To listen to my father tell it, he crossed the border from Windsor, Ontario into Detroit, Michigan, as a teenager in the late 1930s. He was accompanied by his father. Both were illegal immigrants looking for opportunity. They came from Sfakia, Crete.
I was born in 1955, after my father fled from Detroit to Chicago with a much younger woman he was dating -- she became my mother. He had shot a man. He needed to go somewhere safe. He claims he tried to put aside a life of crime and earn an honest living in the Windy City. He tried until he couldn’t take the grind any longer, and disappeared one day, when I was seven. It was the same year John F. Kennedy was assassinated,
I didn’t see him again for 40 years.
My America, the place in which I grew up, was raw. I went to school. I tried to stay out of trouble. When my mother couldn’t care for me, neighbors and family did. I was an habitue of Boys Clubs, a participant in the Big Brothers program, a child much in need attending church youth groups.
Along the way, I became a reader, and texts like the Declaration of Independence, the Bible, Thoreau’s Walden Pond sustained me. I recall being required to memorize the Preamble to the United States Constitution. “We the People” spoke to me; I was one of those people.
My father came here for opportunity. No one told him he enjoyed white male privilege. I did my homework and fell in love with the texts I was assigned and later “discovered,” putting them to my own use in idiosyncratic ways that defined me. There are years I mark by devotion to Saint Paul, to Dostoevsky, to Augustine, to David Hume, to Henry Miller, and decades to the Bill of Rights.
It never occurred to me in school to wonder what my relation was to the Pilgrims, or those who came to this country centuries, generations and decades before my father did, or before I was born. “We” were all part, somehow, of “the People” of whom the Constitution’s Preamble speaks. We were free, we were equal, we were in this together.
My America, at least the country I imagined I was living in, was one in which individuals earned a place in the world by their wits, with grit, such intelligence as they could muster, and dumb luck. I might have been unlucky as a child, but I believed that all of us were equal in God’s eyes, and in the eyes of the law. No one owed me anything; I owed no one anything. I am guessing my father felt the same way when he sneaked into the country.
I’m old now. My father is dead. I think he died in the country he imagined he had entered. I will die, I suspect, in a country I no longer recognize.
A few years ago, I was at a meal with a large group of folks. I heard, for the first time, a discussion of “white male privilege.” I don’t recall the ethnic/libidinal makeup of the group I was with, but, for the first time, I was placed on notice: My identity was an issue. Yes, I could contribute to any discussion, but my perspective was to be discounted because of who I was. We were no longer a people, it seemed, but a collection of identities with differing claims to recognition, validation, and, apparently, discounting depending on …
Depending on what exactly?
It took me a few years to grasp the sea change. As a white male, I am now a slave holder, the bearer of misogynistic claws, a libidinal dwarf. Equality and now meant my place was to yield, to recognize the claims of those who are “different” from me, to achieve social justice by assenting to changing social norms, roles and practices.
I wonder if my father would have taken the trouble to come here if he had known that he was to be labeled a slaveholder without slaves, the keeper of a harem he never met, an oppressor to all unlike him? I read entries in The New York Times 1619 Project, a grand re-write of American history designed to reveal the hypocrisy of a slaveholding nation proclaiming that all men are equal, and I begin to ask myself if all I have been taught is a fraud, if my father was seduced by the hypocrite’s siren song, at what price do I remain a citizen?
The dues of citizenship today seem to differ depending on your identity. To people of color is owed a historic debt. What, I wonder, am I expected to pay? There are no slaves in my past, and our struggles felt far from privileged.
I’m just not buying the identitarian project. Call me privileged and the first through that comes to mind is: what do you want? What tax shall I pay in the name of your view of distributive justice? I suffer from White Male Fatigue Syndrome – every news story that I see that says “First ‘Identity’ to …” goes unread. Don’t tell me who you are, show me what you can do. We’ve become a nation of poseurs.
I watch this week’s looting and rioting and wonder what’s become of the America I was taught to regard as home. Yes, a man was killed by the police; it appears senseless. It may well be based on race. But burning property, beating strangers, strutting the streets chanting “no justice, no peace,” seems less a plea for social justice than it does a self-indulgent form of special pleading.
More than a thousand people are killed each year by the police. Most are white. Most suffer mental illness. Living together is hard work, and we often fail to do so peacefully. But I am not viewing the death that spawned this week’s events as a sign of an epidemic of racial violence. What I know of the country’s history tells me that we are doing better than ever on race. There are no slaves, Jim Crow is dead, state and federal legislation has provided education, employment and housing opportunity’s as never before to all folks, whether here lawfully, or, like my father was, unlawfully.
Cities burn, people rage, politics roils on without a vision of the common good. I am a stranger in a strange land.
I find myself wondering whether Crete would take me back. My father came here under false pretenses. He believed in equality and opportunity. As we disintegrate into tribes, I’d prefer someplace a little smaller, someplace where I am not suspect simply because of the accident of my birth.