My Life As a 60-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer
I’ve never loved the United States, having been raised in the 50s-60s-70s, it was clear, from an early age, that my brown skin was going to forever doom me to being treated as “less than” my pink skinned counterparts. My college-educated parents, wanting to provide me with better opportunities than they had, felt it would be best for us to live in the then nearly all-white Highland Park, MI, a suburb of Detroit, and home to Ford Motor Company’s first automobile plant, and Chrysler Corporation’s World HQ. Though cars, car plants, and car designers were all around us, I really didn’t have much exposure to that because my parents were scientists. My mother, Edith Muriel Johnson, was a Medical Doctor, her degree from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where I was born, and my father, Charles Bruce Lee (he preferred C. Bruce as his legal name), was a microbiologist, his Ph.D. from the University of Michigan in Invertebrate Zoology. Though many of my friends had parents and siblings who worked for the Big Three (Ford, GM, and Chrysler), unless my class went on a field trip to tour one of those plants, I knew nothing about the automobile industry.
We were therefore different from most of my peers, white and black, and though we could have been raised to feel elitist, we weren’t. Once white flight emptied most of the whites from Highland Park in the 60s, though most wealthy blacks were also moving to other, more affluent areas, my mother insisted that we remain in HP, our roots, which was something I always admired about my mother. She’d divorced my father in 1962, when I was six, a welcome event because that meant the constant fighting would end. My father was battling so many demons, not the least of which was his homosexuality, and I think each time he looked at us, his five children that he frequently reminded me that he never wanted (“I didn’t want any of you kids but I love you anyway”), it must have been like a stake through the heart – these small, innocent children were NOT what he’d have envisioned for his life. If he’d had his way, I think he’d have been born white, and probably a white woman. But he wasn’t. He was born a brilliant, black boy, stuck in a world where black and brilliance were at odds with one another, at least through the eyes of most whites. This realization haunted him his entire life, and caused him to constantly lash out as us, his children, simply because we existed. Though I understood the impetus for his anger and cruelty, his attacks still hurt, and it took me years of therapy and introspection to be able to finally forgive him. I hope that, now that his Earthly life is over, he has finally found the peace that so eluded him.
Bruce had worked so hard to attain the lofty title of Dr., but not one day in his life was he even allowed to work in his chosen field, simply because of the color of his skin.
Which brings me to why I’ve never loved the United States. I hated living in a country that, before I was even born, whites had determined that I was to be hated, mistrusted, derided, oppressed, attacked, and on and on. The luxuries of being white in America include never EVER having to think about the color of your skin. And though many whites reject that they benefit from any sort of privilege, the truth is that they benefit from America’s systematic racism every single day, in everything they do, regardless of their personal views about racism – just as blacks are negatively affected by this same systematic racism, which we can ONLY escape once we leave the United States. Though some whites may not have easy lives, the one thing they cannot deny is that worrying about the color of their skin is never one of their problems, in fact, it’s doubtful this thought ever crosses their minds. While for blacks and other POC, we never, EVER get to forget we’re black in the United States, not for a second, no matter where we live, work, or travel. Racism is as American as apple pie and baseball. Whites will always benefit from America’s systemic racism regardless of their personal views about race, and though some may reject that they have a privileged status, not a single white person in America would be willing to trade places with anyone black.
I’m writing about my experiences as a 60-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer, but this story begins way back in the 50s, when I was born into the racist society that was and still is America. It’s just so exhausting, having to make accommodations for insecure whites, having to bite our tongues for fear of retribution from hostile whites, having to do far more work yet receive far less credit (and pay) as whites, and all the while, many whites fear that equity with POC means oppression of whites.
I’m so glad I finally took the step to leave the u.s. for good, but at a terrible price. If whites were forced to live just one day as a black American, they wouldn’t believe all the micro aggressions, all the ways, large and small, that their whiteness dominates our lives. Or maybe that’s why so many whites fear and hate us, because they DO know how badly we’ve been treated and are still being treated — and they fear Karma? Is that it? Is that why, before a black child is even born, it’s hated by countless whites?
When I think back to all the shit I’ve had to personally tolerate, what I saw my parents have to tolerate, what my kids still encounter, there is no way I have ANY hope that America will ever change, that equity and kindness will prevail, that truth and reconciliation will even be a thing. It’s just so much easier to stop teaching the truth, keep doing all the racist things you’re doing, and blame blacks for being racist (which is impossible, by the way) when we have the nerve to call whites out on this.
And no, not all whites are racist, but I truly believe most are, it’s just the way they’re raised, and though they have plenty of black friends and colleagues they truly like, even love, where do they live? All-white neighborhoods? Attend all-white churches? Members of all-white clubs? Vacation at all-white locales, etc.?
“…but I’m not racist.”
Happiness is a choice. So is racism. If you know you wouldn’t switch places with any black person not even for a moment, then who are you and what do you really believe about black folk? Would having to live as a black person limit your choices? Would it condemn you to sub-standard medical care? Would it significantly increase your chances of being murdered by the police? What would it mean?
And that you realize all these things are true, the fact that your pink skin means that you can simply ignore all these things because you KNOW none of this will ever affect you or your loved ones, that means that you KNOW you are benefiting from the color of your skin — at the expense of others.
The American Way.
And this, my friends, is the main reason I abandoned the u.s. I just couldn’t take it any longer. 60 years of American oppression of POC was enough, and though no country may be “perfect,” in most African countries, my brown skin is actually a bonus, and I’m good with that.
I don’t care that “My ancestors built this country,” because though that may be true, your ancestors didn’t build the systems that ensure blacks and POC will ALWAYS be inferior to whites in all ways, finance, politics, education, sports, entertainment, housing, healthcare, you name it. Your ancestors who built this nation originated elsewhere, and I doubt that they had a choice about coming to what would become the United States. You want to honor them? Then honor their roots, wherever that may lead.
No, America, I’m not satisfied with this way of life. I deserve more. My kids deserve more. All POC deserve more, and if this is the best you can do, then my advice is to leave. You’re not a tree, you can move. Life without systemic racism is SOOOO sweet, so much better than you can ever imagine. Blaxit is a thing, a wonderful thing, blacks exiting the u.s. and spending the rest of their lives in countries where their brown skin doesn’t automatically deem them “less than.”
THE ROOTS OF CHANGE
This all started several years earlier. I was living in the Oakland Hills, with my two kids, Dawn and David, making a decent living as a computer nerd, while pursuing my passion of also being a professional genealogist. I’d been divorced from my first husband about 30 years and truly loved being single, but the cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area was getting harder and harder for me to maintain, alone. I was going deeper and deeper into credit card debt, pulling more and more equity out of my house, cognizant of the fact that I had been able to put away practically nothing for my son’s college, which he’d be starting in about five years. In this sense, I felt like a complete failure. I was doing the best I could but it wasn’t even close to being enough. I started wondering how different my life would be if I remarried, convinced that if I met a wonderful, caring man, I’d finally have some help, someone with whom I could work together, build a new life with a mate willing and able to help me. I wasn’t looking for a sugar daddy, as I intended to continue to work and build my budding genealogy business, “Got Genealogy?”
In my genealogy business, I’d been invited to speak at a genealogy conference in Toronto, so I planned to fly into Toronto, then rent a car and drive down to Detroit, where I’d been raised and had lived for 30 years, and fly back out of Toronto. This would allow me to visit my family and friends in the Detroit area, and the drive to Detroit is only about four hours, so a quick trip.
Kevin Dickerson (name changed to protect the guilty) was my first love. I’d met him in Detroit, the summer of 1969, I was 12, he was 13, and I think it was love at first sight, for me, anyways. Detroit used to have a flea market along Woodward Avenue, that stretched from Kennedy Square down to Jefferson, on both sides of the street. Kevin was selling cheap jewelry and other knick-knacks with his mother’s boyfriend, Rudy. Kevin was slick, super slick in the eyes of a very innocent 12-year-old girl, and when he saw me looking at some of their rings (I used to buy rings constantly, wearing a ring on nearly every finger back then), he immediately launched into his sell spiel, which rhymed. I have no idea what he said, but his rhyme, his captivating smile, and his incredibly handsome face had me swooning. I bought a ring that week. And returned every week after that, just to see him. Finally, on the third week, I was wearing a three-point pirate’s hat I’d gotten at a recent Disneyland trip, and determined to walk by and ignore him, I heard him call, “Hey, Captain!” I turned, and there was that smile – pulling me in, hook, line, and sinker.
He finally asked me for my phone number, which I was only too happy to provide. After that, though he lived way on the far side of Detroit’s West side, on Sussex, he would walk all the way to Highland Park to see me. We’d spend the day just talking, listening to music, getting to know one another, and as it was getting dark, my mother would throw us, along with my three younger siblings, into our Buick station wagon, and take David home. My family adored him, his family adored me. Match made in heaven.
But we grew apart, and within a year, I’d moved on and so had he. But those original feelings were still there. I’d remained a virgin while dating Kevin, he was intent to respect my desire to be a virgin at my wedding, and since we knew we were gonna get married, I thought he was the best thing, ever.
Nearly 40 years later, as I was preparing for that Toronto genealogy speaking gig, I made it a point to reach out to Kevin. Even though we’d each married other people and had each had kids with our respective spouses, he always made sure to call me every year on my birthday and, with his deep baritone voice, sing me Happy Birthday. I called him and we agreed to meet for dinner at one of Detroit’s new casinos. I’m not a gambler and don’t really enjoy the casino scene, but I was curious to see what Detroit’s casinos were like. Our dinner was fantabulous, all the old excitement like we’d just met, yet 40 years of individual experiences – I was captivated by his every word, though in time I came to realize that pretty much everything he said was utter bullshit.
Bless his heart.