South End Stew: On Becoming White

by Kayla Blau

When my grandparents arrived in Chicago
Penniless but pale
My grandfather’s hands stroked piano keys to forget how he had gotten here
Traded Stars of David for a U.S. Navy badge
Refugee turned toy soldier

Somewhere in the Atlantic are his unanswered letters
Back home to Austria
Written in his native tongue
A language he would later bite back
A language my father would never learn.

Call it star spangled survival.

When asked about his childhood
My father recites 1950’s white fences
Dinner at 6pm sharp
– meatloaf, never schnitzel –
He only remembers
Running through the segregated streets of Tacoma enclosed with the assurance of his white picket world
He does not recall labeled drinking fountains
Or Little Rock 9
Only the slap of his father’s ruler when he strayed too far from this side of the tracks

Some Jews chose to fight for black rights in the ‘60s.
But when my grandfather watched TV screens
Blare images of hoses gunning down black children,
car bombs and lunch counter spit
Perhaps gas fumes still dizzying him

He chose to turn it off
begging to be numb
begging to be lost in the white noise.

This is not a justification poem.
This is a let us understand our twisted roots so we can deconstruct that shit poem,
I mean damn,
My Portuguese great grandfather, Joseph Di Michaela,
became Joe Di Michele

My own name

Watered down like so many other Ellis Island hopefuls.
It’s in the way each wave of European immigrants
slowly folded into whiteness,
how “No Jews Allowed” signs
Transitioned into exclusionary small business loans
Only available to white folk,
like my grandfather.
We thought we were American Dreamin
Not realizing it’s just this skin were in

The system doesn’t ask if your ancestors owned slaves
Or if you grew up poor
Or if you “asked to be born this color”
it only asks and rewards
if you’re white.

So, fellow white folk who fancy ourselves radical —
we are not part of any revolution
unless we revolutionize ourselves
over and over and over
It’s never done
no allyship badges awarded
dig deep in the undertoe of our forefathers
there is so much violence there.
From white hands on black bodies
To turning off TVs
White folks – What TV are you turning off today? What are we pretending not to see?