Small Things Awaken Us–They Still Should

Small Things Awaken Us--They Still Should

I was a kid and I was sick. I don’t remember what I had. But my brother, three years older than me, brought me some books to look at while I lay in bed. One was THE FAMILY OF MAN. If you are familiar with this book–it is all photographs by Edward Steichen from an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York–that then circulated around the world. The beloved Chicago poet, Carl Sandburg, wrote an introduction:

THERE IS ONLY ONE MAN IN THE WORLD and his name is ALL MEN. THERE IS ONLY ONE WOMAN IN THE WORLD and her name is ALL WOMEN. THERE IS ONLY ONE CHILD IN THE WOLRD and the child’s name is ALL CHILDREN.

But I wasn’t reading that. I’m a kid, probably seven or eight. (And if I watched TV, it was cartoons and Disney.) So I’m opening the book and being shocked. Why? The photographs are amazing, photos of people naked and kissing; a baby being born; a mother nursing a baby with all exposed. Keep turning the pages and I am in countries where people don’t dress like Americans, don’t look like them–they are dancing, singing, eating, crying and dying.

I closed the book. Was I really supposed to see these things? YES. A few years later it would be a pornographic magazine found on a street corner. (Nudity can be art and not art.) I was learning about the world. No parent can keep a child from reality. But there are wonderful ways and sordid ways for children to become worldly. We learn to evaluate and to understand.

RIGHT THERE IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD

Every family decides how they will handle nudity, where babies come from and the details of sex. Yes, in some ways I was sheltered. There was the time a loving aunt took me to a public pool to swim. After that day, I didn’t like public pools very much. I was shy. I liked running under the hose in my backyard. That day when we walked into the shower room in our bathing suits, an older woman totally nude was showering, revealing parts of the human body I had never seen. Now where was that book that my brother gave me when I was sick?

Another time, my mother drove us to the Highway Theatre for a movie. We purchased our tickets, waited for the doors to open. A woman and a preteen girl were at the ticket window. I was watching them, but then wanted to turn away–the clerk indicated that they didn’t have enough money. The mother began to argue, raise her voice. The girl pulled at her mother saying, MA LET’s GO. The woman kept it up. The girl pulled harder and harder her voice cracking until finally she was able to escape this terrible scene. I didn’t enjoy the film. I thought about that girl for days.

Because I grew up with no father, he died when I was three, it took me years to feel comfortable around men, to understand what they were all about. On trips to a lake house with my close friend’s family, I loved the weekdays–no men. They came up on weekends. They were all loving fathers, but I hung back.

WAKING UP EVERY DAY

The crazy thing about these episodes that occurred in my life years ago, is that they are still happening. Yes, I navigated and embraced my life, survived learning about men and women, sex and marriage, pain and death, and came to the conclusion that life is amazing and wonderful and I want to hug it and be in it and share it with others.

Books, like THE FAMLY OF MAN, opened doors for me. I read, I learned, I could not get enough of life’s vibrancy. Or its sadness (Jesus cold in a manger, men and women dying in wars.) Because there comes a point in everyone’s life when you no longer want to look out a curtained window at YOUR LIFE. You want to BE IN IT.

Even though I have some years on me, I don’t want to watch a room of jaded older men and women, who are not AWAKENING like I am, deciding how my children and grandchildren will live in this, our beloved America. I want to shout out:  YOU HAVE HAD YOUR TIME, ARE SET IN YOUR WAYS! Others are awakening, LISTEN TO THEM.

FOLLOW THE VOICES, LOOK AT THE FACES 

There is a word in our language: jaded. It means, made dull, apathetic, or cynical by experience or by having or seeing too much of something.

You can’t see too much of your fellow humans who smile and weep; who work hard and love to sleep or listen to music or dance. 

You can’t read too much about the good things in people–the hard work they encounter, the diseases they fight (patient and doctor and scientist) the things they create–music and art and poetry and drama, and the world of nature that is powerful some days and tame the next.

MAYBE TOMORROW YOU COULD:

  1. Say hello to a stranger
  2. Turn off your electronic device and listen to the wind, rain, or if you are lucky hear birdsong.
  3. Call a friend who you’ve been angry with. Make up.
  4. Hug your family members like you really, truly can’t live without them. Because if you do lose them–that will be your sad reality.
  5. Find it in your heart to break down some barrier–it could be a prejudice, an anger or a blaming. Sometimes we even blame ourselves when forgiveness is the BREATH OF LIFE.
  6. I would also recommend finding a copy of THE FAMILY OF MAN. Or reading Ta-Nehisi Coates, WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWER. Or teaching yourself about THE TAX PLAN. Or reading literature, which is about THE OTHER, and introduces you to SOMEONE ELSE’S POINT OF VIEW. 

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
I’m Judging You by Luvvie Ajayi
Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
You Can’t Touch My Hair by Phoebe Robinson
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
Known and Strange Things by Teju Cole
White Girls by Hilton Als
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay

Photo: ABC NEWS.go.com

 

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.

 

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