Thursday, March 25, 2010

Don't Rock the Boat?

If my Quaker family had had a motto, it might have been Don't Rock the Boat. To this day, discussions about politics make me uneasy. My parents agreed on politics for the most part, but whenever the subject came up, the bickering escalated until the subject was abruptly diverted to something non-consequential.  In the extremely clean rooms of our lives, a lot of energy went into keeping a smooth surface over unhappy relationships.

In many ways, we stayed afloat on an ocean of contradictions.  People can be very good at that.

Which was more significant, the denial enacted between members of the same family, or the denial that didn't recognize that liberal-minded and prejudiced really don't belong together?

I'm still untangling those threads. It's only recently, though, that I've been examining my own assumptions about race.  It is, admittedly, a privilege that I made it so far without asking myself those questions.

I think it's uncomfortable for some of the white people I know to talk about race beyond making casual remarks (within our own circles) that reflect our prior assumptions. Sometimes these remarks have a racist tinge, and sometimes they don't, but one thing they tend not to do is break new ground in our understanding. 

Why should one's thinking about such an important topic remain static, after all? 

Is is a particularly American trait that we have so little awareness of the ways our conjoined history still shapes present-day society?  The immigrant ideal involved the notion of shedding your ethnic background and reinventing yourself on the road to prosperity.   Sometimes I think white people expect people of color to live in the world as if slavery had never happened; as if the Jim Crow era were not a fairly recent memory; as if there had been no need for the Civil Rights Movement; as if racism didn't still effect them.  It's quietly arrogant because it presumes that people with very different experiences should see things as we do.
The truth is, we're all in it together.  Our history is a shared history.  To the extent that our future can be a shared future, and not one of mistrust and exclusion, we can diminish some of the centuries-old shadows.  Let's not wait for the other guy to change first, though, before we examine our own hidden racism.

Sunday, March 14, 2010


We had a housekeeper, and I loved her.  I'll call her Julia.  She grew up on a farm in Virginia, but she didn't like country life.  Philadelphia became her home, white families her employers.  She worked for my parents from my early childhood until arthritis forced her retirement, and we used to visit the senior citizen high-rise where she ended her days.  I think my mother was the only one of her employers who religiously paid her Social Security taxes.  Julia never married, and she used to joke that my brother and I were "her children."

She was part of the atmosphere of blessed, surface order in our home. Twice a week she came by bus, changing into her white uniform in our basement bathroom.  We'd come home from school and half-welcome the scolding we got if we walked on the newly washed kitchen floor. One of my brother's earliest memories is of toddling toward Julia and my mother, both on their knees before him in the living room, arms outstretched, calling him to walk.  Now I wonder which one he went toward?

I loved to sit in Julia's lap when she could spare me a minute. Her smell was so different than my mother's, both earthy and warm, unlike anything in our house.  I imagined she carried it with her from the vaguely envisioned home she told me of, where she kept a cat called Smudge.  When I was about three, Julia was holding me in a chair, and I happened to notice my small arm resting on hers.  I was amazed at what I saw.  "My arm is pink!" I cried.  "And yours is brown."

Julia gave me a little cuff on the cheek and said, "Don't be fresh!"  She added that she had to get back to work.  I slid to the floor.  I wasn't hurt. I knew she loved me.  But I started to cry, shocked and confused.  Later, I realize how I must have taken her by surprise. It was 1959 or 1960, and in a subsequent year, she might have felt it was okay to be low-key about the whole thing.  I think of how she was continually aware of my mother's presence in the house, and how Julia had the skill of drinking a glass of water without making a sound, as if she had taught herself a kind of invisibility.  And, though I doubt she ever heard my father make one of his infrequent racist comments, she had surely learned how close these remarks can be to the tongues of white people.

This was the only direct exchange I can remember having in my childhood household on the issue of race.  The conclusions I grew up with were a slurry of observation, confusion, and experience, all steeped in what I've come to think of as an atmosphere charged, as if with unseen electricity, by the agonized legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow era.

Much of what I learned supported what Julia taught me: That here in America, skin, in its varieties of pigmentation, is like the outer layer of a dangerous, sleeping animal.  To avoid hurting anyone, I learned it was expedient to pretend that skin color didn't exist. But that awareness never went away.

Monday, March 1, 2010


Paying attention to signs of spring and warm weather, wherever they hide!
This morning outside my window, the birds sing of it--there's a fresh urgency in their cries.

Here's a summer poem from the book:


The wealthy child's entourage
created summertime
from neap tides and bone china,
slim genteel peninsula

between youth, aging
death and birth.
She feels one room's air, then another
where they slept.

Bell calling the servants is
shelved.  Sea and wind scour
her Cape's changing arm--
play at songs on window screens.

More rooms are silent
doors remain closed.
She cuts bittersweet from a wall of stone.
Even the dust is a layer of pity.