Over a decade ago I lived within the concrete sprawl of Houston, so to escape I drove south down I-45 to Galveston and veered further south along the Texas coast to San Luis Pass. There the San Luis Pass Pier jutted out like some kind of wonder of the world, stretching over the Gulf of Mexico, the pilings, boards, and railings forming a huge structure that allowed me to walk across the water. I crossed all the way out to the end of the pier, and as I stood and felt the wind on my face, and as I inhaled the salty air, I felt briny and as distant and removed from the strife and complications of city living as any minority could ever be.
What I remember most about the end of the pier was a yellow line that denoted a unique space where no one could remain, because you could cross the line and cast your lines and leave your surf fishing rods propped against the end railing, but you couldn’t stay beyond the line and block anyone from being able to reach their fishing rods. No, the small square space beyond the yellow line couldn’t become too crowded. What occurred because of the existence of that space was that people—African Americans, Mexicans, Caucasians, and Asians (some Chinese-American, like me) cooperated in the most communal or admirable and supportive fashion, so that if there were a multitude of anglers, all of the fishing rods were arranged in tight rows, resting against the end railing, the lines fanning out, covering the expanse of the Gulf in a broad swath. And if anyone hooked a bull red or a tiger shark or a massive stingray, people would lift their lines to help any fisherman from tangling lines, whether the fish ran in one direction or another, and you might see a fisherman loan another fisherman a drop net to help retrieve a catch from far below.
One night when I lost a fish that broke my leader, two Mexican fisherman showed me how they crimped their leaders out of wire, beads, and swivels to be stronger, and on another day a Caucasian fisherman showed me how to best hook fresh dead mullet, and I gave him some mullet when he ran out of bait. There was always the sense that the Gulf and the wind and the sun—that nature—without the least amount of effort, was far greater than any of us. So I have not forgotten all of the rituals of civility that occurred at any hour, whether in the black depths of the night or under the hot noontime sun, high tides forever waiting for anyone, the fish inevitably appearing, always seeming eager to bite.
So I recall the space at the end of the pier with a greater reverence, and all of this makes me consider how my mentor, the late James Alan McPherson, returned time and again for ideological fortitude to our earlier history, when categories and caste systems in American needed to be abolished by Congress, whereby a third, neutral category was created, as McPherson writes, “for the purposes of legal classification: that of citizen of the United States. This hypothetical person, neither black nor white, (and now, by extension, neither Latino, Native American, or Asian American) or male or female, would enjoy all the rights of citizenship and would be expected to meet all the responsibilities required of such a citizen. When such rights and responsibilities were assessed, the separating categories of race would be meaningless.” This, he continues, “was the purpose of Section 1 of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution:
All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the law.
This ideal of not being able to deprive any citizen of life, liberty, or property, I think, is how our country is supposed to be. McPherson was also fond of citing the famous case of Plessy v. Ferguson that stemmed from segregation on trains; the case was argued in 1896 before the Supreme Court. He writes in his book Railroad how the phrase “’Our Constitution is color-blind’ . . . was admitted into the language of the law by Justice John Harlan in his eloquent dissent from the majority opinion in Plessy”:
The white race deems itself to be the dominant race in this country. And so it is, in prestige, in achievements, in education, in wealth, and in power…. But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior dominant ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is colorblind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens.
These words, “Our Constitution is colorblind,” McPherson writes, “have shaped the course of legal theory from 1896 to the present.” I find them to be artful and sustaining. The phrase further points toward how the country should be for anyone born on this soil, so I like to keep it in mind. I should add that I was born in 1962 and therefore grew up believing that by the time I reached midlife perhaps our nation’s racial problems might be solved, or at least vastly improved upon. But this evening I watched President-elect Trump rallying in Ohio, and I saw not one person of color seated behind him, and I heard chants of “USA! USA!” on a mass scale, and along with this chanting I noticed how the incendiary language of white nationalism ran hot throughout Trump’s speech, decrying globalism, insisting upon building the wall on the Mexico border, vowing to renegotiate or throw out all existing foreign trade agreements, along with deregulating on a mass scale statutes that protect the environment (as if nature isn’t larger in scope than all of us), all the while promising repeatedly to make America great again. Yes, as it’s frequently been pointed out, this is simply code for making America “white” again.
So we are living now in a culture of escalation, in a confluence of tension between the haves and have-nots, combined with a struggle over the concern for the environment and the denial of global warming, accompanied by the purchasing and stockpiling of guns that’s been spurred by the lobbying efforts of the NRA, further complicated by white fear that minorities will soon outnumber them and forever run the country if some sort of grand last stand isn’t taken. Many, like Morris Berman, have foreseen and predicted a crisis of empire, stating that the American dream is simply over whether Trump is in power or not. At the same time I have never seen as many of my graduate or undergraduate students or old friends as upset, or as fearful, and I have never witnessed as many of my colleagues in academia being watchful, wondering if they might be targeted or put on a watch list for expressing “liberal” opinions, as if we have regressed to an era of McCarthyism. I’ve heard from several of my former business associates in venture capital that they’re uncertain about the future, too, while the sentiment of “What can we do?” seems to be growing more prevalent.
The San Luis Pass Pier, I’m sorry to say, was destroyed by Hurricane Ike in 2008. But as I hold onto my memory of the pier, and as I continue to recall the premise of citizenship, a larger part of me takes life head on, living day to day and in the moment, and feeling more present, alert, and sensitive to changes in the air than before.
As a minority who has lived in the Deep South for over 12 years now, I am in survival mode. I always have been, in one way or another. Though I wear eyeglasses because of nearsightedness, I have always strived to avoid the Asian stereotype: I drive a dark blue pickup truck, wear jeans and flannel shirts and hiking boots, and I have been known to wear a tan Carhartt barn jacket that has Ruger stitched in dark brown letters on the right side, so while I’ve never owned or carried a handgun, when I’m walking on the sidewalks in our small town I’m aware of how white male Southerners notice Ruger on my jacket, their expressions becoming contemplative, pondering whether I’m carrying a revolver under my coat. I don’t mind their thinking about it, or believing in the possibility that I’m armed, because so far I’ve been left peacefully alone, passing as I may be.
Still, lately I have told my students that during times like this they should feel that their choice to be a writer—their public identity as a writer—is more important now than during any recent time, since this is when we write our stories and essays and poems to protest and to chronicle the current state of unrest and to express and imagine how we think life should be—in opposition to all of the strife, hypocrisy, and amplified hate we see. Yes, writers have always been activists, so we cannot be silent.
And I suppose there is further wisdom that I can offer because of my age. What I should say is that I lived through being young in the 60s, when deeper strains of racism and more institutionalized behaviors were being taken on, and gains were made, some small and others far more significant, and history is cyclic, so we—which is to say, the better, more inclusive ideals of America—shall certainly survive through this.
Allen Gee is the author of the essay collection My Chinese-America. He currently directs the graduate and undergraduate creative writing program at Georgia College. He is the former editor of Gulf Coast, edits short fiction for Arts & Letters, and will be the editor for the forthcoming multicultural imprint, 2040 Books. His stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals, and he is James Alan McPherson’s designated biographer.
Header photo of fisherman on pier by StockSnap, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Allen Gee courtesy Allen Gee.