I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
– Countée Cullen (1903-1946), Incident
This final stanza of Incident by Countée Cullen is remarkable on its own and the culmination of an outstanding poetic story told in 12 lines. Ever since I read this work in high school, it has haunted me. I have not consistently recalled its title or author over the years, but I have never forgotten the incident itself. I thought of it when I have seen I child being hit. I thought of it when I have witnessed bullying. I thought of it when I have heard name-calling. I thought of it when I have witnessed the effects of a racist comment on the face of a friend or colleague. I thought of it when a mortuary refused to surrender my husband’s ashes to me. Of all the things that happened there…
The poem’s narrator recounts his personal experience of interpersonal racism that is startling to his eight-year-old view of the world and life. He is wide-eyed, enthusiastic, vulnerable, alive. He is confronted with insult and is traumatized by it. In an instant, he becomes vigilant; his sight narrows. He will recall this childhood excursion to Baltimore as one in which he was harassed, treated unfairly, stigmatized, and socially excluded. He will find only a limited sense of community thereafter.
The narrator’s experience and response to it resonate with many people, but not all. Some will ask when will he just get over it. After all, the incident happened long ago; so much has changed. The perspective that these people hold places the responsibility for the ongoing stress associated with the early trauma on the narrator. His stress, associated with his status as an African American in Baltimore in the first quarter of the 20th Century, now has a name: minority stress. The narrator experienced the trauma, will be vigilant to avoid similar trauma, will expect it to occur again, and over time will associate the trauma not only with the location in which it occurred, but with an aspect of who he understands himself to be as a human – his race.
Those of us who do not share a race, and some who do, will fail to see the relationship between early trauma and coping behaviors used decades later. We see isolation, attention-getting behavior, substance use, cliquishness, and confrontation as determined solely by people’s choices, their upbringing, or culture. If they fail to protect themselves from an early pregnancy or sexually transmitted infection, the failure is completely theirs. If they are gunned down in a park by police while running away, the decision to react in terror is theirs alone. They become the looting, check-kiting, late-arriving behavior to those of us who fail to see them as fully human, part of us all as humans instead of the other. Then our perception of them is used as a pretext to further marginalize and traumatize with no sense of accountability for our actions. After all, what are we expected to do?
The assignment of blame for minority stress and its related coping mechanisms to the survivors of trauma requires us to overlook ongoing experiences of interpersonal, institutional, and cultural racism. When you or I address institutional racism, we are viewed as aggressive and too – I don’t know – just too something. Picky? Relentless? Goody-two-shoes? Then, when we seek to address cultural racism, we are viewed as crazy, dangerous, or both. For example, when I have advocated for the restoration of voter rights that are unreasonably limited by voter ID laws, the reaction to me starts with disbelief and quickly moves to distrust, followed by a sense that I am dangerous.
My late husband could not drive a vehicle for years before he died. His MS symptoms made safe driving impossible. The closest motor vehicle department office was not accessible. Getting a state issued ID was a big challenge for us. Our polling station was not accessible either, but that is a different aspect of the issue. When I voiced concerns to poll workers over these problems with getting an ID, I got expressions of concern. When I did the same to our village clerk, I saw her take two steps backward. Her face reddened and she scanned the room. (For security?) In her defensive lecture to me, she added that my bringing race, age, or poverty into my argument was unnecessary; she suggested that my complaint was based on privilege. I agreed; we have made our right to vote a privilege reserved for some of us, but not the global majority, people with disabilities, or poor people.
In the US, some have used their need for power in public office to supersede justice. Many more of us watch this happen, feeling helpless and hopeless or preoccupied by the distractions of trying to hold our own in the current economy. Thus manipulated, the systematic practices of racism go unchecked, re-traumatizing millions each day, millions who can remember little else.