A Turk Talks Atlanta: Another Perspective of Race and America

Weary Self-Portrait 2

Wear Self-Portrait 2 (Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.)

By Leslye Joy Allen

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

On Wednesday, September 10, 2014, I boarded the MARTA train here in Atlanta heading home from teaching a morning class and having a brief meeting with a professor. When I entered the train station, the humidity was overpowering. A man in a business suit that appeared to me to be either Arab or Turkish, pulled off his jacket. He looked at me and smiled and said in a thick accent, “HOT-LANTA is not just a nickname, eh?”

We laughed and began to exchange pleasantries about the weather and the city. He informed me that he has to travel all around the United States quite a bit, but he said something that struck me.

He said rather seriously, “Your young people, the students and the school children, are so much more polite and friendly. They are nowhere near as noisy or ill mannered as I have seen in so many other cities around the country. I like Atlanta, except for these humid days.”

We laughed as we both boarded the southbound train. I asked him where he was from. He was originally from Turkey. Then I asked him why he thought Atlanta students were so much quieter. He said that in some places around the world, people consider Americans to be rather loud or at least that is the general stereotype. “In fact,” he said, “I saw a restaurant once with a sign that said, No Loud Americans, please.”

He saw a look on my face that suggested to him that I had another question. He said, “I am always flying in to the Atlanta airport and taking your train to downtown, and almost all the kids and young people I see are Black and polite. Some of them dress funny, but all have been friendly and rather quiet compared to what I have seen elsewhere.”

I had to scratch my head. For while I deal with large numbers of respectable, hard-working young Black students all the time, the perception from many quarters of Atlanta and throughout the United States is that to be in the company of young Black people means you will be constantly annoyed by loud music and loud conversation. Truthfully, I have encountered loud and rude behavior from young folks of all races and ethnicities right here in Atlanta, but it has not been nearly as severe or as often as some people might think.

This Turkish man taught me something about perspective and why I am glad I now strongly insist that my students and friends read foreign news reports as often as possible. The view from some place else is not the same as when you routinely see the same folks all the time, even when those folks are your own people.

Importantly, this Turkish man decided to look at Atlanta and Black people with eyes and ears that have not been trained to only focus on the disasters that are regularly reported on the six o’clock news. He has been observant enough to notice that when people encountered Americans overseas who were loud, that the loud American—stereotype or not—was not a racial stereotype, but a national one.

In the weeks and months ahead as we Black folk all process so much of the bad news about domestic abuse, gender discrimination, racial profiling, violence and war, I hope that we remember that perspectives about who and what we are as a people are not always as negative as the pundits would have us believe.  I hope we also realize that the constant worry about our image is unnecessary.  People here and around the globe are either intelligent enough and informed enough to form a reasonable opinion or they are not.  No degree of sugar-coating or covering up anything will change perspectives in the United States or abroad.

Yet, I also hope we remember that the perspectives of people who are on the outside looking in, who do not live with us constantly, have much to tell us if we bother to listen to and look for those perspectives. Yet, the only way to listen to those perspectives and look for those other opinions abroad is to make sure we are not the loud and brass Americans that only think our perspectives matter.  Peace.

Copyright © 2014 by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.

This Blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen & is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Any partial or total reference to this blog, or any total or partial excerpt of this blog must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: http://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly and visibly stated as the author. All Rights Reserved.

A Dred Scott Moment About Trayvon Martin

By Leslye Joy Allen

Historian, Educator, Theatre and Jazz Advocate, Doctoral Student

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

For even the worst student of American History, the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford remains one of the easiest to remember.  Many historians believe that this legal drama led to the American Civil War in 1860.  In fact, the name “Dred Scott” conjures up that infamous statement by U. S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (pronounced “Tawney”)*, who ruled that, Black people “had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”  Anyone can use the name “Dred Scott” as a search term on the Internet and find hundreds, if not thousands, of accounts, including reproductions of the legal documents used in this tragic and pivotal court case.  If you need to read a quick summary of it, click here: Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857).

Visit any online bookstore, public or university library and you will find dozens of books on the subject.  There have even been a few fictionalized accounts of his life.  Yet, in the main, the textbook story about him is largely about the case he and his wife ultimately lost when the United States Supreme Court ruled against them in 1857 after this couple had trudged through eleven long years of litigation.  Yet, in spite of the notoriety of this Supreme Court ruling, information about Dred and Harriet Scott as individuals remains largely and primarily the interest of the serious historian or legal scholar.

Some extensive book accounts about the Scott family note certain characteristics of Dred Scott’s personality and his limitations (e.g. Like most slaves in the mid-nineteenth century, he was illiterate).  The textbook and encyclopedia accounts, however, stick to the main facts in the legal case.  Most people forget (or never knew) that after the Supreme Court ruled against him, Taylor Blow (a member of a family that once owned Scott) purchased him and set him free.  Yet, Scott only lived another year and four months—dead by May of 1858.  Even worse, his grave only received an “official marker” some ninety-nine years later when Blow’s granddaughter purchased one for his grave in 1957.**

I bring up these lesser known facts about Scott to make a point about this issue of “individuals,” and to highlight some real limitations often found in history, social commentary, and performance and visual arts—namely, that the human beings at the center of a storm often become transformed into causes, into ideas, into legends.  As much as we all need causes, great ideas and legends, there is the risk of losing the individual.  This is particularly true of the late Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager shot and killed in Sanford, Florida by George Zimmerman who is, at the time of this writing, about to stand trial for his murder.  I need not retell the details about the death of Martin here.  You can read my early commentary about this tragedy by reading the blogs in my Blog Archive.  I only ask you to remember a few things.

For the public, particularly the African-American public, Trayvon Martin is another painful reminder of this nation’s history of judicial and social obstruction and neglect; and a long and painful history of racially motivated violence.  With his face emblazoned on T-Shirts, special photos, and artwork, we do not really know who Trayvon Martin was as an individual save for what he now symbolizes to us in death.  We also do not really know Zimmerman, but he too is also now a symbol—Depending on which side you are on he is either the personification of the horrors that acute racist profiling can produce or he is a symbol of every person who ever shot someone in self-defense who was unjustly accused of murder.  Yet, neither Trayvon Martin (nor Zimmerman, for that matter) exists in their parents, extended family and friends’ memories in this manner.

Martin’s Mom and Dad remember his first baby steps, his first words, and yes, even the first time they scolded him.  They will remember birthdays and Christmases.  They will remember his favorite foods, TV shows, toys and gadgets.  They will recall his smiles and his mischief; and they will inevitably remember the first time he got into some potentially serious trouble—he was, after all, an adolescent at the time of his death.  Anyone with a teenager knows that those years are difficult precisely because the child is making that awkward transition from child into adult.  Martin might symbolize a lot to all of us, but he ultimately belonged to his mother and father.

I will not make any predictions about the trial of George Zimmerman.  I can only say that for Trayvon Martin’s parents in particular, this case is not just about fighting for the noble cause of ending racially motivated violence.  It is also and primarily about finding some sense of justice and closure for the loss of their son.  Yet, we must admit that with the passage of time, how most of us will eventually remember Trayvon Martin could easily mirror the way most of us remember Dred Scott.  Those of us who read about him in history classes know that we studied more about the political and social significance of the court case than we ever studied or knew about Dred Scott as a man, a husband and father.  We know even less about his wife Harriet Scott, an often forgotten and overlooked actor in this pivotal litigation.  Years after Zimmerman’s murder trial is over, no matter the outcome, Trayvon Martin’s parents WILL NOT see him as “that case about the Black boy who was wearing a hoodie, who got killed in Sanford, Florida,” but rather as their son who they lost too soon—It is this fact that we, the public, will too soon forget.  Yet, it is this fact that I hope we will somehow struggle to always remember.

Trayvon Martin’s Father Remembers

Copyright © 2013 by Leslye Joy Allen.  All Rights Reserved.

*          Daniel Walker Howe, What God Hath Wrought: The Transformation of America, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 379.

**         New York Times,  “Honor For Dred Scott:  Granddaughter of Man Who Freed Slave Places Marker,” 26 July 1957.

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