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BEFORE BARACK: My Life Among White Folks...a continuously evolving memoir series in six parts, more or less

Chapter 1


“Wooo! That white lady yo mama?! Wooo!” Hands muffled a chorus of echoes, the soundtrack for wide eyes.

It was the first day of school and even before I could clear the threshold, already I was in trouble. Alerted by the one who had bellowed the proclamation, now everybody was looking at me and the woman holding my hand.

Wooo! The sound of warning, a signal something was wrong.

“Wooo! You in trouble!”
“Woooo! You better gimme some or I’m telling.”
“Woooo! Ahma tell yo mama and you gone git a whuppin!”

“Wooo! That white lady yo mama?!” Indignation silenced me, so Mama spoke instead.

“What’s your name, honey?” she asked the boy wagging his fingers at us.

“Who me?” He fingered himself as though he hadn’t been the soloist in the choir.

“Yes, I’m talking to you, honey. What’s your name?”


“Well, come over here for a minute, William.” She motioned the class crier to approach. “Wooo!” Suddenly, they all turned on him and just like that, trouble was wearing William’s face.

When he came close, Mama reached out for him and squatted between us so we were all eye-to-eye. “You look very handsome this morning, William. How old are you?” Her hand patted the small of his back in syncopation to her inquiry.

If William knew, he wasn’t saying. He was mute, his eyes glued to Mama’s face in a gaze I had seen many times before from babies, boys, and grown men. William was smitten.

“This is my baby, Bernestine. She’s six, too. Bernestine, this is William.” I stood glowering, one hand still clutching hers, the other one balled in a fist at my side. She gently jiggled my arm, signaling it was my turn to speak. “Okay, now, what’re you supposed to say, honey?”

I unfurled my fist and shoved my hand towards my verbal offender. “Hey.” She jiggled me again. “Hey, William” I finished grudgingly.

Not that it made any difference because speechless William was clearly blind to my existence, so lost was he in his new love—my mama, mere inches away from him, stooped to his level. Her hand still at his waist, Mama returned to his question.

“Yes, William, I am Bernestine’s mama, but I am not white. Does she look white to you?”

William stood there, lips slightly parted, breathing through his mouth. Then, as if powered by some separate force, his hand slowly rose, gently headed for her face. She caught it midway and stood up.

“Answer me, honey. Does Bernestine look white to you?” William nodded no.

“Well, alright then, neither am I. Okay? And we’re not ever going to say anything like that again. Now scoot back over to your desk and be a good boy for me today. Alriiight?” William nodded yes. So she leaned over and kissed his head, simultaneously rewarding his correct answer and scenting our peace treaty with a gust of Avon’s “To a Wild Rose.” William backed away, beaming.

“I don’t think we’ll be having any more problems from him,” she declared. Then, she hugged me and planted her lips on my forehead, making it possible for me to parade around the rest of the day, proudly imprinted by her Dark Cherry Red amulet, my protection against any further William eruption.

School was out and I was running for the gate when I spied William, waiting. Just seeing him made me nervous. Then I realized he looked like he wanted to be friends.

“Brenda Steam! Brenda Steam!” He motioned urgently, making it clear I was the one being summoned. As I approached, he stared at the red lips still plastered on my forehead as though he expected her to emerge from them fully formed.

She coming to get you?”


“That white lady. She coming back for you?”

Only ten years ago, these gems that help us remember...

'Ghetto Fabulous Party': Steeped in Stupid

by Bernestine Singley

Houston Chronicle, October 17, 2006

Thirty years ago, I was a black female student at a white law school in the deep South, part of that first wave of integration determined to change

Many things changed, the law, law students, and lawyers among them. But last week I found myself despairing and outraged about what hasn't changed. It happened as I read about a controversy over white University of Texas law students who threw a "Ghetto Fabulous" party.

Not even three months into their first year, these aspiring lawyers, perhaps so stressed by the rigors of their studies, went looking for a way to
chill. And what did they come up with?

A party mocking the black and brown urban poor -- complete with 40-ounce cans of malt liquor, fake guns, "ethnic" names, do-rags, jeweled grills on their front teeth, and loud jewelry.

Fully tricked out, UT's best and brightest young white adults chose to use overtly racist images and behavior to give themselves a break.

Not surprisingly, some of the black and brown law students weren't so happy when photos of the event showed up on the Internet, and this private party for white folks suddenly became very public.

When defendants are on trial for harm they have caused, the legal standard is simple: Did they know, or should they have known, that what they were doing would cause the harm in question?

So let's use an analogy: Did these white, party-going lawyers-in-training know their cavorting was stunningly racist and profoundly offensive? Should they have?

My own experiences help me figure that out.

I am a retired member of the Massachusetts and Texas bars. During my decade plus of law practice, I was an Assistant Attorney General in Boston
and Dallas. I have a law degree from the University of Florida and a graduate law degree from Harvard Law School. I was also born and raised in an urban ghetto.

Consequently, I’m an expert not only in the law, but also about how white supremacy works in the ghettoes of cities and of elite law schools.

My answer to both questions is yes: The law students should have known--and they did.

Law Dean Larry Sager has repeatedly referred to his law students as "these kids."

These grownup college graduates are not children. As the cream of Texas’ intellectual crop, they are also not supposed to be stupid.

So, how is it possible for them to be, as Sager described them, merely "innocent of racial motivation...guilty of thoughtlessness"?

If these best-and-brightest did not know that their own motivations and behavior were offensive, what does that mean about how they have been educated? Who failed these future leaders of our state and nation so abysmally in teaching them to live, work, and love in a world where most people do not look, think, talk, or act like them?

Who’s responsible for producing this next generation of lawyers already so steeped in racial oblivion that they see no offense?

Parents? Grandparents? Other relatives? Teachers? College professors? Religious leaders? Friends and colleagues?

Do law school administrators and fellow students who create and sustain the law school environment that invites this kind of behavior, know what they are doing? Shouldn't they?

Those UT law students know exactly what they did. So do law school and university administrators. Their denials are contemptible and cowardly.

There is a saying in the law: Res ipsa oquitur. The thing speaks for itself.

I rest my case.

"Castaways" Above the Fold

(Reflections shared with the Editor of the "Dallas Morning News" upon seeing her “Metro” section's headline for Friday, 23 Sep 2005: "GULF COAST REGION AGAIN TAKES IN CASTAWAYS"

----- Original Message -----
From: Bernestine Singley
Sent: Friday, September 23, 2005 6:31 PM
Subject: [A mutual friend's] friend (Bernestine) has a message for you

Hi, Keven.

We've almost met a couple of times. I just e-mailed this to [a mutual friend], asking her to send it to you. I don't know if she's even at work or how her day is doing. I'm too exorcised to even be that polite. Here's what I'd like to share with you.

Bernestine Singley

~ ~ ~

I grew up without TV—the stupid box, my mother called it. Not only didn’t we own one, my sister and I were forbidden to watch it, anywhere, ever. Consequently, I survived life in the US for more than half a century suffering from a serious affliction: I am televisually impaired.

Can’t stand to hear it; can’t bear to watch it; don’t even want to hear about it. So I have always been a reader and a writer, eventually becoming a professional who used words, one way or another, to earn a living. Words are my life.

Call it bizarre, then, that I have been sleeping with the media for around twenty years. That's because my husband is a TV news reporter. For two decades, I’ve watched him race towards disasters others are fleeing.

Over time, my TV-barren past and our TV-flooded present have combined to create a life where this thread of madness registers as “normal.” Where the spectacularly unusual is business as usual. Where death and destruction are our bread and butter. Immersed so, madness has become our shield against madness.

Until Katrina, the apocalypse that has left me word-ragged, unable to articulate the depths of my rage. Until today when Gracie, our dog, raced inside with the morning paper.

I bent down to grab it and raised up in bobble-headed fury, triggered by a two-inch high headline, above the fold, in the Dallas Morning News:



Beneath those assault words, a six-by-eight-inch full-color visual: a brown, round-faced, fearful toddler, clutching her mother who was watching her husband. The caption identified them as Rebecca, Crissy, and Rosendo Gonzalez.

Mother, father, and child. Castaways.

I stood motionless at the front door waiting for my stunned brain to kick back in.

How many people, including editors, would be responsible for that headline blaring its message above the fold? Who are they? What combination of age, ethnicity, gender, professional training, job experience, home training, life experience, worldview could create such breathtaking, arrogant, bigoted ignorance?

Refugees…evacuees…castaways. Whatever. A lawyer and author, it occurred to me that maybe I’ve become too picky and need a new life. Instead, I went to get the dictionary.

Bad move. “Castaway” in Webster’s New Collegiate set me atremble anew: 1) thrown away: REJECTED; 2) a. cast adrift or ashore as a survivor of a shipwreck; b. thrown out or left without friends or resources.

The phone rang. I handed it to my husband. Instead of heading south to Hurricane Rita, he was being rerouted to a fiery conflagration still underway nearby.

Stumbling past my office, not fully awake, he was already diving into a hard day as it quickly unfolded. So I fell in behind him, waving the newspaper, lambasting the language of subjugation and domination as evidenced by the morning paper’s unconscionable headlines, oblivious editors, and headline writers whose mindsets even now I cannot fathom.

He wasn't having it. He didn’t see the problem.

He didn’t see the problem? My brain slammed into a different gear and careened in a new direction, willing the insane to sanity. It didn't work.

Castaways? A wife with her husband and their child fleeing disaster. Trash? Garbage? Refuse? Washed up on a shore? Compliments of the Dallas Morning News.

Then, suddenly, I got it. “Gilligan’s Island!” That had to be the genesis for this profound insult.

Of course. My husband, like the rest of our generation—except for my sister and me—grew up on the TV sit-com "Gilligan's Island," I reasoned. Seven white folks on “a three-hour tour, a three-hour tour.” Shipwrecked by a storm that left them stranded, they wandered a tropical island for three TV seasons.

Castaways. Of course.

Katrina…New Orleans…refugees…evacuees…castaways. Rita…Houston… Again?!

Decisions made over many years have created newsrooms' institutional structures that reinforce white supremacy. White supremacy blinds news staffs, making it possible for this photo and caption staring up from the page.

Decisions made in the last 24 hours are today’s harsh evidence of a blindness that still lives, casually tagging as castaways—refuse—those who are not white. The shockingly offensive photo and legend are you indicting yourselves.

Who at any level challenged the picture or the headline? In a city where people of color are the majority of the population—what mainstream media has moronically termed “majority-minority”—exactly how does this kind of photojournalism evolve?

Who in the chain of decision-making that led to the photo and headline on the page, acknowledges the chasm between the lip service Dallas’ only daily paper gives to ideals of racial justice and equality and the institutional structures it uses to preserve white privilege?

Where are the people of color you employ who are not only capable of, but are also willing to and who in fact do point these things out to you, routinely and without flinching?

You have an obligation to run stories about racial issues and occasionally you do. That, however, does not absolve you of doing the hard and constant work to get and keep your own race house in order. Rather, it raises your bar higher because you are, after all, the folks in the big glass house. The stones are stacked on your stoop.

Already the images are streaming of the elderly victims fleeing Hurricane Rita, the ones who survived today’s bus fatality on Highway 67. In tomorrow morning's headlines, I wonder: Who will they be?

The stupid box is not a life sentence. The key is in the words.

The Editor responds...

----- Original Message -----
From: Willey, Keven Ann
To: 'Bernestine Singley'
Sent: Friday, September 23, 2005 6:53 PM
Subject: RE:[a mutual friend's] friend (Bernestine) has a message for you

Dear Bernestine:
Thank you for this email. I respect the passion of your view.

My own thoughts about the word "castaway" are twofold:
* Might not have been my first choice, but it doesn't seem to me as wildly inaccurate or inappropriate as you suggest.
* The second reference you cite seems to apply: cast adrift or ashore as a survivor of a shipwreck; b. thrown out or left without friends or resources. Many of the evacuees were indeed cast adrift as a survivor of a wrecked home and many were left without resources.

Regardless, you're absolutely right that we need to be sure that we've got a diverse mix of people covering news and making news judgments. In my department - Editorial - we're working to assure just that.

Would you like us to consider your email for publication as a letter to the editor? I'd be happy to do that if you wish. It would be best if you could trim it to something under our 200-word guideline.

Thank you. Perhaps sometime we'll actually meet.

Keven Ann Willey
Vice President/Editorial Page Editor
The Dallas Morning News
(fax) 972-263-0456

...My response to The Editor

----- Original Message -----
From: Bernestine Singley
To: Willey, Keven Ann
Sent: Friday, September 23, 2005 7:11 PM
Subject: Re: [a mutual friend's] friend (Bernestine) has a message for you


You're kidding, right? 200 words wouldn't even cover the intro to any serious discussion about this. But, thanks for the offer anyway.

I wanted to get my message directly to you. So, thanks, too, for such a prompt reading and response.


...and, finally, why you won't see the photo in question posted here.

David Wu of the Dallas Morning News promptly returned my phone call inquiring about permission to post the above-mentioned photo on my website.

You've heard about a picture being worth a thousand words? Well, this one would cost me $100 to show it here. So, you'll just have to take my word that baby Crissy Gonzalez and her father, Redondo, were the "Castaways" above the fold.

What use is history if we never learn?


Revelations on Subjugation, Domination, and White Supremacy

"They Left Us There to Die"

A Katrina Survivor's Story

by Denise Moore and Lisa C. Moore

Copyright (c) by Lisa C. Moore 2005

3 Sep 2005, 10:13AM, NEW ORLEANS, LA - I heard from my aunt last night that my cousin Denise made it out of New Orleans; she's at her brother's in Baton Rouge.

From what she told me: her mother, a licensed practical nurse, was called in to work on Sunday night at Memorial Hospital (historically known as Baptist Hospital to those of us from N.O.).

Denise decided to stay with her mother, her niece, and grandniece (who is 2 years old); she figured they'd be safe at the hospital. They went to Baptist, and had to wait hours to be assigned a room to sleep in; after they were finally assigned a room, two white nurses suddenly arrived after the cut-off time (time to be assigned a room), and Denise and
her family were booted out; their room was given up to the new nurses.

Denise was furious, and rather than stay at Baptist, decided to walk home (several blocks away) to ride out the storm at her mother's apartment. Her mother stayed at the hospital.

She described it as the scariest time in her life. 3 of the rooms in the apartment (there are only 4) caved in. ceilings caved in, walls caved in. She huddled under a mattress in the hall. She thought she would die from either the storm or a heart attack.

After the storm passed, she went back to Baptist to seek shelter (this was Monday). It was also scary at Baptist; the electricity was out, they were running on generators, there was no air conditioning.

Tuesday the levees broke, and water began rising. They moved patients upstairs, saw boats pass by on what used to be streets.

They were told that they would be evacuated, that buses were coming. Then they were told they would have to walk to the nearest intersection, Napoleon and S. Claiborne, to await the buses. They waded out in hip-deep water, only to stand at the intersection, on the neutral ground (what y'all call the median) for 3 1/2 hours.

The buses came and took them to the Ernest Morial Convention Center. (Yes, the convention center you've all seen on TV.)

Denise said she thought she was in hell.

They were there for 2 days, with no water, no food. No shelter. Denise, her mother (63 years old), her niece (21 years old), and 2-year-old grandniece. When they arrived, there were already thousands of people there.

They were told that buses were coming. Police drove by, windows rolled up, thumbs up signs. National guard trucks rolled by, completely empty, soldiers with guns cocked and aimed at them. Nobody stopped to drop off water.

A helicopter dropped a load of water, but all the bottles exploded on impact due to the height of the helicopter.

The first day (Wednesday) 4 people died next to her. The second day (Thursday) 6 people died next to her.

Denise told me the people around her all thought they had been sent there to die.

Again, nobody stopped. The only buses that came were full; they dropped off more and more people, but nobody was being picked up and taken away.

They found out that those being dropped off had been rescued from rooftops and attics; they got off the buses delirious from lack of water and food. Completely dehydrated. The crowd tried to keep them all in one area; Denise said the new arrivals had mostly lost their minds. They had gone crazy.

Inside the convention center, the place was one huge bathroom. In order to shit, you had to stand in other people's shit. The floors were black and slick with shit. Most people stayed outside because the smell was so bad.

But outside wasn't much better: between the heat, the humidity, the lack of water, the old and very young dying from dehydration... and there was no place to lay down, not even room on the sidewalk. They slept outside Wednesday night, under an overpass.

Denise said, yes, there were young men with guns there. But they organized the crowd. They went to Canal Street and "looted," and brought back food and water for the old people and the babies, because nobody had eaten in days.

When the police rolled down windows and yelled out "the buses are coming," the young men with guns organized the crowd in order: old people in front, women and children next, men in the back. Just so that when the buses came, there would be priorities of who got out first.

Denise said the fights she saw between the young men with guns were fist fights. She saw them put their guns down and fight rather than shoot up the crowd. But she said that there were a handful of people shot in the convention center; their bodies were left Inside, along with other dead babies and old people.

Denise said the people thought there were being sent there to die.

Lots of people being dropped off, nobody being picked up. Cops passing by, speeding off. National guard rolling by with guns aimed at them.

And, yes, a few men shot at the police, because at a certain point all the people thought the cops were coming to hurt them, to kill them all.

She saw a young man who had stolen a car speed past, cops in pursuit; he crashed the car, got out and ran, and the cops shot him in the back. In front of the whole crowd.

She saw many groups of people decide that they were going to walk across the bridge to the west bank, and those same groups would return, saying that they were met at the top of the bridge by armed police ordering them to turn around, that they weren't allowed to leave.

So they all believed they were sent there to die.

Denise's niece found a pay phone, and kept trying to call her mother's boyfriend in Baton Rouge, and finally got through and told him where they were. The boyfriend, and Denise's brother, drove down from Baton Rouge and came and got them.

They had to bribe a few cops, and talk a few into letting them into the city ("Come on, man, my 2-year-old niece is at the Convention Center!"), then they took back roads to get to them.

After arriving at my other cousin's apartment in Baton Rouge, they saw the images on TV, and couldn't believe how the media was portraying the people of New Orleans.

She kept repeating to me on the phone last night: “Make sure you tell everybody that they left us there to die.

“Nobody came. Those young men with guns were protecting us. If it wasn't for them, we wouldn't have had the little water and food they had found.”

That's Denise Moore's story.

Lisa C. Moore is publisher of RedBone Press.
Visit RedBone Press at

"From the Belly of the
Slave Ship"

Copyright (c) by Mittie Imani Jordan 2005

Tuesday, September 06, 2005 3:24 AM – DALLAS, TX - Head to toe, toe to head. That's how they're packed in. From dome to dome, arena to arena, convention center to convention center.

Dragged about the country from one mass camp to another. Separated and traumatized as they stand in yet another line. Banded this time, not branded. The pink, yellow, green, blue bands around their wrists label them as "refugees" ..."evacuees"... dehumanized and categorized into yet new classifications.

These are not refugees. These are our people, mostly African, once again displaced in America.

Americans, not refugees, who suffering from nature’s wrath and man’s atrocities. Oh, the stories. Oh, my Lord, the stories.

The mother who watched her 15-year old son swept away by a tidal wave, not yet to be seen again. The 70-year old woman who has no idea where her husband is. The woman having traumatized by flashbacks of a dead baby being tossed into a trash can because the young mother "just couldn't keep sitting there holding it." The children tormented by nightmares of the dead bodies they had to push out of the way as they waded through water to the Superdome. The nightmare of the Superdome, the Convention Center, the rooftops...

Still, there is another side to this tragedy, one that must be told. As much as I am overwhelmed by the grief, sorrow and grimness of this catastrophe, I am equally as overwhelmed by the hundreds of families who have come forward to help serve the hundreds of families we see everyday. We have come from every walk of life: young, old, rich, poor, black, white, conservative, liberal. From every faith practice and denomination, we are laboring all day long to bring some sense of comfort to our brothers and sisters who are weary, worn, and afraid.

All day long, day after day, cars, vans, trucks pull into the parking lot bearing all that we need to serve. Food, clothing, personal care items, baby formula, strollers, diapers and “Depends,” over the counter drugs, linen, furniture, small appliances, toys, books, phone cards, gas cards, money, services, job offers, housing. Most importantly, we come bearing ourselves. Those with skills and those without. All coming to serve wherever we are needed, in whatever way we can.

My name tag reads "Pastor Mittie," and, yes, that inclines folk toward me for comfort and prayer. But just as often you might find me washing tables, taking out trash, or running messages upstairs. There is no respecter of person here. Lawyers are cooks. Doctors are "personal shoppers." Businessmen sweep floors. Artists sort clothes. Engineers team with professional athletes to unload trucks. All with a sense of joy that cannot be explained.

We hurt, and that's what propelled us here from near and far. And yet, there is an undeniable joy and gladness with which each and every one of us serves. Despite the government’s incompetence, "we the people" stepped up to the plate, and we're getting it right.

I arrived in Dallas, TX Saturday morning and hit the ground working as 25,000 people were transported in. I worked first at Reunion Arena where 6,000 displaced New Orleans residents are sheltered by the government, then on to the Community Life Center of my former congregation, St. Luke Community United Methodist Church, where 300 families are being attended each day.

Without bias, I tell you that the church got it right. Mr. White House (P)Resident, this is the time to put some of that $10 billion behind all your "faith based initiative" mouth before Halliburton gobbles it all. Instead of warehousing tens of thousands of lives in the belly of sports arenas, let the congregations take care of them with dignity in smaller groups.

250 families who made it to Dallas and out of Katrina's path before she hit, were staying in a city-owned recreation center across from the church. The city provided the shelter, we provided everything else - including barbers and beauticians cutting and doing hair. Unlike the public shelters, there are no lines at the church. As families come to us, a caregiver greets them, sits with them, and together they determine what the families need. Then a personal shopper does the “shopping” for their basic items while the families enjoy a real meal (not an MRE—Meals-Ready-to-Eat), get haircuts, or shop for clothing off racks instead of off the floor of a concrete underground arena garage.

The church got it right. We even have a team of professional social workers helping them identify government services for which they are entitled. Another team gets them online to register with FEMA.

Then what happened? Driven by the bottom line and fear of liability, the City of Dallas issued an edict, ordering those families who managed to escape the terror of the storm and horror of the Superdome, to be transferred. From a manageable, comfortable shelter complete with a playground for their children and a walk across the street to resources provided by people who lovingly care, these families have been transferred to the concentrated Convention Center and Reunion Arena. If they had refused to go, they would have relinquished all rights to whatever help the local, state, and federal governments are providing. The families left, devastated.

But we didn’t give up and neither did they. They know where we are and many found their way back to us, finding comfort at least for the day from the harrowing conditions to which they are now consigned.

Today we welcome more families bearing the bands of those freshly bussed in and deposited. And believe me, when they get to us, they don't want to leave. They stayed all day. They stayed because they are comfortable in chairs and not on cots. They stayed because their children have a place to play. They stayed because it is quiet and safe. They stayed because the energy around them was peaceful and calm. They stayed because they are treated with dignity, and not warehoused like dogs waiting to be slaughtered.

We are also seeing and serving a great number of families who made their way to other family members or friends. Suddenly a brother whose modest household consisted of his wife and two children, now has 24 other immediate and extended family members living with him. They need help, and by God's grace and the people of God's goodness, we are in the position to help them.

I think the greatest blessing I saw today came in the form of a middle-aged white man whom we helped on Sunday. He returned from the Convention Center to work alongside the other volunteers at the church today. When I asked him how he was doing, he said, "My spirit's a bit higher. I lost everything, but my spirit's a bit higher because of the way you people opened up your hearts to us."

I personally have been through a lot over the past four months. Indeed, my spirit has been pretty low. I've suffered many losses on many levels. Even as I write, I know that am suffering yet one more. But it is all so insignificant, that it matters not. Seeing the face of God's unselfish, sacrificing love in so many people these past four days has fortified me. Right now, my spirit is pretty high. Being in the midst of believers has put me back on track. My resolve is strengthened. My direction is clear.

Truth always sets you free.

[To be continued…]

Copyright (c) 2005 by Mittie Imani Jordan. Jordan, a United Methodist minister, owns Deuteronomy 8:3 Cafe, Books, and Music at 1464 East 105th Street in Cleveland, Ohio.