Tuesday, December 29, 2009
This image, for me, sums up the elemental condition of many white people regarding racism in the United States. And yes, this has to do with my Quaker childhood.
Within the nicely painted walls of bourgeois respectability, we were pretty darn liberal. The neighborhood we lived in in Philadelphia was integrated, if our street wasn't. Before I got to ninth grade, my private school in the city had instituted a "Community Scholars" program whereby academically motivated kids from the neighborhood surrounding the school could become students there. Ever oblivious, I was never sure who the Community Scholars kids actually were, but I did know that one of the CS girls in my graduating class was the closest thing to valedictorian that most Quaker schools have. In my family we were proud to be on the right side. Heck, my school had stayed IN the neighborhood when "the other G-town private school" had deserted the city for the litter-free safety of the suburbs.
The politics, voting record, and wallet policy in my household were "progressive." My parents supported the United Negro College Fund, the ACLU, all that. At the age of maybe 12, I took part in my first demonstration against the Vietnam War, and I developed a vague notion that policemen on the street were sort-of-bad-guys.
All the while, there was racism in my family, but I didn't notice the disconnect. I was a wet fish. Actually, with the razor vision of adolescence, I noted the racist comments made by the older generation. But not my own blindness, white-on-white, as I stared into a mirror that revealed so little contrast by way of reference points that I read it as a picture of the whole world. Racism, by our definition, could not be subtle--if it were, we would have had to redefine ourselves. Even as we unconsciously distanced ourselves from the black 'other'--there was no real socializing across racial lines--we measured ourselves, not by what we actually said and thought, but according to our distance from the racist thugs of lynchings and voter fraud.
I have read Joseph Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness, three times, and each time, I might have been wearing frosted glasses. It was only when, as an adult, I read Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe's essay about the book that I realized that I, myself, am an illustration of white blindness. If I were African, or descended from Africans, wouldn't I respond to their portrayal as Achebe did? How could I have missed it? It's very simple: Conrad's Africans are half-animal, dangerous, ripe for manipulation by the evil "Mistah Kurtz." Their love of evil is not rooted in what they do, like Kurtz, whose moral degeneration has led him to "the horror", but in what they ARE. They have no choice, being "dark." Isn't that a definition of racism?
Achebe revealed the contrast in things. Take the bland question that my next door neighbor asked me once: Had I noticed that the local grocery store was becoming "dark" ? If we hadn't grown up in a society tinged with racism at every level, would she have chosen a code word as a stand-in to mean "The population is changing at Acme. I keep seeing more and more black people there, and this is a bad thing"...? Would I have understood her code? Of course, I did understand, but I was too much of a coward to say anything.
Blindness. It's a privilege to be able to ignore this stuff, but it's a privilege that, with the new year, we can choose to revoke.
Achebe's essay on Heart of Darkness
Friday, December 25, 2009
During meeting for worship, someone stood up and talked about the war for Algerian independence using words I didn't understand. I tried to picture War. The only clear image I could muster was of something like a tennis court with enemies on either side, only these Algerians (and was it the French?) used guns and didn't take turns politely lobbing bullets. Or did they? And it was a huge court, the size of a whole country. People who didn't want to watch the war tried to leave, and so I learned about Refugees. I pictured them in a line, trudging, with goats at their feet and bundles on their backs. It was years before I understood that not all refugees were from Algeria. That my Irish friend at school was here in the US because her ancestors had fled a potato famine. That refugees could be from Vietnam, the Americas, from anywhere, and that they were the lucky ones if they actually could flee from poverty or harsh injustice. It was years before I understood that many would arrive to re-create their lives in places that did not know them or care to learn their language.
It was a delight to go to with my mother to a department store and choose a pair of bright red mittens with a blue argyle pattern to send to a refugee child from Algeria. Maybe this girl would have a white Christmas. Certainly she would be able to play in the snow this winter, now that my gift hung on the mitten tree in the Quaker meeting in Philadelphia to be sent wherever refugees go, sent by someone, maybe a United Nations ambassador in a white shirt and tie, who would pack them in a big, exciting box, and and the child would know that she had the best pair among all the refugee children since many of the mittens on the tree were so dull-colored, dark blue or green, and probably those would go to boys, who wouldn't even notice the color before they started making snowballs to lob at one another.
Saturday, December 19, 2009
But that year, for my mother's sake, I wore a symbol of her own privileged childhood, the end of which she still mourns.
We were encouraged to be disdainful of people who had a) artificial Christmas trees, especially the "dreadful" metallic ones b) lots of colored lights on their houses (my mother has since recalibrated her sense of what "lots of" lights actually means). We had two red celluloid wreaths with single red bulbs, which shone pluckily in the dining room windows. I loved them. We had a plastic Santa who lit up from a bulb in his belly and held a “Merry Christmas!” sign. My English grandmother, who met my mother's American father during World War One when they were both doing relief work in Europe with the Quakers, had been a truth-teller who had deprived my mother of belief in Father Christmas. Our visits from Santa were one correction my mother made.
And at Christmastime, we had Darkness. I remember a Sunday night when my father and brother had gone off to Young Friends, the Quaker equivalent of a church youth group. I might have been twelve. I lay in the living room on my stomach next to the tree, which was decorated with ornaments from my mother's childhood, above all my favorite glass icicles, and the large bulbs that were the only Christmas lights available then. My mother, a rare person who actually doesn't like music, had put on a record of the French carols she favored. We had a little portable record player that must have sounded sad, but it was what we knew. Perhaps the day had still been light outside when the music started, but she didn't turn on the lights. The tree smelled lovely. Its lights made me think of what magic might do to snow.
The rest of the room, the rest of the world, was Dark. The record ended, and I thought of another carol: In those dark streets shineth the everlasting light. I lay on my stomach with my mother close by, patient in the dark, and we didn't talk. In my mind I saw a town, only vaguely, because no houses were lit. But there was something onyx in that night. Something hidden. There were spears of light along dark streets, faint to the eye, but permanent: Waiting. Powerful.
Friday, December 11, 2009
Last night, I obliged myself. There must have been a few grains of will involved; I didn't think I could pull off remembering a dream just because I wanted to. Do dreams operate by a different sense of what's attractive than surface life? It wasn't until I woke up in the morning that I thought, That was one ugly pup. The mother dog was...kind of a dog as well. But in the dream I didn't give it a second thought, nor did I think, gee, puppies don't usually nurse by sucking on a bitch's tail.
It was dream normal.
The scariest dream I ever had was when I was very young. There was nothing actually frightening in it, a bit like the suppressed polish of our Quaker household. After all, there was nothing frightening about my parents. I dreamed of something pretty, and I woke up terrified.
There was pastoral color in the dream: It was silent: An earthen path through a flower garden, the path covered with boards to walk on, like you sometimes see at the beach. At the end of the path, a summer gazebo waited. I woke up and hid behind the laundry bag in the bathroom between my brother's room and my room. Bothering my parents wasn't an option.
--That silence rose from fear of a silent dream. Silence can be anything: a place for worship to expand; white space, in which the words of a poem resonate after they've been read; even a passive weapon--silence that fuels injustice by accepting the status quo.
Saturday, December 5, 2009
IN THIS worn-out, fame-gobbling, invite-yourself-to-the-White-House, Botox-brained age, there is still a Mount Olympus. Its heights are remote, its atmosphere pure and sharp, and only the truly beautiful, whose physical discipline and grace springs from a well of fortitude and goodness, may dwell there.
The valley below is hazy with the dust of shattered marble bodies; the populace trots up from the valley to pick over the heaps with digging fingers. Sprung for a few hours from lives of quiet desperation, they crouch in the rubble like Gollum to troll for body parts, hoping to identify the smashed-up loins of governors, of talk show hosts, to lick the blood of tortured dogs from the torso of an athlete fresh from jail; these shards of former greatness are grabbed up for nothing and sold on Ebay at a four hundred percent profit. On the way to the marketplace, these citizen tabloid-texters jam the brain of anyone sentient enough to stare at a flat-screen device, serving up “billions and billions” of McRumors (Super-Sized!), Starbucks-jazzed versions of versions of what someone once thought might have been the truth, and these are, magically, catapulted into Hard Copy by crackerjack phalanxes of gossip brokers (you know who you are) in fine silk shirts, nice people who would never crack their own fingernails in rubble, but who make piles of money off it anyway. Only minor physical injury—perhaps a bad knee— is dull enough for the brokers to leave it alone. Die in a high-speed car chase with paparazzi, as Princess Diana did, and the goddess becomes food.
The frenzy never stops.
There is still, today, in this age of American Idolatry and Sycophancy, one true god left standing on Olympus. His name is Tiger Woods, and his message to us is simple. You can read it on his website. He’s telling the world something the Ancient Greeks knew very well: The gods are only our own wish fulfillment, which means they are just more gifted, beautiful, and more disciplined versions of the flawed, yearning, basically ordinary people that all of us are. They can be jealous, adulterous, fickle. They R Us, writ large.
Tiger fills the god bill: He’s a prodigy who exponentially fulfilled his early potential, never taking for granted the glow of the full sun of what will be a very long career. His stony, beautiful visage intimidates competitors. His discipline rivals that of a monk. His dignity is oceanic, his privacy legendary. On the People Magazine level, his racial history is intriguingly ambiguous, and his children are as photogenic as the baby imp Hermes, god of travelers “and all who live by their wits.”
Tiger Woods is Other. He is not the feared, nightmare Other of our prejudices, the dehumanized Other who in an earlier time might have been lynched, mirror of our own depravity. He is not found in horrific dreams of a terrorist Other who blows airplanes out of the sky.
He is Yin to that Yang. He is our aspiration package. Our American Dream. Looking at him, we hope that humanity can be good. That a human can be strong. That a man can achieve something beyond even the promise of his staggering talent.
We need him. The Greeks needed their gods. But there are differences. Zeus, the King of Gods, was a manic womanizer who makes Tiger Woods, whatever transgressions he may have committed, look like the Dalai Lama. Zeus’s wife, Hera, blithely destroyed her rivals, mortal or divine. Did she ever stop drying her nails long enough to rescue Zeus from a Cadillac Escalade with a club, the symbol of her husband’s divinity?
Hey, in the sin department, Tiger hovers at a seventh grade level. Pretty mediocre. Is our culture so sick, so glutted from gorging on the flat abs of celebrities that we fail to miss the point of a solo car crash in the middle of the night, a golf club, and a few facial lacerations?
Tiger, for all his power as an athlete, is what we make of him. That is his weakness, his Achilles’ heel, to borrow from another tale of Ancient Greece. Like an ordinary person who feels—imagine!—actual pain, he speaks plaintively, and with staggering understatement on his website: “I have been dismayed to realize the full extent of what tabloid scrutiny really means. For the last week, my family and I have been hounded to expose intimate details of our personal lives.”
It would be less painful if we believed in those fictional gods, who cannot feel, into whose perfect, naked chests we could hurl the darts of our aspirations and our basest desires. But we’re done with that. We can’t reverse the clock of history. We’re left with real people, people who cry and bleed as we do, even if their success tempts us to believe otherwise.
Tiger Woods has asked us to judge him only on his golf game and to afford him and his family some privacy. Anyone who dishonors that request is something less than human. Gossip mavens, go find a criminal to hound. A little dignity, America. Is it so hard?
Saturday, November 28, 2009
Our family had a black cleaning lady who came to us by bus twice a week, and she worked for my parents until a bad hip forced her retirement. The household was very quiet and ordered--on the surface--and I found her routines comforting, the hum of the vaccuum cleaner, the lemony furniture polish, the damp kitchen floor that signaled the end of her day. I even sort of liked the way she'd scold us for trying to sneak across the wet floor to grab a snack.
E. herself had a nice smell, not sweet, impossible to describe, a smell that I thought of as 'like wood' and that I associated with the dark wood furniture in our house. One of my brother's first memories is of E. and my mother, side by side on their knees with arms outstretched toward him, calling him to take new, toddling steps.
Skin color. What could be more neutral? I must have been about three years old when I was shocked into a rudimentary understanding that in America, skin color is anything but simple. One afternoon, E. held me in her lap in the living room. Circled and safe, seeing her arm laced with mine, I had a revelation. "Your arm is brown!" I cried, "And mine is pink!" Her reaction was completely unexpected. She gave me a little cuff on the cheek. "Don't be fresh!" she said, setting me on the floor. Stung but not physically hurt, I cried. She had erupted in a shocking way.
A couple of years later, my friend Mary and I worked in a coloring book out in the hall while E. cleaned my room. "I'm going to make this kid a Negro," Mary said, matter-of-factly. We lived in West Mount Airy in Philadelphia, and Mary went to the racially integrated public school down the street. I wouldn't let Mary color anyone's skin brown. "Shh!" I hissed. "She'll hear you."
If I consciously thought about race, it was with a vague sense of shame, as of something too loaded to mention. We were Philadelphia Quakers, pretty much a guarantee that we were also political liberals. My father contributed to the United Negro College Fund, Planned Parenthood, and the ACLU. But we thrived in the longstanding structure of white privilege, and not looking at race was a way of reconciling these realities.
When I was in junior high in a private Quaker school, black kids started showing up: Community Scholars, part of a new and ultimately successful program to integrate the school, but I was never sure who was a
Community Scholar and who wasn't. They were just there. I envied their cohesiveness as a group, their easy mutual friendships, and and in high school, I actually believed that I possessed no ethnicity, no color at all. I lacked a rich presence the black kids had.
E had an ability that I admired. She could drink a glass of water without making a sound. I didn't realize then that perhaps instinctively, she avoided extending herself in any way that would create ripples on the calm surface of our household. When she cuffed me for mentioning our relative skin tones, perhaps she was concerned that my mother, always floating around the house, might overhear. Maybe she thought I would start asking difficult questions.
It was a mark of privilege that many years passed before I started asking myself questions about race. Even then, I didn't have to. I could have gone on ignoring questions of race, as I had been raised to do.
Thursday, November 26, 2009
Sometimes I think that holidays are a celebration of my lizard heart. I'm just not one of those hold-hands-around-the-table types. Years ago, when my husband and I were first married, we spent Thanksgiving with his family, which meant, since my brother was living in another part of the country, that my mother and father 'kept Thanksgiving in their own way,' to paraphrase Ebenezer Scrooge. A day or two later, I called my mother to ask how the holiday went. By way of answer, she quoted a hymn. It was originally written as a comfort to those unfortunately separated from their loved ones. "Peace, perfect peace, with loved ones far away..." My mother kept the wording, but her interpretation was genius. The way she recited the line was more like this (I could hear her expansive smile) : "Peace, perfect peace, with loved ones FAR AWAY!!! WOO HOO!!"
You might say I was raised to appreciate solitude, a quality which is present in inverse proportion to high-carbohydrate food on holidays. But my parents aren't responsible for the fact that I work at home in a small house, that my desk is in a central location (so convenient! It used to be the dining room) and that my husband also works at home, rarely goes anywhere, and has no concept of why anyone would want to be alone. Ever. He's a great guy. It's just...we look at solitude philosophically. To him it's empty. To me, it's full. I'm happy that my college student kid will be here in a few hours...but there are a few things we need to talk about, and I'm a little anxious about whether I'll handle it right. Then put the older one together with my young teenager, and you have...nonstop hilarity. Man, they have a good time. Hang on to the breakables. Until mid-day Sunday, the median age around here will be about 7.
Then there's the Day Of. Since Turkey is not in my job description (thanks, Mum, and I'm not being sarcastic) I'm looking forward to making that cranberry stuff in a pretty dish and that long car ride with two overgrown 7-year-olds. The thing is, Extended Family isn't always the easiest planet to visit. I've rarely managed to navigate my way around my particular one without making a weirdo of myself. My skin gets too tight. My idiosyncracies start flaking unmentionably into the decorously prepared (and healthy!!) T & stuffing. I notice my when my children are bored or uncomfortable, and I want to squirm with them. I am the recipient of many polite, tolerant smiles, and all I want to do by pie time is find a fellow lost soul to crawl under the table with and giggle our guts out.
It's all gonna start hitting in about three hours. If I had my druthers, I'd spend the weekend with my husband and kids and a few solitude breaks. No big shebang....So what do I do about my lizard heart? Aargh, it looks like I have a choice to make. Either I take a thirsty look at gratitude or...well, or what? The problem with being a sarcastic type who detests greeting cards and prefers her holiday movies to skewer what they celebrate is that I might miss something important. Remember how glad I was yesterday that my husband's checkup turned out...fine? Remember, I'm telling myself, a few weeks ago when I was so worried about that college kid; and then, the thing I was afraid of DIDN'T actually happen? Remember last Thanksgiving, when I decided to visit Planet Extended and had an unusually honest and refreshing conversation with someone I'd previously written off? Remember how good it felt, for once, to ignore my lizard nature for a few hours?
Remember, I'm thinking, that I chose to put my desk in its commuter-station-like central location...And remember what I do there. What I'm PRIVILEGED to do here, when I could be sharpening pencils at the Dunder Mifflin Paper Company, or out of work entirely, which, despite the fact that this recession hit us hard, is not the case. Think of what I do that lots of people would like to do, and can't.
Why, I can take all the above AND, with a little luck, a lot of love, and a realistic infusion of gratitude...I can TURN IT INTO FICTION!!!!
Sunday, November 22, 2009
The bonnet, hidden for so long, is the only dark thing in my kitchen at night, denser than the washed-looking sky outside, which is made glossy by our French doors. All the appliances, the refrigerator, dishwasher, stove, look insubstantial, as if they could float away. Even the tile floor and back splash appear lacy compared to the bonnet. A dark wood apothecary cabinet that once stood in my grandmother's attic, full of souvenirs she picked up in her days as a Quaker missionary and now containing china and silver, is lightened by grain and sheen.
The bonnet is a presence. Its shape is complex, neatly engineered. It refers only to itself, like an unexpected rock formation in a desert. If I looked at it long enough, it might tell me something.
Sunday, November 8, 2009
At least one family in our meeting had no pictures on their walls. The 4th Commandment: Graven images and all that.
I was glad that wasn't us. We were dull, but the walls weren't bare. In fact, my mother had worked for the Philadelphia Museum of Art before she got married, and she had collected some very nice prints. Over our mantlepiece was a William Blake engraving of the Canterbury Pilgrims riding in procession. The Wife of Bath faced the viewer, her ample bodice loose enough to reveal part of a nipple. That dark fleck repelled and fascinated me, like the sucker on an octopus.
On the whole, being artistic was encouraged as long as the art didn't get too challenging. My parents' taste was impeccable. Their furniture was dark and polished.
We read like fiends. The Friends Free Library, on the campus of my school, was founded and funded by an 0ld-time Quaker who had believed that fiction was a stew of lies; it wasn't allowed among the adult books. Only in the children's department. As a very young child, I felt relieved about that and pitied the grownups who were deprived of stories.
That has since changed, and the founder of the Friends Free Libarary has been overruled.
We read all kinds of things. When I was about 12, I found an off-limits paperback book on a shelf of my mother's closet, which made it instantly enticing. I'd heard my parents talking about it--someone my father knew had written the novel, but they didn't want us kids sticking our noses into it. The book was about illegitimate babies, and jazz, and drugs. It sailed over my head. I loved it, and it scared me. I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which my older brother had left lying around. I didn't understand most of that, either. I learned a new word from it, one whose context sang of sex and power and adult stuff that I recognized instinctively but couldn't define.
"Pimp," I said out loud, alone one morning in the stiff dining room. The new word had to be tasted. "Pimp."
I loved Virginia Woolf's gender-shifting Orlando, but I didn't finish it. Too challenging in ways that made me uneasy. When I was 12, I read Isadora Duncan's life story. "I'm surprised she knew how to read or write," my mother snapped, when I tried telling her how much I'd liked it.
That clinched it. I knew who I would try to become, once I could get free of a mother who only let me wear white underwear.
Saturday, November 7, 2009
My new husband and I were seated at my parents' carefully set dining room table, east and west, with my parents at north and south. A portrait of my great-great grandfather as a girlish little boy, with ringlets, overlooked the room. The gleaming silver had the austerity of old bones.
"Shall we say a silent grace in the Friendly manner?" Dad spoke for Steve's benefit, enunciating every word as if it was a complete sentence in itself. I figured my husband already knew what was up.
We bowed our heads. The silence almost howled, it felt so empty. I have known silence to be as rich as plum cake, but in those days I always tense at my parents' house. We knew how long to keep our heads down, even Steve. You learn these things without realizing it; they seem instinctive.
Unfurled napkins were arranged on laps. Steve was hungry, and he picked up one of two mini-muffins from the edge of his plate. "These look good. Is there any butter?"
My father drew himself up with great dignity. This was a moral matter. He cleared his throat. "That's not necessary," he told my husband with gracious condescension.
Wednesday, November 4, 2009
It was all very serious, this business of silence in Meeting for Worship. I knew it was serious from an early age. Why else would they prop up a dead body to gaze down at us every week from the Facing Bench?
The large, plain meeting room at Germantown Monthly Meeting was a tank of beige light. Long windows on three sides allowed glimmers of green and sky, distantly, from outside. Each side had a high double door, and during meeting they were never locked. Our family attended every First Day, AKA Sunday, where we sat in the same place every week on a long, dark wood bench with green cushions. It felt good to twist the buttons on these cushions. My mother could stop me with barely a hiss, barely a movement of her hand. Her dagger eyes were enough.
The Elders, or Weighty Friends, sat on the Facing Benches, which were raised at the end of the room where in a liturgical church, an altar would have been. There was no decoration except for an austere spoked wood medallion set into the ceiling, so faces were important. Every so often, someone rose to speak. The diffuse sound of gathering limbs and clothing served as the speaker's preface, so many people were already looking before the speaker said a word. They uttered brief, important things about life and God. I didn't understand, but important things weren't supposed to be simple.
At Christmastime a mitten tree was put in the aisle between the two Facing Benches. The mittens were brightly colored, and they would go to poor children. The Elders on either side looked very serious.
Dr. McPhedren was deceased, I was convinced, because he never moved. His pale, bald head rested against the back of the dark bench. His eyes were closed. Weighty in life, so in death. He was there to remind us that Meeting for Worship is a grave matter.
Tuesday, November 3, 2009
I am walking in the glory of the light,' said Fox."
I thought Philadelphia Quakers lived at the core of the world. I thought we were more enlightened, close to the center of anything that mattered. In time, the world would listen to us. The world would change.
In third grade at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia, where I was a 'lifer,' Mrs. Cadbury taught us about the Egyptian Pharoah Akhenaten, apparently the first monotheist in the ancient world. She had kept us in some suspense before his unveiling; Akhenaten was a relief after the weirdness of half-jackal Anubius, the god of embalming, or Isis, who was married to her own brother. Isis--not a nice girl, in a similar way in which the Barbie doll, (which my mother wouldn't allow in the house), wasn't a nice girl. And third graders didn't like the idea of a religion that found god in the process of sucking dead people's brains out through their noses.
Akhenaten made me less anxious about the state of humanity; even back at the dawn of thought, before central heating and daily baths, progress had been made. People like us had gotten somewhere. Reason and light--Monotheism, my third grade mind embraced, okay, maybe only a sun god, now known to be a big old fireball, but one god closer to our state of enlightenment.
We Quakers had grown farther than any other group: away from superstition, pitying those who relied on crucifixes and florid rituals that lingered on bloodshed, to me suggestive of half-naked ancestors suffering noisome panic each time the sun went down...We got our lunch delivered to the classroom every day on a steam cart by a lady in a white uniform.
The way my father put it was that over generations, our family had evolved. But my friend Mary, whose family was Episcopalian, had a pretty, carved crucifix in her bedroom. I asked my mother if I could have one. Vulgar, she said. We don't do that.