In Memory

 

Today is Memorial Day in the United States. Banks, schools and government offices are closed. Parades have marched the streets of our cities. Families gather for a picnic or meet at the cemetery to leave flowers on the graves of loved ones.  For many, it is a day of honoring those who gave their lives for this country. For others, it’s just a day to sleep in and hang out with friends over juicy burgers and potato salad.

As a young girl in a long line of Conscientious Objectors who refused to pick up weapons in times of war, I  personally knew no one who had died in the line of duty. It was pretty much a day of picnics for me. As an adult, however, I’ve come to realize that today is not a picnic.

May 30, 1868 was the first official Memorial Day. It was originally called Decoration Day, and was set aside as a time to decorate the graves of those who had died in the war with flowers.

Three years after the end of the Civil War, we decided to decorate the graves of those who died in the war between us. The war between the North and the South. The war that threatened the collapse of an empire. The war that turned brother against brother, that was really about keeping the South in the Union and protecting an economy built on the backs of slaves than it was about freeing those slaves. This did not begin as a day to honor soldiers who died “over there” but, rather, the ones who died here.

But there is another version, an unofficial version, of how Memorial Day started. David W. Blight, a Yale historian, has found a list of commemorations initiated by freed Black Americans. The largest took place on May 1,1865, less than a month after the end of the war, when more than 10,000 of them gathered to dig up a mass grave of what had been hundreds of Union prisoners. These Black Americans dug up the bones that represented their freedom and lovingly gave them each a proper burial and built a fence around the new cemetery. Then they marched, lamented, honored, and sang with crosses, flowers, wreaths and anthems.

Later, the South hushed the voices of the Black Community and made the day about the reconciliation and sacrifices of White America, completely leaving out the voices of Black America. Mississippi,  South Carolina, and Alabama each have their own days to celebrate Confederate Memorial Day as State Holidays, in addition to the National Memorial Day.

153 years after the end of the Civil War and we are still fighting each other, still shushing the voices of Black America, still making things about us.

I’m going to fire up my grill soon and throw on the burgers. Then I’m going to sit my boys down and tell them about some pretty brave folks who dug up a mass grave, and honored the bones of those who had suffered for their freedom.

Isn’t it time we stop making everything about us?

Isn’t it time we stop telling Black America what patriotism looks like?

 

 

Shifting Realities

A few years ago, our school system went through some shuffling that felt a lot more like a life-altering quake than the gentle mixing of cards for a new round of things. The 6th grade kids joined 7th and 8th at the Middle Schools. Kids no longer had to go to the middle school closest to them, but could apply at any of the four middle schools in the city.

A year later, community-based elementary schools joined in the shuffle. Preschool through 2nd grade all went to one elementary school in a particular area, while 3-5th graders took over the nearest elementary school, which became known as a sister school.

As a parent who doesn’t like change, I complained, A LOT! I had legitimate complaints. For instance, some years I had three boys in three schools with three different schedules and it felt like I was making breakfast for an hour every morning and between the time when the last kid left for school and the first kid got home, I didn’t have that many hours to work. I also mourned the break up of communities. I loved when my kids were all in the same school, with their neighbors. I volunteered for the PTA and it gave me the chance to get to know my community. My kids walked to school and made friends within walking distance.

After spending years overseas, putting down roots and feeling connected here in our own neighborhood was valuable to me. I understand that the superintendent and the board had their reasons for this switch up in our school system, but I wasn’t feeling it.

This week I had eye-opening conversations with my 8th and 10th graders. They told me that their school friends have never had a birthday party thrown for them, at least not a party outside of a family gathering, one that they could invite their peers to. My 10th grader, for whom we had just thrown a large birthday party, said some of the kids that came had never been to a birthday party before. I’m pretty sure my mouth hung open in disbelief because he repeated it to me.

One thing you need to understand is that we when we host birthday parties, we don’t print cute invitations or blow money on decorations. We don’t rent the skating rink or the bowling alley or paint ball place. We don’t order in pizza and wings or a fancy cake. It’s a simple throw down, at home, with a home cooked meal because that is what we can afford.

When they were in elementary school, they thought it was unfair that we did not throw elaborate parties in party places like their “neighborhood” friends did.

As I had these conversations with my teens this week, I realized several things. The way we do parties hasn’t changed, which means they are going to school with a very different set of kids. Instead of being embarrassed by their homemade parties, I think they have become rather proud of them.

My 10th grader invited thirty kids to his party before I knew what was happening. In the end, about twenty came and they had a three hour round of Capture the Flag in the park, followed by Beef Curry, Vegetables, Rice, Naan, Ice Cream Desserts and Cinnamon Rolls in our home.

We had a little bonfire going in case anyone wanted to roast hot dogs but everyone opted for the curry instead. We chased the last dude out at midnight so I think it’s fair to say they had a good time.

But what really got me in the gut, a punch, leaving me breathless, struggling to speak, is the realization that these school shuffles that I complained so much about were for some, the opportunity they desperately needed. While I complained like a middle class, white, privileged housewife about different schedules and loss of the familiar, there were kids in really tough situations who suddenly had a greater choice of where they want to go to school.

For most of us white folks, this might not seem like a big deal because, let’s be honest here –  white folks have pretty much always had more choices for education. The era of slavery, followed by years of segregated schools has left many in the African American community behind.

In the years following slavery, school boards across the country routinely set aside much more money for white students than black. Black schools were often not more than one room shacks. At one point, the state of Delaware had only one black public high school. One county in South Carolina had thirty buses for white kids but none for black kids.

Even though the US Supreme Court decided on May 17, 1954 that segregated schools were unconstitutional in the Brown v. Board of Education decision, 1963 found not one black kid going to public school with white kids in the states of South Carolina, Alabama and Mississippi, according to Carol Anderson in White Rage.

In some parts of the country, when desegregation finally happened, many whites relocated to other areas where most black people could not afford to live, in an effort to keep things segregated. While this trend may be more subtle today, I still see it happening. It’s still easier for white people to move away from trouble and towards opportunity than it is for black people and other minorities.

You might say that anyone can pull themselves up by their bootstraps and choose a better life but what if your bootstraps have been cut off and taken away from you by the same hands holding you down in the dirt?

Imagine that your great-grandfather was a slave. I’m serious – picture it and feel it. Then your grandfather was denied an education and thereby forced to take a back-breaking job at minimal pay and constantly keep his head down to avoid run-ins with the KKK. Imagine that your mother was the first one in your line of ancestry to earn a high school diploma.

Imagine seeing your parents forced to sell their home because the city agreed to put a highway through your neighborhood and the resettlement money was barely enough for a run down home in a rough section of town, where the schools are underfunded and there are no grocery stores, and no gas stations or laundromats.

You are told on the news that you live in a land of equal opportunity but you see your reality is very unequal and it doesn’t matter how hard you try, you are still stuck in the same place. But your baby! Oh surely the world will be a better place by the time he goes to school.

Imagine if your baby had a choice of education, without you having to move. Imagine if he could choose a middle school that allowed him to begin earning high school credits, a middle school that would more easily transition him into a high school where he could not only earn a high school diploma, but an associates degree. Basically, imagine generations of no real choices and then being given this opportunity. I would be ecstatic!

I realize now how shallow my complaints were, how relatively easy I have always had it and how blind I have been to the realities of others. And while life would be less complicated if my kids could walk to a neighborhood school where everyone looked like them, thought like them, lived on the same income, had the same political leanings, and talked the same way,  somehow I think that would be a very impoverished life. Diversity has made our lives rich. I hope that the friendships forged during these last few years of schooling, the stories told, the realities exposed, will open my boys’ eyes to a whole new world.

 

 

Ten Reasons to Celebrate Fair Trade

Saturday, May 12, is a very special day. Thanks to WFTO (World Fair Trade Organization) the second Saturday of May is set aside to celebrate Fair Trade.

Here’s why –

Many of the things we consume and use every day are made by modern day slaves around the world. While reports vary, there are between 40 – 45 million modern day slaves. In America, we have the luxury of being far removed from the origin of just about everything we consume. This puts us, as consumers,  in a lot of ignorance and allows manufacturers and importers to excuse themselves, saying various components of the end product have changed hands so many times from origin to destination, that they cannot verify if slaves were involved or not. I’m calling that a bunch of BS. It’s the 21st Century. If we put a man on the moon in the 20th century, surely we can have clean supply chains in the 21st. Fair Trade business prove that every day.

So why do we celebrate Fair Trade?

– It prevents modern day slavery and human trafficking.

-It prevents child labor and enables parents to send their children to school, thus educating future leaders and world changers.

-It keeps families together. Children aren’t sent to work in the homes of the wealthy. Parents don’t have to leave their children with other family members to work in factories in the city.

-The producers are paid living wages and have no need to put themselves in harmful situations.

-Fair Trade certified businesses go through intense scrutiny to prove that the working conditions are safe. They have no fear of walls collapsing on them or toxic poisons that take years from them.

-It changes entire communities as producers have expendable income, which creates the opportunity for other businesses to begin in the area, thus boosting local economies.

– It is the opposite of a hand out. Fair Trade gives dignity to everyone involved.

– Supply chains are clear and there is no need to feel guilty when you know your purchase and consumption are creating a better world.

-Those who work in the Fair Trade supply line are more connected to the earth and are committed to environmental stewardship.

-It gives hope to the poorest of the poor, a reason to get up in the morning, a way to do more than survive.

 

 

Rootless

On the other side of the world, in a space roughly 7.3 square miles of what was once a forest in the hills of Bangladesh, 700,000 Rohingya refugees huddle under tarps in makeshift homes. They have lost everything once – homes, jobs, possessions, family members, dignity, country – and now, with the storm season starting and the monsoon closing in, they risk losing all again.The tree roots that once held together the clay-like soil, preventing massive landslides, are now gone, leaving the refugees rootless in more ways than one.

While Rohingya refugees have resided in Bangladesh for many years, this group has been pouring in since the ethnic cleansing began in full force by the Burmese Military last August. Among them, an uncounted number of women are quietly preparing to give birth as a result of being raped by soldiers before they fled the country. Pramila Patten, the UN’s special envoy on Sexual Violence views these rapes as a weapon of genocide, a “calculated tool of terror”. Nearly nine months since many of these women have crossed the border, aid agencies are preparing not only for a spike in births, but also for babies abandoned by traumatized mothers who simply do not have the physical nor emotional resources to care for another child.

Last week the UN Security Council sent a delegation to observe the situation first hand and it was no surprise when the report came back that the situation was “overwhelming.” The council visited Myanmar for the first time since the genocide began and traveled to the region where the Rohingya refugees had fled from. Earlier reports from the area, as well as  satellite images show that  many of the villages have been completely burned and bulldozed; homes, cemeteries, mosques, trees, landmarks, everything wiped away. Additionally the Myanmar parliament has approved a $15m budget to build a wall along the Myanmar/Bangladesh border, where the refugees crossed over into Bangladesh.

Of the 500,000 Rohingya who stayed behind in Myanmar, at least 130,000 are being held in  camps where their freedom is greatly restricted and the conditions are appalling.

A fierce anger is stirring in me today. What is wrong with humanity that we spend millions of dollars on walls instead of acknowledging atrocities and doing the real work of healing the gaping wounds? Who do we think we are that we can confine a people group to a specific, tiny piece of volatile land, keeping the best for ourselves? What gives us the right to limit the basic human rights of others –  access to food and water, health care, education including college visits, equal pay, police protection, citizenship, and a country to call our home?

I can’t find it in me to be angry at the Burmese people today. They are simply following our footsteps. From English Colonizers to the Germans in World War II to the United States of America where we continue to live on stolen land and benefit daily from an economy built on the backs of slaves. How many villages have we bulldozed, physically or metaphorically, wiping away the history of an ethnic group and rewriting it to make ourselves look better? How many ethnic conflicts around the globe have we perpetuated because our government has funded one side or the other for our own political interests? How many bodies have bled out on the sidewalks and forests of this country because of racial hate more than anything else? Why are we so afraid of people who are different from ourselves?

I see blood on the hands of the Burmese yes, but I also see it on my own people’s hands. As a citizen of this country, I have to own it. I am part of a nation that has systematically chosen which people group should be treated the best and which others should be treated as less than human. It’s written into the founding documents of our nation and has been fleshed out in courtrooms across the nation.

The silent cries of the Rohinga women wrap around my heart like tender vines, mirroring the cries of pain caused by my own nation and my heart remembers and bleeds and spends itself because only a heart that spends itself like currency is strong enough to push back against injustice.