Lately, when I fly, I never get a window seat–my husband is on the aisle, me in the middle. But I have memories of traveling alone from the Midwest to California to see my grandchildren, in the window seat, watching the land drop away, the green fields of Iowa and the mountains of the west below. Going to Chicago, I found the sight of Lake Michigan and the skyline thrilling. Beauty from the air.
This last trip? The young woman in the window seat kept the shade down EVEN DURING LANDING. Nothing to do, I tell myself. This is America where tolerance needs to apply in many situations. Let it go, even if travel might make me cranky and eager to say “Don’t you want to look out at Chicago, watch us glide over this amazing city and land?” I stay quiet. But on some issues, maybe I need to offer some words.
While flying from the west coast to Chicago–I did something.
I read a book. I read Ta-Nehisi Coates, BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME.
I will never be the same.
And one morning while in the woods I stumbled suddenly upon the thing, Stumbled upon it in a grassy clearing guarded by scaly oaks and elms, And the sooty details of the scene rose, thrusting themselves between the world and me...taken from a Richard Wright poem
You all know Richard Wright! You read NATIVE SON in high school. In this poem, Wright comes upon the remains of a tar, feathering and burning, only to grasp that his future might be the same. But Coates, writing his book to his son, leaps from the scene to the present day. Some things are now outlawed. Some are not.
This is a book about Coates’ fear for his black body. For me, this book is a WINDOW on white privilege, on the impact of words that have come from my mouth over and over: bad neighborhood, ghetto, white flight, gangs with guns and drugs, working the system–.
Go ahead, stop and ask yourself what language you might unconsciously use to denigrate a group of people–and do it casually, like it’s really no big deal. Because it’s so a part of most of us we don’t hear it or see it.
As a child the rhyme, Eeny, meeny, miny, moe, Catch a–the object of which my mother changed to tiger. I don’t know when. But I said the original. I didn’t know what I was saying, but I SAID THAT while playing a game! Now it horrifies me.
It was part of the culture, inbred in daily living. Life without thought. Ignorance. Did I ever stop to ask myself why I said these things? No. Did my white body prevent me from digging through decades of pre-judgment–from seeing clearly that some of my choices smacked of fear? Yes. And then finally I asked myself why?
Because it was ingrained from my ancestors, forebears or the populace that came before me. They handed me a well-crafted picture–just handed it over and said:”Here, believe this, because this is how it is for you and how it will always be.” Were they good and loving people? Mostly, yes. Were they the product of the times, the whispered words, the judgments. Yes, definitely. And Christians also.
Separation. Fear. Build a wall–like don’t drive there after dark; don’t shop there. Don’t take the bus.
My husband took the bus to college through those neighborhoods. NEVER had an incident.
Thank God for NOW because my grandchildren would ask WHY NOT TAKE THE BUS? And since reading BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME, these phrases, these tossed off and accepted ideas that are so much a part of the nomenclature stand out in my mind like darts of poison–because I am part of this. So what can I do when my policeman relative tosses it off so casually? Try to understand and yet know I cannot change him; arguments take me nowhere. But my black brother-in-law from South Africa, he gets it. He and my sister-in-law have experience DWB–driving while black.
I taught in a school with a diverse population (one of the best things that ever happened to me). But even so, I brought with me some pre-conceived ideas. My friend Linda M. helped wake me up. Told me, WE NEED TO SHARE THE LAND. Yes.
And not just share a dying neighborhood or a crumbling public housing building. See how they trash everything? I cringe even typing those words, but this is what we hear, this is in the language. We need to wake up and challenge it, never make general assumptions. Or at least try to discern WHY some things happen as they do.
My older daughter’s master’s thesis in Urban Planning was on the rationale behind the housing projects in Chicago–many of which have been torn down, thank God, some of which remain. I read portions of her reference books and they pointed to a major fact: a human being needs to have a say, to identify with a dwelling, a doorway, a garden. That builds pride, leads to care. Pushed in one direction without agency in choice blocks attachment. Ever read RAISIN IN THE SUN? Ever think about living in a building 20 stories high with no sunlight in the stairwell, one or two windows lighting your abode and no ability to step outside on a deck or a patio to feel the sun on your face? Sounds a bit like a prison. It was.
We whites think we have struggled for safety. Here is Coates: To survive the neighborhoods and shield my body, I learned another language consisting of a basic complement of head nods and handshakes. I memorized a list of prohibited blocks. I learned the smell and feel of fighting weather…I recall learning these laws clearer than I recall learning my colors and shapes, because these laws were essential to the security of my body.
Coates emphasizes his fear that someone will destroy his body because he is black–and for no other reason. Thus he references the firm and physical discipline of his parents.The LESSON that all black mothers and fathers teach their children: avoid the police when walking the streets. Be careful. Watch yourself. Your life depends on it.
What thoughts went through your mind, Dear Reader, when you saw a black mother scolding her child in a store, or pulling that child toward her? Negative right? Now read this from Coates as he addresses his son:
Now I understood it all…black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made. That is a philosophy of the disembodied,of a people who control nothing, who can protect nothing, who are made to fear not just the criminals among them but the police who lord over them with all the moral authority of a protective racket. It was only after you that I understood this love, that I understood the grip of my mother’s hand. She knew that the galaxy itself could kill me, that all of me could be shattered and all of her legacy spilled upon the curb like bum wine. And no one would be brought to account…because my death would not be the fall of any human but the fault of some unfortunate but immutable fact of “race”…
Coates recounts his first trip to Paris, a joyful-sad experience for a man bursting from the historical bonds of American society. Sitting in a Parisian garden he writes: At that moment a strange loneliness took hold…It occurred to me that I really was in someone else’s country and yet, in some necessary way, I was outside of their country. In America, I was part of an equation–even if it wasn’t a part I relished. I was the one the police stopped on 23rd Street in the middle of a workday…I was not just a father but the father of a black boy. I was not just a spouse but the husband of a black woman, a freighted symbol of black love. But sitting in the garden, for the first time I was an alien, a sailor–landless and disconnected. And I was sorry I had never felt this particular loneliness before–…far outside of someone else’s dream.
Yes, we all have dreams. But they have to be ours. SHARE THE LAND, let others have their dreams without a catch. J Beckett says in his Goodreads Review of Coates’s book: The tears came because Coates, in a few pages, captured, exposed, unlocked and translated what so many people of color, so many frustrated and frightened parents, and so many disenfranchised and nomadic youth found so difficult to dictate and explain. For them, the feelings were there but the words simply would not come. I wept because Coates’ story was my story..
And part of Coates story is my story–it’s my inability to fully see and understand. I have a bigger window on that story now, even though what I saw was not my plane landing at Ohare in Chicago, but the words on the page bright and vivid calling out to me.
Read this book. Let me know if his words touch you also.
P.S. Next week, The Terra-cotta Warriors, on display at the Field Museum. If you are in Chicago, don’t miss it.