Children at a Black Lives Matter rally in Riverhead in July 2016. File photo: Denise Civiletti

I never expected the series of events that happened to me displaying blatant racism here; especially, after relocating from a predominantly black Caribbean island. I was shocked.

After living in St. Thomas for more than 10 years I did not feel the presence of white racism. When I returned to the states, it was so pronounced that I could cut it with a razor. I did not think it would be like this. It was not difficult for me to look a white person and tell right away if they were racist or not. They had this look about them that made me feel very uncomfortable. The sad thing about it: I was not looking for it; it was that pronounced. I think we live in a society right now where racism is so blatant with zero tolerance. It sometimes frightens and saddens me because diverse young people of all colors are the ones with that zero tolerance; it could become very explosive. It scares me what may happen in the long run, if it is not discussed and resolutions for an age-old problem are not sought.

This is what prompts me to take on this project. I felt it necessary. After retiring, I relocated back to Riverhead from St. Thomas, USVI due to health issues. Riverhead: the town where I was raised and lived for all of my childhood and youth. I left Riverhead after I graduated from high school to explore the world outside of Riverhead.

This is my untold story. The series of events I am about to relay may not be in chronological order; but it all happened from 2013 to 2017.

The first thing that was upsetting to me was to see a black mammy doll hanging from a truck on County Road 105 and Flanders Road.

I could not believe what I was seeing. My first instinct was to follow the vehicle, but I was alone so I didn’t. My second instinct was to call law enforcement, which I didn’t, because I felt I wouldn’t get any type of resolution.

Why would someone would be riding with a black mammy doll hanging from the back of their truck?

“From slavery through the Jim Crow era, the mammy image served the political, social, and economic interests of mainstream white America. During slavery, the mammy caricature was posited as proof that blacks — in this case, black women — were contented, even happy, as slaves. Her wide grin, hearty laugher, and loyal servitude were offered as evidence of the supposed humanity of the institution of slavery.” Read more.  

My next encounter with racism ocurred in Hampton Bays. I moved to Hampton Bays after getting over my health issues in 2014. It was a senior citizen complex on Springville Road. At that time there were only two other Afro-American tenants living in the complex. I was going to my part-time job at Macy’s right around the corner. When I came downstairs there was a KKK flyer on my windshield!

My first instinct was fright. My second instinct was anger. I went to work and was encouraged by co-workers to file a police report, which I did. I received a call from the seargent on duty that night that he sent out a patrol car to the complex and there were other cars with that flyer. This was still not enough. I still felt that I may be targeted.

About a week later, my right front tire had a slow leak. Mind you, I had just purchased this car. So inconveniently, I kept getting air in the tire. Finally, I took the car back to the dealer to check the tire. The service department informed me that the tire had to be replaced. The tire was punctured on the sidewall and could not be fixed. So, I had to live with that for a moment.

Now, I just purchased another car last year. Don’t you know that my tire was punctured again about a month before I was moving. The same tire on the same side of the car. I took it back to the dealer, sure enough they confirmed it had been punctured on the side. For me, this was no coincidence. At that moment I knew I had to move out of Hampton Bays. I remember my parents talking about Hampton Bays and the racist stories and the prescence of the KKK being an integral part of that town. They also said that one of the grand wizards actually lived in that town. I now live in Riverhead as of July of this year.

Here are snippets of an article on 27East.com written by Kyle Campbell on April 7, 2015 about KKK and Hampton Bays. “A self-described Ku Klux Klan member who lives in Hampton Bays has acknowledged that he’s behind the latest incident in which white supremacist literature was distributed in the hamlet — and he is claiming that the Southampton Town Police trampled his right to free speech by arresting and interrogating him. Since last summer, KKK materials containing anti-gay and anti-minority messages have popped up throughout Hampton Bays, often being left near people’s mailboxes or on their driveways. Most recently, a batch of fliers was found outside a senior housing complex on Springville Road”. 

My next incident happened at PSEG in Riverhead last year. I went to pay my bill that day. While waiting, I had a side conversation about Donald Trump’s devisive rhetoric with a lady. It wasn’t loud, but loud enough for a little white man to listen in. Well, on his way out, he approached me by invading my space and saying, very angrily — I quote— “Ya’ll need to give him a chance.” I bit my tongue and said mildly “no comment.” He kept on saying, “That’s what’s wrong with ya’ll people today.” By this time, I still held my peace and said politely again “no comment.” I don’t think that was enough because he kept on badgering me. Well this time, I put my finger up and pointed it right in his face. My eyes displayed anger! As if to say, if you say one more word to me, I will explode. Again I said, “No comment.” Obviously, he got the message and walked out mumbling. The people in PSEG, including the security guard, commended me on how I handled that situation.

I was later told by a white audience that I should have turned the other cheek. And that I should not have been talking about Donald Trump if it’s going to incite trouble. My reply was that I have been turning my cheek all my life, but it stops now. My next reply was that if I am having dinner in a public place and decided to talk about Donald Trump, I most certainly will, which is my freedom of speech.

We are constantly getting wake-up calls on racism. Each wake-up call gets more intense than the one before it. I fear what the next call will be. I must say that it is time for our black community to begin to unite on one front. We have been intentionally divided by the system, physically and mentally.

Physically is the creation of ghettos. When you take a group of people and restrict and enclose them in particular environment, it breeds separation. Ghettos are patrolled by policemen to keep us in line (#police brutality). Drugs are ciphered into the community as a means to create so much dissension, resulting in black-on-black crime. Poverty is almost inescapable. The school sytem is broken. And the list goes on and on.

Mentally, blacks are overcome with a slave mentality which dictates how we think and continue to be submissive. This mentality keep us in slavery. It is time for a cleansing of the mind.

Our ancesters survived by the belief, trust and faith in God. We can take that strength and renew ourselves. We can still take that faith and make it through this time in history.

It is time for us to forgive but never forget. It is time to lift one another up and empower our strength. It is time for humility, through being humble. It is time for love which sits at the front of the table. It is time to renew our values as people. It is time to break the chains to feel what frredom is really like.It is time to come to the table in peace. It is time to step out on faith. It is time to come together as one people to overcome the residuals of slavery. It is time to take a look in the mirror to find the true people who we are and can be. We must represent at the table not only when there is a crisis, but at all times.

Praying Hands
These hands are symbolic of our Higher Power and the faith thereof. They represent the intrinsic value and the significance of our struggles in all forms of injustices through racism. Through these hands we were able to perservere and stand steadfast in the midst of the storm. Without these hands we are rendered helpless. We will continue to pray with these hands to guide us in the right direction for solutions, for strength, power, and the courage to overcome racism in America.

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Lawrence Street is an educator and an advocate for education reform focusing on children with special needs. He has taught in Riverhead and New York City and held education administration positions in the U.S. Virgin Islands. A native of Riverhead, he has always been a proponent for social justice and community awareness.