Monday, April 29, 2013

Got empathy?

It’s an informal, intimate moment. I've given a ride home to a young mother of two. ‘LC’ has spent (as in donated) her evening to help organize a grass-roots attempt to eliminate racial profiling by Portland Police. It’s been six years since police killed unarmed, mother-of-two Kendra James at a traffic stop. In a few months an unarmed father, Aaron Campbell, will be executed during a welfare check by police. Campbell’s mother will lose two sons that day; one to heart disease and another – despondent over his brother’s death – to a police sniper acting outside his chain of command.

Campbell’s will be the fourth police homicide of an unarmed black man or woman in the preceding several years of Portland’s long history of disparate treatment of people of color. Like the victims, LC too is a person of color. It is deep concern that has brought her away from her family to plan a campaign to get Portland City Council to change police policy.

My companion turned to me to say, “As a mother, it is so important to get this right.” LC began reflecting on the challenges of physically disciplining her boys.

It would be years before I was exposed to Dr. Joy DeGruy’s work: Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome— America's Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. I was then only superficially aware of the abject brutality that slavery invoked. Writing this today, my own family history research has revealed to me a staggering capacity for inhumane treatment of slaves. Genial stories about ‘Uncle’ Dave and ‘Aunt’ Mary have receded in importance. I've read warnings from my Christian, slave-owning antecessors. They cite the the ill effects of slaveholding to be the corruption on morals that such absolute, life-and-death domination has on character. Slave-holding kin explain that such power corrupts their neighbor's character.

“You know, they used whips on us,” says LC meekly. She is torn. She doesn't want her parenting style to be a continuation of the physical coercion that has shaped African American culture.

“But, if I don’t get this right,” she says, meaning if undisciplined children run afoul of the law, “the police will kill my boys.”

And I am stunned. I have glimpsed across the divide of my White Privilege. I am a parent, flying by the seat of my pants: at no point have I felt it necessary to contemplate that my failures in fathering bear the remotest possibility of such lethal consequences. As a parent, I care about this issue in a new way.

I informed myself. I now know that Portland over-polices LC’s neighborhood. The odds are far greater that her children will encounter law enforcement than mine. In fact, the police target LC’s children. The City of Portland’s own stop data has consistently shown racial disparities since they began collecting it in 2004: people of color are twice as likely to be stopped than whites; once stopped, they are twice as likely to be searched (an amplified effect). Yet people of color searched by Portland Police in 2010 (latest available figures) are a third less likely to have contraband.

Based on false assumptions, and society’s massive expenditures in a War on Drugs, my country now systemically hunts her children. [While white youth experience drug-related emergency room visits thee times more frequently than black youth, and whites (ages 12-17) are a third more likely to have sold drugs; and while the use of drugs has long been about par for white youth and those of darker pigmentation, black children (about 16% of that population) make up 58% of the youth cohort committed to state prison as adults.]

Even if she gets it right, and LC’s children grow up well-disciplined and productive members of society … beyond the sphere of criminal activity … they run a much higher risk of death at the hands of police than my fair-skinned children ever will.

But who cares?


Looking for images of Kendra James, as Portland memorializes the ten-year milestone of her homicide (where, as with Aaron Campbell, no one has been punished): I was directed to The Empathy Blog. In an analysis of missed empathetic opportunities during a public forum following James’ death, the author decried “re-activating histories of violence, victimhood and hatred.”

“a re-telling of the Kendra James incident that raised memories of old familiar stories of white on black violence, and evoked resonances of rape and slavery … began the collapse of the opportunity for empathy.”

I don’t know what to do with my empathy. My vicarious experience of KC’s fears led me to an intellectual identification with the debilitating effects of racism. I was spurred to take public risks and work for the passage of a Police Plan to Address Racial Profiling in 2009.

But, in this online community of well-meaning folks committed to understanding and evoking empathy, I find no appreciation for historical trauma ... a condition I'm reasonably certain resonates in the lives of people not too far removed from the author. The depiction of ‘victimhood’ is an affront to compassionate people who understand the unremitting continuum of racial injustice.

Data from the Multnomah County Health Department gives longitudinal evidence of racial disparities in health outcomes. “How can this be?” I wondered, at first disbelieving. “Doctors are among the most caring people in my community.” But it is true; for a variety of reasons, care providers demonstrate racial bias. Our brothers and sisters suffer needlessly.

I am in a dilemma. I know empathy would be a highly effective tool, to motivate those in the dominant culture to end such injustice. I am pretty sure contributors to The Empathy Blog see themselves as do most Portlanders: as just and compassionate ... progressing toward an ever more equitable future. Time and time again, however, I get the sense that well-meaning members of the dominant culture want to leap past truth and embrace reconciliation. It is difficult for them to countenance that the most fortunate among us pay to perpetuate police, courts, county health providers (not to mention schools, the housing authority, employment opportunities and training initiatives) that perpetuate racially unequal outcomes.

White people’s advantages are often invisible to them. It requires some study, and a society bent on documenting them, before disparities can be made obvious in a structured way. 

For me, a sense of moral indignation was a prerequisite to becoming sufficiently motivated to make apparent what had been invisible to me. White people who have not achieved intimacy with the victims of racism are, I fear, less likely to so engage. When those in the dominant culture dismiss as 'old' and 'familiar' fears and pain that resonate in the here and now, I suspect they are unlikely to achieve empathy that will lead to dismantling racism. This reinforcing behavior leaves most of my fellows distant and uniformed of serious, ongoing social ills. 

Seeing how pervasive it is, I struggle now with the idea that structured racism is not inadvertent. Racial disadvantages do not remain simply due to entropy. I had thought empathy would be a vital component in spurring well-meaning folks to move from denial and into remedial action ... to press against all that reinforces racism. When I find myself in a center of advocacy for empathy, however, and infer that victims or their survivors should ‘get over it,’ I find myself discouraged. Contemporary attitudes and policies both have straight line connections from America’s one-time embrace of slavery. I don’t think everyone has to untangle those lines with historical accuracy, but I join in the demands of the Coalition of Communities of Color in their well-researched Unsettling Profile:

We seek for those in the White community to end a prideful perception that Multnomah County is an enclave of progressivity. Communities of color face tremendous inequities and a significant narrowing of opportunity and advantage. This must become unacceptable for everyone.

We in the dominant culture must learn to stop waving away the hurt. We must learn to care.

2003 Memorial for Kendra James, I-5 Overpass, NE Skidmore St., Portland, OR

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Fiddling with Cato

"What about the women?" asked my wife, after being subjected to a long, drawn out depiction of ancestral exploits. Subsequently sensitive to the fact that the dominant culture - keepers of the record - leaves many persons' histories unrecorded, I find it particularly rewarding when I encounter documentation left by people of color.

Reading 'The Negro In Kentucky,' written by G. W. Jackson and published in 1940 by the Negro Educational Association Journal, I assumed I'd discovered a non-white voice declaiming the merits of my subject, Monk Estill.
"In accounts of Indian raids, slaves are reported as loyal and daring. In the battle of Little Mountain, when pioneers fought with the Wyandotte Indians in 1782, the bravery of Colonel William [Captain James - RDH] Estill's slave Monk, inspired the pioneer warriors as nothing else in the battle did. He was an expert in making gunpowder and such an interesting preacher that the whites and blacks from Shelby and surrounding counties flocked to his meetings."
I leave aside reference to loyalty, and the author's statistics demonstrating that, "The Kentucky Negro has done his bit in the wars of the nation," while America prepared to enter World War II. It's true, but historical timing seems to drive this emphasis on fighting and preaching for the Lord.

I'll also leave aside the frustrations of Ted Franklin Belue, who contributed the entry concerning Monk in the 1992 Kentucky Encyclopedia, and who wrote me that editors reported Monk being a Baptist preacher ... despite his objection as a subject matter expert, and absent any proof on the editors' part.

Jackson's article referenced one of Monk's contemporaries, and my interest was piqued:
"The first Christmas party in Kentucky would have ended in dismal failure but for the fiddling of Cato Watts, a Negro servant who had come to Louisville with one of the families in the George Rogers Clark expedition."
Interesting, the term 'servant:' Cato was a slave. It also seemed odd that - when describing African American 'contributions' to Kentucky history - Jackson would leap past the sacrifice of Twetty's slave, killed by native warriors before Boone's party ever cut their way to Boonesborough.

Nevertheless, since false (or at least unsupported) accounts abound ... of Monk in possession of musical talent ... I was keen to research Cato Watts.

From Reuben Thomas Durrett, attributed to his 1894 work, The Romance of the Origin of Louisville, I draw the version I call 'Uncle Cato,' where we are encouraged to see slaves as indolent, and gentle in their acceptance of forced subservience.
"A source of pleasure to the islanders was a fiddle in the hands of Cato Watts, a slave who belonged to Captain John Donne. Cato would play for hours in the shade of the trees while young and old joined in the Virginia Reel, the Irish Jig, and the Highland Fling. When Sunday came, however, the fiddle was silent and all joined in the singing of hymns."
Again with the emphasis on Christianity: this historian wants us to know the value the group placed on religion. It is true, that slaves worshiped with whites. Thirty-one years later, in 1809, Giles preceded by four years my 3x-gr-grandfather, Capt. Whitfield Early (1777-1865) into a Baptist congregation in Boone County, Kentucky. Giles, slave to Early, transferred his membership from a Virginia church.

Mildred J. Hill, in her History of Music in Louisville, gives an 1896 depiction of the Christmas party (on Corn Island, a crude settlement at the Falls of the Ohio, as Louisville was not yet in existence):
"This is the first mention of music of any kind in Louisville; and, as it is a story of happiness, contentment and good-fellowship, it makes a pleasant starting point for a pleasant subject."
The most recent account of 'Cato Watts - the first Slave in Louisville,' shocked me. In observation of Black History Month, 2013, examiner.com posted this account of Cato's life:

... he was hanged.

The article - calling us to mind our history - runs but two paragraphs. Basically, "Little was known about Watts ... he was hanged." No fiddle playing. No birth or death dates, but their reporting does hyperlink Cato Watts to the illustrious slave-owner George Rogers Clark.

At family history sites, presumably-white descendants of Capt. John Donne have preserved an historical record of their ancestor's demise (that makes no mention of fiddle playing). They report that "Cato claimed the death was an accident." It might seem reasonable for descendants to then declare, "Cato was charged in the murder of John Donne and hung for the offence," except that Virginia law (then in effect in what is now known as Kentucky) prevented people of color - free or not - from testifying against whites. Or testifying at all in such cases.

J. Blaine Hudson, in a 1999 paper for the august, Louisville-based Filson Club Historical Quarterly, looked further into the historical record than examiner.com or Donne descendants. In his pre-trial hearing, "The above named Cato Watts was led to the Bar, and upon Examination says that he knocked the said Donne down but that it was not with the intention to kill him."

Uniquely, Hudson combined histories of Cato's status as first black resident, his fiddle playing, and the subsequent homicide. Though 'first slave in Louisville' accounts are often linked to his execution, my assessment is that Cato Watts is best remembered for saving Christmas ... with a particularly sentimental, fictionalized 2003 account here.

In a 1976 article by Robert A. Burnett, in another issue of the Filson Club Historical Quarterly, something poignant comes to light about that festive occasion in primitive conditions on Corn Island:
"Jean Nickle, a Frenchman ... entertained the party with his fiddle, playing dances then the rage in Paris, but these were too sophisticated [described as too 'scientific' in an 1893 account] for pioneers unaccustomed to the music of a Paris salon. The evening was saved when Nickle gave the slave, Cato Watts, some strings to replace the worn ones on his fiddle and Watts enlivened the party with popular tunes of the frontier."
Folklore depicting the first celebration of the birth of Christ in Kentucky could be used to indicate that pioneers lacked sophistication. In this story line, the rough justice subsequently handed out to Cato Watts would be reinforced for its barbarism.

In a sentence following how the Frenchman Nickle yielded fiddle playing to Cato "who soon had himself and the dancers in a paroxysm of joy," Durrett's 1893 account declares Monk's contemporary was, in addition to being the first slave in what is now Louisville ... in addition to being the man who saved the first Christmas in those environs ... Cato Watts, property of John Donne, was also the first man ever hung in Louisville.
"He killed his owner as he claimed by accident, but was tried and hung for the crime. He was hanged to the limb of a large oak tree which stood on ... the public square on which the court house now stands. The hanging was in 1787, and much to the sorrow of the young people who enjoyed his music at their dances."
Monsieur Nickle graced Louisville with a dancing school in 1786. In 2012, an Electronica/Worldbeat/Jamba band was performing in Louisville under the name of Cato Watts.

Cato Watts, from Stories of Old Kentucky
by Martha C. Grassham Purcell, pg 114; c1915