Systemic Racism - My Veteran's Perspective
On the eve of Martin Luther King Day when most of us are just happy to have a three day break from work, many of us are looking back at a man’s legacy of non-violence in the face of racism and wonder how did we end up back in 1955?
On the 16th of November, after the election, I was fixing breakfast for Chester and I. Our nights had been sleepless and our days full of NPR and cable news reporting the various reactions to the election. I had been crying on and off for days. I had been crying that morning. My veteran had been calm, reflective and resigned. I turned on my iPad recorder, something I had a habit of doing of late, to capture his words. He has great recall. I do not and I couldn’t fix breakfast and record his thoughts at the same time.
Chester had seen the outcome of the election a year before. He told me in 2008 that electing Barack Obama would hurt black folks. I, shocked at his comment, did not share it and did not believe him. However, his warning never was far from my psyche, having lived long enough with him to know he is rarely wrong when it comes to his barometer of human nature.
While Megan, our youngest daughter completed her seventh grade year in Oceanside, Chester flew to North Carolina in early March of 1999 to watch high school baseball. His nephew was an accomplished pitcher on one of the local high school teams. His father, my brother-in-law Walter, worked all day at his full -time job and some nights at his part-time job and could not always make his son's games. Some baseball-league scouts were out viewing potential talent in rural areas. My nephew had talent and potential. He also had, I discovered years later when he was in college, severe asthma. Walter had almost lost him to an asthma attack as a child. He asked Chester to go to the games in case any scout showed an interest, but my husband believed Walter wanted him there because the possibility of any onset of an asthma attack.
Walter had grown-up with Chester and his first wife Dee. The Evans children had lost their mom to breast cancer when Chester was fourteen. As a single father who worked as a sharecropper in the county, Chester’s father struggled with five children. Family members helped, but no one family could take them all. Chester, the eldest son, joined the Marines, married, and later when visiting North Carolina, Chester’s wife Dee urged him to take Walter with them back to California where they, both Marines, were stationed. Walter attended school at every duty station his brother and sister-in-law were given, and after high-school graduation, decided to return to North Carolina. He drove cross-country by himself and never looked back.
Walter had been in the Oxford area all his adult life. Most of the Evans family and extended family are in the Oxford area. In addition to Walter and Melvin who live within walking distance of one another, there are two other brothers who live in North Carolina who make their homes near-by and an older sister who moved north as a teenager and makes her home in New York state. Folks in this small, rural former tobacco town known more now for the Revlon processing plant located there, knew my brother-in-law Walter. They had heard of Chester. The Marine. Unlike his brother, Melvin, also a Marine, who served for six years, Chester had remained in the Marine Corps for twenty years. During that time, Chester and Dee were blessed with the birth of their daughter Courtney. As much as they tried to make a marriage with two military careers, a child, and a husband with unknown, suppressed PTSD symptoms work, they divorced. Dee remarried. Chester remarried and divorced again, choosing to remain on the west coast where we met one early morning in 1997.
Those early days of attending his nephew’s games were spring time afternoons when the weather in North Carolina was on it’s best behavior. Sunny without being hot, freshness in the breeze as brightly hued leaves burst from trees seemingly overnight in new growth. Greens that ranged from key lime green to dark and dense pine that filled the air with new crispness, not yet heated by summer’s high temperatures. The parents, especially the fathers of the team members would make small talk with Chester, who would climb to the top of the bleachers to provide a little separation from folks and a good view of the playing field. Some of those games my veteran went alone. Some days his brother would have a break in his work schedule and was there also.
One father’s questions centered around work. He would ask Chester every time he saw him, some variation or another of,
“Do you are a job, yet?”
“No. No, I don’t,” my veteran would answer.
One game the same father came up to Chester and told him,
“If you don’t have a job yet, I know your brother Walter could get you a job. If he can’t, I might could get you one.”
“I don’t need a job. “ Chester had said. “I am fine doing just what I am doing. I’m retired.”
I don’t know what the man thought. I don’t want to believe there was any motive in his words or his apparent interest in whether my husband worked or not. He didn’t know my husband was being treated for PTSD. He didn’t know my husband was a Marine, a decorated veteran. He didn't know my husband was "unemployable". My husband was always realistic about his diagnosis, but he was still dealing with the stigma.
“Chester, you get that job yet?” The man asked the next time he saw my husband. My husband has a rich laugh. It is deep and resounding when he is truly humored. It is sharp and biting when he is not.
“I wouldn’t work in pie factory tasting pies for $15.00 an hour.”
My husband recalls everyone around him who heard this exchange laughed with him.
It was the next game that Walter was approached by the baseball coach and told if his son didn’t behave their would be no baseball scholarship for him. Walter told the coach that he would talk to his son. When Walter told Chester, Chester took the comment literally and asked Walter what had his nephew done to warrant that comment.
“Chester it’s not my son who won’t behave, it’s you.” Walter had said.
“What the fuck are you talking about?”
“It’s not my son who won’t behave, it’s you! The coach doesn't know who you are, but he means you….and I can’t afford to send my son to college if you don’t behave.”
I sat across from him at the breakfast table, over seventeen years after the incident, his voice clotted with emotion, with remembered anger, his eyes spilling tears onto his sixty-six year old face.
“I’m still hurting about this shit. To have gone through what I have through as a man and to come home and have someone tell my baby brother, that I raised, tell ME I have to behave? And to have the power to make it happen? That is what I am talking about. That is what you need to write…”
“…I would like you to write that racism is so powerful. So powerful, that I left in the spring of 1967, came back in the spring of 1999, and nothing has changed. It hadn’t changed so much that I was told by my baby brother that I raised, that if his son, meaning me, didn’t behave, his son wouldn’t get a scholarship. I was so mad. You need to write that we both stood there at that baseball game as grown men and cried. Because that white man had the power to make me be quiet. Because if I hurt him like I wanted to, it would hurt my family.”
What I didn’t know then was that all athlete families had to sign an agreement at the beginning of baseball season that they would not yell or talk about the coach, the team members or the umpires from the stands. As a parent of a soccer player, both in a travel league and intramural, I had seen the best and worse of parent behavior on the sidelines. When my nephew was called a “porch monkey” on the field by a player of the opposite team, later that same season, no one in the family could say anything. And no coach or umpire on either side, reprimanded the kid.
“We are born into racism. Our vote, our choices, our voices are controlled. Donald Trump can say anything he wants and does. But, we need permission to have a voice."