost sight of what America represents in the world — or what it has represented since our hard-won fight for independence.

My fear is that now that we are the laughing stock internationally — with a president who makes up the names of countries [Nambia], lies daily, is in a nuclear pissing-match with Kim Jong Un, and tosses paper towels in an insipid and insulting media-op — we may never be able to regain the respect we think we deserve. In health care, in educational performance, in environmental protections, in general happiness and well-being, our nation has fallen dramatically behind in comparison with other nations. We are no longer “the leader of the free world;” that mantel has passed to Merkel and others in the EU.

The mass shooting in Las Vegas has shown us once again how inept our leaders are at keeping us safe. There is a mass shooting — defined as four or more people shot in one incident, not including the shooter — every nine out of 10 days in the U.S. ( As the Guardian news site relates, “The attack at a country music festival in Las Vegas that left at least 58 people dead is the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history — but there were six other mass shootings in America this past week alone.” We are so blasé about it now that most shootings don’t even make the news. (Nine killed in Plano, Texas on Sept. 10; Four killed in Saint Louis, MO and four killed in Whitakers, NC both in August; four killed in Madison, ME in July; five killed in Madera, NM in June, etc., etc., etc. Take a look: )

Meanwhile, the sycophantic GOP bows to the NRA and “thoughts and prayers” or in Trump’s case, “warmest condolences” are all they can muster. Though this recent shooting was so obviously egregious that now even the NRA is considering supporting some regulation on “bump stock” devices.

To fight the doldrums of these horrific days, there are occasional bright spots on the calendar. One is coming up Oct. 20, 7-9 p.m., at the Chautauqua Lodge, in Long Beach. The DoGoodnics is sponsoring a Celebration of Hispanic Culture and Fund Raiser that will feature speakers Fernando Rodriguez (Lower Columbia Hispanic Council), Erin Glenn (Spanish teacher, Ocean Beach School District), Ann Reeves (ACLU), and journalist Sydney Stevens. Several items will be auctioned off and attendees are encouraged to wear Mexican colors — red, green, and white — and to share comments, suggestions, and cash donations.

As one of the organizers, Robert Brake, says, “So far I’ve received two B&B one-night-stay gift certificates (Adrift, Shelburne) for auction and we’re hoping to receive several others before the event. We can’t sit by while 30 or more Peninsula Hispanic families are split asunder, undergoing anguish and severe financial hardship. Es simplemente lo correcto. It’s simply the right thing to do.” Help out if you can.

And if you have other ideas about how we can be “United” to weather these turbulent times, please let me know.

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