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.