Taught to Fear

The Soviet Union’s goal is to plant its flag in Independence Square in Philadelphia on July 4, 1976

(Radio evangelist Jack Van Impe c 1970)

I woke last night in fear.  York, PA.  Sometime in the late 1960s…

Taught to fear.

But wait, long before that… we were always afraid and our deepest fears concerned that vaguely understood world straddling threat from the east: communism. I heard it on the radio every Sunday on the drive to church.  Godless communism would destroy us.  At night I cried in my bed begging Jesus to save me from the coming fire that would engulf the world.

I never feared my dad.  I never feared my mom.  Ours was a peaceful, loving home.

But communism lurked at the door and would be our doom.  This is why my brother and cousins shipped off to Viet Nam. And the evidence of its advance was in the news, not just in “Indo-China”, but in Africa, at the wall in Germany, and, in 1968 in the invasion of Czechoslovakia.  We studied scripture.  We were taught the signs: signs of an impending war in the Middle East that would sweep everything away.  But before that the utter destruction of our homes.  This was the narrative that slept with me in many years of endless night.

But communism was not just out there, it was here, in America and we knew its face.  It was Martin Luther King, the Black Panthers, Angela Davis, and other subversives like Tommy Smith and John Carlos.  Their hatred of America was ill-defined and their links to communism vague.  It was all very confusing but, at least in my home, I was taught to fear them as the vanguard of forces that would sweep us away.  And if Europe had its Prague, the US had its Watts, its Detroit, and all its other burning cities.  It was all of a piece and we were taught to fear it.

York, PA is not a suppressed memory, it is one that just somehow faded for a while.  But last night it visited with a reminder that what we are taught–especially what we are taught via defining and emotive narratives–stays with us for a lifetime.

I breathed in the recollection that was anchored where the affective lessons learned are stored…

I am in a car with my pastor (can’t remember why) returning from some trip and we are in “downtown York”:  a place that had the same signification as “the 7th Ward” in Lancaster near where I live. A place where brown and black people subsist.  A place of violence.

We pull up to a red-light, windows down on a summer day.  A car pulls up next to us.  I see him.  A boy my age.  He’s black.  I smile, he smiles.  I wave.

“Don’t you dare do that!” says my pastor as he quickly rolls up the window and casts a stern eye my way.

“They will be out of that car so fast and in this one, you won’t know what happened.”

That is all.  I drop my eyes.  I wonder why they would do that.  But I am afraid.

And in the dark last night, I realize that I was taught to fear–taught to fear black people.  I was taught to see them as an existential threat to my life.

James Baldwin told his nephew that white people had to believe “for innumerable reasons” that black men were inferior to white men.  And though many of them knew better, to act on that knowledge represented a danger.  The danger was the fear that they would lose their identity.

I talk to my sister–15 years my elder–from time to time. We ponder our very strange upbringing and we return again and again to the fears of so many things that still lurk in our minds and hearts.  We have accepted that we will go to our graves with these fears.

We also realize that we have spent the better part of our adult lives unlearning and unlearning and unlearning the things we were taught to fear.

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