Saturday, March 31, 2012

Profiling Fatality 2: More on Trayvon Martin

When is it okay to use deadly force? My local paper asked that question of its readers. The paper, The Winston-Salem Journal, printed three responses:
Harvey Pulliam, Jr. said:
I will not seek permission from anyone to use deadly force to prevent bodily harm from being inflicted on either my family or myself.
I shall not seek permission to exercise my endowed rights in using deadly force to repel any threat to my life and liberty, and limb. Be warned that I will not hesitate, if threatened, to exercise any and all of these rights, and use whatever force is necessary to remedy the situation, should it occur.
William Sams said, “When your life or property is threatened.”
Louis Jones said:
Citizens should only be allowed to use deadly force if they are facing possible mortal danger to themselves or their loved ones. If they fear for their lives or anyone else’s with them at that time, they should definitely feel justified in using deadly force.
Protection of one’s self, property and/or family to me is a high priority.
What constitutes a threat? Were we a threat the day Ronald and I exited the movie theater and a carful of young white people attempted to run us down? (See my post from 10/7/2011 Do the Right Thing What was it about us, a middle aged interracial couple, holding hands and walking through the parking lot, that made that white woman and two white men decide we were threatening and that caused them to use deadly force in the form of a car to pursue us? Is it because we are different?
Or were they a threat to us? Should we have been carrying and engaged in a shoot out in the theater parking lot?
Was Trayvon Martin a threat for walking back to his father’s house with a packet of skittles and a bottle of iced tea? Was it worth trailing him, confronting him, scaring him, and shooting him?
Our neighborhood HOA had an email exchange a few days after Trayvon was shot dead. A man was walking in the neighborhood and carrying a clipboard. “Call the police immediately,” one neighbor advised. Another said, “Is he carrying skittles?”
Even though I was the secretary of the organization last year, I refused to engage in the dialog. It left me feeling ill and wanting to divorce myself from fellow man. One of the neighbors, an octogenarian, reported a few minutes later that she had walked down her driveway and asked the man what he was doing. He said he was dropping off flyers for a landscaping company.
What have we come to when people can’t walk down the street without being perceived as a threat? What’s going to happen when everyone is armed and dangerous in a society that considers passing on the right or driving too slowly a personal affront?
People often perceive threat where there is none. They look at people who are different than they, and their difference scares them. A teen walking down the street, in daylight or at night, is not a threat. Even a group of teens walking down the street is not a threat. People go outside and go from home to school to friends’ houses to the mall and to restaurants. Sometimes they just want to walk around. Is there any law against that? Not last time I checked.  What if it were your child with his or her group of friends? Would you want other people to perceive them as a threat and possibly use deadly force against them?
Now, if a teen or adult is circling a house, looking in windows, and trying the doors, maybe that person is up to no good, and the police should be called. But does he live there and he forgot his key?  Is it your job to confront him and find out? Of course, sometimes the police don’t always act as stewards of good will either.
Henry Louis Gates, a Harvard professor, famously returned to his home after a trip and discovered his door was jammed and couldn’t be opened. A neighbor called the police because Gates, a fifty-something-year-old black man who walked with a cane, looked suspicious. He had lived in the neighborhood for years, but his neighbor didn’t recognize him or know him. He was different. The police were confrontational, and Gates lost his patience. After all, he was at home, he was tired from traveling, and he felt the police acted in a racist manner. He was arrested.
I know this about people: they feel most comfortable with others who are just like they are. That might mean they seek people who are ethnically, economically or educationally the same.  Most people won’t notice this, but I do, because I am half of an interracial relationship, and I can tell you without hesitation after thirty-six years of experience that we don’t fit in most social situations. One of us is often the lone minority in the room. Mostly Ronald finds himself as the sole black man at a function. Sometimes I am the only white woman. Or we are the only mixed couple in more diverse crowds. Both of us feel comfortable in these situations, but it is hard not to notice other people’s discomfort. Suddenly they find themselves wondering what to say, if they are offending someone, or worse yet, they feel offended by us.
Sometimes complete strangers grill us about our life. “What did your parents say?” they’ll ask. We’re old enough to be grandparents (no, C&M, I’m not hinting). Does it matter what our parents thought? Mostly we end up in a lively question and answer session about our life. We don’t mind answering the questions, but it hardly ever ends up that the person asking them decides that s/he wants to see us socially again. The discomfort doesn’t go away. We might as well be a goat and a dog walking side by side.
Harsh, you say. Yes, I’ve grown cynical. I’ve seen too much. I see how dangerous it is to be viewed as different even if we aren’t so different.
I remember that car swerving toward us in the theater parking lot because we are different. Trayvon was viewed as different, too, and Zimmerman reacted with deadly force.
(Excerpt from essay, What’s Race Got to Do with It?)
A lot of white people say they aren’t racist. They take a colorblind approach, too, believing that race or skin color no longer matters. They believe all Americans have equal opportunities to live, work, worship and socialize wherever they choose.  They give reasons that people of color don’t succeed, such as “They don’t try” or “They like getting a free ride.” They don’t support affirmative action policy and call it a quota system or reverse discrimination. They believe that hard work trumps the race card every time.  They dismiss situations in which hard work doesn’t afford success, often blaming the individual for some hidden failure.
 Colorblindness, the intent of which might be to downplay racial differences, is insidious. Not acknowledging our history or the ongoing effects of forced immigration and slavery assures that racism continues to flourish in our country.  Most black people know this. Their lives depend on knowing it.
White people, regardless of ethnicity, navigate their way through society with invisible privilege that they often do not recognize or acknowledge. Though class and gender differences limit access to certain privileges or benefits, whites can move freely from lower to middle to upper class through education and commonality. I am the child who wore hand-me-downs with parents who did not graduate from high school, but I am also the woman with two master’s degrees and a six-figure income.
Yet blacks, many of whom live in middle or upper socioeconomic classes, are often misjudged – either assumed to have made their money illegally through drug deals or pimping, or they are treated as if they are poor, uneducated and criminal based on just one attribute, the color of their skin.
Ronald, who has often listened to car doors locking, one after the other, as he walked behind parked cars on the way to his own car, once told a white person, “I’m afraid of the same people you are. The difference is you don’t know who they are, and I do.”

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Profiling Fatality

Everyone who isn’t a total recluse has heard about the shooting death of Trayvon Martin, a seventeen-year-old black boy from Sanford, FL, the city my in-laws were born and raised in, and in which we still have family. Trayvon left his father’s house in a gated community to run to the convenience store for some skittles and iced tea during the halftime of a game he was watching on TV. On his way back he realized he was being followed and called his girlfriend who encouraged him to run. He didn’t, and self-appointed neighborhood watch president George Zimmerman caught up with him, confronted him, then shot and killed him.
Zimmerman, identified as white by the police but Hispanic by his family, claims self-defense under the Florida “stand your ground” law and the Sanford police apparently agreed with him, at least until public outrage changed their minds. But as of this posting, he still has not been charged.
Profiling is a dangerous game and so is carrying guns.
I’m married to a black man. I spent many hours in our thirty-six years together worrying if he was safe out there in the world, a world that mostly considers him to be criminal or dangerous just based on his skin color. No matter that he spent twenty-five years serving and protecting the citizens of our community as a firefighter. No matter that he is a devoted husband and father. No matter that he is a talented artist, musician, and single-handicap golfer. No matter that he is an ethical man who wouldn’t pick up a dime off the street unless it was to return it to its owner. His black skin is all that mattered when police frequently stopped him for DWB, driving while black, or when women locked their car doors as he walked through a parking lot back to his car or when people treated him disrespectfully or ignored him completely.
Once Ronald got home very late. I was worried and angry. "Where have you been?" I asked when he walked into the bedroom. "I was ready to start calling the hospitals."
"I'm going to turn on the light," he said. "I don't want you to be upset by what you see, okay? Then I'll explain what happened."
He turned on the light, and I recoiled from the sight before me. His T-shirt and shorts were covered in blood. His cheek and lip were swollen.
He had gone to Planet 505, a bar on Westcott Street, to listen to a band. On his way back to his car, he was jumped from behind and punched in the head. A fight ensued. The other man, a white guy, kept calling Ronald an Arab. When the police arrived, they immediately assumed Ronald was the perpetrator and cuffed him. At least the other man admitted he had started the tussle, and Ronald refused to press charges. While the inside of Ronald's cheek had been torn open when the man grabbed him in the mouth during the fight, the man now had four broken fingers to show for it. He refused medical assistance, and Ronald drove himself to the emergency room where he received three stitches inside his cheek. The man said he attacked Ronald because he was the "Arab man" who had broken into his car. He believed this because that night Ronald wore a Kufi, a hat worn in northern African and some mid-Eastern countries. He profiled him much like Zimmerman profiled Martin because he wore a hoodie.
I’m married to a black man who has a license to conceal and carry a gun, but he doesn’t, unless he is transporting his guns to the shooting range for Olympic-style target practice. He doesn’t carry them holstered, but locked and unloaded in a gun box in the back of the SUV.
He also is certified to teach pistol safety and taught classes a few years ago.  He told me how men walked into class with swagger, and how they sent their wives to class with guns too big for their hands and too heavy for them to handle. Some class members, men and women, mentioned they couldn’t wait to shoot someone.
I was appalled by his stories, but he felt he could provide a service: if people were going to own guns then at least they should know how to use them safely. He added some of his own expertise, for those anxious to shoot someone, about what it is like to react in an extreme circumstance, like firefighting or maybe in the case of someone breaking into your home. Your body wants to flee; your heart is racing; your breath is heaving; your senses are heightened; your fine motor skills leave you, and you lose your accuracy, that is, if you ever had it. He wanted his students to know that it isn’t easy to make good decisions under such circumstances and that an impulse decision might be the wrong one. In addition he would ask them if they had thought about what it would mean to shoot someone.
Did George Zimmerman ask himself what it would mean to shoot someone?
I wrote about how shooting someone can change a person in my post Human Urine (
Zimmerman said he shot in self-defense, but was he brandishing his gun when he approached Martin? How would you react if someone approached you with a gun? I think I would be paralyzed by fear. Perhaps you might push him, if you could. Maybe that’s what Trayvon did. We won’t ever know what happened that night.  I wish Trayvon Martin had arrived safely back in front of the TV to catch the end of the game after his snack run, but he didn’t because he was profiled and someone who was carrying a gun made a bad decision and acted on it. Was protecting Zimmerman’s neighborhood worth Trayvon’s life? Will he ask himself that question for the rest of his life?
So many gun proponents think we should all be carrying guns, maybe like the Wild West. But I think only the police and other safety officers should be carrying. The “stand your ground” law is being considered in the state I now live in as well as the right to carry in public parks. That scares me. Most people aren’t trained the way the police are trained to handle guns and potentially dangerous situations, and bad decisions will undoubtedly be made that will change or end people’s lives.
I remember the boys my daughters went to school with in our urban school district in Syracuse. In kindergarten they were sweet, creative, and fun loving, if not mischievous. By eighth grade some were over six feet tall. They were boys still, but they had man-sized bodies. Already people showed fear around them, particularly the black boys, but to me, they were the same boys with the mischievous smiles from the kindergarten class.
“Hi, Mrs. Hagan,” they called out when they saw me in the hallway or the parking lot, some with baritone voices. I feared for them in the same way I feared for my husband. How would the rest of the world treat them?  I know my fears weren’t unfounded. Look at Trayvon. He should have been able to watch that game, eat some skittles, drink his iced tea, talk to his girlfriend, have some teenage fun, go on to college, get married, become a father and a productive citizen, but instead he died. He was profiled and someone had a gun.
When our young black men are categorized and profiled, what chance do they have for success? Why can’t the world see the sweet faces and mischievous smiles beneath the hoodies? Why can’t they see another human being full of life and potential? Why must our young black men die too soon?

(Excerpt from Chapter 6 Being Black All by Myself, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
Ronald would grow silent and pensive in the months and years that followed as he slipped into a deep depression – the depression that would rob me of his stories and leave me wondering if we would stay together after all we had been through; the depression that lay on him so heavily he wondered, seven months after his almost fatal fall, if he could attend his nephew’s funeral.
I dreamed about Yancy the night he died in July 2005. His sweet child’s face, even though he was a man by then, his sensitive eyes, his looming silhouette, all in the dream, but there was a gun in his hand and it went off. Whom did Yancy shoot?
I thought the dream was odd because Ronald and I had not seen him for years. He was the baby who made me cry when Ronald called me at my summer job in 1977 to announce his birth. Sylvester Jr. and his wife Marsha separated when Yancy was just six, and later divorced. The lingering mistrust between Yancy’s parents left him mostly with his mother. Yancy was angry, too, that his father started dating white women right after the split and eventually married one. He must have thought it was the ultimate betrayal.
 Twelve pounds when he was born, Yancy had grown to over six and a half feet tall by the time he was a young teen. He dropped out of school. He served a prison sentence for assault and robbery just after he turned eighteen. He was a boy in a man’s body, a boy whom many people viewed as a threat because of his size and the color of his skin; a boy who could not contain his anger over the way his life veered off course. Perhaps it had never been on course. His descent into delinquency, drug use, paternity, joblessness, seemed a self-fulfilling prophecy. He had been a smart, adorable little boy, and that is how I remembered him best, so the dream surprised me. I pushed it out of my head the next day until the phone rang.
“It’s Mom,” Bertha said. “Yancy shot himself.”
“Oh,” I said, “I thought he shot someone else,” the dream pushing its way back into consciousness. I must have confused her. “Is he going to be okay?” I continued, thinking it had been an accident, hoping for it: maybe he had shoved a gun down into his waistband to hide it, and it went off.
 “He’s dead,” she said.
Marsha called me a few hours later. “I want Ron to be one of the pallbearers,” she said, grief halting her voice. “Yancy reminded me of Ron: both of them so sensitive, so artistic.”
“I’ll ask him as soon as he gets home,” I said, the blood pulsing in my temples. When I told Ronald, I saw the vein quivering over his jaw the way it did when he was stressed or angry. He dropped his head. “I don’t know if I can go,” he said. “I don’t think I can do this.”
“You don’t have to,” I said, protective, worried, sorry I had to tell him. “I’ll go. Cara and Mackenzie will go.” They were in Syracuse producing their second evening dance concert. “We’ll represent the R. Hagans.”
“When is it?” he asked. I gave him the details, and he turned and picked up the phone and called the Fire Department to request funeral leave.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Shame on You

Ronald and I traveled to Cincinnati in the late 1990s so I could attend the annual conference of my professional association. After registering on Saturday afternoon, we hit the streets to explore the city.  A Bengals football game had just ended, and the streets were flooded with fans leaving the stadium. We walked against the crowd, holding hands and enjoying the rush and excitement around us.
I noticed a lumbering, middle-aged, white man staring at us as he approached us. He was heads higher than most of the crowd, so he stood out to me. Our eyes met just as we passed one another and he leaned down and said, “Shame on you.”
His comment stopped me in my tracks. “What did he mean?” I asked Ronald.
“You don’t know?” he said.
“Is he mad because we didn’t go to the football game?” I was distracted by the excited multitude, and I had heard Cincinnatians were serious about their football team.
“Dianne, think about it. I shouldn’t need to tell you.”
We walked in silence for a few minutes as I replayed the scene in my mind, and then it hit me. “Oh,” I said, realizing he was judging our interracial relationship. “Why does he care? What does our relationship have to do with him?”
“He doesn’t even know us,” I said, my anger growing prickly on my skin.
I feel that same anger now as I witness the conservatives trying to legislate women’s reproductive rights and access to reproductive health care. Especially in view of recent events in North Carolina, a state that used sterilization on poor and minority women and some men, right up until the mid-1970s, so they could not breed. That’s the ultimate birth control, irreversible, and it was often done without the woman’s knowledge, the medical staff telling the woman or her parents that it was an appendectomy or other procedure. Now the last few survivors of this government-run fiasco are fighting for restitution. The conservative legislators are against it and have kept it tied up in debate for years. Do we really want our government dictating our reproductive rights? They don’t even know us.
I can’t imagine choosing abortion, terminating a pregnancy, but I haven’t been in the situation where I might have to choose that option. We struggled financially when our twins were babies – sometimes we didn’t have enough money left over to buy toilet paper for the month – but we didn’t have to make a choice to feed one child over the other, or to pay the heating bill instead of the food bill or the doctor bill. We had health insurance. We had family who stepped in when needed. I remember my in-laws handing us a few rolls of toilet paper or buying baby shoes. We had a support system in place. Not everyone does. Not every baby is conceived in a loving relationship with an extended family support system in place. Sometimes a baby is conceived out of impulse or because of rape, an act of violence, or because the electric bill had to be paid and birth control was too expensive. We don’t know every situation, we couldn’t, and we don’t have a right to impose our beliefs on anyone.
Does God abhor abortion? What about birth control pills or condoms? Does He abhor homosexuality or adultery? I used birth control, so that makes me a sinner by some accounts. But I cannot imagine God could abhor those things more than war or killing in His name, or hating with a Bible in hand and claiming it is He who dictates the hate, or turning one’s back on another who is needy, or ignoring the many children who go to bed hungry and who live in squalor.
We are all sinners according to the Bible – how do you legislate that, in this life and in this world? That’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it? I think of Rush Limbaugh, on his fourth marriage, a recovering addict, calling Ms. Fluke a slut because she wants her health insurance to provide birth control and of Newt Gingrich, now married for the third time to the woman with whom he committed adultery against his second wife, taking the marriage vow on the campaign trail. Both claim to be part of the moral right, but both are sinners. How are they exempt from human fallibility in their worldview? And how can they claim moral superiority?
 People use their own fears, prejudices, sense of entitlement and privilege, and assign those beliefs to God. They don’t even know themselves.
Shame on you for pretending you know better than everyone else and that you are better than they are. Shame on you for abusing your power. Shame on you for using affected morality and religious bravado to divert attention away from the real problems we face: racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, classicism, elitism, ethno-centrism, and religious zealotry. Shame on you for trying to make people feel less than because life is hard and complicated, not a one of us is perfect, and we all have difficult decisions to make. Shame on you for judging others because they are different from you.
You don’t even know them.

(Excerpt from Chapter 6: Being Black All by Myself, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
Mackenzie, labeled Baby A, born at 10:53 a.m. on April 29, 1984, weighed 5 lbs. 15 oz., and was larger than Cara, Baby B, who was born seven minutes later at 11:00 a.m. and weighed 5 lbs. 3 oz. The nurse wheeled in one Isolette with both babies inside. She picked up each baby and put one in my left arm, the other in my right. Baby A’s hair was fine as kitten’s fur and just as soft and deep brown, nearly but not quite black. Her bangs were spiky over large brown eyes that took in the world and her face was a pie. Eskimo, I thought.
Ronald said, “Dad said she picked her head up and looked right at them.”  His parents had been to the nursery to see the girls, just hours after they were born.
Baby B already had a nickname, Squirrel, because she was so small. Her head was long and narrow from chin to nape and her nose spread across her tiny face.  “She got a cookie,” Ronald said, smiling and staring at her nose. Her hair was soft and dark, and though more than most babies, much less than the head of hair on Baby A. Ronald’s dad coined her Squirrel while watching her through the nursery window.
“Well,” began Ronald, “I thought we would name the big one Mackenzie and the little one Cara.”
“I like that,” I said. We had never settled on names. I called them Giuseppe and Giuseppina the whole time I was pregnant, convinced I was having a boy and a girl, even after the doctor suggested the heart rates indicated two girls. I had a list of names that I would hand over to Ronald to look at, and he would cross them out one at a time and state his reason why. Cara and Mackenzie were two names still on the list.
“And Sylvester suggested Mackenzie Marie and Cara Michelle,” Ronald continued.  Sylvester Jr. had shown up at the nursery window, too.
 “Okay, they sound nice.” I said of Sylvester’s suggestions. Never having settled on first names meant we had never gotten to discuss middle names.
His parents told me the next day when I was allowed visitors that Ronald had shown up at their house after the girls were born, his skin gray, and his eyes wide with anxiety. He told them it scared him to see me on the gurney in the recovery room, shivering and unconscious. I hardly believed them: he had been calm and reassuring during my labor, holding my hand, coaching my Lamaze breathing, feeding me ice chips, even arguing our case with the doctor-on-call when he suggested delivering Mackenzie then putting me under to perform a Cesarean section to deliver Cara. I woke up in the recovery room thinking I had had a C-section, but Ronald had convinced the doctor not to do it, and Cara was delivered breech after all. Ronald had been protective and watchful, even staying in the delivery room after the doctor told him he had to leave as they began to put me under.
On Wednesday, May 2, 1984, my regular OB-GYN recommended I go home and said, “Your blood pressure will never go down with all the noise here.” I was released.
Ronald brought tiny outfits, identical except one was pale yellow and the other pale turquoise, for Cara and Mackenzie. They were gifts from his sister Sylvia, but they were too big. I took little hands and fed them through sleeves, folded cuffs to shorten them a few inches, buttoned tiny buttons and tied tiny bows. When I finished, I left them in the center of the bed while I stood close by and dressed. A nurse, shaped like an appliance box, in a pressed uniform, rushed in scolding me, “Don’t leave them unattended! They could roll off the bed!”
I swallowed hard and scooped them into my arms. Will I mother the way Ma mothered me, I wondered.
Another nurse rolled me down to the car in a wheelchair, both babies in my arms. A nurse’s aide carried flowers, plants and balloons. The nurse helped Ronald strap the babies into their new infant car seats and then helped me into the car. “Best wishes!” she called as we drove off.
The chill of early spring still hung in the air that day. We stopped at work so Ronald could pick up my paycheck. Colleagues were out on break and peeked in the car window. “So tiny!” one colleague cooed. I wanted to be happy, but instead I felt scared.
Then Ronald drove to his parents’ house – the hospital, work, Ronald’s parents’ house and our apartment were all within a three-mile radius. His parents were both at work, but his grandmother Mama Mack was there with the home aide, and Ronald wanted to show her the babies. “Too little,” she said when Ronald asked her if she wanted to hold one.
The home aide, a large black woman with a tiny voice, took a look and said, “What beautiful babies.” She backed away and sat in a dining room chair, close enough to be at hand if needed, but far enough away not to interfere with a family moment. Ronald laid a pillow in Mama Mack’s lap and placed the babies, one at a time on the pillow: first Mackenzie, then Cara. Mama Mack’s large chest heaved with laughter. Her gnarled fingers clasped Cara’s tiny, long fingers. Ronald snapped a photograph. Mama Mack would pass away nine months later.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

I See You through the Window

Ah, the northeast in March – warm, rainy, cold, snowy, sunny, breezy, dank, and howling – all within a couple of days. I could hardly keep up: umbrella, mittens, boots, no coat, or wool coat. My brain ping-pongs like that, too, and I wonder if I am a product of my environment, having lived my first fifty years there. But then rolling my suitcase out to the sidewalk last night, to wait for Ronald to pull up in the car, reminded me how much I like the steady warmth that sits under the air in North Carolina. I like the birds, too, red and blue, rust and fawn, gray and black, their songs and movement, flitting or riding the wind currents, marking my days at the computer as I work next to the window where I have a good view. I found myself comparing them to the raggedy but persistent grackles that drifted and dove through wet, lake effect snow and nested in the steam plant pipes across from my office window in the north. Or perhaps it is the difference in the blue of the sky, one with a purple undertone, the other pure cyan.
I’ve always enjoyed my windows: plates of glass that allow me to experience the world while remaining safe behind them. I remember watching the most spectacular storms rolling in from the northwest through my office window, the lightening cutting the sky in jagged, leviathan flashes. I’d sit mesmerized, and then I’d burst into applause, as if nature were putting on a performance just for me. Sometimes I showed my appreciation with a standing ovation. Here the storms are just as interesting but different. Each rain front moves through like an army of millions, an epic deluge that beats the earth into torrents of red water that rush and choke the storm sewers. The fronts pass quickly and the next follows after a brief respite, then all is warmed and dried by the sun. Sometimes I wonder if I just had a dream, because there is no sign of the rain that just passed through, not even wet pavement.
I experience life as if looking through a window as well. I like to see it like a parade marching down Main, and I can hear its drone through the safe glass. Or I watch it through another’s eyes: Ronald’s or Cara’s or Mackenzie’s. They seem braver than I but I know they don’t always feel that way.
Then life shatters my window, and I find myself right in the muddle, no longer protected, and I’m okay about it. That’s the good thing, I suppose. I’m not as fearful as I think I am or want to believe I am. I’ve got that perseverance I worked hard to instill in Cara and Mackenzie, the thing that got me through watching my mother disintegrate into alcoholism and my father lose his Italian bravado. It’s gotten me through the times that startled my sensibilities, like when people threatened harm to my family or me, because we are interracial. It’s helping me through the aging process, a witness to my own decline, my husband’s, and my in-laws’. It even helped when I lost the chance to watch my parents grow old, because they died too soon.
Life is about what there is and what there isn’t and accepting that the two exist in tandem and in everything. One can’t know happiness without experiencing sadness or peace without chaos. Let it be.
(Excerpt from Chapter 3 Guinea Bastard, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
Then the deli closed unexpectedly. One day Ma was working and the next day the doors were locked. Maybe the businessmen felt they weren’t turning a large enough profit to continue the venture. But it left Ma swirling in loneliness after all the attention and bitter about returning to life in the house, her world shrinking around her. She started drinking again, more than ever.
I began to sleep less, listening to see if she had turned the TV off before the station had signed off for the night. I listened for her snoring so I could locate her whereabouts – either she was sleeping in her chair, her snores and Dad’s playing in cacophonous stereo, or she was in bed with Dad, their snores melded into an eerie rumble.
I paced my bedroom floor, back and forth for hours, over and over, rhythmic and monotonous, staring trancelike. Or I sat cross-legged in front of the stereo Rocco and I bought with Christmas money – the cheapest one we could find – and rocked back and forth, back and forth, again in a trance-like repose, while the same song played over and over. During these years I was stricken with terrible canker sores running the length of my gums, top and bottom, or along the fleshy part of my mouth, large white ulcers on pink flesh.  They were so painful, I nearly lost consciousness, feeling that moment of loss of control and the weightlessness caused by the drop in blood pressure, when one was touched with a piece of food, or my tongue, or scraped against my teeth.
I often got up at 4:30 a.m. to do my homework as sometimes the fighting between Ma and Dad lasted the evening and was so disruptive that all I wanted to do was read a book or watch TV and stuff myself full of chips and chocolate. Walking out to the darkened parlor before sunrise, I would count how many beer bottles cluttered the table and be able to tell if Ma would hear the whistle of the tea kettle Frank put on the stove before he left for college classes, like an alarm clock to wake her up, or if she would just turn over, more than once letting the bottom of the kettle burn out over the flame. I would shake her and get her up and try to get out the door on time.
Dad worked more and more overtime. We needed the money, but I believe he also wanted to get out of the house. He worked double shifts, or came home from work, ate dinner, slept for a few hours and got up to do the graveyard shift. His face was lined and weary. Ma accused him of having an affair because he was always gone. One day he came home with a band-aid on his forehead and said he got into a fight with one of the other guys. “Mafioso,” he called the bunch of them and said, “They only help each other get ahead.” I wonder if he felt ostracized by his Italian-American co-workers because he had married Ma.
That night Ma started in after dinner. She yelled over the running water in the kitchen sink to Dad in the parlor reading the paper. “Goddamned little, beady, brown-eyed Guinea bastard,” she said. “Your ignorant mother moved her bowels, didn’t know any better, slapped a bonnet on it, and named it Francesco!”
Dad shook the sports section he held up in two hands and kept on reading. When he didn’t respond, Ma continued.
“You have a woman on the side, don’t you? You don’t care about me. I’m fat and old,” she said. Then she threw one of her precious bone china cups across the kitchen and it smashed against the cellar door. I knew that in short order Dad would explode with anger and frustration. I headed to my bedroom and turned on my transistor radio. I sat on the floor, my legs folded under me, and rocked back and forth, my eyes staring straight ahead, my mind pulling me to daydreams far from home.
The daydreams had me dressed in glittery gowns on the red carpet outside Grauman’s Chinese Theater with crowds of adoring fans asking for autographs. Men lined up to ask for my hand, leaning toward me like the men on the front covers of Ma’s romance novels. Sometimes I saved the town by dragging large dinosaur bones (amazingly still in one piece in the large, hulking shape of the T-Rex) into the town square where the attention of the media and tourists stopped the town from closing down and blowing away in the dessert dust.
Dad reached ignition. “Jesus H. Christ! “ he yelled, and I knew he had thrown the paper to the floor and jumped on it.
“Can’t a man sit down and enjoy his paper after a day’s work? I can’t afford to have a goddamned woman on the side,” he said.
“Your eyes are brown because you’re full of shit! My mother warned me the first time she saw you sucking raw eggs on her front porch. You’re a barbarian. Your children are barbarians. All Italians are barbarians. I left my mother for this!”
“There’s no rest for the wicked,” Dad said, “I work hard. I put food on the table. The house is a mess. You’re all a bunch of prima donnas.”
“Nothing works! I burn my hands at the sink every time I wash dishes.”
“I ought to get a room at the Y and get some peace and quiet,” Dad said.
“I’ve bloody well had it. I’m going to kill myself; I’m going to slit my wrists,” Ma screamed, and I heard the bathroom door slam shut and the lock click. It was not the first time she had said this, nor the last, but each time felt fresh and raw. I raced out of my bedroom to the bathroom door. Andy had beaten me there. We banged on the door. We were both crying.
“Please, Ma, don’t do it!” we screamed in seeming unison. My fists ached from hitting the door over and over and my breath was ragged with terror.
I could hear her jagged sobs. Soon the door opened and she pushed past us into her bedroom. She took a suitcase out of the closet, put it on the bed, threw a few housedresses into it, then slammed the lid shut and lifted it by the handle.
“I’m leaving,” she announced, brushing past us again.
“No, Ma, please,” I wailed, “I’ll try harder to be good.”
Andy grabbed the hem of her housedress, but Ma pressed on. She went out the front door, and we watched her walk down the driveway and out into the street.
Dad went into their bedroom. He shut the door, and Andy and I were without parents at that moment. Suddenly I felt flat and tired. I turned without a word, went into my bedroom and shut my door. 

Saturday, March 3, 2012

Just Say No to Racism, Misogyny, Classism, and Stupidity

Sometimes I just want to ignore the news, but I can’t do it for long. Dad used to read one or two newspapers from front to back on a daily basis and finish his evening by doing the crossword puzzle. He brought home copies of Time Magazine and Atlantic Monthly from his job in the mailroom at Williams Press. I got hooked on news (and crossword puzzles) at an early age.
That doesn’t stop me from feeling disbelief and disappointment every time I read the daily paper or peruse, and the online version of the New York Times.

My last two posts dealt with emotions, truth and lies.  Here they are if you’d like to read them.

My obsessive brain is still ruminating on those topics and the news is fueling my internal debate.
Tell me why people can claim ignorance on certain topics and think they can get away with it. How could federal judge Richard Cebull claim he is not a racist and that he did not see the below joke as racist when he shared it with several colleagues?
"Normally I don't send or forward a lot of these, but even by my standards, it was a bit touching. I want all of my friends to feel what I felt when I read this. Hope it touches your heart like it did mine.
"A little boy said to his mother, 'Mommy, how come I'm black and you're white?'  His mother replied, 'Don't even go there Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you're lucky you don't bark!'"

I say remove him from the bench. He is in a position to ruin people’s lives, particularly if he lets his personal lens inform him about the people standing before him in his courtroom. We are all guilty of viewing the world through our own unique perspective, it’s the only lens we have, but if we aren’t aware of how that perspective filters information, we’d better not be in positions of power.
If you have to announce that you aren’t racist, you probably are.  Stop trying to convince yourself and fool others. I admit that I am a racist, simply because I am white and I have directly benefitted from being white in ways my husband and daughters will never experience in our lifetime, in our society. White people, admit that privilege, power, and entitlement exists because of your whiteness and stop blaming ethnic minorities for the problems they encounter by living among us. Then stop spreading racist jokes and emails. You are smart enough to know what they are and how hurtful they are, not just for the people they make fun of but for all of us. Acknowledging and accepting your role in this racist society is the only way to change the awful course we are on.
Speaking of power, what of Rush Limbaugh’s charge that Sandra Fluke is a slut because she wants her insurance to cover contraception and not make moral judgments on her behalf because she is a student at a religiously affiliated law school? Rush is on wife number four and he is a recovering Oxycontin addict. Should he really be judging other people’s morals and actions? Powerful, rich, white men, stop trying to tell us how to act and worry about your own actions and intentions to gain power and wealth at the expense of others. Admit your own moral weaknesses and stop thinking your wealth and position make you better than others.
For all men, women are not sluts because they want to use birth control.  They are being responsible. They are not morally corrupt if they choose abortion. Even if you cannot imagine making that choice, sometimes it is the only option, and if you haven’t walked in that woman’s shoes, don’t suppose you know better than she. Your misogyny has trapped us in a corner. Instead be responsible partners who care about our health and welfare. Participate in such decisions as an equal partner, be truthful about other partners and sexual behaviors, be good fathers even when you are no longer our partners, and be accountable for your intentions. Treat us as equals, true partners and companions, and not as objects. Don’t turn our need for emotional intimacy and our desire to please you against us, as if it is a sign of weakness. It is our strength and it contributes to your strength. Let our differences complement and enrich one another. Men, admit your own imperfections and stop pretending you have all the answers or that you can answer for us.
For all people, there are no single truths on this earth. Our world is awash in ambiguity, bad and misdirected intent, and human imperfection. The continuum of human experience is long and extreme. How dare any person thinks he or she can impose belief or will on another person. Hasn’t history proven the fallacy of that over and over again?
But we can act in concert, as a community, by treating all people as equals, giving each person voice, even when that voice is different from our own, and by accepting that just because we are different doesn’t mean we cannot find common ground. That is true community, the acceptance of all that we are and the hard work of finding ways to live in harmony. Our diversity makes us stronger.
Question your intentions at all times. If they are driven by self-righteousness, personal gain, paternalism, racism, misogyny, classism, or egotism, they are probably bad, misdirected, or stupid. Just say no.

(Excerpt from Chapter 6: Being Black All by Myself, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story  - any feedback on the title is appreciated)
In January 1978 Ronald handed me a small box. I slowly opened it, and there was a ring inside. It was sterling silver with a blue lapis stone.
“It’s so beautiful,” I said, “Does this mean we are engaged?”
“Let’s call it a pre-engagement ring,” he said, smiling at my forwardness. “I wanted something that wouldn’t overpower your hand. It’s perfect,” he continued, holding and admiring my hand, his strong aesthetic sense for color and shape molding his choice.
“Yes, it is,” I said.
I showed it to Ray and Brenda when I stopped by to drop new tapes off to them. They lived in a single room together against campus policy.  The room was a disaster: dirty clothes, tapes, textbooks, pizza boxes and empty soda cans strewn on every surface including the floor. I wondered how they navigated the room without hurting themselves, as I carefully stepped through the mess.
            Brenda, who lost her vision at age nine when she fell down a flight of concrete stairs, ran her fingers over the surface of the ring.
            “So pretty,” she said.
            “Let me see,” said Ray, and we laughed. I pushed the ring close to his “good” right eye through which he could see shadow and a bit of color. He had been a “premie” and spent time in an incubator. The oxygen levels had robbed him of sight.
            “Are you going to get married?” Brenda asked.
            “It’s a pre-engagement ring. I want to,” I said, thinking they would probably get married, too, one day. They were inseparable. But they broke up that summer, the pressure of their families’ displeasure over the interracial relationship finally taking the ultimate toll.

The summer Ma accused me of causing Dad’s heart attack, Sylvester Jr. and his wife had a baby boy. Ronald called me at my summer job to tell me baby Yancy had been born and weighed more than twelve pounds. I began to cry.
            “Why are you crying?” he asked.
            “I want that to be us,” I said.
            “We’re still in school,” he said, “We couldn’t live like that.”
            “I can get work,” I said, “I’m tired of school anyway.”
            “Nope, don’t do that,” he said.
            One day during the spring of 1978, Ronald and I had our first bad argument. I was on birth control pills and concerned about the long-term side effects. There was a meeting in the lounge of the dorm floor on birth control methods, and I wanted us both to go so we could decide together what I might change to.
            “I don’t want to go,” he said.
            “Don’t you care about my health?” I asked.
            “If you end up getting pregnant, you’re gonna be an unwed mama,” he said.
            “Why would you say that?” I asked, my eyes stinging, remembering his ex-girlfriend had a baby that she had given up for adoption.
            “What you’re on is fine. It works, why change?”
            “You don’t care if I have a stroke or get breast cancer?”
            “That’s not what we are talking about.”
            “Just come to the meeting and see,” I said.
            “You go,” he said.
            I took my ring off and threw it at him.
            “You don’t care about me,” I said, “If you did, you would go with me and be part of the decision.”
            “Is that what you think?” he asked.
            But he walked down the hall with me to the lounge packed with students. I realized later that Ronald was embarrassed to sit in a room full of people and listen to a lecture about something he thought was personal.
The resident advisors passed around condoms, IUDs and diaphragms. They explained how each worked and how effective it was. They talked about preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases – no one had heard of AIDS in 1978.
Someone passed a diaphragm to me, and I turned it around in my hands. Then I handed it to Ronald and looked at the side of his face. He cradled it in one hand then passed it on.

I only got pregnant once, even though my diaphragm lay unused in the medicine cabinet for the twenty-eight years I needed birth control. Neither one of us liked its inconvenience. I always swore I got pregnant the day we got married. At three months we learned we were having twins. Ronald did not speak for several days as he digested the news.
I remember the first time I felt them move, soon after we learned we were having twins. I was sitting on the sofa and I felt a tickle deep inside. I called Ronald to come sit next to me, and he placed his hand over my tummy. He laughed and said, “I think it’s just indigestion.” But we both knew it was two little babies, growing, moving in rhythmic synchronicity.
For the next five months Ronald went to each appointment at the doctor’s office, oftentimes the only male sitting in a waiting room filled with pregnant women who stole glances at him because his presence must have made them wonder why their husbands were not seated beside them. The doctor, a petite, ageless, German-born woman who worked quickly and efficiently, teased Ronald, asking him if he questioned her competence. She often gave him instructions: “Buy her some ice cream. She isn’t gaining enough weight” or “Don’t let her walk to work anymore. Twin pregnancies are high risk and the babies’ well-being is more important than staying in shape” or “Take those pregnancy manuals away from her. She doesn’t need to be scaring herself” or “Sleep on the couch if she is too restless. And don’t you get angry, Dianne. He needs his rest, too.”
Ronald bought me a handmade black Cabbage Patch doll for Valentine’s Day. She wore a yellow baby’s dress and white leather shoes, and her hair was black yarn. I named her Amelia. Ronald shaved my legs on the weekend and pulled my support stockings on each morning, sitting behind me, his legs on either side. My tummy had gotten too big to reach my legs and feet. He patiently waited while I threw up each morning before he drove me to work. On a particularly icy day, he pulled his car up to the curb to pick me up from work. He jumped out and held up his hand, signaling me to wait for him. When he reached me, he picked me up; my arm slung around his neck, and he carried me from the library door to the car so I would not fall. I giggled the whole way, asking him, “So what does it feel like to carry a whale?” When the weight of my tummy made it difficult to climb the stairs to our apartment, he helped me, his arm around my waist, hoisting me up each stair. He ran out and bought Steak’ums with Cheese, something I had never eaten before or since, but for which I suddenly had a craving. He told me that pregnancy made me even more beautiful, my skin glowing.
At Bird Library many of my colleagues were excited about the prospect of twins. They remembered when Ronald and I met freshman year of college in Copy Services. They had watched our relationship mature over the years, held their breath waiting for us to marry, and now they were getting to experience our pregnancy. Technical Services staff good-naturedly placed bets on what day I would deliver, and many came to a baby shower thrown by one of the librarians. But one woman always looked dour when I walked by her desk to go to the restroom or the staff lounge. One day she stopped me and said she had something to say.
“You know I’m interracially married, too,” she said. She was a small black woman, maybe in her mid-thirties, quiet, not unfriendly, but not social. She just came to work and did her job. I had heard her husband was white, but I had never seen him.
“Yes, I know,” I said, wondering what she was getting at.
“We decided not to have children,” she said, looking down at my belly. “It’s irresponsible to bring interracial children into this world.”
I was stunned silent, my face feeling warm, but I shook off my surprise. I thought, what made her feel she could say this to me, when I am this far along in my pregnancy, unable to do a thing about it? What is her intent? Then I wondered if she felt she had sacrificed her right to have children for her right to love a man of a different race. “We don’t feel that way,” I said. “We think if you have loving parents it doesn’t matter what race you are.”
She looked at the floor and I turned and walked away.