When she held my babies, Julia put her face close to their little heads and breathed in. “I’m going to steal some of this sugar,” she’d say. She didn’t have kids of her own, but she was Godmother to many, including ours. For the 14 years we were friends, until her death in 2014, Julia took care of us and we took care of her.
She was born in Pocahontas, Mississippi and moved to Portland when she was 19. By the time she died, she’d lived in her northeast Portland home for 43 years. We made frequent trips to grocery and thrift stores together, since diabetes had made her vision too poor to drive. In the mornings when I wandered next door to her porch for a visit, I’d realize I was humming a line from the Beatles song, “half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it just to reach you, Julia..”
Julia was a good friend to me. Like her, I was also pretty blind, but I couldn’t blame diabetes. In my case it was a failure to see the lottery I’d won by being born white & middle class in America. My grandfather had possessed the resources and the freedom to build a house wherever he wanted and so had my father. I’d grown up in rural Idaho, gone to college in Utah and then graduate school in Eastern Washington. My blindness was the ignorance, willful or not, that America was not America for everyone.
It was Julia who called me to tell me that her good friend’s grandson, Aaron Campbell, had been shot dead by Portland police on the day his brother died of a heart ailment. Julia who lived long enough to see the election of Barack Obama but also to see Trayvon Martin murdered.
Today I watched the demonstration in Portland against the continued, state-sanctioned violence against people of color. The deaths of Brianna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd and so many others whose deaths have happened off camera or out of sight. The 911 calls on people bird-watching or otherwise living their lives while Black. I knew all over again that if the only thing white people do in response to this is post about their horror and outrage on social media, and we don’t acknowledge the way we have benefitted from this system (and do something to make right the injustice), nothing will change. Tomorrow we will wake up white again with all the benefits and privileges included in that package. We’ll send our white children off on their bicycles to visit friends with every expectation that they’ll arrive home later as promised, that they’ll move freely in the world and be protected. That they have value and they won’t be in peril.
So, things I did (and invite you to do) today instead of nothing:
Donate to/join the organizations whose leaders were featured at the demonstration today: NAACP and Coalition of Communities of Color (Reverend E.D. Mondainé of the NAACP, Marcus Mundy of CCC and Commissioner JoAnn Hardesty).