More Annoyed Than Frightened

“I did not really know what would happen. I didn’t feel especially frightened. I felt more annoyed than frightened.”—Rosa Parks

Rosa Parks was given an honorable ceremony (including a viewing of her casket in Washington D.C., usually reserved for statesmen and military personnel) following her death on October 24, 2005. This is much deserved for her courageous stand against segregation and Jim Crow. The South and most of this country changed for the better following the valiant efforts of Rosa and the many other countless, and often unnamed, boycott leaders and participants during the 1950s and 1960s. We remember Rosa Park—and we should. But many fought this battle and won. It’s their blood, sweat, and tears we should also remember.

When I first heard news of Rosa’s death, I was waiting in the WOR-AM radio station late that Monday night in Manhattan for in-studio interview with Joey Reynolds. Later on the air, Joey, a long-time friend of justice and equality, mentioned Rosa’s name and his voice cracked. I, too, felt the emotion of knowing such a significant person of our time had passed on.

For many of us—African American, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Native American, and poor white, progressive and revolutionary—for anyone who loved the dignity and vitality of this struggle, Rosa Parks will forever stand for the righteous acts of defiance that we must continue against class power, official racism, and economic & cultural depravity in our country.

Yes, much has changed; yes, we have a long way to go.

This past weekend, I took my 17-year-old son Ruben and his girlfriend Katrina to ride the subway from North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley to LA’s Union Station downtown. I wanted them to see a part of Los Angeles that most people don’t see—or even know exists.

From the Union Station, we went through Chinatown with its many shops, restaurants, and people. From there we walked down to Broadway, past First Street and further south where we hanged out in the crowded sidewalks and side streets where Mexicans and Central Americans shop, talk, eat, hang out, and just enjoy their day.

We walked through part of the Garment District, reminder of any major city in Latin America where people sold their wares. Then we walked further east to the edges of Skid Row—the country’s largest enclave of homeless people (the LA area now has more homeless people than any other U.S. city).

I was homeless in downtown LA one summer in my teens—living on the street, using heroin, sleeping in alleys, alcoves, all-night movie theaters, and churches (in the days when they used to leave their doors opened). During the day the public library was my main sanctuary. Over the years, long after I had stabilized myself with jobs, writing, political work, and family, I revisited these streets in my work among the homeless here and in Chicago, doing poetry workshops and readings, in the 1980s and 1990s.

That Sunday when we walked through Skid Row there were still vestiges of tents and carton boxes on the sidewalks (many more pop up as you go deeper into the Row). From where we walked, Los Angeles and 5th streets, the world became darker and foreboding. I saw a lot more Mexicans and Central Americans on the sidewalks than I had seen before (although the majority of the homeless on Skid Row are still African Americans).

One row of tents and boxes was along a parking lot fence, shadowed by the skyscrapers with banks, offices, condominiums, and oil companies. Ruben and Katrina quickly grasped the dramatic contrast—which makes this US-bred poverty sometimes feel worse than in places like Calcutta.

I admired how these smart and beautiful young people also had the heart to understand that this reality should not exist in our city, our state, our country (or in the world, for that matter).

This image of extreme wealth and extreme poverty helped bring home the sobering lesson—a lesson Ruben and Katrina would probably not get in most schools—that we have to do more today to bring true justice, peace, and sanity to the world. This doesn’t mean that Rosa Parks lived and died in vain. Hardly. She was one of the shining beacons that carried many revolutionaries and activists through decades of struggle.

I told Ruben and Katrina not to be frightened of Skid Row. But, as Rosa said, they weren’t frightened as much as annoyed. It’s time more of us got annoyed enough to strategize, organize, create (sing, do poems, dance, make music, and more) to help remove the façade of freedom and equality that covers the face of this country.

Beneath the root is our real humanity, our real heart, our real consciousness to truly make right what Rosa Parks began to do when she refused to sit on the back of that bus fifty years ago.

Let’s keep the fight going—although we may as well be smarter, wiser, more imaginative, passion-filled, with vision and deeper language. That’s the best way to truly honor Rosa Parks.

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