"Sonny's Corner" is a regular column in Prairie Fire, featuring commentary on civil rights and justice issues. Our friend and Omaha colleague, Joseph P. "Sonny" Foster, died suddenly at age 54 in August 2005. He left an uncompleted agenda, as did many of our civil rights and justice mentors and heroes. We shall attempt to move forward on that unfinished agenda through this column.
For nearly forty years I have been a Nebraskan by choice. I love this state and have served Nebraska every way I am able, as writer, educator, and citizen. My own ancestors settled in the Deep South, dating back to early Colonial times. I spent much of my youth in Georgia and Louisiana, where my closest relatives still live. My family was active in Atlanta’s civil rights movement—I have written elsewhere of my meeting with Coretta Scott King on the night of Dr. King’s assassination.
I always feel frustrated with the stereotype so many Nebraskans hold of the South as a no-account place mostly full of racists and snakes. It is true that the South is full of snakes. A nest of copperheads in a suburban garden is commonplace. My neighbor in Atlanta once found a rattler curled in her basket of warm laundry. It took years in Nebraska to convince me that hiking the prairie is relatively safe.
My frustration is with the bland assumption that Nebraska and other Northern states are somehow ahead of the South in shedding the racism that has been the greatest domestic failure of our nation’s mission—to be the world’s beacon and champion of freedom, equality, and justice.
The South of my youth still had black and white churches, schools, and water fountains. The South of today has made immense strides toward overcoming entrenched racism. I cannot say the same for Nebraska, it grieves me to say. Nebraska loves great black football players and tourism dollars Native Americans draw today, but fewer than fifty years separate the murder of Crazy Horse (Fort Robinson, 1877) and the burning of the home of infant Malcolm X by the KKK (north Omaha, 1926). It’s been less than fifty years since the race riots of Omaha in 1966, 1968, and 1969. And recently, two examples of shameless racism have occurred in Nebraska that I find offensive, even chilling.
Lincoln’s beautiful new Railyard Entertainment District, built last year, is enforcing a dress code designed absolutely to make African Americans unwelcome. A spokeswoman’s words, “a family atmosphere,” are code for “white.” Specifically, the code says no “wave caps or doo rags,” no “excessively long shirts,” no hat bills worn to the side, just front and back—all full-on targeted at current fashion among African American youth. Bans on clothing with profanity and exposed underwear on men are easier to understand, but I very much suspect that both are enforced unequally, and certainly the rule sets a higher bar for decorum than the vast majority of Lincoln bars and restaurants.
Some RED rules are so ridiculous as to be laughable, their selective enforcement intent is so clear. No baggy clothing? What else can old fat broads like us wear? No sweat pants? No bandannas? Please. To compound the insult, an offender may NOT modify clothing at the time of entry to meet the dress code. No kindly Security Officer Murphy advising, “You might want to straighten that cap, old sport,” or “How ’bout you tuck your shirt in there, mate, and we’ll all be the same good friends?” No indeed. If Security sees one of the Usual Suspects coming, the argument is over. The RED message is clear: Don’t come anywhere NEAR unless you look like Us.
I greatly admire this new common space, and I frequent several vendors when I can. I like the airiness of the whole thing, its apparent friendliness, and the fact that the handsome old train canopies are preserved, even featured. That’s why the blatant racism of the Railyard dress code feels so ugly, so disappointing, and so unworthy of the great town that Lincoln can and hopes to be.
This dress code is so petty it actually bans two commercial brands of clothing: Tap-Out and Affliction. According to www.urbandictionary.com, these are brands worn by so-called “douchebags,” defined as people so annoying that they have surpassed being jerks but have not yet earned f-word designation. The Tap-Out/Affliction ban was initially a joke at a few bars. The RED rule probably conflicts with the dormant commerce clause in federal trade legislation, but that’s a matter for the courts, maybe even the WTO (World Trade Organization), if those brands are manufactured overseas.
While dress codes may seem insignificant in the matter of living racism in Nebraska today, the notorious Float No. 29 in Norfolk’s July 4th parade this year was anything but. In case you weren’t paying attention, No. 29 featured an outhouse marked “Obama Presidential Library” and a male zombie clutching his head. Any schoolchild could get the message, and sadly I am sure too many impressionable children did on that ugly day. The first African American president in US history is portrayed as disgusting and frightening and laughable, uneducated and unintelligent, with his library housed in a toilet, presumably to provide toilet paper.
I can hardly imagine a more offensive image of a sitting US president, absent the hangman’s rope. To the shame of the town of Norfolk, the judges awarded No. 29 an Honorable Mention. I would call on those judges to tell us all what they can possibly mean by the word honorable.
Since Barak Obama’s rise to prominence and election to the highest office in our land, this gentle, thoughtful man who lives only to serve his nation and world, and to love his family, has been the subject of an unending outpouring of hate-filled lies—Obama as a terrorist, Obama as an alien, Obama as insolent and disrespectful of the US flag. Each of these Big
Lies has been discredited, but the chatter continues unabated, as in a recent letter to the editor in the North Platte Bulletin. To portray the president as a zombie is another racist dig. Again, any schoolchild knows that the myth of zombies is rooted in so-called Voodoo, a Caribbean religion practiced by African slaves and their descendants.
I love the fine institutions the people of Nebraska have built, too many to name—public power, natural resources districts, the Nebraska Arts Council, public radio and television, Prairie Schooner and Prairie Fire and our live music and theater scenes, the Crane Trust, our universities and community colleges, and more. I love Nebraska Nice, love civility and good neighbors and a terrific place to raise a kid. I love the clean air and water. I love the land—rolling and flat, canyon-carved, sand and loess hills, wetlands and braided rivers—love the lush, humid summer and the dog-dead heat, the blistering cold, love the prairie green and gold by turns, love crazy thunderstorms, and the subtle beauty of winter when the bones of the trees stand out and the world is monochrome. I love big sky and the relentless wind.
But even in Nebraska there are snakes in the grass. Snakes are snakes wherever they are, and racism is ugly, never more so than when wrapped in the cozy laundry of “family values.” Racial hate—the fear of strangers—may be as old as time, but as human numbers approach eight billion, racism is a luxury we cannot now afford. Great communities around the world are doing their best to put the race hate of the past behind us, like witch burning and life before the wheel.