Sunday, October 30, 2011

What Would Jesus Do?

I read in the paper yesterday that the CEO of Duke Energy made $8.8 million this past year. Duke Energy is applying to increase utility bills in a state that has ten percent unemployment, with many people cycling off the unemployment rolls when they’ve exhausted extensions and have become the chronically unemployed. The Duke Energy’s CEO’s salary is miniscule in comparison to the salary and perks of some of the CEOs at the major financial institutions and fortune 500 companies where the going rate is in the tens of millions.
Alabama is trying to legislate immigrant laws similar to Arizona, a throwback to the slavery days where free people of color navigated through the country carrying their freedom papers. Now anyone who looks like an illegal alien, that will mean anyone with Hispanic heritage, has to produce proof of legal immigration.
Conservatives are pushing to raise college tuition costs and slice financial aid, effectively creating an elite environment where only the wealthy can afford college. Public schools budgets are being slashed and the voucher and privatized schools supporters are pushing their way to the forefront again.
Obama’s health care reform bill has been stagnated by the details, taken to court and deemed unconstitutional, and in the meantime, people are cut off from preventative health care. They can’t afford to be healthy or take care of health issues before they become catastrophic.
All these movements are creating an ever-growing underclass in America, and the conservatives and religious right support these movements, even as our collective quality of life deteriorates, our salaries stagnate and our houses lose value. The 99% are trying to organize and protest, but is it too little, too late?
I’d like to ask the religious conservatives, those people who are more interested in legislating morality than in the equality of our humanity, what would Jesus do? Would he step on the downtrodden because they are not worthy? Would he increase pain and suffering when there is already enough in this life? Would he deny the lowliest human being comfort and compassion? Would he judge certain people more worthy than others? Would he give a hand up to heterosexuals but not homosexuals, or Christians but not Jews or Muslims, or people with white skin and not brown skin, or those who are wealthy not poor? Tell me the answers, because I need to know how Jesus would act in the world you are creating: one in which children go hungry because they have chosen to be poor or they are homeless because they aren’t worthy of shelter; where the poor would stay poor because they aren’t worthy of education and improvement of their circumstances; where people who are different from a very narrow definition of who is worthy would suffer their fallacies; where people are told that if they work hard they will be part of the one percent, but it’s a lie. Would Jesus lie?
I think not a single child should go hungry, without shelter, without the education to reach his potential. Every American should be free of worry about access to proper healthcare. Every American should have a job that pays a living wage, a wage where a family can afford a safe place to live, food, clothing, an education and transportation. And if a person is unable to work due to physical, emotional or mental challenges, he will be provided a living benefit so that he does not live in poverty. Why would Jesus deny anyone that? He wouldn’t.
Stop lying. Stop using Jesus’ name to spread your brand of hatred and your vision of a world of haves and have-nots. And guess what? In my vision of the world, you are just as worthy as the homosexual couple who wants to marry, the atheist who believes there is no after life, the Muslim who prays to Allah several times daily, the young woman who wants to go to college and become a lawyer, the child who aspires to be an artist, the terminally ill patient who wants to spend her last days pain-free and with the people she loves, or the man who was born a woman and wants to make his outside match his inside. You will receive the same compassion they do, no matter your ethnic heritage, the color of your skin or your gender. You will be worthy of all that humans are worthy of, and you will not be judged.

(Excerpt from Chapter 2, Bloody Mick, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
Ma was always ready to tell a good story when I was growing up, about her childhood or her days before and just after marrying Dad. Her words slipped easily into bawdiness and sailor’s curses, her humor biting, tart. 
Her stories were often served as dessert with hot tea – coffee for the men – after a dinner of spaghetti and meatballs or her favorite boiled dinner of ham and cabbage –mashed, fried in butter, and served over toast the following day for breakfast.
“Bloody this and bloody that” they always seemed to go, her cigarette slicing the air for emphasis and her face emotionless except for her gray eyes, crinkled ever so slightly with wry cunning. Ma’s stories made me laugh, and they still play like scenes from an old movie in my head. Perhaps I saw in Ronald a bit of Ma’s storytelling prowess.
Dad, on the other hand, was quiet until his temper exploded, never revealing much, but he worked with his hands: scraping old paint; patching holes; applying new paint with brushes and a roller, fashioning a hat out of newspaper; tinkering under the hood of his car; fixing leaky faucets; mowing the lawn and planting marigolds and petunias; dropping two or three dollars into the collection plate during Mass each Sunday, even when the mortgage was due and we would eat hotdogs, hash and Spam for the week; holding the newspaper up in front of him in both hands to read, or folded in quarters to do the crossword; helping his best friend Harold to renovate the old house Harold inherited out in Middleburg. “Mashooze,” Dad used to say, his hands clasped behind his back when he walked.
“What about your shoes?” I asked him almost every time.
“Mashooze escalappa,” he answered, rocking back on his heels. I never knew if it was an Italian phrase he recalled from childhood or something he made up because he liked the sound of it. I liked the sound of it, too, and the constancy.
Dad, born Francesco Liuzzi, was the second of seven children for Maria Mancini and Rocco Liuzzi.  Rocco arrived at Ellis Island in 1906 and returned to Montemurro, Potenza, Italy in 1909 to bring back Maria and settle in Albany.
Ma said Dad never had a childhood, and I believed her, even when Dad and his siblings argued about how things were when they were little, voices getting louder to drown out the others; even after Aunt Josephine had an old black and white photograph duplicated for everyone – a photo taken before she was born: Grandpa in a dark suit standing behind my seated grandmother in a full length printed skirt, a blouse with a watch pendant pinned over her left breast. He looks defeated; she looks like the Queen of Hearts from the Disney Alice in Wonderland cartoon, her bottom lip drawn in as she bites down on the right side of it. They both stare stoically at the camera; the children – four boys (Rocco also not born yet), hair plastered in olive oil to tame it into a side part, and one girl with a large, white bow in her hair, who would die of pneumonia soon after the photo was taken – all stand solemnly, dark eyes brooding at the camera.
As a child Dad sold newspapers on the downtown corner of Clinton Avenue and Broadway. Each week he turned his earnings over to his mother, but not before he stashed a nickel in his sock to spend at the theater. On a cold day in 1919 while out hawking papers with just a sweater on and no hat or gloves, Dad, seven years old, heard someone behind him.
“Hey, boy, aren’t you cold?”
He turned to see a tall, slender, colored man, early twenties, with a wool scarf wrapped around his neck.
“Yeah, I’m cold.”
“Well, follow me, boy.” The man led him to the kitchen entrance of the Grand Hotel on Broadway. He worked as a short order cook there. He pointed to a chair in the corner and left him. Dad looked around and wondered if he should leave, then the man returned with a cup of hot cocoa.
“Drink this and warm your bones.”
Dad, his eyes intense and dark, his hair shiny from the olive oil, looked up at the man with the kind smile, took the cup from him, and sipped the warm, sweet liquid. Dad and Harold would become friends after that day, the relationship lasting fifty-two years.
Dad attended St. Anthony’s Catholic School. The Italian-Americans called it “St. Ant’nees.” He dropped out after eighth grade. “My mother wouldn’t let me wear long pants, so I dropped out of school and got a job,” he often told us. As soon as he got a license, he secured a union job driving a truck for Hamilton News.
World War II came along after Dad had worked quite a few years. Dad became an older draftee. He legally changed his name from Francesco to Francis after he got drafted. He was stationed at the American base outside Sydney in Ryde, New South Wales, Australia. A Staff Sergeant, Tech 5, he “drove truck.” Dressed in army khakis in Australia, Dad was short of stature, but he had a full head of thick dark brown, almost black, hair, alluring deep brown eyes, and olive toned skin. He spotted my buxom Irish mother standing outside after a church meeting one evening.
“Hey,” Dad said as he swaggered over to her, “I thought they pulled in the sidewalks for little girls like you at this time of night.”
Ma ran away from him, but when she glanced over her shoulder, she always said with a wink, she noticed how short he was and let him catch her.
Ma found his exotic look exciting but was even more excited by his last name – Liuzzi. Just a few months before, an American soldier, Edward Leonski, had been arrested for murdering three “sheilas” –Aussie women – in Melbourne. My mother loved the stir she created by dating an American with a similar name. I felt that same stir when Ronald and I started dating.
Dad picked up Ma, a stacked size twelve (Marilyn Monroe’s size, she told me more than once), in his truck and let her ride around with him while he was on his rounds. If any MP jeeps were spotted, he pushed Ma down into the well of the seat. She was giddy with the secrecy and scandal of it all.
Ma also believed that an American could save her from a life of poverty. Her father fought in World War I at Gallipoli with the other Aussies, many of whom were slain as they ran toward the enemy. In a photo taken by a war correspondent, my 6’4” grandfather Clary Elliott carries a wounded comrade over his left shoulder. He stands colossal on barren rock, a crooked grin on his face, and though the photograph is black and white, I can sense his angry red hair peeking from under the slouch hat crushed down at an angle on his head. This rough-hewn giant returned home to his wife and children. A few years later he died from mustard gas exposure-induced pneumonia when Ma was four, leaving her mother Peg-o to raise five children on her own.
Ma, the fourth of five children like me, was born with crooked feet and had to wear button top shoes for the first seven years of her life. Her hair was too dark to be blond and too light to be brunet, and her eyes were a dreary gray like autumn rain. Next to her sister Joan who had jet-black hair and azure blue eyes, Ma felt plain and dull. She made up for it by taking on dares from the local blokes like the time she bit the three-inch long, fat, white grub in half. She dropped out of school when she was fourteen so she could work in a cut glass factory to help out her mother who made money doing other people’s laundry and taking in boarders. Ma spent many of her work hours being chased around the factory by her lecherous boss.
“Bloody Mick,” she called him, telling him to “Keep your diddle in your trousers.”
She accepted Dad’s marriage proposal just before he shipped back to the states.
Then Dad returned to Australia in 1946 to marry Ma and find work there. The thought of growing up in Australia instead of America makes me wonder how our lives would have differed. But Dad had trouble finding good paying work in Australia, so when the union sent him a letter from the States telling him they had a position waiting for him at Hamilton News, he brought Ma home to Albany, NY. He was thirty-four and she was twenty-four. They stayed at Dad’s parents’ house and Ma studied and converted to Catholicism so they could exchange new vows in the Catholic Church while Dad searched for a home. Peggy was born before he found one.
Dad’s parents called Ma a foreigner, demanded her marriage license every time she entered the house, and only spoke Italian in her presence, not that they ever learned to speak much English. My grandmother said an Italian curse at Ma every time she spoke to her. She offered Ma one thousand dollars to annul the marriage. Ma refused and asked a new friend, Millie, who became my older siblings’ godmother, what the Italian curse meant. The translation was I hope you burst.
Ma never felt comfortable with the Liuzzis who were not very affectionate with one another but who silently demanded loyalty and shunned outsiders. Grandpa had been scammed as a young father. A gypsy woman told him to bury three thousand dollars wrapped in a rag in a designated spot. She promised the money would grow into a fortune. When my grandmother found out what Grandpa had done, she sent him back to dig up the money, but it was already gone, and so was any trust in strangers.
Ma stood at the edge of the parlor one day as my grandmother spoke rapidly and angrily at Dad. Ma never knew what the argument was about; Dad refused to talk about it later, but suddenly my grandmother pounced like a cat on a rodent and slapped Dad across the face. Ma boiled with anger as she watched Dad drop his eyes to the floor.
The next time my 4’10”grandmother looked up at my 5’7” mother, narrowed her eyes, and growled the curse at her, Ma stared down into her eyes and said in her Aussie accent, “And I hope you burst, too, all over your goddamned new carpet.” 
My grandmother passed away in 1952 at the age of sixty-nine after tripping on that carpet and falling to the floor dead. Her death certificate stated cause of death as brain aneurysm.
Ma remarried in the Catholic Church, but she did not step foot in it again except for each of our baptisms and, later, Dad’s funeral. Dad took care of getting us to church.
 “Christians on Sunday; heathens the rest of the week,” Ma said of her in-laws and my father, “My grandfather is spinning in his grave because I married a goddamn Catholic.”

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

Potential GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain immediately elicits in my mind the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. The sons of Adam and Eve each brought an offering to God. God accepted Abel’s gift of firstborn stock but denied Cain’s gift of produce. In anger, Cain slew Abel. When God asked him where Abel was, Cain responded, “I know not. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Does Herman Cain have an obligation to his African-American sisters and brothers? He said, “I am an American. Black. Conservative. I don't use African-American, because I'm American, I'm black and I'm conservative. I don't like people trying to label me. African- American is socially acceptable for some people, but I am not some people.”
Yet many blacks and other ethnic minorities don’t get to enjoy being American. They are labeled, not as proud Americans from diverse descendents, but by other people with derogatory terms. They are stereotyped, denied their individuality, denied opportunity and a level playing field, and condemned to fail more often than not. They aren’t given a choice. If it were as easy as announcing that one is American, we wouldn’t experience this insidious, pervasive racism in America. We would not have class warfare, the gap between classes growing wider. And when I say class warfare, I believe it is the wealthy wielding power and waging war, taking all they can take, and leaving many Americans in destitution.
Did Cain sell himself out? Yes. Yet I struggle to accept such a singular and harsh judgment. Was it through his wealth? There are many wealthy ethnic minorities in our country. Or was it his denial of racism? There are many people, black and white, who consider themselves colorblind. They believe we are in a post-racial time in our society. I think they are delusional but I find myself arguing that an individual has a right to believe what they believe and to process one’s experiences and interpret them in the way that makes sense to that individual. It’s what I expect for myself, so why not for everyone?
When Clarence Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court, I was shocked by his conservatism and his alleged sexism. I could not wrap my brain around the thought of a black man who agreed with conservative tenets that considered blacks as less human than whites. I didn’t get it. Then I remembered that there is no white face that represents all whites and no black face that represents all blacks. Why couldn’t a black man support conservatism without being labeled a misfit? Yet I feel uncomfortable when I hear of a conservative black man who agrees with Tea Party politics. I wonder how Cain could have reached that line of thinking. Could he willingly adopt the thinking of an oppressive majority?
Cain was also quoted as saying, “African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open minded, not even considering a conservative point of view. I have received some of that same vitriol simply because I am running for the Republican nomination as a conservative. So it's just brainwashing and people not being open minded, pure and simple.”
But the very definition of liberal is to be open-minded and tolerant. It’s a paradox that conservatives are demanding open-mindedness to the acceptance of traditional values that preclude open thinking and exclude some to the benefit of others.
Sometimes I think giving Herman Cain voice and credibility is a ruse played out by the GOP, in the same way that I think Sarah Palin was a ruse. Only that backfired. Will Herman Cain backfire on them, too?
What of the founding principle of religious freedom? Cain said, “I would have to have people totally committed to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of this United States. And many of the Muslims, they are not totally dedicated to this country. They are not dedicated to our Constitution. Many of them are trying to force Sharia law on the people of this country.”
Really? I’ve felt more pressure to succumb to evangelical dogma. I’ve worried more that Christian religious conservatives will demand law that makes moral choices for our citizens. They want to legislate the mixing of church and state, school curriculum, women’s rights to make decisions about their bodies, and whom we can marry. Is it so farfetched to believe that if they could pass federal legislation saying marriage is between a man and a woman that they would not go on to legislate that the man and woman must be of the same race, faith, even socio-economic class?
Is Herman Cain his brother’s keeper? I say yes, because I think we are each our brother’s keeper. We have to take care of one another, and that means not judging who is or who isn’t worthy – we are all worthy by virtue of our humanity.  But in the same breath and thought, I cannot fault or condemn someone for thinking he is not.
Do I like Herman Cain? No. I think he is a pompous, wealthy man who thinks very highly of himself and who thinks he has moved from being less than to being more than, based on his personal wealth and influence. Do I hate him? No. If I believe there is room for all of us, and if I believe in tolerance and open-mindedness, I have to mean it, and I mean it. I am my brother’s keeper.
I promised my brother I would post an excerpt from my memoir about him. Here it is.

(Excerpt from Chapter 4, The Ghetto Will Follow You, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)

In August, just weeks before school would be back in session, and Ronald and I would be back together, Ronald sat in his kitchen eating a hotdog inside a folded slice of bread slathered in mustard. He drank Coke from a bottle and wiped his mouth on the corner of the paper towel he had wrapped around the bread.
“Ronnie, I think someone is outside for you,” said his dad.
Ronald got up and went to the screen door. There was a large, overweight boy with brown hair down to his shoulders, a cigarette pinched between his right thumb and forefinger, and his left hand in his jeans pocket. He stared at the house. Ronald tells me he saw the resemblance in the shape of his eyes, the way his nose sat on his face, and his mouth turned down at the corners. It was my fifteen-year-old brother Andy.
Andy has told me this same story, but only recently, chatting with me on the computer, asking if I heard it before, typing LMFAO, and telling me he stole the infamous line from Dad. He had come to Syracuse to stay a few days at Rocco’s apartment where he smoked pot and drank Southern Comfort until his mind was a dull wash of nothingness. Then one day he went and stood outside the Hagans’ house and waited until Ronald came out.
Ronald stepped outside. “Do I know you?” he asked.
“You better. I’m Dianne’s brother.”
Ronald’s oldest brother Sylvester Jr. pulled up to the curb in his burgundy Grand Prix. He got out of the car. I imagine him dressed in jeans pressed with creases at the dry cleaners and a black tee that fitted his slender body like a second skin. His hair was hot-ironed straight and combed back with a small pompadour in front. He surveyed the scene. I think Andy must have looked overgrown and older than fifteen, a stubbly beard darkening his pale skin; Ronald must have looked small in comparison, with a few soft hairs growing above his top lip, years younger than his chronological age.
“Who’s this?” Sylvester Jr. asked.
“Dianne’s brother,” Ronald said.
“What’s he doing here?”
“I think he has something to say to me,” Ronald said.
“That’s right,” Andy said, pinching his cigarette and pointing it at Ronald, postured to say the line as if creating a scene on a movie set, “If I find out you’re using my sister as a fucking trampoline, I’m going to kill you.”
“I’ll hold him down for you,” said Sylvester Jr., smiling.

Sunday, October 16, 2011


One of my twin daughters asked me to write about something happy. She’s convinced it will increase my blog readership, and her intuition is hardly ever wrong. So, dear readers, here’s my happy blog.
My husband and I had a lovely adventure yesterday, driving in the G37S down to Charlotte and a golf equipment show. Part of our motivation was to take a drive to see the leaves – a great show of gold, burgundy, and red. We saw horses, hawks and wild turkeys along the way, too.
At the golf course, Ronald tried out some drivers and almost won a free pair of shoes in a wedge-hitting contest. “I still feel good,” he had said after his attempt to hit a ball into a painted red circle 100 yards out on the driving range to claim his free shoes. His ball hit inside the circle but took a jump and was at exactly 9:00 less than a foot outside the red line. Then he won the hourly putting contest, sinking five putts in a row. The crowd around him chanted each number with growing excitement. He received a nice pair of sports sunglasses for his effort.
“Don’t you golf?” one of the vendors asked me.
“Not me,” I said, smiling. My excitement was in watching Ronald enjoy himself.
We headed north and stopped in Concord for a late lunch at Razoo’s, stopping first at Bass Pro Shops so we could admire the boats and point out the one each of us liked best and imagined purchasing one day.  After a relaxed meal filled with conversation, andouille sausage, red beans and rice for me and ribs and French fries for him, we wandered over to the movie theater and saw the third remake of The Thing. It wasn’t the greatest movie we’ve ever seen (I might have liked the 1982 make, starring Kurt Russell, better, but all three are forgettable), but it had its moments that elicited gasps, screams, squeezed hands, and jumps.  Then we headed home, both sated.
Lots of times it isn’t what we are doing, but that we are together doing it. And we don’t do a lot of things together. Some couples do, but both of us need space just for thinking and creating, and, in spite of the fact that I work at home, I still crave solitude, maybe a reaction to growing up with four siblings and an array of animals in a house that measured less than 1000 sq.ft. Sometimes the bathroom was the only place to grab some alone time. Ronald craves the same, since he was raised in similar circumstances, but his idea of solitude is a book and a soda at a crowded bar, the activity and noise swirling around him. He also enjoys spontaneous conversations with strangers he may or may not ever run across again. That’s out of my comfort zone, though I can handle it on occasion.
When we do spend time together, like eating dinner together every night, that time remains special and doesn’t sink into the category of other mediocre daily occurrences. I think mediocrity can kill a relationship if a couple is not attentive.
Ronald and I have been together for almost thirty-six years, married almost twenty-nine years. We’ve beat divorce statistics three or four times over, and when we have faced hard times and conflict, as any couple who has spent more than three months together, we always find ourselves again. Part of our secret is that we love each other, sometimes unnervingly so to other people. A psychologist might determine we are enmeshed and co-dependent. She would be right, but what might be contraindicated for other couples, works for us. It’s negotiating and knowing what works that can keep a couple together.
The second part of our secret is the respect we have for one another. We were raised in different racial, cultural and ethnic environments, and that causes us to see and interpret the world in different and sometimes divergent ways, but we embrace our differences and respect them. Maybe our differences are what attracted us and the combination of our differences and likenesses gives us the gift of longevity.
I think the most important thing I’ve learned in our thirty-six years together is that there is no normal, no average and no absolute when it comes to people. We are too complex for that. Those concepts are just the middle ground in the great continuum of human experience. Each of us fits somewhere along the continuum, and it is long, maybe even infinite.   We can beat the odds of hatred and divisiveness if we understand that each of us is different but we still share likenesses, commonality, through our humanity. We can beat the odds if we learn to respect our differences and acknowledge them in the continuum of our thoughts, beliefs, actions and feelings. Not a one of us is average or normal. We are who we are. And I love that about myself, about Ronald, about my daughters and about all the people who make their way into my life. It doesn’t mean there is no conflict, because I think humankind is destined for that, but it does mean that we can make room for a bigger concept of who we are, and maybe that will minimize some of the conflict we now experience.
(excerpt from Chapter 1 Who Bee’s You? Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)

I was unaware what the future would hold for us when we met freshman year at Syracuse University in January 1976, just back from Christmas break.  With new work-study hours to accommodate my new class schedule, I was working my first Friday, payday, at the Copy Center in Bird Library when Ronald walked in and stood at the counter.
He wore an over-sized green army jacket and a knit stocking cap with a long tail. A girl’s fuzzy pink mitten covered his right hand only to the bottom joint of his thumb.  In that hand he carried a large, black leather artist’s portfolio. He kept his other hand pocketed against the sub-zero temperature outside. His large deep brown eyes, the corners creased with interest and humor, roamed up and down me as I approached the counter.
“May I help you?” I inquired, clasping my hands and placing them on the counter in front of me, my eyes meeting his.
“I want money,” he said, and he smiled like he had just eaten something indescribably delicious, his teeth gleaming in contrast to his skin.
I turned to my supervisor Maxine and called her name. Maxine, man-sized with a perfectly coifed Afro that made her yet another six or seven inches taller, looked up from the microform reader/printer she was operating and said, “Ronnie, leave that girl alone. She’s too good for you.”
“Okay,” he said, shrugging, his smile mischievous, “I just came in for my check.”
“Oh, okay, what’s your name?” I asked as I turned to the register to pull out his check. I pressed the “no sale” button.
“Ronnie Hagan or ‘The Ron’.  Who bees you?” he said, smiling at his own joke.
“Dianne,” I said.
“Oh,” he said, nodding in recognition, “the Dianne with two ‘n’s’. I’ve seen your time card.”
I pulled his check from the pile and handed it to him. A thought entered my mind at that moment as I looked at his eyes, his smile, and his ungloved hand now released from his pocket, soft and clean, with long graceful fingers: This is the man I’m going to marry.  It made me smile and remember that Ma warned me repeatedly to never marry an Italian like Dad, and Ronald Hagan was not Italian; he was Afro-American.
“Your eyes make my heart skip beats,” he said. 
I want to imagine what Ronald saw when he looked at me back then, and I wish he could still see me that way. I pull out the old photos, many of which Ronald took of me during college for his photography classes. My eyes are the focal point of most of them and draw me into each photo, and I can see the loving way he looked at me through the camera lens and the way I looked back at him. The discovery is both surprising and amusing as I flip through one photo after the other.  My eyes are large and round, with long dark lashes and high dark brows over them. I look distinctly Italian after my father, despite my amber eyes and my fine, straight, dark hair, but I have the porcelain skin, clear and unblemished, of my Irish mother. In several photos taken during the warm months, tiny, nearly invisible freckles sprinkle my nose and cheeks.
The contrast between my dark hair and pale skin caused Ronald to skip afternoon classes, he told me later. He had heard about porcelain skin, he said, but never understood what it really looked like until he saw me.
The day I met Ronald Hagan, The Ron, I wore a rust colored gauze shirt, purposely shrunk in the dryer so it became form-fitted to my slender torso; the buttons open from the collar to just below my breasts, a tube top peeking out the opening.  I wore denim hip-hugger bellbottoms that fit snugly over my hips, buttocks and thighs. The bells covered my platform clogs completely and were so long the bottoms were frayed and worn. 
I did not know back then that I was alluring. I know now when I study the old photos; or when Cara and Mackenzie look at the photos and tell me how beautiful I am; or when I look at Cara and Mackenzie and see younger versions of myself and think how beautiful they are; or when Ronald, his arms drawing me into an embrace, says, “You look very Dianne today.”  That is when I know he can still see me the way I was back then, not the Dianne who is aging with crepe lines framing my round eyes and stretch marks and permanent freckles marring the once flawless skin.
I understood in a rational way back then that I attracted male attention – in fact a fellow student had only told me a few days before I met Ronald, perhaps as an unsuccessful ploy to get into my pants, that I exuded a certain “delicious sensuality,” but for me, the allure was just dress up and role-play. 
I still see the lonely child when I look in the mirror: dirty, hair knotted, sad eyes, and dressed in hand-me-downs. I did not know then that Ronald saw his own sad image when he looked at me the day we met. His smile and laughing eyes belied his thoughts.

I display photographs in a digital photo frame. There is a picture of me when I am about eight standing in the center of our cluttered parlor: a birdcage to my left; the buffet directly behind me stacked with magazines, two table lamps on either end, handed down to us by neighbors, with seagull silhouettes on both their shades and bodies, and red tapered candles right beside them as if we had lovely formal dinners awaiting us; my youngest brother’s portrait hangs above the buffet; a photo album open to a page of black and white photos lays to one side; the hand and pink jumper of the blond, blue-eyed baby doll given to me that Christmas lying on top of other items. The dolls never looked like me.
Dark, straight hair touches the tops of my shoulders and turns this way and that, the bangs mussed across my forehead. My nose overshadows my pointy chin and two large front teeth fill my tiny, downturned mouth. My eyes are too large for my face, sit in dark crevasses, and stare tentatively at the camera, pleading acceptance.
My skin nearly matches the white sweater I wear. The sweater is crumpled, the sleeves too long, but it is buttoned perfectly from top to bottom, something I find surprising, because I remember many occasions catching my buttons mismatched after I had already arrived at school and my peers had taken notice. I can only see a slash of navy beneath the sweater, but I remember that it is a navy pleated skirt that never lost its shape, and for this I am thankful, as my clothes were never ironed until I began ironing them myself at age nine. I can only see the tops of my hands but they are clasped in front of my skirt.
This is the child I recall – the one who is burdened with the possibility that she may get lost in the clutter and no one will come look for her.
There is another photo taken when I was four. I stand in front of the Christmas tree in a dress with a black velvet top, a lacy empire waist, and a white chiffon skirt, covered with black and white velvet spots, falling well above my knees. My skin is vibrant as I stand bare-armed and bare-legged, my right knee turned in and pushed straight while my left leg bends slightly, all in an effort to stay standing in my black high-heeled shoes with elastic straps. My arms hang at my sides, my hands hidden in the flounces of the skirt, my left one holding the strap of a small white purse. My hair is short, a pixie cut; the only way Ma could keep the knots out of it. I face the camera squarely: my eyebrows are raised in disbelief, my eyes are defiant, and my mouth is wide open, screaming for attention.
This is the child who will not allow anyone to forget her or wrong her. This is the child who, even when dressed in fancy duds, gets ugly if she has to. Though my overall temperament is shy and quiet, I have relied on her often in the years since Ronald and I met whenever I had to fight for my right to love him. And now, at this time in our lives when our stories are no longer protecting us, this fierce little girl rises within me.

Ronald saw me through artistic eyes the day we met. Years later he told me he used to comfort himself by drawing the shape of my eyes over and over or visualizing my slender fingers with long oval nails or the perfect clarity of my skin.
He stayed the afternoon at the Copy Center, standing on the other side of the counter, talking, staring at me, my shyness making me blush under his stare. He told me he had watched my time card last semester, I imagine looking for clues, and was attracted to my handwriting. He said it was visually interesting like hieroglyphics, my letters printed but looking like symbols instead of actual letters.
            “How do you say your last name?” he asked.
            “Lee-YUT-zee,” I pronounced carefully.
            “And how do you spell it?”
            “That’s a nice name. You ought to put it on a t-shirt.”
            I had never been told that before. Mostly I spent a lot of time spelling my last name over and over and correcting the pronunciation of it. But within a month of meeting The Ron, he had bought me a black, fitted t-shirt with Liuzzi printed in rainbow colored capital letters across my chest.
Maxine intervened every once in a while with her own opinions. “Ronnie, I told you she’s too good for you. Go to class.”
Maybe her words were meant as a warning. Maybe her reaction was the first instance of someone wanting our relationship to break apart before it even started. Maybe she knew what I did not know back then, perhaps because I had been too young or because, in a child’s eyes, it did not seem to have the same significance as the Civil Rights Act of 1964: nine years before I met Ronald, in June 1967, the Supreme Court had struck down anti-miscegenation laws in a landmark case, Loving vs. Virginia. The decision caused fifteen other states to remove similar laws from their books. Two states, South Carolina and Alabama, kept laws banning interracial marriage up until 1998 and 2000, respectively. In spite of the Supreme Court decision, many people still believed interracial marriage was an abomination. I would come to hate the expression “birds of a feather flock together” because I would hear it in the coming years as the reason why interracial relationships were wrong.
But on the day I met Ronald, I did not know the Supreme Court had intervened on behalf of an interracial couple, arrested while asleep in their bed in Virginia, nor had I ever heard the expression about birds used as a justification for racist beliefs.
Besides I could see Maxine was fond of Ronald, the way she lowered her head and looked up at him, like she was a much smaller and younger woman. She had fallen for his charm and flirtations, too.
I liked Ronald – he was after all the man I would marry – and I gave him the phone number to the campus only phone at the end of the hall on my dorm floor.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Do the Right Thing

Ronald and I went to a movie early this evening, a late matinee, so it was dusk when we left the theater. We were holding hands, just like always.  There were few people outside the theater. A car drove past us, and the white teen in the back seat turned and stared at us as the car passed. Then the white female driver cut the car hard right, pulled up just ahead of us, and slammed the breaks on. We didn’t quite know what to think, so we crossed the parking lot behind the car, still holding hands. Suddenly the car turned left, in our direction, and slammed the breaks again. We kept walking, but we heard the tires cut hard on the tarmac, and the car turned directly at us, speeding up, and missing us by inches from behind. I scooted forward but Ronald held his ground, as the teen in the backseat yelled some racial profanity as they drove off.
“People think that doesn’t happen anymore,” he said as we walked toward our car. But I know it does, and I was scared. It happened just weeks ago when some white teenagers decided they wanted to kill a nigger.
I keep asking myself why anyone would care that we are together. Or why people care if they see a gay couple. Or why they think Chaz Bono will corrupt family values because he went on Dancing with the Stars. How would any of that matter to someone else?
We had just talked about it last night when we went out to dinner. As the hostess seated us, we felt the eyes of the group of white people, who were sitting at a large table we had to pass, on us. Ronald said he was tired of it. Thirty-five years tired. Most days it doesn’t compute. We don’t waste a moment’s time caring what other people think, and then it slaps us silly one day when we aren’t paying attention. Like when that car veered toward us.
“I would have taken care of it,” he said to me in the car. He protects me. He’s always done that. He makes me feel safe, assures me he wouldn’t let anything happen to me. Not told me about the things that might scare me, like when he was inside a large apartment building that was engulfed in flames, and his air hose disconnected. He became disoriented. He would have gone down if one of the other men hadn’t slammed him up against the wall and reconnected his hose. I only found out because I heard him in the other room, weeks after the big fire, telling his dad. But he didn’t tell me. He didn’t want me to know he could die on the job.
I was staring out the passenger window as we pulled out of the theater parking lot, trying to calm my breathing, trying to stop my mind from imagining what might have happened. Knowing that he would have kept us safe, but wondering if that would have meant he or someone else would have gotten hurt.
“Don’t sweat the one that didn’t get you,” he said. My heart kept beating against my chest. I won’t ever get used to people who hate others and want to do something about it.  It scares the bejesus out of me. I don’t think of people that way, because I don’t think that way. But there they are, staring me in the face, threatening assault.
 (Excerpt from essay Keep Hope Alive)
I felt that same fear in the undercurrent of complaints about Obama. No one but a white supremacist could say his hatred was due to Obama being black. Ronald said, “It’s a good thing Michelle is black. Whites would think he overstepped his bounds if he married a white woman, and he wouldn’t have a chance of getting elected.” He still feels the disdain from some white men for his perceived overstepping of boundaries even though we’ve been together for thirty-five years.
Others claimed Obama was not qualified. Some said he could not understand the common man because of his Harvard education or the manner in which he spoke. They forgot that President George W. Bush was from one of the wealthiest families in America and graduated from both Yale and Harvard. Many of the people who complained Obama did not understand them, felt simpatico with Bush. Some said Obama was a Muslim, and that somehow made him unqualified in this country founded on religious freedom. Some said he was not born here. All lies.  They could not imagine a black man leading their country.
Obama would come to know the incredible pressure of being the first black president of the United States, a pressure that must come with the feeling that any personal failure is a failure for the whole race in other people’s eyes. I told Ronald that he did not want to be the first black officer on the Syracuse Fire Department.  A few of the top officers believed he had the skill and drive to be the first. I think he knew that first individual would face unprecedented tests of perseverance and resilience. His brother-in-law was that person, the first black lieutenant in the one-hundred-year history of the Syracuse Fire Department. The weariness in his face, the fatalism in his voice, spoke of the weight of carrying the future of black firefighters on his shoulders. I see it in Ronald’s face, too, as one of the first black firefighters on the force after the consent decree. He and his black brothers made the naming of the first black lieutenant possible. If they had failed, would any other black men or women ever have the opportunity to follow?

But on that day in Charlotte, waiting in line for hours [to see presidential candidate Obama], passing through the metal detectors, emptying my pockets, and getting wanded by security, I was excited, hopeful.  I wanted to believe all the struggles my husband had been through in his twenty-five years as a firefighter, and all the struggles millions of other black men and women had been through, had helped to change the way our country viewed people of color. I wanted to believe we were living in a post-racial society.
I was scared, too.  The one thing I worried about most, being married to a black man, was that some crazy, white cop would mistakenly identify him as a suspect just because he was a black male. Forget the height, weight and age description of the suspect; one black man looked like all others through some eyes. Poll black men, and most of them will tell you they have been arrested at least once.  Esteemed scholar and Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested at his own home on July 20, 2009 when police arrived to investigate a possible break-in. I understood and felt his disbelief and outrage: a man in his fifties who walked with a cane not recognized by his own neighbors in daylight and accosted by police at his own front door.
Ronald’s arrest was a misdemeanor for trespassing. (See post Tar Baby of Racial Discourse, August 3, 2011)
I was scared Senator Obama would face the same trials as my husband, but on a grander scale.  Would some crazy person, believing he was preserving the America he envisioned, do harm to Obama? “Your president” my husband would hear in the years after the election as if Obama only represented a portion of America.
“Who’s the leader of the white people?” I asked at a diversity training session back in the late 1990s when one of the white males in the group called Jesse Jackson “the black leader” as if there were only one capable and only one necessary.
“Bill Clinton,” he responded smugly.

I supported Jesse Jackson both times he ran as a Democratic primary candidate. I joined the Rainbow Coalition and passed out campaign literature. I saw him both times he appeared in Syracuse, the first time pregnant with my twins, holding my arms protectively out in front of me so the crowd could not crush them. “Pregnant woman, make way,” I said as I pushed my way to the front of the crowd.
The second time, the girls were around four and I wanted to take them, but Ronald thought the crowds would be too much for them. At the end of his speech Jackson asked all the children to join him on the stage. “Keep hope alive!” he called out over and over. I cried because Cara and Mackenzie were not there. I was in the front row with my union steward colleagues even though I had moved on to a management position.
Maybe the time was not right for Jesse Jackson. Maybe he was too militant for some. Maybe the history of black/white relations was still an open wound in America. But I thought he was a beacon of light for hope and change. I saw his opportunity pass, though, when he became a caricature of himself; his message sounding tired to the next generation who already believed racism was part of the past, a selective amnesia. Then, despite his “wide, deep, and unequivocal” support of Senator Obama, he was overheard saying Obama was talking down to black churchgoers.  Was Obama too white for some blacks and too black for some whites? How black is too black? How white is too white?
“You don’t sound black,” Ronald has been told over and over.
“How can I not sound black?” he responds. “I’m black. This is how I sound.”
American mainstream culture is indelibly and distinctively defined by the presence of black culture.  Rock and roll, jazz, zydeco, rap, tap, and modern dance are uniquely American and uniquely influenced by black culture. Why couldn’t Obama be judged as just an American? Why did people think of him as the black candidate?
“They’ll think of you as black,” Ronald told our daughters when they got accepted the spring before their senior year of high school to attend a predominately white dance conservatory located in the Southeast.  The faculty was all white except for the occasional visiting instructor. Ronald wanted to prepare them for their first contact with racist belief that was entwined tightly in common everyday occurrences and interactions. They had attended urban public schools that were fifty percent ethnic minority through the end of their junior year of high school. Their group of friends billed themselves the “beige girls” and the group consisted of mixed-race and mixed-ethnic girls, all light-skinned, but still brown.
Cara and Mackenzie hadn’t believed him. They thought he was describing how things were when he was young. But within a few months of arriving at the school, both were calling and complaining.
“One of the teachers told me I looked like an Ailey dancer,” Cara said. “So she was saying I look like a black dancer, not that I look like a dancer.”
“Some of the white students are afraid of us,” Mackenzie said. “They thought because we are black and from New York we must be carrying box cutters. I told them we are middle-class kids just like they are.”

The unofficial and exclusively American one-drop rule that defined anyone with African ancestry as a Negro was codified into law in the 1924 Racial Integrity Act in Virginia. Other states passed similar laws. In the 1940s the Registrar of Statistics in Virginia counted mixed-race families as black. His reasoning was "two races as materially divergent as the White and Negro, in morals, mental powers, and cultural fitness, cannot live in close contact without injury to the higher." He had his office recode people as colored without notifying them of the change. The effort drastically affected people’s ability to socialize, worship, earn a living or choose where to live.
The anti-miscegenation law banning interracial marriage, the Racial Integrity Act of 1924 and the one-drop rule were all found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the case Loving vs. Virginia in 1967. Ronald and I met nine years later in 1976. South Carolina and Alabama would continue to carry anti-miscegenation laws on the books until 1998 and 2000 respectively.
Family, friends and strangers tried to convince Ronald and me our relationship was doomed for failure. They let us know their disdain, or told us having children was irresponsible, or that birds of a feather flocked together. Once when Ronald traveled with me on a business trip, we were walking down the sidewalk, our hands clasped, when a large white man leaned toward us, shaking his head in disgust, and said, “Shame on you.” Did he know we were together for more than twenty-five years at that time with two wonderfully smart and talented twin daughters? Did he know our marriage had beaten divorce statistics?
What if Obama’s parents had decided having children was irresponsible?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

This Life We Live In

My mind has been racing these past few weeks. I’m not sure why I feel that way, except that change is on the horizon, so that always sets off both anticipation and fear. At fifty-four I’d rather have some quiet moments for reflection, but we can’t always choose. We can only accept what the universe has placed in front of us and find a way to make the best of it. I guess that’s why people in my life nicknamed me the “Woman Who Makes Things Happen.” I like living up to my reputation. So that means I have writing to do, and ideas to share, and lots of things to accomplish.
I’ve also been pondering the growing divisiveness in our country, and feeling sad about it.  Dreamers are protesting down here in North Carolina. They are illegal immigrants who arrived in our country as children. They’ve grown up here and they want to have the rights of citizenry so that they can go to school and work. Lots of people hate them and want to send them back to a country they don’t even remember. Their parents came here looking to make better lives. They were enticed to come, often by corporate farmers looking for cheap labor. They work jobs that most Americans would not even consider, no matter how dire things get.
But some people don’t want to talk about the need that was created and that they’ve filled. They don’t have empathy for the children who are coming of age and only want to be a part of the country they’ve grown up in. I can’t understand it. What are they worried about? What do they feel will be taken away from them if we let these children – these lost children – have a piece of the American pie?
But the pie is getting smaller and richer. Sweetness has been added in the form of executive perks, tax inequalities and unethical business practices, while the rest of America is fighting over the crumbs.
Do people really believe that some illegal immigrants, people of color who just want a level playing field, the poverty stricken who need a handout, and gay couples who dare to want a long lasting monogamous relationship with the same rights as heterosexual couples are really ruining our country?
It’s a diversion. Then we won’t think about how our salaries have stagnated because of the Bush years or how our homes have lost value and our pensions have been taken away while our 401k plans have tanked. Or maybe we’ll forget about the friends who have been unemployed for two or three years, are well into middle age, and are at risk of losing everything including their health. Or we’ll forget our grown children who went to school and work hard but have no access to health care. Or we’ll forget that the poor haven’t chosen to be poor, and that there few avenues out of poverty and they are rutted and uneven and crowded. And every one of us except for the very wealthy could easily be there. It’s a strong diversion that makes some people wish that people with no health care would die rather than ensuring they have access to medicines and cures. It’s a diversion that makes people hold tight to what little they have and wish ill upon others.
It’s such a strong, pervasive diversion that a growing number of people use Christianity as an excuse for discriminating, judging and hating others.  They don’t want the government to interfere in their lives, but they want it to prescribe a certain, narrow moral code for others. Some of our politicians are claiming God is on their side. Where did that come from? What happened to the good news?
I hope I never get there, where what I have is more important than another person’s life or where I feel that my life is more important than another’s or that I am worth more than another or that my morality is more right than another’s.  I remember writing once that I grew up poor and being poor didn’t hurt; it’s what other people said about it that hurt. We are all human, flawed, and imperfect. I have to be careful the diversions don’t divert me.

(Excerpt from Chapter 4, The Ghetto Will Follow You, Shades of Tolerance)
Ronald remembers his cousin Jackie imparted a fatalistic worldview to him around this time. He said, “Ronnie, no matter where you go in life, no matter what you do, the ghetto will follow you. Just when you think you’re a success, look around you – all the same people will be there.”
So when the Hagans moved to the eastside – Whitey-Whitey Land the three brothers called it – just a few months later, he knew better than to think his circumstances had changed for the better. They had only gotten more complicated.
“Don’t be following after those white boys, thinking you can act like them,” Syl Sr. told Ronald when they first moved into the gray and white house on Euclid Avenue. “You can’t do what they do. You’ll just get yourself in trouble.”
Then he said, “And, Ronnie, stay away from those white girls. They’ll only get you in trouble, too.”
I imagine Ronnie stared at the girls intently, studying the aesthetic quality of shape and line – the way he looked at something he wanted to draw. The girls on the eastside were, he tells me, different than the girls on the west side.
The white girls on the west side paraded as caricatures of women: hair sprayed stiff in teased page boys, thick black eyeliner, ruby lips bought at the five and dime, tight tees and short skirts, sometimes hand hemmed for better effect; they smacked gum when they talked and smelled of cigarettes, eyes squinted against the smoke. Oftentimes their introduction to sex happened at the hands of an older boy or man, sometimes a relative or friend of the family.
The black girls on the west side wore their hair greased and hot ironed straight. They were circumspect when it came to sex. Getting caught would probably result in a beating. But sometimes it was worth the new shirt, new shoes, a necklace or perfume.
Babies were born out of these exchanges and raised by their grandmothers, who already worked two or three jobs to feed the children in the apartment. Sometimes the girls thought they were gaining freedom and independence when they went down to Social Services to collect welfare and get an apartment of their own, yet, Ronald says, it only sealed the fate of another generation of teen girls who grew up too soon.
The eastside girls, almost all of them white and many of them Jewish, smelled of shampoo, cr̬me conditioner and perfume. Their makeup enhanced rather than painted. They wore the latest styles, go-go boots and mini skirts, their hair long but also ironed straight. They relished their girlishness, wanting to draw it out for as long as possible. Sex to the eastside girls was a game, Ronald says. It was something they played at until they got serious about becoming an adult. Babies were hardly a concern Рbirth control pills were as common as platform shoes.
“I like you,” one petite blonde co-ed confided to Ronnie shortly after the school year started at his new middle school Levy Junior High. She leaned against the Hagans’ front porch post, her hand on her hip. She shook her head and artfully moved her waist-length hair behind her shoulder.
“What’s that mean?” Ronnie asked.
“I mean, let’s go out,” she said, her mouth sly and conspiratorial.
“You want to go steady?” Ronnie said, knowing he would have to hide it from his dad.
“No,” she said, laughing, “My dad would kill me. I just want to fool around with you.”
Girls called the house asking for Ronnie, and Sam would listen on the extension. He would tell them they might better go out with him instead of Ronnie because Ronnie was not allowed to go anywhere. That was true, Ronald tells me. Syl Sr. thought he was more immature than the other two boys and curtailed all social activities while the other boys went to school dances at the high school back in the old neighborhood and dated the black girls they met there.
Later when Syl Sr. got home from work Sam would say, “Dad, Ronnie’s been calling this white girl, and he won’t stop. She doesn’t even like him.”
“Ronnie, what did I tell you, boy? You’re going to get yourself in trouble.”
Another girl invited him over to her house. Debbie had dark brown hair falling below her shoulders and a sweet smile with bright eyes. Her mom, who knew Ronnie because she worked in the school library, looked like an older version, and she talked to him cordially as she served iced tea and cookies and listened attentively to everything he said. Ronnie liked the girl and her mother, and was more encouraged when her dad, dressed in a gray sharkskin suit, got home from work and shook his hand when he was introduced. Soon it was time to go home.
Ronnie said thank you and stepped outside to pick his bike up off the front lawn. The dad followed him out of the house.
“If I don’t invite you, don’t come here,” he said. He pulled his tie loose, turned on his leather dress shoes and strode back into his house. Ronald says he stood frozen by his bike, trying to process what he had just heard, wondering if he had heard right, and knowing he had.