When You Don’t Get the Window Seat

When You Don't Get the Window Seat

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 thereDon’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.

 

photo www.youtube.com

 

 

Promise Yourself: I Will Not Be Afraid

Promise Yourself: I Will Not Be Afraid

This time of year is the season of miracles–for though religious faith might not settle in all hearts–the ground hardens in most of the world, snow falls but still we believe in the miracle of spring, growth and rebirth. People bond and have children and believe that the child born to them will thrive. This is human nature. This is casting aside FEAR for belief in life–the sun rising each day and life continuing.

Because every day we need to find a small miracle to believe in–the smiles of our children and grandchildren, the love of a pet, the miracle of an increase in a paycheck. Karl Rahner wrote: “I don’t believe in miracles, I rely on them to get through each day!” And William Falk writes in THE WEEK as he warns against becoming neurotic, paranoid and unhinged: “It’s Not All Bad. Let’s all lighten up. A fresh new year beckons. The sky is not falling.”

THE TEDDY AWARDS

Joe Klein in TIME recently quoted Teddy Roosevelt who praised the doer–and not the critic of the doer. Roosevelt said:”The credit belongs to the man (or woman) who is actually in the arena…who spends himself in a worthy cause; who …in the end knows the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

Klein presented what he calls THE TEDDY AWARDS to those who fit the above definition. Here are a few of the winners with a brief description from Klein.

  • President Obama: who sang AMAZING GRACE in the midst of his lovely eulogy for the Charleston churchgoers, which was the emotional highlight of the year, and of his presidency. Thanks, Mr. President. We needed that.
  • Vice President Joe Biden: who had a terrible year, given the loss of his son, but he showed grace and a somber humanity–the sort of humanity often trampled at the intersection of public and private life.
  • George H. W. Bush, whose good words were revisited in Jon Meacham’s essential biography. Bush the elder remains an exemplar of civility in office, especially in the arena of foreign policy, where he remade Europe and reunited Germany after the Cold War by refusing to rub Russia’s nose in its defeat. Now that was a reset.
  • John Kasich, a contender for the GOP nomination, for his sanity and willingness, finally, to fight the rancid hate-mongering that threatened (and still does) to rot his party.
  • And finally, a Teddy to all the diplomats out there (Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton included by me!) John Kerry, Mohammad Javad Zarif, representative from Iran to the U.N., and to the unsung Americans toiling everywhere from Baghdad to the U.N. Because being politically correct in some cases is diplomacy. And diplomacy counts because words are never forgotten. Saying the correct word can mean the difference between talks that lead to peace and talks that lead to war.

Klein ends his piece by referencing President Bill Clinton, “who once said, diplomats are the exact opposite of terrorists. They struggle for peace, against all odds, in a world that seems to want only war.”

And so during this season when many of us are drawn to spiritual rebirth–fight against fear with hope and with knowledge. Seek to dig up the truth and don’t be led like a dumb lamb to the slaughter because of frightening words and images of hate. Madeleine Albright said:

“The magic of America is that we’re a free and open society with a mixed population. Part of our security is our freedom.” 

Fear can blind one to the truth. Fear is a close companion of hate.
 “A leader who sows confidence will reap excellency and legacy. A leader who sows fear will reap stagnancy or complacency.”
― Israelmore Ayivor, Leaders’ Ladder

Marie Curie, noted thinker and scientist said it best: “Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”

Promise Yourself: I Will Not Be Afraid

Thanks to: www.dailypainters.com and to fineartamerica.com