“The only difference between now and the 1960s is that the photos are in color”

They want to honor dark figures in our nation’s history—figures who, had they won, would have made me and my boys slaves today.
They want to honor dark figures in our nation’s history—figures who, had they won, would have made me and my boys slaves today.
Image: Alejandro Alvarez/Reuters
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This story is part of a series called Craigslist Confessional. Writer Helena Bala has been meeting people via Craigslist and documenting their stories for over two years. Each story is written as it was told to her. Bala says that by listening to their stories, she hopes to bear witness to her subjects’ lives, providing them with an outlet, a judgment-free ear, and a sense of catharsis. By sharing them, she hopes to facilitate acceptance and understanding of issues that are seldom publicly discussed, at the risk of fear, stigma, and ostracism. Read more here. Names  have been changed to protect her subjects’ anonymity.

David, late 50s

I grew up on an island off the coast of South Carolina at the tail end of the Civil Rights era. My grandfather was Esau Jenkins, a prominent figure in the Civil Rights movement. He was a lovely and incredibly intelligent man, even though he only had a fourth grade education. He kept all of his children and grandchildren close; we lived in an all-black community. All of us kids learned from an early age to use family as a support network because we didn’t have that in society. Due to my grandfather’s work, we sometimes weren’t received well by our own, and definitely not by the white community, either. The white families lived separately from us and our engagements were extremely limited. Jim Crow, de facto, was alive and well. Is alive and well, to some extent.

I remember as a kid we used to switch cars every day, and I thought that was really cool. I found out later that we did that to set decoys for the KKK, because they were after my grandpa. I remember hearing, too, that within a week after he took part in the Bus Boycott, all of my grandfather’s children lost their jobs. So everyone had to look for employment outside of Charleston. But that generation did this work without accolades or fanfare; they educated people. They challenged the establishment. They understood that it wasn’t enough to want fair; you had to get out there and make it fair.

Now that I’m a father myself, I’ve become very wary of authority’s response to us as black men — about the rhetoric used to feed the cancer that is racism. I can’t help the anger I feel about the things that I’ve witnessed over a lifetime. But I’ve never presented it as being angry; part of the reason is that the archetypal angry black man is scary to people; they’re taught to fear him. Another big part is that anger, however justified, is also counterproductive.

I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, and he said to me, “we’ve got to stop responding like we’re victims.” And I understand that, but we can’t deny or forget the period of time during which we were victimized. I can trace back my lineage directly to slavery. My last name isn’t African—the family that owned us gave it to us. I mean, think about that: it goes back to Genesis—naming things gives you ownership over them. My family was owned.

I raised my three sons on my own, and when they were growing up, I feared so much passing on that chip on the shoulder to them. Is it etched in our DNA, our past? Or is it taught to us over and over again, socialized when we’re children? I was so protective of them, but I also knew that there were things I could not control. As a single parent, though, I’ve always felt that I had to keep them at hand’s reach. So maybe I was overprotective. Maybe I made the world seem kinder than it is.

I’ve always believed that if I raise my kids right, if I educate them, if I open up the world to them—well, then, that’s the biggest and best thing I can do. That’s the only thing I can control. My investment was in my children and in the generations to come—in posterity. I taught them to worry about their own actions and make sure they were on the straight and narrow, regardless of what happened around them. But I feel like we’re traveling back in time when it comes to race relations, so I don’t know if that was good advice. The only difference between now and the 1960s is that the photos are in color.

I remember the Charleston church shooting back in 2015, when Dylann Roof killed nine people in cold blood in hopes of igniting a race war. That happened in my back yard. Now there’s a car driving through a crowd of good people in Charlottesville—people who are protesting against the KKK, against white supremacists who want to legitimize hatred and honor dark figures in our nation’s history — figures who, had they won, would have made me and my boys slaves today. What is next?

I can’t help but think what would have happened had it been a black man who died under that car in Charlottesville. Is one life worth more than another to the media? It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but precedent tells me they would have investigated him first, before reporting on the story. They would have asked: does he have a record? They would have made him a victim twice. I’ve always thought that people want to sing our blues, but they don’t want to live our blues.

And our president, instead of condemning racism unilaterally, gets on the bully pulpit and tells us that we need to preserve history and culture—that taking down pieces of history selectively is a slippery slope, and soon the likes of Washington and Jefferson will go down, too. But I have trouble seeing that: I have trouble seeing how bringing down statues that were put up during the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras as a protest to black emancipation is a regressive thing for us, as a country. Shame is what’s missing from our society. Shame. I’m not worried about the men with swastika tattoos or the skinheads; I’m worried about the man walking down the street who won’t look me in the eye anymore because our president has legitimized his hatred.

Repression, cruelty, anger, and injustice—these things just breed more of the same unless there’s a hard stop. I’m worried about my children and grandchildren; they’re being robbed. Their biggest loss is opportunity.