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“Las Caras Lindas”: A reflection on Charlottesville and white supremacy

By Leticia Peguero on August 16, 2017

My favorite rendition of the song, “Las Caras Lindas,” is by Afro-Boricua icon and singer Ismael Rivera. Translated literally, he calls us to love “the beautiful faces of my black people.” He tells us that they are filled with love and with poetry. He sings that he is filled with happiness when black faces walk in front of him even though he knows that they are also filled with pain and the reality of life. “Maelo,” as he was known, draws me in when he sings about how proud he is of his blackness.

Since Saturday, I have contemplated what to say publicly about what took place in Charlottesville, if anything at all. My colleagues—white, black and brown—have offered their words of solidarity with racial justice movements and with democracy. Although I appreciate the words, I have become worried as I read them. I appreciate the show of support for the right side of justice and for black and brown people everywhere. And yet, my worry is bigger than my appreciation.

There are moments that are markers in time for us as people and as a nation. I see this as one of those moments. Not because of the racist violence that took place in Charlottesville and not because the current person in the White House reminded us of what we have always known about him—but because the veil that has allowed us to publicly deny the perniciousness of racism in this country has been lifted. We continue to deny it at our own risk.

My worry comes from the American tradition of forgetting and wanting moments to be without history and context. I worry that this moment makes it all too easy to point to the young white men carrying the swastikas and confederate flags who are driving terrorism into crowds and say they are the “white supremacists,” the faces of “evil and oppression.” While surely they came with their torches and guns to intimidate and hurt—aren’t these the faces of something that we have lived before? The American tradition of forgetting would have us say this is a new brand of hate, angst or something not yet named. I say NO.

The American tradition of forgetting would have us ask each other and ourselves: “How is this happening? This is not the America I know!” The American tradition of forgetting will soon have us say that the march this past weekend (and the marches to come) was white supremacy in its clearest manifestation. I would say that just as scary is how this racism lives in our stories, our narratives, our psyches and our institutions.

We run the risk of spending our time obsessed with the Steve Bannons of the world and not paying enough attention to how we perform white supremacy in our practices, our daily lives, in our policies and protocols. We run the risk of not interrogating the quiet everyday actions that give it breath and life. We run the risk of absolving ourselves of the biggest responsibility to be and create change because of the rally we attended, a picture from that rally we felt compelled to post on social media or the letter we sent to our professional community.

While I am afraid of the lynch mob, I am just as afraid of the institutional and structural nature of white supremacy in action—that sees my hair, my body and my right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness as a threat. It is white supremacy that consistently questions my name and is constantly intrigued by how a first-generation Afro-Latina, who did not speak English until first grade, runs a philanthropic institution. It is white supremacy built into policies that sends police in riot gear with weapons of war when brown and black people are protesting peacefully, and that continues to fill prisons with brown and black bodies at a disproportionate rate to our representation in this country. It is white supremacy that wants to believe in and litigate “reverse discrimination” in college admissions while denying a Black Yale law school graduate, who used his time of incarceration to fight for justice, acceptance into the Connecticut Bar. It is white supremacy that forgets the past.

So, my response is to remember—really try to remember instead of forget. I say, let’s remember America in all its greatness and all its truths and legacies. To fill my spirit, like Maelo did so many years ago, I will find resistance and love in “las caras lindas de mi gente negra…”