As a child I liked the feeling of dizziness. One of my favorite methods to get a buzz was via the desk chair in my father’s study. When he was away from home for work, I used to spin around and around. One afternoon, after a particularly satisfying whirl, I saw strange letters on the desktop. I believe I was six or seven, so the year was 1966 or 1967. I had just learned how to read. The letters were akin to ransom notes as they were constructed from magazine headlines, glued onto the sheet. Regardless of their random fonts and colors, they were legible to me as the letters were large. The top one read: “We are going to get you you n_gger-loving k_ke.”
When my father came home, he explained to me why he received these letters and told me not to worry. He said something like, “They just want to scare me and make me stop doing what I do.” He worked for the Ford Foundation and funded civil rights organizations. I remember him saying something about the John Birch Society, though I imagine now the letters could have been sent by the Ku Klux Klan. He explained the meanings of those hateful epthets and made me promise that I would never use them for those words cause wounds. I do not think that I completely understood that I was of Jewish ancestry until then as he was very secular and we never observed the High Holidays. I do not think I completely understood that people were divided into colors and religions though my non-Jewish mother explained to me one day that my best friend was Black (which also was a way to tell me that I was white). We were both enrolled in the Jewish Community Nursery School in Syracuse, New York—her African-American mother had converted to Judaism, unlike my mother who was a fervent atheist, and a burgeoning feminist. My mother asked me if I knew that we were different skin tones; I did not know this. What I knew was that we were neighbors and we went to the same school and I liked her. I just did not realize that my skin was paler than my friend’s skin or that she was different from the other kids at school who were presumably Jews of European ancestry. I did not understand that skin tone mattered so such. Her family may not have received letters of hatred like ours, but I can imagine the racism and anti-Semitism and sexism my nursery school friend has endured in her life, let alone what her parents had to overcome in order to be together and raise a Black Jewish girl.
Those horrible notes on my father’s desk forced me to begin to learn about race, ethnicity, and identity. This lesson was under the threat of violence, as I imagine it is for many children, particularly African-American children when they first encounter the hatred that exists outside their family and their immediate community. My sense of safety had been kidnapped. I knew that my difference–and that of my family–put me at risk from someone unseen, someone who wanted to hurt my father, someone who knew where my family lived.
I wonder if I also learned that my father’s affinity with the civil rights movement could be seen by others as a betrayal to his purported race, his privileged status as white due to being an Ashkenazi Jew, and hence my own privilege as white. But as a gay man, my privilege as a white male from a well-educated, upper middle class background did not ensure my physical safety outside the home. My refusal to act in accordance to traditional white male modes of masculinity has been repeatedly punished by schoolmates and strangers–I was name-called as a child and teenager and I have been bashed twice in my life. The homophobia that was expressed through violence has left scars on my body; whereas anti-Semitism was something I learned about by engaging the history of the Jewish people. I certainly know that anti-Semitism is increasing under our current regime but my body has not been harmed because of my ethnicity and I have never been called historically-charged epithets, at least to my face.
To these racist organizations that went after my father, my family was breaking rules by crossing lines that I did not know existed. If he were a Jew who kept silent about social justice, they probably would have left him alone even as they hated him. But as a Jew that was succeeding in diverting corporate funds to Black and Hispanic organizations, he became a target. There was no way for me to process all this. Indeed, in some ways, I still cannot process it, as injustice is unacceptable and does not make sense even when its roots can be found. It makes me feel dizzy, but not the right kind of dizzy.
When my father explained the hateful notes, I pretended to be reassured, but the fear of a racist, anti-Semitic villain metamorphized into a monster in my unconscious. This monster was like one of those I had seen on Creature Features–a series that showed monster, zombie, and vampire movies that I loved as a child even though it gave me nightmares sometimes. The monster in my unconscious lacked intelligence and was mute, but it was relentless and determined, seemingly controlled by another. Though it was humanoid, its skin was reptilian. The fear of this monster began to wake me up in the middle of the night. I would go and sit in front of the living room window and guard the home. The beating of my heart became a soundtrack of sorts—something I heard outside my own body; the beat became the footsteps of the monster drawing near. I was scared but I knew that it was my job to act like the sentinel for my family so that we would not be caught sleeping by the monster coming to get us. Most nights my mother would find me there, and tell me to go back to bed, and reluctantly I would go, but some nights I would come back, waiting, worrying, wanting to protect. One evening, just too exhausted to keep up pretenses and hide my secret, I confessed to my mother why I was there—to alert us to the coming of the John Birch Society monster who had written letters to Papa. My mother stopped reprimanding me and consoled me with a big hug, holding me like I was still her baby. My mommy made me feel safe again. Finally, I was consoled enough to sleep through the night.
With the murderous attacks of black men by the police and other racist, anti-Semitic, and transphobic and homophobic attacks during this current regime, I realize that I was not wrong as a child. There is a hateful, racist monster in the United States. Like so many others right now, I am waking up in the middle of the night to see if anything else terrible has happened while I slept—to see if the monster has attacked again. This monster is making so many of us dizzy—and it is not the good kind of dizzy. And we do have to stand guard against this monster, for it can emerge anywhere, and too many police have been trained to act on its behalf. Each of us must be prepared to act as a sentinel, alert to protect our fellow citizens from violent hatred and learn how to be anti-racist in our daily lives. This way perhaps we can keep the monster at bay, and we can rebuild our democracy.
Edward D. Miller was born in Brooklyn. He is Professor of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island and Coordinator of the Film Studies Certificate Program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His publications include the books Emergency Broadcasting and 1930s American Radio and Tomboys, Pretty Boys, and Outspoken Women: The Media Revolution of 1973. His creative writing includes the chapbooks The Rock in the Middle of the Road and the forthcoming The Moment and the Sequence. He lives with his husband and their Chatterdale (Chihuahua mixed with Patterdale Terrier). Much of his online writing can be accessed here.