In an interview with Terry Gross on Fresh Air, David Oyelowo made brilliant commentary on the effects of racism and the world history of slavery on the hearts and minds of us all. The podcast is completely worth tracking down and listening to at least once. While he made many comments worth quoting, the context in which he makes them is important and I cannot do justice to these here. One thread I will pull, however, is this: our history is incredibly valuable because oppression makes us forget what is true about us. The ongoing mistreatment of people of the global majority in the U.S. is reprehensible for many reasons. It serves to crush the reality of who these mistreated people are – royalty in the lands exploited by the West.
Some time ago I was describing my father to a trusted friend of mine. I told her he was the oldest of 12. He finished high school, but went right to a manual labor job though he had planned to be an accountant. He married my mother when he was 19 and she 18. My sister was born when he was 20. I was their fourth child born when he was 33. He came home from work by 4:00 PM most days and was in the bar by 5:00. If he wasn’t home by 6:30, one of us would go get him.
Those were the details. They are true, but it is equally true that he was a philosopher in the tradition of Polish and Russian people. In this country he was the butt of Pollack jokes. It is little wonder that a bar was his salon. It was a shelter from humiliation. I do not idealize or excuse my father’s excesses, but I do understand them. The move from supporting a family of fourteen to starting a family of six of his own is baffling to me. Still, my parents did it, and I am proud of them. It would be easy to list the jobs my mother had through her career. Lacking a high school diploma, she started in the garment industry as a power machine operator and retired as a branch bank manager. My father had factory jobs for most of 50 years of his work life, though he had literally dozens of heart attacks and surgeries.
But it is not these things about which I am proud of my parents. It is their commitment to our survival that I am proud.
I am proud of my other family, too – my transgender family here in Milwaukee, in Wisconsin, the U.S., and around the world. I am talking about Monie, Tae, michael, Loree, Kristina, Laura, Ethan, Marie, Maribel, Tatiana, Colin, Jay, and so many more people. As with my parents, I could easily detail their contributions to society and their hard work. But it is their commitment to our liberation that makes me proud to call them family. Their lives – lives simply and beautifully lived – in the myriad forms in which they show up in the world free us to live more authentically in community.
They have not allowed raging rivers of oppression to hold them back. They lead, coach, reform, survive, thrive, support, entertain, partner, create, and love well. Their salons are runways, corporate offices, halls of congress, book stores, coffee shops, Walmart, computer screens, youth programs, family planning agencies, classrooms, and streets. Commenting on how they could improve their swim strokes during shark attacks also baffles me.