The lessons of Toni Morrison: Words matter, now more than ever

OPINION — “Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names.”

Of course, that language from Toni Morrison perfectly suits this time, when the names we give the things that scare us hardly seem enough.

It is fitting that in a week when America has been exposed to the words of a white nationalist screed shared before a man filled with hate murdered 22 human beings in El Paso, Texas, we can find some comfort in Morrison’s life and legacy, and in the power of words used masterfully by the first African American woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

The Baltimore that raised me is America too

OPINION — It was one of those Baltimore row houses that have come to define the city, three stories high, with a set of white marble steps out front. I will never forget those steps, the ones I had to scrub weekly, brush in one hand, Bon Ami cleanser in the other. And when I was finished, I had to do the same for older neighbors who needed the help. But those folks did their part, my mother reminded me, watching over the neighborhood from their windows when the block’s men, women and children were away working, running errands or attending school.

That’s what neighbors do for neighbors, all over America. And yes, that includes West Baltimore, about which Donald Trump tweeted: “No human being would want to live there.”

To my fellow Americans, especially those amused by the “antics” of the president of the United States, who buy what he’s selling, imagine how you would feel if those people and places that are in your bones were judged subhuman by the person whose job it is be a leader, your leader.

Is a blue city in a purple state having second thoughts about hosting a red convention?

OPINION — CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When the Democratic National Convention hit town in 2012, the dancing traffic cop made headlines for his smooth moves and entertaining approach to law enforcement. The officer captured the party atmosphere of that event, leading up to the renomination of no-drama President Barack Obama for a second term.

City leaders and residents now look back at that time with nostalgia as they prepare for the Republican National Convention coming to town from Aug. 24-27 next year to renominate a president who is all drama, all the time — as chants of “Send her back” at a Trump rally in Greenville, North Carolina, earlier this month have reminded everyone of exactly what’s at stake.

Anticipating the economic and related benefits for the city after it was chosen by the GOP last year, Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority CEO Tom Murray said, “Charlotte has the collaboration, infrastructure and hospitality that will make the 2020 RNC an unforgettable experience for its attendees.”

Now, some are worrying about just how unforgettable the experience will be.

Will America ‘go back’ to where it came from?

OPINION — It’s an inside joke I’ve told the last couple of years.

My ancestors on both sides have been in America for generations — men, women and children whose blood, sweat and grit drenched the Maryland soil they cultivated and farmed and lived on. Originally brought by force, they claimed their place proudly and served the country’s ideals admirably. In contrast, my husband, second generation to these shores, on both sides, is an American-come-lately. But because his grandfather sailed into New York harbor on a ship that set off from Kristiansand, Norway, he is our president’s dream (Scandinavian) citizen.

I’m not laughing at that punch line anymore, not when Donald Trump has shown how sincerely he believes that belonging is automatic for some and conditional for others. It has never been clearer that the president of the United States considers some Americans more worthy of respect and consideration and legitimacy than others, and how he draws that line is as simple as black and white.

Why big yellow buses are the big red herring of 2020

OPINION — Ed Sanders was both unique and ordinary. He became, in his own way, a hero just for doing his job.

When Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools integrated in North Carolina, if you can call it that, by allowing a handful of African American students to attend schools formerly reserved for whites only in September 1957, Sanders was principal of Central High. He had to smooth the way for Gus Roberts, its first black student, in a city still segregated in everything from housing to swimming pools to bathrooms.

As he told me when I interviewed him more than a decade ago, Sanders, a Simpsonville, South Carolina, native, had no particular desire to be a pioneer; all he knew was that he was principal. He prepared by enlisting the football team as protectors, using the threat of a canceled season as leverage and anointing a custodian as the young man’s unobtrusive guardian angel. When crowds gathered and one boy knocked the cap off the new kid’s head, Sanders threatened him and any other troublemaker with expulsion from his school and every other one in the city as he escorted Roberts through the front door.

Are we in this American experiment together? A July Fourth question to contemplate

OPINION — Who doesn’t love Cary Grant, the debonair British-born, American acting legend, who wooed leading ladies, including the Hepburns, Katharine and Audrey, as well as generations of moviegoers?

But he was not so charming when his submarine commander character in 1943’s “Destination Tokyo” said: “The Japs don’t understand the love we have for our women. They don’t even have a word for it in their language.”

Demonizing “the enemy” in wartime as “the other,” incapable of emotion and not quite human is not unusual. But someone always pay a hefty price. Loyal Japanese American families, rounded up and shipped to internment camps, waited until 1988 for President Ronald Reagan to issue an apology; survivors received meager compensation. Though that was expected to be that, the trauma to those Americans and the nation lingered.

And despite that World War II-era lesson, and ones before and after, America continues to make the same mistake, a notion important to contemplate during the Fourth of July festivities, when we celebrate the ideal.

This year, a Washington, D.C., military parade and fireworks display with a speech by Donald Trump that places a national holiday squarely in partisan territory will be both a distraction from and a reminder of our current plight.

As Democrats line up to debate, the GOP is regressing

OPINION — It was pretty startling, actually, viewing the lineup for the first debate of Democratic presidential hopefuls in April 2007 on a stage in Orangeburg, South Carolina. Among them were the usual suspects — Sens. Chris Dodd, John Edwards and Joe Biden. And then, there were surprises — Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico and Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

This is different, I thought. Whatever happens next, this looks like America, an America I had rarely experienced except in the aspirational promises of its founding documents, with the few exceptions of pioneers such as Shirley Chisholm or Jesse Jackson, when it came to choosing presidents.

When I covered the second Republican debate in May of that year, in Columbia, South Carolina, distinguishing between the candidates was a little tougher at first glance.

Campaign season means ‘law and order.’ Can we break the habit?

OPINION — When mass incarceration in America gets political attention, it’s often so the issue can be used as a cudgel to attack opponents. Thus, the president Twitter-shames former Vice President Joe Biden for his role in promoting the 1994 crime bill even as Donald Trump’s own history of hounding the Central Park Five is highlighted in “When They See Us,” director Ava DuVernay’s Netflix miniseries on the teens accused, convicted, imprisoned and eventually exonerated.

When Democrats and Republicans cooperated on a criminal justice reform bill late last year that made modest changes in the federal system, they congratulated themselves for getting something done in gridlocked Washington.

But it hardly solved the problem. That’s the message of Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, or EJI. “The presidential election will be important setting the tone,” he told me at a recent appearance in Charlotte. “The hard work has to happen in North Carolina, in the state legislature on issues like sentencing, on issues like prisons, on issues like excessive punishment, and that’s true for every state in the country.”

Team Trump’s Harriet Tubman stumble was a missed opportunity for the GOP

OPINION — It would have been so easy, a way for the Trump administration to honor an American icon and reach out to some of those Americans who believe the Republican Party has no use for them. But did anyone honestly think any member of the team leading the country under the direction of Donald J. Trump was going to put Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill?

Instead Trump and company’s song-and-dance about why a plan put in place before they moved into the White House would be delayed until well after they leave just confirms that they care little for the wishes of Americans who probably did not vote for them, but who are Americans nonetheless, and that they have no knowledge of or interest in the history that has shaped this country.

The move to again force Tubman to the back was a clarion call to Trump’s base, a signal of who is important and who is not.

Can Bernie Sanders change his luck in the South?

OPINION — Bernie Sanders spent the weekend on a Southern swing, which makes sense. The Vermont senator’s failure to connect with enough core Democratic voters the last time around — in the South, that means black voters, and black women in particular — stalled his campaign for the party’s presidential nomination. He hit a wall in the early primary state of South Carolina, losing badly to Hillary Clinton, and he never recovered.