I was asked this question 25 years ago by one of my 10th grade English students. Classroom discussion had turned to the notorious O.J. Simpson case. Interest in this high-profile murder trial had found a willing population in this small-town, filled with the hero worship of football fanatics. To some students, Orenthal James Simpson was the hero they wished they could be. While for other students, regurgitating family dinner table comments from the night before, the trial became a low-road referendum on why beautiful white women should not marry black men.
For a split second, I felt trapped by the question. I knew, as the only African American teacher in the building, my usual faculty lounge equal opportunity to (my opinion) approach wasn’t going to work. I looked at my students, who were quiet and waiting for my response.
“Race relations, in this country,” I said, “are like a deep wound that scabs over too soon. Sometimes that scab is pulled off because the wound has not healed”.
My analogy held, at least – until the bell rang.
The longer I live the more I’ve come to realize just how close to the truth I’d gotten with my off-the-cuff analogy of racism. The United States of America is a beautiful and large 50-part body. But it is a body that, when undressed, is blemished with many big and small bandages that have been hastily applied over the decades to staunch the bloody flow of recollection.
I grew up in a time of hope in spite of the assassinations of President Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and Malcolm X; flawed heroes to be sure but the flaws did not erase the passionate messages they left in their combined wakes. These messages offered a hope that sprung eternal in many African-American hearts. It certainly did in mine. In 1969 I marched across Compton High’s graduation stage to receive my diploma; a piece of paper weighted with hope for my future in college and beyond. I am the recipient of the economic infusion that came as reparation in the aftermath of black protests of the mid-60’s. I was twelve at the time of the Watts Rebellion. My speech at my 9th grade graduation was titled “Where do We Go From Here?” But by the time I had reached 12th grade I still had no idea what I wanted to do or be. I just knew I was moving forward. And with money made available through grants and low interest loans, I was going to college – with hope. Hope propelled me through a time when it appeared this country had come face-to-face with its past inhumanity. When we made tracks from the back of the bus to the outer limits of space. Hope filled my heart when I looked closer at the pictures and the black and white faces of those marching across bridges and standing at the Lincoln Memorial listening to a man’s wish for his progeny and their ultimate place at the table of humanity. But my heart was never so full of hope as it was when I witnessed Barack Obama sworn in as the first African-American president of these United States.
For most of us, there was a collective hope in 2009. There was hope that this country could heal and become more than a culturally loose affiliation of wounded states. But all the hopes and dreams of those working to keep the conversation alive, could not survive the biggest blow to the empire – the resurrection, the reemergence of the bare-knuckled fist of America’s Manifest Destiny now dressed in the regalia of white supremacy. Manifest Destiny was the belief that early America was fated, ordained to expand her influence and supremacy no matter the land and lives of her indigenous people. This first and largest wound to America’s still young and vibrant body came from the lie that white European men were superior in intellect and desire. It was a lie supported by political attitude and weaponry. The spread of the propaganda of Manifest Destiny sowed the seeds of white supremacy into stolen soil.
It is true, history is written by the winner. That whites should reap the benefits of a stolen land and take on the virtues of an annihilated people is an idea hard-baked into 20th Century white supremacy. Even today, the prevailing white power structure continues to gore the body of America in its failure to recognize the Native American as worthy, even human.
Growing a sturdy body, like building a durable nation, requires a strong and stable foundation. That this country began with land theft and the genocide of its native people should have been a dire warning to Jefferson and the other “founding fathers.” But it wasn’t. And when the need arose for a larger labor force, African people were imported. Bought and sold like chattel, the African’s rich dark skin and foreign tongue further failed to invoke any humanity in their overseers. That Hitler used the American institution of slavery as a blue print for his holocaust was not surprising. Slavery was profitable. It was the slave who enriched the new world beyond measure. And it was the white male who took credit for this young country’s elevated economic standing. Everyone profited from yet another gaping wound to America’s Body. Even those who refused to engage in the overt act of buying and selling human beings profited from the idea that some human beings are less worthy than others.
The lie of Manifest Destiny has grown and morphed into a hierarchy of lies ordained by God with the white man, unfettered by compassion, securely positioned at its peak. It is the lie that deems some humans of no value. The lie that continues to consume the U.S. body with a flesh-eating dishonesty. It is a lie made visible by the continuing protest for simple dignity.
The road is long. We are tired. And we have yet to reach our goal of a truly unified body of states. Reaching that goal means this country removes the knife that has been plunged into the Native American heart with its reverence for Indian Killers like Andrew Jackson – revered on the twenty-dollar bill for his Trail of Tears. We will be close to our goal when we understand that the installation of many Confederate memorial statues took place, not right after the Civil War, but during the 1920’s, an era suffused with Jim Crow violence against black people. We are told these statues are only to commemorate a more prosperous southern history. But these statues were being erected on the lawns of state buildings and county courthouses during a time of violent disenfranchisement of black people. And that tells a different, more murderous history.
Today, it grieves me to know there are young people who feel hopeless. It grieves me to know that we still have to remind people that we are human and that our lives matter. It grieves me to know that the closer we get to that Table of Humanity the further away it seems. The body-US still suffers from severe wounds. Still writhes in hateful, violent spasms of white supremacy. Today’s protests are necessary to highlight that vulgarity of corruption within the body. We protest to break the bandages and scrape the scab from the wound to further allow the pus of hatred to drain. Only then can we proceed to wash clean the bloodstained fiber that should bind this country’s entire body.
Yes, it is about race and until we heal from the inside out by addressing white supremacy in all its forms, it will always be about race.
The mind and the heart do a silken dance of deception as we answer questions of the decade with such rapidity as not to allow the worst possible scenario to come to pass. We organize the details of our lives for ease. We run from those who would infect our skin with want, moving to the woods, the shores and hills to breathe fresh air for the last time. We know this. Yet we move anyway. We leave our cities, our works of art to those who’ve sold them to the curriers of chaos.
The mind is an enchanting stadium filled with the lies we tell ourselves because, if we know anything, we know our hearts. Do we? Are we not the same flesh and bone that steps over the bodies of babies washed up on our hostile shores? Are we not the masters of our own lives – the very lives we allow the heartless to fill with fear and hatred? What can it mean when we exhaust ourselves shifting our lines-in-the-sand of decency? What can it mean when, in a final heat, our feet will slam an earth that will crack open under the weight of our finish?
We cannot run fast enough to escape the fact that our fates are tied. And we just may perish under the truth that we are lead by the worst in humanity. The worst in the world. The worst in us.
I am addicted (as anyone I live with can tell you) to those Law & Order – type shows. I remain enthralled with the idea of a rough justice coming to those who are so deserving and exoneration to those misjudged. For me, this cinematic-decency triumphs and serves the need to understand the very foundation of the human condition. Like the writing life, most L & O shows begin with a story based on fact with fiction sprinkled in to protect the innocent – and often the writer. But what happens when the truth fails to set a writer free? When telling your story causes pain? After many years of wrestling letters into some type of meaningful story, I’ve come to believe that the biggest challenge for the writer is knowing where the truth lies – and when the truth lies.
I think a lot about what I want to write. Because of this I can say writing – in the mind – is faultless; the point is always well made and well received. The color of the kitchen is perfection. The bedroom, like the night is always warm and inviting. The boy is always in a state of want and the girl is always of long legs and sass. But good writers have to be out of their minds for real success – they have to write about the morning after with as much force and beauty as they did the ultimate consummation of the male, female dance.
For the last eight months I have been writing about my youth – an awesome task that forces me to stop periodically and fight with the demon on my shoulder telling me “you can’t write that.” Then I think of writer Anne Lamott’s quote, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better.” But justice, especially in the service of fiction, is seldom that simple. The good thing about writing fiction, according to John Grisham, is “You can get back at people. I’ve gotten back at lawyers, prosecutors, judges, law professors, and politicians. I just line ‘em up and shoot ‘em.” But what happens when your fiction is truth and truth lies under the hot magnifying glass of emotional forensics? I often wonder what can be revealed about me from these letters that I’ve managed to build into words and from there into sentences that pay homage to the traveling-self; observations from behind and beyond? And should I care what is revealed about me or the swords held in each word that could maim or destroy others? Should this be a concern for the writer of fiction?
Today, I think the writer should be concerned with telling the story with whatever fiction available to tell it well. Tomorrow though, I know I will return to what appears to be my destiny; parsing and scattering harmless letters in some code which no one appears to understand, hoping they land on some desk owned by someone unafraid to give a positive I.D. and willing to tell me (and the demon on my shoulder) “shut up and let sleeping truths lie.”
On this last day of 2013 I am weary of new year’s resolutions – you know those promises we make to ourselves that have a shelf-life of twenty minutes – sixty if I’m lucky. I awoke this morning considering the flexibility of certainty – the same type of certainty that has always been ascribed to death and taxes.
What follows are the few things that have proven true – for me in 2013.
What I know:
I know that I expect decency in ostensibly educated people and am sorely disappointed when decency becomes a foreign country these individuals are afraid to visit. And one would think that after a few years of this forehead-slapping frustration I would know better but…
I know that truth is an illusive landscape that when strung together with imaginative prose can provide cascades of honesty regarding the human condition. I’m sure it’s called good fiction and until I am told differently I’ll go with that.
I know that memory can be resistant to logic. A sweltering heat can rise from this terrain erasing any tragedy in the offing. Reality is the thief; the mugger in the dark, “hand over your memories and no one gets hurt.”
I know that as tragedy strikes good friends, I am left in awe of the strength that can reside in the human heart. A heart so rent with grief that one fears for the possessor of this roughed-up organ. But no, it is as if internal forces dedicated to battle appear overnight to slay grief in its cradle.
I know I will never sing as well as I’d like to. I have a lovely, talented friend from high school who possesses a beautiful, forceful voice. She has sung her way around the world and now for reasons (she believes) stronger than her voice she says she will not sing again. This makes me sad. I am one who has had many dreams of opening my mouth and having some beautiful, if not tuneful, music exit. I used to like the idea of karaoke but I’m afraid of being seen as part of the legion of the sad, unfulfilled and lonely lip-synchers moaning about lost loves, chances, and continence.
I know that youth is what sticks even when we go unrecognized at our reunions.
I know that a good memory can be a serious design flaw
I know now that some song lyrics mean different things depending on the amount wine ingested.
I know that some songs only make sense after three glasses of wine which is too bad when two glasses is all one can tolerate.
I know there are drinks (famous writers/drinkers of hard liquor have told me) one can order by fingers – like ordering two fingers of desire to open one’s emotional house, a brief and tragic three dimensional cut-a-way: here I am at my desk, that’s me tossing and turning in my stone sleep, there I am turned away from prying eyes – my face unrecognizable – even by those who love me. Wine is my vehicle of choice as I search under the weight of desire?
I know that living in the past can be an addiction; the monkey on one’s back that pushes us beyond mirrors and reality; that cruel beast that wraps his hand around the slender stem of that third glass of moscato – too sweet to do any good.
And lastly –
I know too that, even as it seems our souls are sewn from the same cloth, they are held together with a mere thread of memories; a heartbreaking slight-of-hand that can bind us to decency or doom.
I just got your e-mail, two weeks before commending your step-father’s ashes to the ocean. I say e-mail but knife is the better descriptor because it sliced me up nicely. It would have gotten you an ‘A’ in a Benihana school of knifery; so precise around the edges but dense and delusional at the center where the truth certainly lies – waiting for reinforcements.
Calling you delusional is my only accusation to fling – as I watch you unwilling to turn your wasted unicorn around. I am hoping you are smart enough to study the landscape and choose another more soul-soothing direction. But no, it is so much easier for you sit, blocked by the four walls of your 40 + years of emotional poverty and blame me.
I want to tell you that success is a terrible, terrible thing to achieve in a miserable family such as ours. It goes back to a mother (your grandmother) who held her six candles burning at both ends in her own need for love and survival. She was a mother who fought long and hard for the protection of her family. I used to think that is why she so fancied the acrylic nails because they covered the blood-stained natural nails worked to the quick with responsibility. And towards the end even she would admit to parental failings. Even so, I suppose I always felt loved – even if I had to fight for it. Feeling loved was enough – should have been enough for all of us. And, my niece, I honestly thought if I took you under my roof, held you close when you needed, showed you the world (as much as a 27 year-old aunt could anyway), point to a future of hope that you would come to see these deeds wrapped in a package labeled LOVE. Now I see, for you, that package never arrived. My love was not enough. I am not that naïve to believe ours is a family unique; in happiness all families are alike. It is misery that brings about unique permutations that frolic legless, twisting, slithering throughout the human body waiting for the right moment to escape in word or deed.
And so it goes. Your misery escaped as you tapped out your love-less message of loss with fingers wrapped around your machete sentences; wildly swinging as you cut me up before serving me up; “If I’ve said anything to offend you I apologize….I love you and respect you…” If this is love – please keep it to yourself. Without a doubt, you have the greater need.
I can’t even cry at your version of truth. I’m just left with a deep, deep sadness at the vision of you swinging wildly at your faux-memories – slicing and dicing both ways through a forest of half-truths – cutting each blade below the root.