Memory and Identity:
Every personal recollection of the past is in part structured by the present. Black Lives Matter has lifted the lid on our defenses against a brutal past, unequal in its pain. The legacy of slavery, transformed into racism, inhabits every individual psyche in some form or another. We may to try to escape it, but it catches us unaware in stereotypes. It also slips in everyday language, or images. For some who still subscribe to racist behavior, systematic behavior continues its legacy.
As you read more about George below, imagine George or any person of color seeing Confederate flags flying, right wing neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan marching freely on state capitals, and hearing President Trump say in response to this “there are good people on both sides”.
My brother-in-law, George E. Reis, as you may recall, is an African American male, who is being interviewed by myself who is a white psychologist. George is married to my younger sister, Terri, who is white. We have known each other for over 30 years. This interview is a follow up to part one, which was conducted a few weeks ago.
My questions are in bold and George’s answers are written following each question.
George, I find it heroic that after all the racism and roadblocks that you experienced in college that you were able to carry on and graduate. Can you tell us what happened after graduation?
I was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to Vietnam. It was the height of the war and the Army needed young people to fight. Many of my buddies who were black were drafted. If you were black, you were much more likely to be put forward into battle. Many of them died.
According to Executive Order 9981, the US armed forces were integrated in post World War II, 1948. Terry Wallace, a reporter who covered the Vietnam War for NY Times noted, however, “The biggest threats in Vietnam were from potential race riots, not the Vietcong”. Commanders, according to historical records, failed to report 423 allegations of racial discrimination in the field. Although blacks represented 11 percent of the population, they comprised 23 percent of combat troops, and 25 percent of deaths. What was your experience?
The strange thing is that I got treated better in Vietnam than at home in the U.S. Even though the men my age were trying to kill Vietnamese, they were friendly to me. Once in Hanoi, I ordered two orders of soup from a small restaurant/stall. The person making the soup asked me to come back tomorrow to pick it up. Next day, I tried to find the place but was lost. I only had my order ticket. A Vietnamese woman noticed that I was lost, and asked if she could help. I explained the situation best that I could. She looked at the ticket and said that she knew where it was. She motioned to me to hop on the back of her motorcycle, and drove me there.
That would never have happened to me in the States. She wasn’t afraid that I was going to steal her motorcycle, or hurt her or kill her for that matter. And she wasn’t going to call the police on me.
George, that took place roughly 50 years ago, and you still recall it vividly. Why do you think it remains an indelible part of your memory?
Wherever I go in the States, whites suspect me of something. Call it paranoia, but I can sense when whites are uneasy with me, for whatever reason. If I go into a store to shop, the sales person usually follows me, like I’m going to steal something. And at nighttime, most whites are uncomfortable if I’m walking on the same side of the street. In Vietnam, a woman reaches out to help me and asks me to ride behind her on her motorcycle, with openness.
When your sister and I would look for a place to rent, she would always go first. Taking me along made things more difficult. In many cases, if I came along, the response would be “Sorry, it’s been rented” or the landlord would want more employment information or drag their feet on making a decision. We faced this all the time. It made us both angry, but we never showed it publically.
How do you control your emotions? I’m feeling angry for you. I’d want to strike out or at least start yelling. Much of black literature paints the picture of James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time”, or Richard Wright’s Native Son, where Bigger Thomas, a black man who kills a white person in South Side Chicago, dumps their body in a furnace to celebrate an act of freedom. Franz Fanon, black psychiatrist, responded that Bigger Thomas choose to act to create a world in anticipation of freedom.
My grandfather saved my life. He had only a sixth grade education, but he was a wise man, and gave me a sense of security. He loved me unconditionally, telling me “I’m proud of you”. He helped us control our emotions, and believe in ourselves. He knew that we could succeed moving forward. He was this way with my brother too. My brother became one of the first black sports writers in America.
I met white guys that I liked and learned something from. I met a Jewish guy, Rodney, who was a member of SDS (Students For a Democratic Society) and he nudged me into the protest movement. So, you’re not all bad.
How did you choose a career?
When I returned from Vietnam, I asked myself “How could I help”? That’s when I decided to become a probation officer in the black community in East Palo Alto, California. East Palo Alto is not far from Stanford University. It’s a ghetto, with lots of poverty, and gangs. I spent 20 years try to help kids stay out of trouble, go to school and escape their poverty. The University did little; maybe they did studies. Researchers like to study the victims of a faulty system, seldom the people who create it or live off of it.
Why did you leave after 20 years?
One word, ‘drugs’. Drugs hit the black community big time. Kids were either selling or buying dope or both. The big problem was ‘crack’ and cocaine; it ravaged our community. I worked long and hard hours, but couldn’t defeat it. It overwhelmed me to see so many kids strung out and desperate. I felt that I was losing the battle, so I quit.
I didn’t see a real choice. As soon as a youth would get out of being locked up, or sent to juvenile hall, most would start again. I can’t blame them in a way. There’s good money to be made in drugs. The problem is it’s a downward spiral, all for shiny objects and money. I’m not sorry that I quit, I am sorry though that I couldn’t be more effective. So many black lives lost.
Where are you now in life? How are you being treated?
I’m living in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. I probably will return to the States post pandemic. But I like it here. The Mexican families that I know treat me well and show me respect. The problem that I have is with American tourists who travel here from Texas, and the South. They bring back lousy memories; memories that I wish that I could forget, once and for all.