There it was, posted on a light pole outside my house — a flier that made my heart skip a few beats.
“The KKK Wants you. The Loyal White Knights Neighborhood Watch.”
I’ve seen several of these fliers around in Atlanta intown neighborhoods. Two others were posted in front of homes I know are owned by people of colour.
I called the Southern Poverty Law Center — which tracks hate crimes — yesterday to find out whether this was a sign of Klan resurgence. The intel folks there assured me there was nothing to worry about. Turns out that the KKK is trying to capitalize on the current immigration crisis with a recruiting drive. Apparently the group has been spreading their message of hate in other states as well.
I called the two numbers listed on the flier. One call went to the Richmond, Virginia, area. The other, to North Carolina.
Both times, I got a recorded message. The first was a diatribe against immigrants that urged shoot-to-kill orders along the Mexican border. The second was a racist rant against black people. Niggers, it said, have IQs barely above mental retardation.
I have lived in the South for a majority of my life. I know well the brutal history of racism.
As a brown woman from another country, I have felt racism’s sting many a time. I’ve been called a sand nigger, a camel jockey, an injun. I’ve had readers of my stories tell me to go the hell back to the dirty, stinkin’ place I came from. They’ve called me Osama lover. Some have even sent me death threats.
But something about these fliers made me stop dead in my tracks.
I spoke with my friend, Valerie Boyd, about it last night. We talked about how — despite the hatred, bigotry and discrimination that still exists in American society — we were (fortunately) never victims as our parents were.
Val’s parents grew up in a Jim Crow South. My parents grew up under the British Empire. The movie theater near my mother’s childhood home had two drinking fountains. One was for Europeans, the other for Indians and dogs.
We talked about how the Klan burned crosses in the front yards of black people. The fliers, Val said, were the crosses of our generation.
I am by no means making any comparison here. But that’s how it felt when I first saw the “KKK” in front of my house. I felt the Klan was sending me a message: We know who you are and where you live. And we don’t want your kind here.
The Southern Poverty Law Center assured me I should not be scared by this routine canvassing attempt. But to me, there is little that is routine about what I heard on the recorded messages. They were another reminder to me of how far America still has to go.
Even with a black man in the Oval Office, even with America on the verge of transforming into a minority-majority nation, racism is alive and well.
Perhaps it will take many generations to eliminate racism. Until then, it behooves us all to talk about ugly things in the open, to make sure the brutality of the past is never repeated.
I worked for the Center for Participant Education at Florida State University and we had invited Angelou to speak on campus. I went with my friend Graciela Cuervo to fetch her at the Tallahassee airport, shook her hand and said: “Maya, I am so happy to finally meet you.”
She was a towering figure in so many ways. Even physically. She stood 6 feet tall.
She looked at me and said: “Ms. Basu, it’s Ms. Angelou.”
I was taken aback. I had not imagined her to be, well, so Diva-like.
She sent me all over town to find her an avocado sandwich. I moved her things from a west-facing room at the Holiday Inn because it was too hot. That night, at the event, I had to allow people to sit on the floor behind the podium on the stage — there were not enough seats in the auditorium. She didn’t like that and made it clear she didn’t. But on stage, she told everyone, in her resounding voice, how thrilled she was to be among them.
Others, including my friend Valerie Boyd, who curated the literary component of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, have also spoken about how demanding Angelou could be. Journalist and writer A’Leila Bundles said she was dignity personified but sometimes haughty and over the top, according to folks who groused about the special items her contract required.
“Was the story about the rider requesting 30 year old cognac true or apocryphal?” Bundles asked. “That rumor, and the way she carried herself were the source of caricatures in recent years. How dare a little black girl speak with such precision and carry herself with such grace? Well, dare she did.”
If anyone had the right to be demanding, it was Angelou.
She grew up poor in a small Arkansas town, raised by a grandmother who assured a black girl in a brutally racist society that she was worthy, important and talented. She was pioneering in literature and wrote about the cruelty of Jim Crow like no other black woman had done before for wider audiences.
I was 16 when I read “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.” I was blown away.
Angelou gave voice to women of color. Her work continues to inspire generations of women, who, like me, drew from her words a strength to always live with pride.
The news of Angelou’s death spread quickly Wednesday. There are many obituaries and appreciations online. I urge you to read them, to learn more about a phenomenal woman.
Pretty women wonder where my secret lies. I’m not cute or built to suit a fashion model’s size But when I start to tell them, They think I’m telling lies. I say, It’s in the reach of my arms, The span of my hips, The stride of my step, The curl of my lips. I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.
I walk into a room Just as cool as you please, And to a man, The fellows stand or Fall down on their knees. Then they swarm around me, A hive of honey bees. I say, It’s the fire in my eyes, And the flash of my teeth, The swing in my waist, And the joy in my feet. I’m a woman Phenomenally.
Phenomenal woman, That’s me.
Men themselves have wondered What they see in me. They try so much But they can’t touch My inner mystery. When I try to show them, They say they still can’t see. I say, It’s in the arch of my back, The sun of my smile, The ride of my breasts, The grace of my style. I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.
Now you understand Just why my head’s not bowed. I don’t shout or jump about Or have to talk real loud. When you see me passing, It ought to make you proud. I say, It’s in the click of my heels, The bend of my hair, the palm of my hand, The need for my care. ’Cause I’m a woman Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.
Should African-Americans celebrate this day? They were slaves when the Declaration of Independence was crafted. Should Native Americans celebrate this day? The white man obliterated them from their lands.
Or perhaps the right question to ask is: How should people of color celebrate American independence? The answer is varied and often, personal.
I am proud to have become an American citizen. I love this country.
But I also understand its brutal history of racism. I know that this day means many things to many people.