black

Without pointedly intending to do this, I’ve been heavily focused on race in America for the last few months. Like everyone in this country, for the last few years I’ve watched black people being slaughtered and their white murderers walking away with no consequence, and with the tacit approval of the institutions they belong to. I’ve listened to white people insist that “no, all lives matter” when black people assert that black lives matter.

I’ve read three books — Underground Railroad, Underground Airlines, and Between the World and Me — and I saw the extraordinary documentaries I Am Not Your Negro and 13th. Here is the trailer for I Am Not Your Negro:

The movie is quite powerful, in large part because of the forceful brilliance of James Baldwin, who was spontaneously eloquent and thoughtful and indicting and willing and able to name the truth of things no matter what was happening, or where he was. I want to read everything he ever wrote.

I grew up in Texas, among very racist people. I was not allowed to invite my best friend to my 6th birthday party in 1964 because “it’s not done.” Rhonda was black, and she attended my school most likely because her mother worked in the cafeteria. It made no sense at all to me, and no fuller explanation was given. My paternal grandmother, a nurse her whole working life, told me when I was an adult that black people “aren’t like us, when they die, gallons of oil pour out of their bodies.” WHAT??? She saw them as truly not human beings as we are. My stepfather and mother regularly called black people niggers, and I flinched when I heard the word, as much from a response to the venom they seemed to spit when they said it as from any real understanding of the potency of the word. (They were equal opportunity haters, and had only venom for Mexicans too, and for Muslims—I remember my stepfather calling Benazir Bhutto a cunt—and for gay people.)

My first two years of college were at the Huntsville, Alabama campus of the University of Alabama. Huntsville is interesting; it’s got a very educated population, and the campus feeds engineers to Redstone Arsenal and Marshall Space Flight Center. It’s in the far north of Alabama, butting up against the Tennessee border. In most of my classes, the majority of students were white but there were usually a small handful of black students. In my Philosophy 101 class we talked about racism and all the white students piped up saying it doesn’t exist any more. Nope, no more racism. That was then, it’s all gone now. After class, I walked alongside a couple of the black women who’d been silent in class and asked them what they thought and they busted out laughing. Right.

Like everyone else who was old enough at the time, I watched the OJ murder case unfold, from the very beginning with the slow car chase all the way through to the verdict. I was shocked and terribly upset, because it seemed so clear to me that he was guilty, that he murdered his ex-wife and her friend, and how could that jury let him off? Celebrity, I muttered. I remember so clearly how I felt. I remember seeing the split screen on television when the verdict was announced: white people in shock with their hands over their mouths, and black people rejoicing. I was bewildered. Then last week my husband and I watched The People vs OJ Simpson and I saw it so differently. I still believe he is guilty, but I completely understood why the jury made the decision they did. And I had to sit in the complexity of it, with no easy corner to sit in: I believe he murdered those people, and I understand why they let him off, why they probably even believed truly that he didn’t do it. A guilty man was set free, and the community was understandably and righteously thrilled that he was not convicted.

Those white kids in my philosophy class said that because they probably didn’t think they themselves were racist, and so therefore there was no more racism. WE ARE ALL RACIST. It’s the very dirt of this country. It’s the reason for the war we fought against each other. We are all racist. Period. If you can’t start by owning that, you are the problem. I am racist (but I am not racist). I was trained by racists in my childhood home, and I grew up in a racist society. How could I be anything but racist? I do not have to follow those ideas, implement them in behaviors, allow them to bloom or grow — be a racist — but they are in me as an American, without a doubt.

You have to start somewhere, and you cannot go wrong with any of the books or the Baldwin documentary or 13th. I have no idea how to fix the problem, how even to begin. The intransigence of so many white people in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, their complete unwillingness to give up insisting that no, all lives matter, leaves me bewildered. I’ve started replying that when black lives matter, then all lives will matter (but that leaves out Muslims and gay people and refugees and immigrants and all the others who are being shoved out by the Republican party that’s in power, and by far too many straight white people). When I attended a Black Lives Matter rally, and when I read pieces written by black writers who are addressing this issue, their anger is obvious and understandable, and I struggle when they aim it at me standing there trying to do better, trying to start changing whatever I can. It’s not their job to teach me anything, or tell me anything, and at the very same time I don’t know how to move forward together with them. I just don’t know.

This is not a sophisticated or in-depth post about such a huge topic, and I’m not claiming that it is. It’s a quivering start, and a hand reached out, and a plea for help. I welcome advice and other recommendations.

three things: 1/3/17

1)  I started reading Underground Airlines by Ben Winters, following on the heels of The Underground Railroad, and so far it’s spectacular. Honestly, I don’t know why the black people in the United States aren’t raging and fighting white America all the time. (And we women, too.) They (we) have every right to be doing that, and every single time some white American says something about slavery being a long time ago just get over it . . . well hell, even want to punch those people in the throat. This country. We arrived and right off the bat started killing people and stealing their land, and just kept doing that (through to today). And then we stole people from another continent and brutalized them in unimaginable ways to enrich ourselves, and then enacted laws to keep them from getting anywhere (through to today). One horrible thing I learned when a friend did my ancestry is that someone in my history owned slaves in Georgia. She shrugged a little, it’s the thing you learn, and yet it’s horrifying to imagine. And so I too deserve the rage. In the second episode of The OA, a new series on Netflix, a voice-over read the Emma Lazarus poem on the Statue of Liberty (“The New Colossus”) and vomit came up in my throat, it’s such a lie.

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

The world is going mad and it’s so scary. And the United States is the engine of so much of it. How does a person work with that? (I’ll say more about Underground Airlines after I finish it….)

2) Depression status stable. Not feeling better but not feeling worse, and when you deal with depression you know that’s a good enough report. One thing I’m trying (among many things) is a daily inoculation of art, and today I’m rolling my eyeballs around in this glorious color — great thanks to my beautiful friend Anne for posting the painting on FB a couple of days ago:

Max Kurzweil (Austrian; Art Nouveau, Vienna Secession; 1867-1916): Lady in Yellow, 1899. Oil on canvas. Vienna Museum at Karlsplatz, Vienna, Austria.

That color! I would really like to take my eyeballs out of my head and just roll them around in it, coat them like you do a sugar cookie, and then pop them back so that color can seep into me. It’s so glorious, especially in these very gray NYC days. Tomorrow I’m going to a special event at MoMA, 1.5 hours of silence on the 4th and 5th floor galleries, ending in a guided meditation (in front of Monet’s “Water Lilies,” I think). That ought to help too.

My dear sister-friend Peggy gave me the suggestion to make a long list (25 items on mine) of small things I could do, simple things, nourishing things, and you know, when you’re mentally flat and blank the problem is that nothing feels do-able anyway, much less thinking up a list of things. But with her help I did, and daily art is doable. If you are prone to depression, make your list when you’re not depressed, it’s much easier.

3)  Another bit of art stolen from a friend’s FB (this time from beautiful Kathy, who understands so much):

This is not an age of beauty,
I say to the Rite-Aid as I pass a knee-high plastic witch
whose speaker-box laugh is tripped by my calf
breaking the invisible line cast by her motion
sensor. My heart believes it is a muscle

of love, so how do I tell it it is a muscle of blood?

This morning, I found myself
awake before my alarm & felt I’d been betrayed

by someone. My sleep is as thin as a paper bill
backed by black bars of coal that iridesce
indigo in the federal reserve of

dreams. Look, I said to the horse’s
head I saw severed & then set on the ground, the soft
tissue of the cheek & crown cleaved with a necropsy
knife until the skull was visible. You look more
horse than the horses

with names & quilted coats in the pasture, grazing unbothered

by your body in pieces, steaming

against the drizzle. You once had a name
that filled your ears like amphitheaters,
that caused an electrical

spark to bead to your brain. My grief was born
in the wrong time, my grief an old soul, grief re-
incarnate. My grief, once a black-winged

beetle. How I find every excuse to indulge it, like a child
given quarters. In the restaurant, eating alone,

instead of interrogating my own
solitude, I’m nearly undone by the old
woman on her own. The window so filthy,

it won’t even reflect her face, which must not be the same
face she sees when she dreams

of herself in the third person.

– “Age of Beauty” by Emilia Phillips

What a wonder art is. Thank you to everyone who puts it into the world.