My Identity Can Get Me Killed


I was munching my Grape Nuts this morning and scrolling through some of my favorite Sunday news web sites, and I happened upon this essay by Denise Oliver Velez. I was drawn to it because the photo of her great grandmother Amelia Weaver Roberts sitting in front of a portrait of her late husband and surrounded by her grown children reminded me of a dozen similar photographs I have on a shelf in the next room, of my grandfathers and their immigrant families posing solemnly in front of their homes in their Sunday best. The striking difference, of course, once I read the article by Ms. Velez, is that her great grandmother had been born a slave.

This is a brief, gripping re-telling of Ms. Velez’ family history and the struggles to not only simply stay safe as they went about their daily lives, but to become educated, buy homes, establish themselves in communities,  and do all the things my immigrant German-Irish family did to get me where I am today. In the face of the virulent racism and daily threats of violence her family faced every step of the way, her family’s achievements seem absolutely heroic.

I have three brothers and a sister, and when we get together and reminisce about our parents and grandparents and the struggles they faced making a life for their children, the fog of memory often gilds their struggles with a sheen of nobility in the face of harsh conditions on the family farm, or the perils and uncertainties they faced trying to stay in business in small town Minnesota. There are no stories of any of my immediate ancestors having to carry a gun to protect themselves when they went to the store, or having to hunt and kill deer to feed their neighborhood in North Philadelphia during the Great Depression, or having to face down a gang of rednecks intent on killing them, or being beaten nearly to death while on leave from the military, or having their home burnt down because of the color of their skin.

I studied the family photo above. Posed exactly like many of my family photos. Proud, good-looking, well-dressed people. With lives and struggles and stories that my ancestors could never have imagined in their worst nightmares.

Give this a read, it will make you feel good that families like the Velez’ are now your neighbors and friends. They have fought hard and long for generations for dignity, equality, the rights you and I take for granted every day. And the fight continues. She concludes the essay with this, appropriate and important words in light of the recent ascendance to the Presidency of a man who has been and is an outspoken racist:

As long as my identity can get me (and mine) killed in this country, I will continue to fight those of you who want to change course while donning blinders, refusing to see what has just happened. The white supremacist right has to be fought by all of us. We must call it out, and refusing to look away from the stark reality that some of you have only recognized recently (and others of you are still denying) won’t make it go away.

It’s real. I’ll be damned if I will give up. There are more of us in the rainbow than there are of them, even though they’ve stacked the deck.

If my great grand mother Milly could survive enslavement and fight for her dreams— so can I. I don’t give a damn if I live to see the end of the journey, but I’ll be damned if a bunch of bigots are gonna make me turn back.

Moving forward together is stronger than all the forces of the haters.

Which side are you on?

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