Tuesday, December 29, 2009


Imagine trying to convince a fish, happily finning around in its native element: "You're wet!"

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

A Quaker Child Sends Mittens to the Algerians

In our large meetinghouse, which was all in tones of brown, there was a mitten tree. I was young enough that this apparition of evergreen and bright color, placed between the raised facing benches where the elders sat, was a marvel.  What a thing to put on a tree!  A mitten, then, could be a sort of jewel. 

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

A Quaker Child Wishes There Were Colored Lights on Her House, Too

Christmas was good in our family. I even managed to behave well, once putting on a dress I loathed (and my mother adored) on Christmas morning. It was 'darling'--hand smocked, sash, full skirt--and I was 9 or 10 and already had a crush on Paul McCartney's edible-looking eyes. I wanted white go-go boots (never did get a pair) and short skirts with wide plastic belts.

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


Lately, I've been wondering why I forget my dreams even before waking up. And wondering what my dreams would tell me if I remembered them. 

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


ON THE TIGER WOODS FLAP: Since the Philadelphia Inquirer did not take this op-ed piece, I thought I'd post it here. Enjoy!

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?