There have been few times in my life where I have felt my race (Caucasian).
The first was on that fateful day my late husband Andrew Howard called and begged me to come home. I worked for Vesta Williams, at the offices of Jackson Limousine, in South Central Los Angeles and the Rodney King verdict had just come in. I told him he was foolish, but he was adamant and so I left. I was one-quarter mile in front of Reginald Denny at the corner of Florence and Normandie that day, a white boy, in a Jeep CJ5 with platinum hair and the top down. Something told me to flee as I saw people coming out of Tom's Liquor with cases of things, surrounding and trying to overturn a police car that had arrived. I drove on the curb, got on the 110 freeway and got home to Buena Park (at the time), Calif., in Orange County.
I watched in horror over the next few days from my rooftop as South Central burned and when I finally went back to work in a limo with tinted windows (EJ Jackson thought it best) and saw the burned-out buildings, the business with spray paint that said, "Please don't burn, black kids live here... " or the remnants of my favorite lunch spot (Heintz Fish Mart where catfish and fries was $4.99)... well, I felt for the first time in a long time white. Working in R&B, working with artists like Vesta or for the R&B Report, well, one can forget because I'm colorblind, I see people not color. That day, those days, color mattered a great deal, and it was sad.
Yesterday, while watching Django Unchained in my home town of Long Beach, Calif., one of the the most diverse cities in the United States according to the 2010 Census, in a theater filled primarily with African Americans, I felt white again. And ashamed.
The movie is hard to watch. It's a good film, one of Tarentino's best, ranking with Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown as some of the most unapologetic filmmaking that teeters on brilliance. Jamie Foxx can say more with a look than most with a page of dialogue and Christoph Waltz again almost walks away with the film (as he did in Inglourious Basterds). Leonardo DiCaprio is almost too convincing as a good southern gentleman that also likes to partake in "mandingo fighting" where two slaves beat each other until one is dead. The ease that his character literally throws a runaway slave, D'Artagnan, to the dogs to be torn apart, the savagery of that scene alone, or the look of almost disgust on his face when he finds out Alexandre Dumas was black (the author of The Three Musketeers) is pitch perfect. He's just a southern boy, doing what his daddy and his daddy before him did. Great excuse.
Tarentino does not spare the savage images of slavery, he exploits them. And yes, there is comedy, actual humor (watching bigots debate white sheet hoods had the audience rolling) but the barbarism that was slavery is hard to ignore when it's 80 feet wide in front of you. Even I had to turn away.
And I felt ashamed. I know none of us own slaves. Neither did any of my French Canadian ancestors as far as I've researched, but so what. We're Americans and it's a part of our history that is bleak. Having seen Lincoln and its mastery, even that showed that the 13th Amendment to the Constitution was as much a practical matter as a civil rights issue: northern states could not compete on the free market for their products when southern states had free labor and the north had to pay for theirs. The cost of doing vusiness was the bottom line, and only three votes won the day. Three.
But slavery is still a sore spot in America because many blacks are still living in its shadow. There is no equality for minorities in the U.S., as hard as some try. The chains of bondage have given way to financial enslavement, with blacks still earning less than whites, with more black young men in jail than in college and with prejudice raising its ugly head all around. After President Obama's recent reelection thousands of tweets on Twitter used the "n-word" to describe our president. Thousands. His very birth certificate was called in to question for three years or more, implying he's an outsider, a Kenyan, not an America. His race has hurt him more than anyone could have predicted as a president and the hatred from many Americans has been, again, disgusting.
I often compare the civil rights of the LGBT community, the movement, to that of the African American. We were gassed in Germany along with the Jews and Gypsies. In America, laws were made against us, and we were put in jails or killed for simply existing. Yet, we never, ever wore neck irons, leg irons, hung by our ankles like meat with metal face masks or beaten bloody for dropping eggs or forgetting to put a fork in the right place on the table.
Since 2008 many in America have seen what it's like to be poor, which typically has been a minority issue. White people don't get welfare, use food stamps, eat the government cheese... at least that was the perception. But 2008 changed that, and suddenly the 99 percent realized we are all in this mess together.
Economic slavery still exists, in fact, in the U.S. it's institutionalized. Corporate America uses us up, tries as hard as it can to keep our rights or bargaining power limited by union busting, works us until we literally drop, may begrudgingly provide some kind of health care while retirement or pensions quickly become a thing of the past. And they under pay all but the top levels so no one can save. So they work you until you drop, and then blame you for not having the money to retire and have to rely on what they call "entitlement" programs. What an equation.
Think of it. In America it takes about $70,000 a year to be happy, content, to be able to have a home, a car, take a vacation, nothing elaborate, but a nice life. Let's say you're 30 years old and want to retire at 68. That gives you 38 years to save. Let's say you want to retire happy, at $70,000 a year, for 20 years that's $1.4 million. Let's not even talk inflation, currency instability, etc. So, over the next 38 years, or 456 months, you will need to put away approximately $3070 per month or $37,000 per year. Forty-six percent of African-American families after the recession make $37,000 a year, with 25.4 percent making under $15,000 per year. How can they save 100 percent of what they make?
As for non-black income, the median is $54,000 per year as of 2011, which means there is no way the average American being paid what corporations pay can save $37,000; most Americans will not be able to retire in any kind of comfort at all. And if it takes $70,000 a year to be happy in America, and corporations and government know it, it appears most Americans, black or otherwise, are enslaved economically.
But blacks still have it worse: Bigotry and prejudice is still there on all levels and all the strides still do not equal true acceptance or equality.
So, I squirmed in my seat knowing all this as I watched Jamie Foxx's trials, hearing the "n-word" 99 times (I truly counted using my iPhone), myself a person sitting in a theater in the most liberal state in the country and not being able to get married to whom I love (should I ever meet someone new).
And remembering it wasn't that long ago. It was Dec. 18, 1865 the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was enacted, 147 years ago. Blacks were given the right to vote in 1870 with the XV Amendment, part of reconstruction, but Jim Crow laws came into effect and the right was essentially snatched away. It wasn't until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that's right 48 years ago, that real strides at the voting booth were made; and in 2012 we saw states trying again to suppress the minority vote. And it wasn't until 1967, 45 years ago, that blacks and whites could legally marry in all states (thank you Mildred Loving and an enlightened Supreme Court). In my lifetime. No, the wounds are still very fresh. And as I sit waiting for a rather conservative court to decide the fate of my ability to marry, I can empathize.
The fact is, in America, we are good at enslaving people, literally, in chains, or in economic chains and stratification beyond belief. And for all the strides forward, being black in America is still an issue for many, still a stumbling stone or a barrier to overcome. It's getting easier as the older generations die out and the young become truly multicultural -- as America itself slowly becomes a minority majority nation.
But are the wounds too fresh to see them up on the screen in a comedy/spaghetti western filled with violent images and graphic depictions? I don't know, I'm not black. I do know, though, it entertained me at the time, but left me walking away feeling very ashamed. I wanted to apologize to every black person in the theater. I really, truly did.
What people of my color did, and continue to do in America and other parts of the world, is truly disgusting. It is the ugliest side of humanity. If anything, Django Unchained and Lincoln are mirrors that as a white America I find very hard to look into at times. I can't imagine living through the looking glass as so many have.
We have so much more in common than what separates us. If only we all could remember that. If it takes a movie to start the dialogue again, or two movies, or 100, so be it. Civil rights for all in America -- black, brown, yellow, gay, bi, straight, poor whites -- is still a goal.
Let's strive harder in 2013 to remember all are equal under the red, white and blue and that neither the green in our wallets or the color of our skin should decide how we are treated and what we can achieve. Who we are inside should.
Follow Charles Karel Bouley on Twitter: www.twitter.com/therealkarel