I had my MAGA kid moment many years ago, also while playing drums.
One summer day, long ago, I sat on the lawn near Morrison Hall, home of the Music Department at UC Berkeley, and played tabla. Back in the day, when I took summer tabla classes with Maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain, I often would take my tabla outside during lunchtime and practice the latest lessons. I wanted to sound somewhat proficient at that evening’s class. Zakir ji called the compositions he taught us “basic stuff.” I called them finger-twisters. But when I practiced regularly, and turned off my worrying mind, my fingers often knew what to do.
I probably ended up near Hertz because the lawns near the Law School, where I worked, were damp from watering or kisses of morning dew, unable or unwilling to let go of the blades of grass. I didn’t want to get my butt, or worse my instrument wet, so I drifted northward. The pathways held the usual noontime traffic, students leaving one class to another or to lunch. I just kept playing, into what I was doing. And then he showed up. Tall, white, wearing shorts, he looked at me playing and then started shouting things. Or maybe he was chanting things. I tried not to pay attention. I wanted to remain in my zone. I kept playing.
But he continued. Though he stood at a distance, I felt uncomfortable. He wanted a reaction, and I wouldn’t give it to him. Finally, he struck a pose, the crane-like pose that the Karate Kid took in one of the movies, one leg raised and his arms over his head. He wasn’t close enough to hit me, but it still made me feel very uncomfortable. He was laughing. I kept playing. Finally, he got mad that I wouldn’t engage with him, said something snarky about not taking a joke, and departed.
A joke? To him, perhaps. It clearly was meant to be at my expense. I’ve had folks snap their fingers or even dance while I played. That wasn’t what this dude was about. He didn’t get into what I was doing, he simply mocked it. I could see it in his eyes and self-satisfied smirk. Someone playing music in front of the music building should not have caused such derision. At the same time, I think that if I had been playing Brahms on a cello, he still would have found ways to make sport of it. But a black dude sitting crosslegged on the ground playing hand drums? Fodder too good to pass up.
This incident occurred in the early 90s. How deeply disturbing that nearly 30 years later, in Washington, DC, another drummer, a Native American elder, had his dignity accosted by a white kid awash with privilege. How often has Mr. Nathan Phillips had the eyes of hate invade his space? How often has he had to deflect hostility while simply existing?
Truth be told, MAGA kids have existed throughout the history of this country. They ruthlessly targeted and slaughtered Mr. Phillips’s ancestors. They sneered at 6 year-old Ruby Bridges when she tried to integrate an all-white school in New Orleans, Louisiana. They glared at young black folks sitting at white lunch counters. They burned white with rage while beating Rodney King on the ground. They smirked with contempt while spitting on Congressman John Lewis just a few short years ago as he walked out of the Capitol, a building he has worked in for decades. In 1965 when he was a young man, Congressman Lewis endured a near fatal beating while marching for voter rights on the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. The MAGA kids that spat on him probably didn’t know, or didn’t care.
A MAGA kid sits in the White House. He began his presidential campaign with the words, “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists,” while speaking about Mexicans and Mexican-Americans. Now he wants to building a wall on the Mexico-US border, a monument in celebration of everything MAGA kids hold dear, a symbol of hate and intolerance.
Mr. Phillips’s silent bravery in the face of hate recalls the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And we should celebrate his resilience along with Dr. King’s. But do me a favor. Don’t spend this King holiday weekend quoting “I Have A Dream” unless you are willing to do the hard work of thinking about what you have done or haven’t done to make the dream of personhood for all peoples a reality. The MAGA kid who harassed Mr. Phillips clearly hasn’t done this. I doubt anyone in his life has guided him toward such wisdom.
If we don’t have a conversation about racism, white privilege, hate, and all their manifestations, then 50 years from now we will still have MAGA kids among us, because we will have done nothing to prevent their continued creation.
© 2019, gar. All rights reserved.