Us and Them
In a very trendy Hong Kong club one night in the late 80s, I had the very good fortune to meet five men on R&R with the US Navy - all officers and all beautiful black men.
We spoke and danced and shared laughter about their oceanic escapades until the time to return to their ship beckoned.
I gave my name card to the senior officer of the group, a man of great clarity named Kent Roberts and we met up regularly over the proceeding four days until their ship continued its merry way to a destination unknown.
Kent and I exchanged letters over the months to follow. He would send me animated drawings with positive messages. I kept the one of a Sherlock Holmes-type detective looking at footprints through a magnifying glass with the phrase: ‘We must help Glynis Wozniak find her inner beauty’ on my wall. We met up the next time he was in Hong Kong and this continued for a few years.
On one such layover, I sat in a bar with Kent and Chinese friend, Billie listening to Kent regale us with his eloquence and charm. The bar was quite busy with American naval crew from two ships in town and the atmosphere was lively and fun.
This is really difficult for me to write as I recall this memory, but two marines walked past our table and one of them snarled at me: ‘Nigger lover!’
I was so stunned and shocked and saddened and literally froze. Kent, in full flow, didn’t notice. It was Billie who saw my withdrawn face and asked me what was wrong. It was Kent that insisted I tell them when I kept saying, ‘Nothing.’
Once I finally explained what had happened, Kent calmly and maturely approached the two marines and identified himself with his ship and rank and asked them for the same.
They refused to give it and Kent, as the superior officer, utilised all the naval formalities, but to no avail.
Kent told them that he would be reporting this and we left abruptly. These two men followed us outside threatening Kent (I remember little Billie quietly tucking his keys in his hands just in case they attacked us) and yelled disgusting racist abuse as we walked to find a cab. I have never been so upset or shaken up in my life.
After identifying their ship, Kent made a formal complaint and asked me to do the same.
I believe I could identify those Vanilla Ice lookalikes to this day.
After some weeks, the commander of the ship wrote saying that the culprits could not be found.
I offered to fly out at my own expense to wherever their next layover was so I could identify them, but the commander’s next reply aloofly stated: ’I assure you, there is no racism in the US Navy.’
A commander of an entire battleship refusing to believe an officer or myself made me feel sick, angry and very sad.
A part of me would like to say that the whole thing blew over and was ‘forgotten’. Just one racist example amongst possibly many that Kent had had to deal with, but I’m sad to say that is not how it ended.
In 1996, I received a letter from Kent’s brother Frank, also a naval officer who I had met on his Hong Kong layovers and kept in contact with.
Before I read the accompanying letter, I was really confused to see an Order of Service from the funeral of Kent Roberts.
In complete shock, I read of Frank’s pain as he said how important he thought it was to let me know what had happened.
For the lightest of perceived misdemeanours, the gentle, loving, intelligent and professional Kent had been put in hand and ankle restraints then beaten to death by 5 white cops in San Diego.
So saddened, I called Frank to speak to him about it in person.
As the judge released those responsible for Kent’s death, one of them smiled and winked as he walked by Kent’s mother. Perhaps the smile said ‘I knew we’d get away with it.’ Perhaps the wink said ‘I feel superior to you and your dead son!’
I don’t know, but what I do know is racism has been rife for decades – hundreds of years – and all the more so in the States.
People – from those two white marines and their commanding officer to the cops who took Kent’s life – have been literally getting away with murder.
When I arrived back in the UK after a 16-year spell in Asia, I was appalled at the ‘casual’ racism that goes on. The racist jokes about such and such a race; the stereotyping of their foibles. Yet, this is where it starts: telling jokes that you think are harmless without thinking about the long-term impact that it can have on people’s thinking. Jokes – and abuse being covered up within the Navy, the Police and every other level it exists at.
I have never been able to understand why it was those fop-frilled explorers thought themselves better than the people they discovered on their travels. Is another race inferior because they don’t use a silver knife and fork? Or wear clothes? Or could it be that we can learn something from each other if we offer mutual respect?
Every time I hear of another cop killing or the over-use of force, I find it depressing – and it’s not even happening to ‘me’ – yet it is because we’re all in this world together.
Why do I never kill a spider or a fly, my young children asked me? Because we share the world.
I realise that it has taken me a long time for me to find my voice. I couldn’t speak up directly to those two marines then: I could today. Today, I would have spoken calmly and assertively yet loud and clear and offered severe words as I, unfortunately, often have to do because there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’; there is only us. All of us ~ together.
So yes, all lives do matter, but unless you as a white person have to live in fear of being shot when asked for your ID, or brutalised or killed, then let’s focus on #blacklivesmatter until we genuinely are all equal.
Today, the photo of Kent (L) and brother Frank (R) are on my wall on a message that Kent would have loved
from The Invitation by Oriah Mountain Dreamer:
‘It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.
It doesn’t interest me how old you are. I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool for love, for your dream, for the adventure of being alive.
It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon. I want to know if you have touched the centre of your sorry, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shrivelled and closed from fear of further pain. I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it.
I want to know if you can be with joy, mine or your own, if you can dance with wildness and let the ecstasy fill you to the tips of your fingers and toes without cautioning us to be careful, to be realistic, to remember the limitations of being human.
It doesn’t interest me if the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself; if you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul; if you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy.
I want to know if you can see beauty; even when it’s not pretty, every day, and if you can source your own life from its presence.
I want to know if you can live with failure, yours and mine, and still stand on the edge of the lake and shout to the silver of the full moon, ‘Yes!’
It doesn’t interest me to know where you live or how much money you have. I want to know if you can get up, after a night of grief and despair, weary and bruised to the bone, and do what needs to be done to feed the children.
It doesn’t interest me who you know or how you came to be here. I want to know if you will stand in the centre of the fire with me and not shrink back.
It doesn’t interest me where or what or with whom you have studied. I want to know what sustains you, from the inside, when all else fails away. I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments.’