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Against White Supremacy

June 17, 2011

A few weeks before Anneliese was born, I finally started reading my copy of “Race Course Against White Supremacy” by Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dorhn.  (Like so many books I buy – I got it signed by them at the 2009 Green Festival and then put it in the large “to-read” pile in my bedroom, for later.)

The book begins with the story of how the authors named their children.  As Peter and I struggled with the responsibility of finding a proper name for our unborn Fruitbat, I learned of Ayers’ and Dorhn’s deliberate effort to address a question posed by Malcolm X:

…Malcolm X famously noted that while Black people had an abundance of Washingtons and Jeffersons and Lincolns in their families, white people didn’t seem inclined to call their kids Nat Turner or Cinque or Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman.  Why?

While we had considered a few names that referenced social justice activists, our priority was to choose a name that would connect to Peter’s German heritage and my Irish background, and I’m pleased with our decision – part of challenging oppression is acknowledging our own history and the privileges and hardships therein.  But as I’ve spent hours reading through Ayers’ and Dorhn’s book while nursing Anneliese, I have found myself asking how our family can better contribute to ending racism and its invisible counterpart, white supremacy.

Today I finished reading the book and I don’t have any answers yet.  But I know that I want Anneliese to live in a better world, a more just world, and that it won’t happen without purposeful action. I appreciate the reading list included instead of a bibliography and I aim to dedicate significant portions of the 8 or so daily hours of breastfeeding to continue educating myself about the history and current realities of racism.

And we can start right here at home.  Our north Oakland neighborhood played its own role in the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, according to the anthology “Oakland’s Neighborhoods” compiled by Erika Mailman:

In 1962, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton met at Merritt College, which was then sited at Martin Luther King, Jr. Way and 58th Street…They began as the Black Panther Party for Self Defense.

55th & Market Street Stoplight58th and MLK is literally 6 blocks from our house, on the way to the Dover Street Park (our closest playground).  In the other direction, a mere block from our house, there’s a sign at the intersection of 55th & Market Streets that notes:

On August 1, 1967, this stoplight was installed as a result of a community initiative spearheaded by the Black Panther Party. (See photo of Peter and Anneliese beneath the sign.)

When I told my parents about the sign, they asked me why the Panthers wanted the stoplight there.  I don’t entirely know, but I suspect it’s because Santa Fe Elementary is on the next block and cars drive down wide, straight Market Street like it’s a freeway.  Given that the Panthers self-organized to provide free community breakfasts for schoolchildren and other services to improve the lives of Blacks in the neighborhood, it doesn’t surprise me at all.  But that’s not the story that white people hear.  Mailman’s section on the Panthers acknowledges that their goals were decent housing and employment opportunities for Black people, she concludes:

While the Party’s platform was rooted in understandable anger at the state of racial affairs in America, the controversial later actions of Party members make this a deeply complex group that is difficult to label.

I don’t have the brainpower right now to go into why this is a deeply unsatisfying way to end a paragraph-long description of the Panthers, but if nothing else I hope you join me in wondering, why the heck do the Panthers need to be labeled and what gives a white lady from Montclair the authority to do so?

I’m pretty inspired to be living in the neighborhood that gave rise to the Black Panther Party and my intention is to find ways to continue that legacy as a white ally.  I may not come up with any clear answers this summer but I certainly intend to keep asking questions.  One of which is: if you’ve read this blog post to the end, would you consider reading “Race Course Against White Supremacy” and joining me in this endeavor?


One Comment leave one →
  1. Danica permalink
    June 16, 2012 7:50 am

    I will plan to read it and am working to consistently be an active ally in Rockford. Thanks for this post

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