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.

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