Dear Senator Cruz

(My friend, Cannan Hyde, wrote a letter to Senator Cruz about being “a good dad.” Do the pandemic and natural disasters offer unique opportunities for parenting? I thought the letter is worth sending to a wider audience.)

Dear Senator Cruz,

Here are some ideas for how to “be a good dad” in the middle of a pandemic and the worst winter weather crisis your state has ever had.

Start by asking your daughters what ideas THEY have about how to help others in their city who do not have heat, water or food. This will help them to learn to think critically about how to respond to those less fortunate than they during a natural disaster. It will also help them learn that even at their young ages they can be agents of change. After helping them implement their ideas, you could suggest the following:

  1. The girls are old enough to coordinate a “keep our community warm” drive. They could contact their classmates at their private school and friends at their church to go through their own homes collecting jackets, gloves and blankets to take to their church or a community shelter to help keep people warm.
  2. Help them box up up any food in your house that does not have to be cooked. Drive them to a shelter or food bank where they can deliver it.
  3. Track down places where you can get wood to be burned in fireplaces to keep people warm. Let the girls know that people are cutting up their furniture to burn in their fireplaces just to keep from freezing in their homes. They can help you load the wood in your SUV and deliver it to homes that have fireplaces but no wood. 
  4. Locate a store in your area that has 5 gallon buckets with lids. Take the girls to purchase 10 each, fill with water, then help them deliver it to folks who have none. Take snow shovels with you so you can all shovel snow for people to use to flush their toilets.
  5. Let the girls listen in on your phone calls to friends in neighboring states that DO have power to see if they can send over firewood, water and food to distribute to those in need. With the money you save from not going to the Ritz Carlton you could tell your friends you would pay for an AWD rental truck and driver to bring the much needed supplies.The girls could then help you deliver them. 
  6. Explain to your daughters that the reason your friends in neighboring states have power and you don’t is because they have reciprocal agreements with other states to share power in case of a local utility crisis. They might not realize that Texas has its own “reliable” power source which isn’t exactly reliable.
  7. Be sure your daughters understand that you represent the entire state of Texas and that you have a responsibility to all your constituents, especially in a time of crisis. Ask them what ideas they have about what you could do to help people who are suffering all over the state. They may have ideas other than flying to Cancun. Respectfully,

Repeating our History

Election Day, 1920, Orange County, FL, the county where I grew up. Black groups had been conducting voter registration drives. When Mose Norman, a Black man, tried to vote, a white mob went after him. In the next two days homes of nearly all of Ocoee’s Black families were destroyed by fire. Some estimates are that the white mob killed as many as 60 Blacks, maybe more.

My writing research into racial politics of North and South Carolina in the late 19th century has led me to two events, both related to Black men trying to vote. No doubt there were many, many more. 

Nov. 8, 1898, Phoenix, South Carolina. A white man was collecting affidavits from Black men who had not been allowed to vote. When local *Democrats ordered him to stop, he resisted and a fight broke out. The Democrats opened fire on the crowd of Black men who had gathered. Over the next few days 600-1000 white men descended on the town, burning homes, lynching four Black men, and killing an unknown number of others. No one was charged with the murders.

Nov. 10, 1898, Wilmington, NC. After the election, a mob of 2000 white supremacists, angry that a Black-white coalition had won the election, destroyed the property of Black citizens, killed perhaps as many as 300 people, and overthrew the election. For some time it was called a race riot and blamed on Black citizens of Wilmington, but now considered to have been a coup d’etat.

Wednesday’s attempted coup followed an election in which Black voters played a major role. It was not just about Trump. Insurrectionists were saying this is a white country and Black citizens’ votes shouldn’t count.

* Following Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s most southern white Democrats became Republicans.

RBG, Donald Trump. and me

You’ll be excused for thinking that Donald Trump, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and I had little in common. But last week’s news of RBG’s death and Trump’s announcement that he’ll form a 1776 Commission tasked with promoting patriotic education left me thinking about how all three of us grew up studying the same version of American history. 

I’ve long been interested in history. During third-grade trips to the library, I gravitated toward books with bright orange covers: biographies of famous Americans. Maybe because so few women were in the series, I specifically recall reading about Julia Ward Howe and Dolly Madison. Black Americans? There was George Washington Carver. 

In eighth grade I learned that the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery but over whether states could leave the Union. 

In college I took enough history classes (including student teaching) to become certified to teach high school history in the state of Virginia. My history teachers were all men, and the material we studied was mainly about war and conquest. Good American men (all of them white) led other men into battle and through their courage and superior abilities overcame the enemy. Then men (all of them white) helped the country recover from whichever war they’d fought so that they’d be ready to fight the next one. 

My current writing project has taken me to North Carolina newspapers from the 1890s. Editors supported an amendment to the state constitution imposing a poll tax and a literacy test for voters. No one was subtle about the amendment’s purpose. It was to “deprive the Negro from suffrage” and “restore to white men the rightful superiority which God gave them.” The amendment passed.

In Begin Again Eddie Gaude, refers to the lies about American history. “According to these lies, America is fundamentally good and innocent….[But] the United States has always been shadowed by practices that contradict our most cherished principles.” 

Trump says that in contrast to the New York Times Magazine’s 1619 Project his 1776 Commission will teach a more patriotic history. I fear he wants to return to stories of white men and their wars. After all, there’s nothing like conquest to make a man feel virile. The commission will probably add a sprinkle of well-behaved women and Blacks who knew their place. Omit lynchings, Black disenfranchisement, immigrants kept in detention camps, race riots, labor riots, women arrested for distributing literature on contraception. Oh, and slavery of course, except masters who were kind to their slaves.

In her youth RBG, too, studied the “old-fashioned” approach to American history. Instead of limiting her education, though, to white men’s glorious achievements, she paid attention to the history of racial and gender inequality. To the history of Black disenfranchisement and job discrimination against Blacks and women. Instead of thinking about battles won, she focused on those yet needing to be fought—not on a battlefield but in a courtroom. And in the process she made history.

John Lewis, library cards, and my confession

John Lewis, library cards, and my confession

As I mourn with the country over the death of John Lewis and my thanksgiving for his life, my thoughts keep returning to…to library cards. In Walking With the Wind and in numerous interviews, Lewis told of being denied a library card when he was sixteen because the library was “not for coloreds.” Of the many horrendous acts of racism against him, this single event seemed to stand out as one of such emotional pain that he often returned to the story.

In the summer of 1964 my husband, a seminary student participating in an interracial ministry internship, was assigned to First Baptist Church of Raleigh, NC. The black First Baptist Church, located on the opposite side of the state capitol square from the white First Baptist Church. Having grown up in the South and attended white-only segregated schools, I could count on one hand the number of real conversations I’d previously had with a black person. 

We were warmly welcomed by this large congregation, many of its members educators and leaders in Raleigh’s black community. We lived in the “colored” part of town and were the only white faces at Sunday morning worship. One of my husband’s responsibilities was working with the youth. We went bowling with the group on Saturdays and met in different homes. Most of the kids planned to attend nearby Shaw University, the second HCBU in the Southeast. One teen, Johnny, had an amazing baritone voice and hoped to study music. 

To the topic of library cards. I was a reader. I applied for a card at the Raleigh Public Library. I knew it was the white library. That’s what to this day makes me feel so guilty: I knew. But I wanted to read.

John Lewis’s story is a harsh reminder of my choice. The youth we learned to know and love that summer had high aspirations, intellect, and talent, but they only had access to Raleigh’s “colored” library, with its sparse collection. What other resources were denied these boys and girls, many of them with Lewis’s potential?

They probably have grandchildren by now. Yes, there are laws that make public places like libraries available to all, but fifty-plus years later racism still thwarts the aspirations of black youth. Meanwhile, my white-woman privileges, if unexamined, allow that obstruction to continue. An abundant supply of books, movies, and TV shows makes that scrutiny possible. But taking advantage of the offerings requires motivation and sometimes a willingness to leave my zone of comfort.

In 1964 I knew that because I was white I had access to rows and rows of shelves filled with the latest and best of published works, historical documents, and daily newspapers. I knew that church members, many of them better educated and more intelligent than I, dare not even enter that building. Yet I weekly checked out books.

 John Lewis was denied a library card. He has died, but he inspires us all, black and white, to continue his work for justice.

Who do I trust?

I am NOT a sore loser. Though deeply disappointed when George W. Bush was elected, I took a deep breath and told myself, “This isn’t the end of the world.” 

The day after the 2016 election I was despondent. I feared (and still fear) that Trump’s election may well mean—maybe not the end of the world but the end of American democracy. My fears arose from paying close attention to what he said and tweeted during the campaign. 

Now as then his own words have made it increasingly clear that he has neither knowledge of nor respect for the Constitution. His own words have demonstrated that if facts don’t suit his purposes he’ll lie. That his brand of Christianity holds no resemblance to one that emphasizes compassion, hospitality, and justice. That he has no respect for naval officers who were prisoners of war or for parents of fallen soldiers, no respect for people with disabilities. His own words of belittlement have demonstrates his disregard for the most basic rules of civility. We can tell from what he says and tweets daily that he is not a “stable genius” but a man with a limited vocabulary who is mentally unstable. His insecurities and narcissism put our democracy and our national security at risk.

Unlike Trump I hold in high regard educated and experienced journalists, particularly those at The New York Times and The Washington Post. They are carrying out their responsibility to inform the American public, to bring to light what some leaders would like to keep in the dark. 

Through the work of professional journalists we learn that the Trump administration is forbidding public servants whose salaries we pay to speak to Congressional committees. Thanks to professional journalists we learn that Trump’s efforts to prove that Russia did not interfere in our 2016 election lead him to pressure small countries for his personal benefit. We hear him speak of a witch hunt and fake news and how Mitt Romney, who spoke critically about him, should be impeached. I for one trust professional journalists more than I trust him.

A talking point used by Republicans trying to discredit the impeachment inquiry is that Democrats won’t accept that they lost. I can’t speak for all Democrats but I’m convinced that the inquiry has nothing to do with sportsmanship and everything to do with protecting our democracy.

Thank you, Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff.

White racism, my heritage

I grew up drinking from “Whites Only” water fountains and using “Whites Only” restrooms. During seventh and eighth grades I rode the city bus to and from school, oblivious of black women and men who stood in the back while I sat. I used the public library, which I’ve learned from John Lewis’s experience, probably didn’t lend books to African Americans in my community.

I grew up in Orlando before Disney, when it was a sleepy southern town. People have told me that Florida isn’t really the South. They picture retirees and the influx of northerners wanting to work in an agreeable climate.

In 1949, thirty miles west of Orlando, four young black men were hunted down by the sheriff and the KKK when a seventeen-year-old girl claimed she’d been raped. The whole black community was terrorized, the homes of many burned to the ground. The four young men became known as the Groveland Boys. Devil in the Grove: Thurgood Marshall, the Groveland Boys, and the Dawn of a New America, by Gilbert King, tell the horrifying story.

During a recent visit to the Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, AL, I walked among the hanging steel columns honoring black lives taken by lynching and violence. I found the column representing Orange County, Florida. There were 34 victims, 32 of them from one night, November 2, 1920. I went to google.

I had never heard of the Ocoee Massacre. November 2 was election day. Ocoee African Americans, denied the franchise since the turn of the century, had prepared to vote. A white mob set out in search of Mose Norman, a key organizer. By the time the day was over, whites had demolished the homes of north Ocoee’s black community. This happened about 20 miles from Orlando. From 1877-1950, I learned, “Florida ranked third in the nation, with 331 lynchings” (https://www.orlandosentinel.com/news/breaking-news/os-lynchings-report-orange-county-20150211-story.html).

The Groveland Boys, the Ocoee Massacre? Events in Florida history I’d never heard of.

On the recommendation of a friend, I’ve started reading Paul Ortiz’s Emancipation Betrayed: the Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920.

If violent racism is a determining factor in whether a state is southern, Florida certainly qualifies.

Which brings me to Black History Month. We white people get off easy by honoring MLK and Rosa Parks and the known heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. I challenge white readers to delve into books that make us uncomfortable, stories that tell the truth not only about the heroes but also about the perpetrators of racial violence. Our kin.

A writing success

RANDALL KENAN SELECTS NANCY WERKING POLING WINNER OF THE 2018 ALEX ALBRIGHT CREATIVE NONFICTION PRIZE

(31 August 2018)

Nancy Werking Poling is the winner of the 2018 Alex Albright Creative Nonfiction Prize competition for “Leander’s Lies.” Poling will receive $1000 from the North Carolina Literary Review,thanks to a generous NCLR reader’s donation that allowed this year’s honorarium to increase (from the previous award of $250). Her winning essay will be published in the North Carolina Literary Review(NCLR) in 2019.

Editor Margaret Bauer reports that submissions for the competition doubled from previous years. A total of 15 finalists out of 63 submissions were sent to this year’s final judge, Randall Kenan. Kenan is the author of several books, including the nonfiction Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century, and will be inducted into the North Carolina Literary Hall of Fame in October. Kenan selected Poling’s story for the 2018 Albright Prize, saying, “It was love at first read to me, and stands out in originality and in tone.”

After years of living in many parts of the country, Nancy Werking Poling reports that she is “now happily settled in Black Mountain, NC, an area where nature and history are honored.” Historical influences are woven into her 2017 nonfiction book, Before It was Legal: A Black–White Marriage (1945–1987). Poling is also the author of Had Eve Come First and Jonah Been a Woman (2010), a short story collection, and Out of the Pumpkin Shell (2009), a novel. She has recently completed another novel, currently titled “Wrap Me Tight in Earthen Cloak,” which is set in North Carolina and inspired by the question: During this period of environmental crisis, how do I make my voice and life count?

Dare Americans tune out?

The Rachel Maddow Show may contribute to Alzheimer’s. Her investigative discoveries right before bedtime upset my circadian rhythms, and studies point to a connection between sleep deprivation and Alzheimer’s. Mornings, when I watch “New Day” on CNN, I’m reminded that our democracy eroded even more overnight.

A lot of my friends are saying, “I’m to the point where I avoid the news. It’s too upsetting.”

I’ve also heard—this from both liberals and Trump supporters—“All the Russia stuff is too hard to keep track of.” There are all those -oviches, -akovs, and other foreign sounding names. Even the Americans—Manafort, Flynn, Gates, Papadopoulos, Pinedo, Cohen—seem indistinguishable after a while. Hearing who’s been accused, who’s pleaded guilty—so much input can overload the brain.

Meanwhile our president rants against “fake news.” At a recent Trump rally, the crowd’s profanity and obscene gestures at TV cameras had to be bleeped. I fear for our democracy’s survival when a large segment of the population believes professional journalists are not truthful.

What kind of news do Americans want? Entertaining news. Hence stories on TV networks often cover animal rescues and freak accidents. News conveyed simply, in a few sound bytes. I’m as bad as anyone when it comes to having a lazy brain. I look at a science article for non-scientists and quickly decide I don’t want to concentrate that much. Understanding complicated issues such as immigration, climate change, and world trade requires too much effort. Besides, with our traditional American optimism we want to believe that somebody will solve the problems.

We live in a time when we dare not avoid information just because it depresses us, bores us, or taxes our brain. Russian interference in the 2016 election, migrant children and parents separated at the border, the opening of Alaskan wilderness to oil producers, lifetime appointments of conservative federal judges—all of these demand our informed consideration.

Many highly trained journalists are putting the information out there if we but bother to read or watch. They write for The New York Timesand Washington Postand can be heard on PBS and CNN. And of course there’s Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. (For the sake of a good night’s sleep, my husband and I record her and watch during the day.)

The times call for vigilance. A sentry doesn’t have the luxury of averting his/her eyes. A sentry must concentrate and be hyper-aware. For Americans vigilance demands that we be well informed. We need to stay tuned in so we can turn out.

Nancy Werking Poling, of Black Mountain, is author of Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987).

Summer Camps for Immigrant Children?

Years have passed since I visited Terezin. Given the context, “visited” seems a strange word, as “the Fuhrer’s gift to the Jews” is no hospitable place. In spite of today’s clean and uncrowded buildings, there’s still the feeling of being on the set of a horror movie.

 Current images on TV remind me of that concentration camp outside Prague.

 “The ghetto of Terezin (Theresienstadt)… was created to cover up the Nazi genocide of the Jews….[T]his “model ghetto” was the site of a Red Cross inspection visit in 1944 and of a propaganda film produced by the Nazis.”

https://www.ushmm.org/research/publications/academic-publications/full-list-of-academic-publications/i-never-saw-another-butterfly-childrens-drawings-and-poems-from-terezin

Terezin was a P.R. site, meant to assure the world that the Nazis weren’t really so bad. Of the more than 150,000 Jews sent there, 15,000 were children. Fewer than 150 children survived. Among the Terezin exhibits, for me the most compelling were pictures children drew while imprisoned. Along with poems these pictures have been compiled in the book, “…I never saw another butterfly…”

For now Trump has backed down from his child-separation policy. Yet recent news about children being pulled away from their parents still troubles me. While journalists have not been allowed entry into the facilities, photos released by our government show rather pleasant accommodations: spacious well-lit rooms, beds with blankets. Older boys move about in orderly fashion. Like “summer camps” for immigrants, Laura Ingraham, of Fox News said.

Do you see why I’m reminded of Terezin?

When I was young I lived with a German family in Berlin for one year. My German father had fought for Nazi Germany under Rommel, the Desert Fox. How did people I came to love and respect become engulfed by such an abhorrent ideology, I often wondered. Based on what I’m witnessing in the U.S. today, I see how discrimination against Jews moved from hostile rhetoric to extermination. Hitler didn’t suddenly appear out of nowhere. Over time his ethos became normalized and widely accepted by Germans.

Trump’s spokespeople have used talking points for defending the incarceration of children. “Parents put their children’s lives in danger” is one. Do those speaking for the president really believe that a father and mother decide to leave relatives, their cultural and linguistic heritage, that they pack a few essential items and walk across a desert in the summer heat, all without regard for their children? Many leave because staying in their homeland means death, either by hunger or violence. They leave for the sake of their sons and daughters.

In the 1940s many Jewish parents found ways to sneak their children out of German-occupied countries. Illegal  actions. Sometimes they paid strangers to carry the children to safety. Efforts were fraught with danger. Getting caught meant death for parents, children, and abettors.

 Then and now parents have been forced to make excruciating choices.

__________________

Since writing the first part of this, I’ve been made aware of

HR4391: Promoting Human Rights by Ending Israeli Military Detention of Palestinian Children.

https://mccollum.house.gov/media/press-releases/mccollum-introduces-legislation-promote-human-rights-palestinian-children

 “No Way to Treat a Child”: https://nwttac.dci-palestine.org

 Nancy Werking Poling is author of “Before It Was Legal: a black-white marriage (1945-1987),” “Had Eve Come First and Jonah Been a Woman,” and “Out of the Pumpkin Shell.”

Encountering the migrant

A recent photo shows me standing in front of a saguaro cactus, my arms spread in imitation. Ah, southern Arizona in March, when flowers bloom and birds are passing through. For me the Sonoran Desert is a great place to hike.

The number of illegal migrants crossing our southern borders, trekking the desert I hikeincreased between February and March (the same months retirees from the North migrate to Arizona.) Trump would have us imagine those coming from the south as invaders, most of them drug dealers, criminals.

On TV this morning camera footage out of Mexico showed a large group making camp at a city playground. Children play on swing sets while women sort through piles of donated clothing, searching for items that will fit their families.

These women and children are among the Honduran asylum seekers Trump would have us fear.

For those of us who have options, it’s hard to empathize with people who don’t. Hard to comprehend the fears that drive women and men to pack a few belongings, gather their children, and make a dangerous journey across arid land by foot.

Last week, during the flight home from Tucson, I read Crossing with the Virgin: stories from the migrant trail. Though published eight years ago, the book is still relevant. Three Samaritans, humanitarian volunteers from southern Arizona, write of their experiences. They patrol desert roads and trails searching for migrants who need water, food, and/or medical care. There’s a protocol, rules about what they can and cannot do. For example, they cannot offer a ride. If border patrol personnel are at the scene, the aid workers must ask permission to offer water or food.

Aid volunteers understand migrants not as criminals but as human beings desperate to survive. Migrants leave their homes not for adventure but because home has become a perilous place or because there is no work. Danger awaits them on their journey: dehydration, hunger, bandits who steal their money.

And border patrols. Some personnel are kind, some hostile. Homeland Security buses are parked out in the desert. Even in February and March the afternoon heat on a bus can be suffocating. Once the bus is filled, it carries shackled migrants to detention, where they are locked in a 20X20-foot cell until they appear before a judge.

Reading this book has made me uncomfortable. Can I return to Arizona, hike in the desert, and return to the comfort of a rented apartment, all the while choosing to be blind to the human tragedy taking place within a few miles?

The fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination has been marked with photos. One stands out: I am a man on picket signs carried by protestors of the Memphis sanitation strike.

Empathy doesn’t come naturally to many of us. It’s easier to consider migrants as law breakers than as humanity caught in a crisis. Yet photos call out to us: I am a man; I am a woman; I am a child.