[...] I've seen rain turn into snow then back to rain,
and I've seen making love turn into fucking
then back to making love,
and no one covered up their faces out of shame,
no one rose and walked into the lonely maw of night.
But where was there, in fact, to go?
Are some things better left unsaid?
Shall I tell you her name?
Can I say it again,
that I wanted to punch her right in the face?
Until we say the truth, there can be no tenderness.
As long as there is desire, we will not be safe.
--from Tony Hoagland's "Adam and Eve"
I have something that I need to tell you and I am afraid to tell it, and but I think it is very important. It needs to be said, especially now.
I run a creative writing workshop at the public library in my neighborhood. My neighborhood is kind of white, kind of black, and a lot of brown. At the end of one workshop three or four weeks ago, I was unlocking my bike and strapping on my helmet when a Latino man, maybe in his 50s, came riding up on his own wheels and began locking his bike up next to mine. I tell you he was Latino because this is America and it matters. I'd tell you I am white, but you already know that.
We were alone. This library is not a popular place at 7:30 at night, and the neighborhood street we were standing on was quiet. He looked at my bike and then at me and then smiled. "I really like this library--" he said, and I said me too! but he was still going "--because there aren't a bunch of black boys here, so I don't have to worry about my bike getting stolen."
And then he looked at me, and waited, and I wish I could tell you that this was when I told him what he just said was bigoted as shit. I wish I could tell you that I told him that what he had just said was both offensive and untrue, and I did not appreciate him thinking that he could say something like that to me and I'd be fine with it. I did not.
This man did not have the same struggle for words. He saw the shocked look on my face and was quick to sputter, "I mean, don't get me wrong, I like black people. But other libraries have gangs of these kids roaming around, stealing things and causing trouble, and I just don't want my bike stolen, you know?"
These kids. You know.
Where I come from, people fly multiple Confederate flags from their front porches, flags my friends and I would steal and replace with ones covered in rainbows, flags that would reappear the next morning as if by magic, as if they were some kind of fucked up, quick growing pole flower, native to mid Michigan and mid Michigan alone. Folks use expressions like "nigger-rigging" freely, standing in line at the hardware store. The high school I attended was over 2,000 in population and I could count the number of black kids on one hand.
When I was in second grade, the local--chapter? group? troop? troupe? I don't know what the right word is here--the local KKK held a rally downtown on the courthouse lawn. We lived downtown then too, a few blocks away from the epicenter. I remember the riot horses walking down my street, in all their getup and gear.I also remember the protest, because my mother, like me, likes to see everything for herself. My dad worried we wouldn't be safe, but my mom and I walked down to the courthouse, and as we did, we passed more horses, as large to me as glistening brown mountains, and it seemed like I could've walked under their bellies with space to spare.
On the way back home, I asked my mom about what I'd seen. What was the KKK? What were those people? What does it mean? She was quiet for a long moment, considering what answer to give her seven year old daughter. I'm sure she said lots of things besides this, but this is what I remember: "You know S-----, the little black girl in Steve's class?" Steve was my brother. His class was kindergarden. "It means that her parents will probably won't send her to school for a couple days."
This is the lesson I learned: when the KKK is on the courthouse lawn--the courthouse, the representation of American law--black children don't go to school. In the face of violent words and acts, even with the well-intentioned protesting whites, the majority of the burden to take action is on people of color, and one of these actions is to disappear. This is Race in America.
To be clear, this--my telling you of this--is not to incriminate my mother. Walking home, we talked about how the KKK was terrible to black people, although she couldn't explain why, and how this is why my brother's classmate's family might not feel safe being out and about. She was talking about a subject that many people avoid entirely, and this is why I'm telling you my terrible shame. We need to have a conversation about white people, and the difference between talking and speaking up.
All my thinking life, since I became aware of race in general and racism in my hometown in particular, I've been struggling to both escape and address my roots. In college, I went in blind to my first roommate situation set-up, and ended up in a suite with two black women from Detroit, a Jewish girl from the outside suburbs, and myself, a small-town white girl. The jokes write themselves. This was my first extended, intimate contact with people who didn't exactly look like me. That's really sad. We talked about boys and our bodies. They knew about my hometown, and asked me about it. I'm glad they did. This too, is Race in America.
In college, I read the books and went to the presentations. I volunteered. I asked questions and listened thoughtfully to the answers. I was earnest. I wanted to know better, to do better, to be better, to apologize for where I'm from. And then I graduated, and did many things, and a few years later, one of these things was move to Chicago, start volunteering at this writing workshop, and ride my bike there, where one night, I happened to find myself next to a man who said to me, "[B]ecause there aren't a bunch of black boys here, I don't have to worry about my bike getting stolen." And I opened my mouth and nothing came out.
This is it. This is it. This, right here, is how black boys die.
And white people wonder why some people of color want nothing to do with them, and don't trust them for shit, don't trust them to be there for the struggle, in for the long haul, don't trust us to value their lives and the lives of their children as much as our own. Sweet Jesus.
The first and largest reason I didn't use my voice was because I was physically afraid. I am a woman, and my life has taught me that lone men who approach lone woman and say socially inappropriate and/or controversial things are unpredictable, and therefore dangerous. I've told lone men before that I don't like what they say, that I want them to leave me alone. In response, I've been followed, had rocks thrown at me, been physically intimidated until I'm pressed up against a brick wall with a drunk and angry face inches from mine shouting WHAT DID YOU SAY BITCH? I'M GONNA BEAT YOUR ASS.
This is why some nonwhite feminists do not trust their white counterparts for shit. We--I--can and have chosen one cause to stand up for, one lens to look through, because we can.
I thought I believed that none of us are free until all of us are free. I thought I lived that quote so often attributed to Lilla Watson--"If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." So often in my life, I have been willing to risk physical and emotional violence on the behalf of all women, but not, it seems, on the behalf of all people. Not that night. And as hopelessly stupid as it sounds, I didn't know that about myself until then, because my privilege protected me from this knowledge. It is a white cloak of safety and cowardice, and without thinking, I used it. I have no excuse.
Last of the terrible truths is this: because his native tongue was Spanish, this man wasn't white. Not white like how my white self thinks of white. That's a fucked sentence, isn't it? Like, deeply problematic, worth-an-essay-on-its-own, linguistically-privileged fucked. But this, too, is where the well-meaning liberal part comes in.
Because I'm white and I did not see him as white (I do not know how he sees himself, I did not ask, I just decided for him, my whole life has allowed me to do that), and because the subject was race--my instinct was to follow his leave. I've learned to be quiet and listen when a nonwhite person speaks about race because so often, white voices like my own have dominated and decimated the conversation. Part of me believed that this "conversation" we were having was his territory, not mine, because for all of American history white people have controlled the dialogue. "Good"white people, good white people who want to make a difference, strive to replace senseless speech with active listening. We acknowledge that we do not know what is best. We want to learn.
Silence kills people. Ideas kill people. Allowing a narrative of the dangerous black boy to perpetuate in my white presence kills people. I made the wrong choice, and I am ashamed.
There is this thought, too: forgiveness cannot be given. It must be earned in sincerity. I feel terrible, but I am not interested in feeling better. I want to do better.
The first time I read the first line--"I wanted to punch her right in the mouth and that's the truth"--I gasped. And then, I thought, oh, fuck you. Seriously, pissy white dude, just shut the fuck up. I do not care about your hurt animal angst because you weren't permitted to fuck somebody. And then I kept reading. I read it again, and then I read it again and now, years later, I pull it out at least once every season and read it again, for the anger it brings in me, for the questions it raises, and for those last two lines. "Until we say the truth, there can be no tenderness. As long as there is desire, we will not be safe."