Huey P. Newton died the week in August 1989 when I moved here from Washington, D.C. to attend journalism graduate school at UC Berkeley. I knew little about the Black Panthers, but I saw the long line of mourners who turned out to pay their respects, despite the rumors I’d heard about how far his star had fallen since the 1960s.
Arriving in the Bay Area was like landing in another country. The hills I saw on a BART ride to Union City were literally golden. I hadn’t understood what D.C. friends meant when they winked and wished me luck in “Berserkly.” I saw the phrase “the personal is political” on posters and T-shirts. The only reason I came to California was because, unlike Columbia University, which gave me a loan application, UC offered me a Regents Fellowship. Some of my new classmates and acquaintances seemed to flinch when I told them I went to church. I met more white people who told me (usually within the first few minutes of meeting) that they had “marched with King” than I ever had back East, where King did most of his marching. Outside of the old Safeway on College Avenue, I saw a few white people from Uhuru House selling used furniture to raise “reparations” for African Americans. This last one made me think, “Wow. What would they make of this back home?”
Home, where I spent the first 18 years of my life and where most of my family still lives, is Danville, Virginia, a town of about 39,000 people on the North Carolina border. During the final eight days of the Civil War, the Sutherlin Mansion on Main Street was the last capital of the Confederacy, which is also one of the town’s nicknames. (Another is “the buckle on the tobacco belt” because it used to be the site for the region’s tobacco auctions.) If you know “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” my Danville is the one where Virgil Caine drove the train. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. made three speeches in Danville and John Lewis, the late U.S. Representative from Georgia, name checks Danville in his remarks during the 1963 March on Washington. In 2016 I met Rep. Lewis at a talk in San Francisco and he told me that Danville would have been another important battleground for the civil rights movement had King lived.
Although my parents lived through Jim Crow, by the time my siblings and I were growing up in the 1970s, schools and other public accommodations had been integrated for some time, Blacks were on the city council (the first of many Black mayors was elected in 1980) and there was a sizeable home-owning Black middle class. At that time, with the exception of a dozen or so Filipino families, Danville was a Black and white town. Today, as in many places in the South, there’s a growing Mexican immigrant community.
I seldom saw a Confederate flag when I was growing up (those sprouted after I’d left for college). At George Washington High School, we learned about the Civil War in terms of battles and “states’ rights,” with scant mention of slavery. American history seemed to end with V-E Day. I’m not sure how I learned about the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins, but I didn’t learn about them in school. As a 5-year-old, I had been too young to know what it meant when my grandmother took me downtown on the city bus to shop and have lunch at the Woolworth’s counter in Danville. I just knew we were having a good time.
I would like to see vaccination rates rise in Danville, but I am proud that for at least the last four election cycles, the “River City” has been one of two tiny blue postage stamps in the sea of Southside red. (The other blue spot is Martinsville, the hometown of “Slave Play” author Jeremy O. Harris.)
For a long time after I moved out here, I often met young Californians of various racial backgrounds who were quick to ask me, “Was it racist?” when I told them I was from the South. “Not especially,” was my usual reply. I know they were imagining Klan robes and burning crosses, but most of the racism I have endured has been on the order of a low-level erosion of one’s spirit, like what Maya Angelou called being “pecked to death by ducks.”
Here’s the thing: I’ve experienced more day-to-day racism in the Bay Area, a region that likes to style itself as a haven for progressive diversity and harmony, than I ever did growing up in the last capital of the Confederacy. I used to think that’s because I’ve lived here nearly twice as long as I lived there, but I’ve come to believe that the real reason is more cultural than temporal.
Slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, segregation, the civil rights movement — whether through memory or history, in Danville people on both sides knew what white supremacy looked and sounded like. If someone was acting “rebbish,” what old folks called racist, both parties understood that this was intentional. Regardless of how people might talk about you in private, if they wanted to hurt you in public, they owned it.
But as a new student at Cal, I found a lot of folks doing what we now call “saying the quiet part out loud.” When I was the first person in my class to land a paid summer internship, a white classmate declared, “The Blacks are getting all of the jobs.” She had nothing to say when I replied that I was the only “Black” in our class and she didn’t have the high quality clips and references I had. In a radio class, a different white classmate blithely suggested that I “Black it up” in my delivery because I didn’t “sound Black” to her. (Our professor, who had been one of the first Black reporters at NPR, scorched her ears for that.) A couple of other white classmates proposed doing a story on “things white people like, like riding horses on the beach.” This was Berkeley in 1990.
I could go on — and in my life this has gone on — but I’m nearing the end of my word count. My point is that none of these people thought there was anything wrong about saying these things to my face. Later, living and working in San Francisco, I spent a lot of time arguing with white liberals over what Black people thought and experienced. I won’t claim to speak for all Black people, but I wish I had asked them then what I would ask them now, “How long have you been Black?”
The gauzy fantasy that we are so much better here in the Bay Area because of our diversity, because we are too focused on the future to get hung up on this region’s ugly past, because we’re so much cooler than everywhere else — lets white liberals pretend that the taint of racism can’t reach them here in this shining city on a bunch of hills. No white Southerner has ever told me that they know Black people better than I do, but in San Francisco, from the movie theater to the farmers market, I meet white people eager to expound upon their expertise in all things Black. King could have been talking about here and now when he wrote, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.”
I know many people of color — not just Black people — who agree it can be really hard for white liberals to accept that when it comes to racism, they don’t already know it all and they aren’t always on the side of the angels. Maybe we’d all be better off knowing more about this region’s history, from the Ohlone people whose land we stand on, through the Chinese Exclusion Acts, the near-Jim Crow conditions the Kaiser and Moore shipyards maintained among recruited Black and white workers from the South, to the displacement of Filipinos from South of Market and Blacks from the Fillmore and Latinos from the Mission … well, it’s a lot. After all, this is a big, diverse place.
Teresa Moore’s columns appear bimonthly in The Examiner.