Risë Kevalshar Collins graduated from Carnegie-Mellon University with a drama degree and has a history as an actor, including on Broadway. She did her graduate studies at the University of Houston, earned a master’s degree in social work, has been licensed and has worked in Texas, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, and has served in mental health, oncology, hospice, the prison system and in extended care. She is a student in the creative writing department of Boise State University where her focus is creative non-fiction and poetry.
Originally published September 2020
My first name is Risë, given by my mother in honor of her favorite opera singer, Risë Stevens. At age three, an older male relative nicknamed me “Sapphire.” I thought it was for my September birthstone. No. It was after a negatively stereotypical battle axe character— the wife of Kingfish, a scheming man who’d do anything for a buck on the Amos ‘n’ Andy television show. Originally, Amos ‘n’ Andy was a radio program created and acted by two white men who were familiar with minstrel traditions. Later, it was one of the first Black sitcoms on white-run television. My mother disallowed the nickname. Several years thereafter, I began a forty-year boycott of television due to its denigration of Black people.
White supremacy is the belief in the superiority of the white race, and that it should therefore dominate other races—especially the Black race. It is the ideology of supremacy and the practices resulting therefrom. White people were and are the colonial power of America. American apartheid—discrimination by white people against others allegedly due to race—was and is born of white supremacy. It’s said that such discrimination is about race. But it is really about dominance—particularly economic dominance—heartless power, soulless greed. It is time to decolonize America.
At four years old, I preened in the mirror as I recited my first poem:
Ohhh, looka there
isn’t that little colored girl pretty and fair…
The darker the skin tone, the more nefarious the racism, internalized racism, and colorism. Given this, it was a feat of my brilliant mother that I considered my young dark and incandescent self fair—as in beautiful. White beauty was the societal beauty standard. Already, I was setting my own.
Repeatedly, white people say to me, “You and I have different perspectives. I haven’t had your experience.” Right. In an apartheid system, different groups of people do have a different experience and a different perspective. This is because of racism—the structural discrimination, institutional discrimination, systemic discrimination that has been built in, driven in, baked in, and that is held in place by power, policy, and practice. That is the issue. And, due to American white supremacy and the resulting apartheid, discrimination has, so far, bled into and through my Black American life. Racism is so normalized in American culture that it is seemingly unnoticeable to many white people. Now is the time for systemic American apartheid to be brought to light of day, flushed out, cleared out, rooted out. It will take work.
As a 5-year-old in Texas, I was fascinated by the countertop of the tall meat case in the neighborhood Black-owned grocery store. Upon it stood several clear three-gallon glass jars. One was stuffed with fat-filled pink pickled pig feet; in the second, pink pickled pig ears fanned wide; in the third twirled clustered pink pickled pig tails—all for sale to eat.
The razor tang of salt, brine, and grease remains in my memory.
In the refrigerated lower section of the meat case lay thick rolls of bologna, summer sausage, blocks of electric orange American cheese, piles of ox tails, cow tongues, and folds of bloody liver. More intriguing were the large quivering squares of gelatin and fat-filled hog head cheese, pork neck bones, hog maws, and odiferous grey chitlins. “Slave food,” Mama said.
Historically, the person who owned the slaves owned the pigs. The owner ate the pork chops, the pork roast, and the ham; the enslaved ate the appendages—head, ears, neck, stomach, intestines, tails, and feet. When Black folks got a pork butt, we were said to be “eatin’ high off the hog.” I shimmied my jejune hips and sang along with Bessie Smith, “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer.”
How might 250 years of a slave diet rendered tradition—we were enslaved for a century longer than we’ve been free—contribute to underlying health concerns that cause Black people to be more susceptible to contracting and dying from COVID-19? And, what part might 150 years of Apartheid-induced poverty post enslavement play?
In the 1950s, I lived in Houston’s Fifth Ward, a segregated Black community. Next door to my house was the abiding neighborhood Black-owned Dean’s Grocery Store. Across the street was the Kelly Courts housing project—a city block of bright orange unrelieved brick cubes of prison cell-like apartments, with tiny square windows built by white-run government for Negroes after the war. Years later, a new Asian store opened kitty-corner to Mr. Dean’s store and competed for the business of the Black people in the project. At that time, to my knowledge, Asians didn’t live in our neighborhood and, wherever they did live, it was doubtful that Blacks owned businesses there. They were rude to us. They didn’t hire us or socialize with us, except to undersell low quality food to poor Black people. Their store threatened to put Mr. Dean’s store out of business. However, after a time, they must’ve become friendlier because there were a few dark skinned Amerasian children playing in the project, apparently being parented by single mothers. It is particularly painful when one oppressed group colludes in the further oppression of another oppressed group. Predatory capitalism is economic apartheid. Stop.
Just beyond our front yard fence, in the wide muddy ditch that ran the length of our house, red-whiskered crawfish swam. There were no sidewalks. Under an unforgiving sun on those mean Fifth Ward streets, tar boiled up and stuck to my shoe bottoms in long Black strands like hot bubblegum.
Last week I read that racist government policies have contributed to the Fifth Ward neighborhood now being one of Houston’s cancer clusters. It has a 48% cancer rate. White politicians relegated segregated Black neighborhoods to areas where incinerators, landfills, waste sites, and industry were placed. How might longstanding housing injustice and environmental apartheid contribute to African Americans having underlying health conditions that leave us more susceptible to contracting and dying from COVID-19?
To date, my life has been lived within a system built on white supremacy and bolstered by American apartheid. If you are an American, so has yours. How palatable your experience has or hasn’t been is dependent, in large measure, upon whether or not you were born with white or near-white skin. White supremacy and apartheid are foundational to our nation. It looks like an issue of race when, in fact, it is an issue of political and economic hegemony. It is time for this to be faced and acknowledged. It is time for it to end.
Because we’ve had 401 years of unequal relationships, we’ve also had 401 years of unequal experiences though we’ve lived in the same land. There were 250 years of slavery; there was the post-Civil War promise of 40 acres and a mule that were to be given to former slaves that was revoked; there were Jim Crow laws and then Black Codes—endless white supremacist practices regulating the places where Blacks could and could not gather or be seen at night, which jobs we were and were not allowed to do, how much or little we were paid, our economic advancement and security or lack thereof, where we could and could not live, the air we breathed, the food we ate, the water we drank. Today, in Flint, Michigan, a predominately Black area, even after several years, clean water is barely a human right. I doubt it would have taken three years or more to remove lead from the drinking water in Santa Barbara, Aspen, or Sun Valley. Moreover, there have been decades of mass incarceration and no-wage to low-wage prison labor. Time’s up. No more prisons. Create jobs. Build homes.
If one is white, whether or not one’s family owned slaves, one benefits from white privilege resulting from historic and enduring racism. Though I am not enslaved, historic and enduring racism have been and continue to be to my detriment. Today, after 401 years of economic injustice, the wealth of Black families is one tenth of the wealth of white families, though Blacks did two and a half centuries of the country’s heavy lifting. Reparations—a means to balance income inequality and wealth inequity—are a national debt, a governmental duty. To be just, we must militate for reparations, to include—in part—providing no-cost to low-cost education, and unbiased healthcare to African Americans.
Please read: Beloved, by Toni Morrison, and The Book of Negroes, by Canada’s Lawrence Hill. This same book was published in the U.S. as Someone Knows My Name.
Please read: “The Case for Reparations” by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic.
In the last week of June 2020, I hope for a time without further murder of Black people by white people, and without further murder of Black people by the police. I long for time to sit in sunshine in my patio garden overstuffed with potted plants, tree roses, raised vegetable beds, and lilies. I am holding space to decompress; time to watch red gladiolus bloom in memory of my mother; time to see hummingbirds drink deeply from hanging fuchsia baskets; time with the dogs, cat, birds, squirrels, deer. Time to just be, and to remember.
I recall my mother, an innately elegant woman, saying, “I may have been penniless, but I have never been poor.” I remember it being said of a woman who was much like my mother: “She’s got silk tastes and a sow’s purse.” Neither of them had, but deserved to have had, opportunity equal to that—not only of white women—but of white men.
Before I started school, my mother made a request of me. She said, “Risë, promise Mommy you will never be a maid.” She was planting seeds of aspiration within me that were higher than those preordained for me by an apartheid society.
Growing up, some may not have questioned, but I did question why Black people often had so little, why white people often had so much, how they got it, and why they didn’t share. Later, I began connecting the intergenerational dots. Those who owned the people and the pigs ate the pork chops and the ham. Those who owned the people and the pigs also owned the houses and the land. Those who owned the people, the pigs, the houses, and the land, also ran the institutions and made the laws. Those who owned the people, the pigs, the houses, the land, who ran the institutions and made the laws, then passed their people, their pigs, and their profits down to their heirs; and they promoted policies, practices and laws that they created in their own favor, and in favor of those who looked like them, so that they could forever secure what they had gained.
Those who were owned, owned nothing; they ate what their owners threw away; they passed down their love, their pain, and their purpose.
Whether or not all white Americans recognize it, or want it to be so, systemic structures of white supremacy and apartheid, implicit and explicit, remain in place. First we become aware. Then we divest.
Read this: Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Professor Ibram X. Kendi.
White people in Bonners Ferry, in Boise, and elsewhere say to me, “It’s so sad, but it happened in the past, how long should we feel bad?”
In 1619, The White Lion was the first slave ship to land in America. In the 1700s, armed whites organized themselves as slave patrols to monitor and discipline Black slaves, and to capture enslaved runaways. These slave patrols were forebears of the modern police force. In 2020, police brutality toward Black people remains a source of social terror.
Too often, in interacting with Blacks, police officers still operate as slave catchers for a justice system that sends ‘just us’ into a prison system that still operates as a plantation system where Black men still provide no-wage to low-wage labor.
In St. Maries and in Boise, I hear white riffs on this white refrain: “I don’t feel any shame, carry any guilt, bear any blame for what my forefathers did.”
Per the NAACP, between 1882 and 1968 nearly 4,743 people were lynched in the U.S. Of those, 3,446 were Black, and most lynchings took place in the south. Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas, respectively, had the highest numbers of lynchings. Although Franklin D. Roosevelt denounced lynching in the mid-1930s, he did not commit to support an anti-lynching bill. In 1939, Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit.” In 1964, Nina Simone sang “Mississippi Goddam.” In 2018, the U.S. Senate first passed an anti-lynching bill. In 2020, the House of Representatives passed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act. Still, to my knowledge, no anti-lynching legislation has yet been signed into federal law. In 2020, a Washington DC football team, under corporate pressure, is at long last poised to change its culturally offensive name. In 2020, Mississippi is, after so long a time, set to remove the Confederate emblem from its flag. Traditions die hard. But, unlike in 2019—in 2020, NFL players will take a knee on the field before the flag during the national anthem in protest of injustice.
Concerning police brutality in America, a Boise neighbor asks, “Do things like that still happen?”
In the first six months of 2020, modern-day lynchings of American Black people remain commonplace. An unarmed Black man was shot-gunned down by a white father and son as he jogged and as another white man filmed the act; an unarmed Black man was twice shot in his back by a white policeman as the Black man, fearful of being arrested for drinking and then falling asleep in his car, ran; an unarmed Black woman was shot dead in her bed by white no-knock police as she slept; a Black man died, unarmed and bound, lying face down in the street with his neck under the weight of a white man’s knee.
In Boise white people repeatedly say: “Your viewpoint and experience are different from mine.”
In an apartheid system whites and Blacks do have a different experience. Our viewpoint and experience differ depending on which side of colonialism and racial discrimination we land. Those who look like the colonizer have a softer landing. Whites were not enslaved for 250 years. No. Whites reserved that special suite in hell for Blacks. White men are not incarcerated at five times the rate of Black men who, after being disproportionately imprisoned, and after being given greater time for lesser crimes, are not, without compromise, restored their right to vote. Blacks don’t seek to gain or to maintain political power over whites by suppressing the white right to vote. Whites haven’t had to fight for all of their civil rights. Per the Economic Policy Institute, in 2019, Black unemployment was at least twice as high as white unemployment in fourteen states. Black unemployment is significantly higher than that of whites. White men earn more money than white women, and white women earn more money than Black women. Whites are safe to sleep in their beds, to leave the doors to their homes unlocked and open, to walk on their streets, to jog around their neighborhoods, to drive in their cars, to park at public rest stops, to camp alone in the woods, to pray in their churches, to have an encounter with a police officer and live to see another day. Blacks—not so much.
When conversing with a Dutch friend with whom I share mutual affection — possibly about Dutch-descended Afrikaners’ long rape and rule of the Black South African people, their resources, and their land with impunity, and likely about pervasive American racism which European immigrants absorb, and from which they benefit —she said, “You hate me because I’m white!”
“No,” I said, “I hate you because you’re stupid.”
Often, when addressing white racism, white people forfeit common sense. Like my friend, many otherwise intelligent white people suddenly go dense, deaf, dumb, blind, amnesiac, and numb when it comes to acknowledging and dismantling ongoing white supremacy and apartheid.
There’s work to do. Part of the work is being willing to look for our blind spots with humility and with integrity. It starts with looking at the self—where supremacist ideology is internalized, where racism has been socialized. Part of the work is to educate oneself and to inform others. Part of the work is to hold one’s own feet to fire.
Please watch: Selma directed by Ava DuVernay.
Please read: Nelson Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom; and The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander; and Are Prisons Obsolete? by Professor Angela Davis; and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
Like my maternal great grandmother, maternal grandmother, mother, and sister, I, too, have lived under the duress of navigating multiple layers of bedrock racism. Living life within a system of white control, systemic injustice, and social terrorism targeted at African Americans takes a toll. The enduring stress of job, food, housing, and healthcare insecurity that are driven by racism, as well as the ongoing experience of social terror, can affect a person’s health. They have affected mine.
I am near the age my mother was when, in 1998 — her illness having been exacerbated by a lifetime lived in the bit and under the bridle of political, economic, and social bias and constraint —she died after refusing an operation that might have saved her life. Due to America’s palpable history of medical apartheid, our family code was and is: Barring a life-threatening illness, we don’t have surgery.
In America, in the mid-1800s, Alabama surgeon Dr. James Marian Sims, known as “the Father of Modern Gynecology,” developed his trailblazing surgical techniques and his pioneering tools by conducting research experiments on enslaved Black women, and he conducted them without using anesthesia. It was believed that Black people did not feel as much pain as white people. This was white supremacy and medical apartheid. Lionizing James Marian Sims condones medical apartheid.
The Public Health Service, now associated with the Center for Disease Control, conducted The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment from 1932 until 1972—a forty-year Study of Untreated Syphilis in African American Men. For forty years, many people colluded with and contributed to this study of untreated syphilis in impoverished Black men, notwithstanding its effect on the Black men’s Black wives, and on their Black children. This was white supremacy and medical apartheid. Participating in white supremacy and medical apartheid is white supremacy and medical apartheid.
In 1951, while Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman, was being treated for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins, doctors took extra cervical samples from her without her knowledge and without her consent. She died at Johns Hopkins at the age of thirty-one. Her cells, named HeLa cells, revolutionized the medical field. Billions of dollars in profit have been made from the research of these cells, and none of it has been shared with her family. Collusion with white supremacy and medical apartheid is white supremacy and medical apartheid.
Proponents of Eugenics–the application of principles of genetics and heredity to improve the human race—pushed for and won legislative policy in its support. The Eugenics Movement—based, in part, on a belief in white racial superiority—was funded by corporate foundations and underwritten by federal programs. For several decades, ending in about 1973, the Eugenics Movement targeted African American women on which to perform coerced and forced sterilizations and hysterectomies. This was also done on Hispanic and Native American women. This was a means of controlling “undesirable populations,” which not only included people of color; it further included people with mental illness, people with disabilities, uneducated people, and poor people. (Conversely, in the 1950s in Idaho, some white women needed the consent of their husbands in order to have their tubes tied.) This was white supremacy and medical apartheid.
Historical trauma caused by slavery, passed down through generations, and triggered by ongoing injustice is distressing. Because of medical distrust, I have postponed and/or avoided certain medical treatments for many years. Recently, I changed my Primary Care Physician, in part, because though I’m old enough to have been her mother; though I asked her multiple times not to do so; though I explained to her the negative cultural implications —my young white female physician couldn’t manage—in a professional setting—to stop calling me “girl.” Bias at worst, stupidity—a lack of common sense—and insensitivity, at best. There’s work to do. Part of dismantling white supremacy: Safe, quality, unbiased healthcare for African Americans.
Please read this: Just Medicine—a Cure for Racial Inequality in American Health Care by Dayna Bowen Matthew; and Black and Blue: The Origins and Consequences of Medical Racism by Professor John Hoberman.
Historically, Blacks were not allowed to learn to read or write. Education threatened the institution of slavery; education challenges white supremacy; education helps to dismantle apartheid. My mother began teaching me to read and write early. My commitment to education is lifelong. Virginia Woolf said, “A woman must have money and a room of her own…” I say: “A modern woman needs a degree; most women of color need two; a Black woman needs three.”
I was alive during Brown vs. the Board of Education, when the Supreme Court ruled that racial segregation in public schools was unconstitutional. I bussed across Houston and was one of a few who integrated a wealthy white high school. We learned almost nothing about the contributions of people of color in my history class. Many Americans don’t know our American history because American white people wrote, whitewashed, and published our textbooks. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has produced a documentary, Black Patriots: Heroes of the Revolution, which highlights some of the Black patriots who helped to establish America, yet who were minimized, marginalized, written out of our history. I can’t wait to see it. We must seek to learn our true American history, so that we can reckon with it, and correct for our future.
For the past two years at Boise State University, where I am a student in the Creative Writing Program, I’ve taken one class, during one semester, with one other Black person. In my first two years, I knew of no Black or indigenous adjunct, lecturer, professor, or administrator in the Department of Theatre, Film, and Creative Writing. I am aware that the extraordinary Dr. Mamie Oliver was a professor in the Department of Social Work at Boise State, that she was the first African American professor at Boise State, and that she taught there from 1972 to 1988. But, during the past two years, I’ve briefly met only one Black instructor on the university campus—he was in the music department. In two years’ time, I’ve met only one Black administrator at Boise State. She, a veteran, was the Director of Equity and Inclusion. A month later, she was gone.
American structural oppression is standard; it’s mainstream. Last year, in one of my classes, I was introduced to a film that is foundational to the American film industry—“Birth of a Nation”—originally titled, “The Clansman.” It was the first movie screened in the White House. Seen there by Woodrow Wilson in 1915 he reportedly declared, “It’s like writing history with lightning.” This film is taught in American cinema courses, influenced American society, inspired the revival of the KKK, is rabid with racism, debases Black people, and glorifies white supremacy. I, the only Black person in the class, chose to watch the film in its entirety. Afterwards, I was ill for two days. Although technically significant, and although chosen by the Library of Congress to be preserved in the National Film Registry, the film is damaging. Gone with the Wind, another American film classic, is rife with classic white supremacy and with classic American racism.
I’m not sure that I want to read arguable racism in the works of novelists such as Mississippian William Faulkner, or that I need to read anti-Semitism in the works of poets such as Idahoan Ezra Pound. But if such works must be taught, the benefit should far outweigh the offense, and it would be wise to consider who makes that determination, and how such works are taught. The Pieces I Am, a 2019 documentary on the life and work of Black American Nobel Prize winning author Toni Morrison, offers a view into American literary apartheid, as well as a view into Morrison’s workaround. I’ve seen this documentary six times so far.
White supremacy and apartheid have been the American standard. Broadway theatre started in 1750. The first play written by an American Black woman that debuted on Broadway—in its over two hundred-year history—was A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry in 1959. Nearly twenty years thereafter, from 1976 until 1978, I acted in the second play written by a Black American woman to be performed on Broadway—the original Broadway production of For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange.
For educators and administrators there is much work to do to decolonize our educational system. I place faith in my Millennial and Generation Z adjunct instructors, and in my graduate student teaching assistant instructors. I am particularly inspired by peers—the astute and generous Caitlin McGowan and Jacob Robarts—both of whom write, and both of whom will teach. I believe that they will continue to educate themselves about white supremacy and about racism, and that they will each do their part, in their spheres of influence, to decolonize the classroom. After we verbalize anti-racism sentiment, and after we write anti-racism statements, we must take anti-racism action, and maintain it in existence over time. Because of Caitlin and Jacob, and others like them, I take heart.
Please read this: Racism and Education—Coincidence or Conspiracy? by Professor David Gillborn.
I, Risë Kevalshar Collins, am committed to love, to equity, and to justice. For those who stand for equal justice, there is work to do.
Abolish American Apartheid — There is a Hunger in the Land for Love
In the spirit of Lucy, the oldest known human discovered in Africa; in the spirit of Lucy, our ancient ancestress; in the spirit of Lucy, mother of humanity—I write.
In the spirit of my mother, Ernestine Elizabeth, creatrix, lover of humankind, true renaissance woman—I write.
A friend said, “Your mother lives in your words. I see her, and miss her. Be thou the weather she stirred up: the power of the storm, and the rain that heals the land.”