Jun 152012

There is a conversation waiting to be had in the United States of America. It is a difficult conversation, a painful conversation, one that once ignited takes the lid off a pressure cooker of discontent that will cause tears to flow from human hearts like steam from a valve.

The price of this conversation is yet another transition in times of turmoil, its currency is courage and its reward, freedom.

And the lesson? Vigilance. Because the conversation has already been had in this complex nation of good-hearted people, over and over and over again. If it didn’t cause a civil war, it sure as hell starred in one; if it didn’t cost at least one president his life, it made a hefty contribution to his fateful shooting; and without doubt, much later, it triggered riots and bloodshed in a social revolution.


I am a stranger in this land. As such all the stories I tell are based on nothing more than my own ungrounded observations. Put these snapshots together as you please.

*** I watched a movie the other night that touched me deeply – I love foreign films, especially American ones. The best line in the movie was this:

‘Who’da thought we’d have a black son before we ever met a Democrat.’

Prior to this trip, I would have thought this a funny throwaway line. The reality of it cuts close to the bone. Leigh Anne Tuohy is my new shero, the courage and goodhearted kindness of this woman transcends everything we think we know about . . . others. I love her. Playing her earned Sandra Bullock an Academy Award, testimony to the commitment of both women.

The Blind Side.

*** I am standing at the traffic lights on a busy corner in Queens. A black man drives by in a car and spits at another black man, also standing on the corner. He leaves a word hanging in the air like unwanted mist: ‘Nigger.’

*** All the way from New Orleans to Mississippi to Georgia I listened, quite coincidentally, to The Help as an audio book. Last week I was out to dinner with a group of people who all happened to be black and they started talking about this book/movie. All but one said it was important to keep telling the stories. The one said it was time to move on from slave stories, that it was time for black people to stop defining themselves by the past. These were all educated, professional and/or creative people.

One, a poet who minds children, said not a lot had changed since The Help. She said white women took photographs of her when she was out with her little white charges, ‘just in case’. She said white women rang the mother of the little white charges if one of the children cried in public.

*** I am at Book Expo America with my publisher, who happens to be a black woman. We agree to meet at lunchtime in the cafeteria. I get there and come face to face with a wall of people. I wonder how I’m gonna find her – then I realise it’s not so hard; for the first time I notice I am among a sea of white people. The USA’s book industry is startlingly white.

*** Before NYC and BEA I spent a couple of weeks in Georgia. Almost without exception the guests in my audiences were black, although, now I think about it, the librarians were white. I wonder if there is an unwelcome mat out, on both sides of this divide; I wonder if self-segregation – by everyone – is the invisible, indivisible fuel for this too comfortable situation.

*** A very dear new friend, a young woman and committed teacher who works in a poor, mostly black school, is sitting at a mall having coffee with her sister. They notice three boys, around 9. 10 and 12, all standing still with their scooters. A tall man has them cornered. My friend and her sister wonder whether the boys are in trouble. They don’t want to draw conclusions. The boys are white. The man is black, in his 20s. The boys look terrified. But is my friend and her sister making assumptions? Jumping to conclusions? Like the white women who photograph the poet who minds children. They watch. Fifteen minutes pass; they call 911 and they leave. Five minutes later, they watch the boys risk their lives as they bolt through barrelling traffic, the smaller one leaping out from behind a garbage bin where he’d been hiding. My friend is furious – with herself for not acting sooner, with the black man for acting out a stereotype that cripples the lives of others who look like him. As my friend said: ‘those white boys are going to grow up to be employers – are they going to employ the kids at my school?’ She added, choking up, thinking of her lovely life with her boyfriend: ‘my babies are likely to have brown skin’.

*** I am having dinner and a laugh with a family group, one of whom has invited me along for the evening. They are all black, as it happens. They tell me about their neighbourhood in Brooklyn. I tell them I stayed a month in Brooklyn last year. They asked where and I couldn’t remember. Maybe it was near you, I say. Oh no, they all shake their heads. This is a black neighbourhood. I wrinkle my forehead. I tell them the name of my street and they stare at me in wonder – ‘why, that’s my street!’ says one. Well that’s where I stayed, I said. They looked at me. ‘You stayed in a black neighbourhood?’ they chorus. I look around. I tell them I had a broken foot. I tell them all the folk stared at me all the time. I tell them I thought it was because I was limping heavily, a new cripple on the block. They all just about fall off their chairs laughin’. My ignorance. A new story.

*** I have a friend who offers me advice about promoting my book. She reads through my blogs and notices one that mentions the N word, the same word one young black man spat at another in one of my little stories above. She tells me to take the blog down. ‘Say what?’ I say. She says I don’t want media people making judgements about me for using that word, and denying me access to their programs. I ask if she read the context? If she understands the blog is about the language of hate. She is black. She is offended I used it at all. I think she’s offended that I dared make assumptions about the United States of America. I tell her I’m just tellin’ what I see, not drawing conclusions. She starts talking about Australian Aborigines. ‘Say what?’ I say again. ‘What’s that got to do with my anecdote?’ I get the feeling she is furious with me for igniting the conversation at all. She is telling me I have no business looking at her house till I get my own in order. I tell her I’ll just as happily throw stones in my own glass house. I take the blog down. Not because I think it will offend media people, but because until I’ve thought it through I don’t want to offend anyone. For the moment, anyway. But if anyone wants to read it, just ask and I’ll email it to you. Besides, it’ll be back up soon. I’m just buying time to sit with this complex nation that is so simple in its categorisation of its family, friends, neighbours and country women and men.

Here’s what’s truly interesting about this story. She is from the West Coast. That gives her an entirely different take on life to those in The South or the East. And as for Wisconsin, ‘middle America’, I feel like I need to go there for no other reason than for all the people in America, and Wisconsins themselves, Wisconsin seems to stand for the ordinary, the mediocre and the moronic.

I cannot imagine black people living in Wisconsin.


 June 15, 2012  Add comments

  4 Responses to “Pilgrim Heart Whistlestop Book Tour: FIERCE CONVERSATIONS / RACE”

  1. It’ll be interesting to read your thoughts about living here when you’re back, Steph. There’s a lot to talk about here and a lot of conversations to be changed and challenged, like why are prisons dominated by Aboriginal people? Like why are young Aboriginal people searched several times a day by (white) police? and on and on it goes.

    Very few white people in Australia want to talk about the answers to questions like these. Many clam up in shame and many clam up with arrogance. Clamming up is not going to change much.

    I was at a meeting in Glebe the other day, loads of services there to give an overview about what they do. Eva Cox was a guest speaker there. (To anyone who doesn’t know who she is, she is a white Australian feminist, sociologist and ruffler of feathers..) The Glebe Society were represented there by a white professor who is also a sociologist and seemed in fairly fierce competition with Eva, a big rude chap.
    Eva wanted to know if anyone from Housing (the government owned low income houses largely populated by Aboriginal people) had ever been invited to sit on the board of the Glebe Society. The conversation became about the Haves and the Have Nots and which road in Glebe made the boundary. And boy there were white feathers ruffled in that room. Marvelous.

    Yes. Race needs to be talked about here.

    • Great comment Pagan! And great to see we are beginning our own conversation . . . all over again. One big difference here is that the black people – funny how I seriously dislike using that word now I’m no longer talking to an American – black people are full participants in this society, unlike our own. Visibility perhaps is Australia’s next big challenge. And it will be a challenge. It’s gotta be a challenge. BRING ON THE CHALLENGE!!!

      • And one more thing – this time, let’s include sexism in the same conversation. Let’s have the whole conversation, allowing for complex yet oh so simple really differences. Perhaps we all need to stop owning the civil rights conversation – which is what I meant when we had our gay marriage discussion. Let’s put all civil rights on the table at once – deal with the whole thing in one hit . . . and perhaps in this way we won’t suspend race discrimination laws to suit our racist policies and it will be impossible to legislate who can have state-sanctioned matrimonial rights . . . there’s an interesting word – why is matrimonial a feminine derivative? And let’s learn to have these conversations without making enemies of those with whom we differ.

  2. Visibility?

    I say get among Aboriginal communities. There you’ll see visibility, on their terms.

    A similarity happened in the LGBT communities and still does to a large degree. A kind of closed off world that only lets friends in. Much goes on in there and it isn’t what is ‘favourable’ to everyone else but it’s what happens in the ways that it happens within those cultures.

    Whitey got it all wrong here, I believe, and is still getting it wrong. The ‘Brighter Futures’ campaign is just one example of how wrong.

    I was talking with an elder of the Glebe community last night. She is going to bring me some information about the Aboriginal Welfare Board so I can begin to understand what went wrong. That board should be renamed the Aboriginal Control Board. There was nothing protective about what they claimed to be.

    I have never been to the USA, but I’d be interested in what your comments are from the First Nations people about race and land.

    Sexism. Yes. I understand a person was recently gagged for two days in the House of Reps in Michigan for saying the word VAGINA. Ha. Let’s talk about sexism too. What else is there to say about it that hasn’t been said over and over.

    Let’s talk about deafness in the ears of those who hold the reins then we might get somewhere.

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