Category Archives: history

Out of the Mouths

The other day I decided to test Rose’s new understanding of rhyme, which she’s learning a lot about in preschool. “Lock! Block! That rhymes, Mama!” she’ll say, much the way I imagine Newton sounded when he discovered gravity.

Just for kicks, I figured I’d test her memory skills and her love of Ella Fitzgerald, whom she now knows a little bit about thanks to the lush, swingy new children’s book Skit-Scat Raggedy Cat: Ella Fitzgerald.

When I heard her humming “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off,” I jumped in. Our call-and-response went like this:

Mama: “But oh, if we call the whole thing off then we must part/ And oh, if we ever part then – that – might – break – my

Rose: “Skin!”

Mama: “Hmm . . . try again — then we must part/ And oh, if we ever part then – that – might – break – my —

Rose: “Bones!”

Ah, well. Rhyming’s overrated.

The Fantastic Tightrope

President Obama turned 50 yesterday, to birthday tweets from around the world and a serenade from Jennifer Hudson in Chicago. As the mother of three biracial children, it’s awfully hard sometimes not to get caught up in what Obama represents, no matter what I think of him as a president (and at the moment, I have no idea what to think of him as a president). To me, his election was a little bit like stepping up to a coin-operated viewfinder, like the kind you see at the Grand Canyon or the Brooklyn Bridge. I dropped my ballot into a slot, and for a brief moment (very brief, as it turned out), I could see up-close the majesty of something that in reality is so distant it can’t be contemplated: a country lifting itself up and over to the other side of this thing we call race.

But I wasn’t actually feeling the whole Obama-turns-50 story arc that much. Instead, I found myself thinking about another man whose birthday passed this week — someone who didn’t need to use the word ‘audacity’ in a book title, because his entire life was an act of protest and total disregard for conventional thought. I thought about the black gay intellectual expatriate activist James Baldwin. The Harlem-born writer would have been 87 on Tuesday.

Baldwin was relentless. He was a prophet and he was a laser. The dictionary defines ‘laser’ as a device that produces a highly coherent beam of light by exciting atoms to a higher energy level and causing them to radiate. Baldwin produced highly coherent, unflinching beams of light with words. He seemed incapable of writing a single sentence if it didn’t serve the purpose of telling people what was true, and what the difference was between that truth and the fictions with which we surround ourselves. So long as he could take pen to paper, he refused to allow the dilemma of race to live on the periphery of the American conversation — and he refused to allow it to be framed as a problem about black people or what white people had done to blacks. For Baldwin, from the auction block to the housing projects, it was a problem about white people and what they had done to themselves. He was a radical, but not in the way Al Sharpton (now behind an anchor desk at MSNBC) or Cornel West (now obsessed with his unreturned phone calls to Obama) fashion themselves as radicals. His brand of insight would not go over well sitting across from Bill Maher or Jon Stewart: To Baldwin, there was nothing funny about the state of America.

There have been a few biographies of Baldwin over the years. I’ve never written a biography of anybody, but writing about Baldwin sounds like a death wish: In fiction and nonfiction, he wrote about his life and everything he believed with beauty and searing honesty, and he did it to exhaustion. Below are a few excerpts from a collection of his nonfiction published last year, The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings. Happy Birthday, Mr. Baldwin.

James Baldwin and William Shakespeare | Photo by Allen Warren

On the notion of a black president:

“Bobby Kennedy recently made me the soul-stirring promise that one day — thirty years, if I’m lucky — I can be President too. It never entered this boy’s mind, I suppose — it has not entered the country’s mind yet — that perhaps I wouldn’t want to be. And in any case, what really exercises my mind is not this hypothetical day on which some other Negro ‘first’ will become the first Negro president. What I am really curious about is just what kind of country he’ll be President of.”

On the problem of race:

“There has never been in this country a Negro problem. I have never been upset by the fact that I have a broad nose, big lips, and kinky hair. You got upset. And now you must ask yourself why I, for example, do not bring down property values when I move in. You bring them down when you move out.”

On what black people want:

“Let us say that a hundred years ago, when I was technically emancipated from the land and given over to the landlords and the bosses — let us say that I was happy in my place and that I loved doing all that singing and dancing down on the levee. Now I, and my father and grandfather, to say nothing of my grandmother and her mother, never for a moment believed that we were singing and dancing down on the levee because were so happy . . . But what has happened is that the country (by ‘the country’ I mean our government and most of our citizens) believes that I was happy in my place. They believe it so strongly that now they have the courage to ask, What does the Negro want? Well, I know what the Negro wants, and any man who is able to walk and talk knows what the Negro wants. If you know what you want, then you know what I want.”

On the blues:

“You’ve seen these black men and women, these boys and girls; you’ve seen them on the streets. But I know what happened to them at the factory, at work, at home, on the subway, what they go through in a day, and the way they sort of ride with it. And it’s very, very tricky. It’s kind of a fantastic tightrope. They may be very self-controlled, very civilized; I like to think of myself as being very civilized and self-controlled, but I know I’m not. And I know that some improbable Wednesday, for no reason whatever, the elevator man or the doorman, the policeman or the landlord, or some little boy from the Bronx will say something, and it will be the wrong day to say it, the wrong moment to have said it to me; and God knows what will happen. . . . What the blues are describing comes out of all of this.”

Ruby Bridges Was Six Years Old

The painting is called The Problem We All Live With, by Norman Rockwell, and last week, President Obama asked if the White House could borrow it from its permanent home at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass. It commemorates Ruby Bridges, the first African-American child to attend a white elementary school in the South. Fifty years ago, on November 14, 1960, the girl marched through the doors of the William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans with her copybooks and colored pencils, and without so much as a whimper. At first, seeing the surging crowd from a distance, little Ruby assumed it was Mardi Gras. “The show opened on time. Sound the siren. Motorcycle cops,” the author John Steinbeck wrote of the scene. “Four big marshals got out of each car and from somewhere in the automobiles they extracted the littlest negro girl you ever saw.” Steinbeck, who was 58 at the time, had left his dog and car in a parking lot miles away, fearing for their safety. Bridges, who was 6 years old, dodged eggs, tomatoes and the taunts of housewives no newspaper would print. She had been volunteered to the NAACP by her parents.

In the past year, since Sky turned 6, I’ve spent quite a bit of time thinking about how and when to introduce him to ideas about race and racism: the velvety soft, laced with pearls, but-I-voted-for-Obama racism his mother has experienced. The let’s-all-be-color-blind (-while-you’re-still-cute-and-not-yet-that-teenager-wanting-to-date-my-daughter) racism he will almost certainly experience. The James-Byrd-in-Jasper, we-need-a-hate-crime-law-on-the-books-yesterday racism that makes other people feel much, much better about their racism. And I wonder — is the age of 6 too young to have the lid opened on this ugliness? Did I need to cloud Sky’s world by showing him that picture book with the stoic black mother saying, “No matter what anyone says, Martin, you’re just as good as anybody else?” In showing him that, was I fortifying him against those things “anyone” might say? Or was I simply introducing him to the idea that he might not, in fact, be as good as anybody else? When he asks about the problems between black people and white people, do I start every answer as I now do — “It was a long, long time ago” — even if a white person gave his black mother a problem that kicked the shit out of her last week?

From the looks of it, Ruby Bridges, now Ruby Bridges Hall, 56, seems like an extremely well-adjusted individual. (You can watch a video of her meeting with President Obama viewing the painting here). She not only lives in the city where protesters once laid a black doll in a miniature coffin outside her school; she volunteered in that school as a parent liaison in the 1990s, three days a week. (In 2005, like countless residents of New Orleans, Bridges Hall lost her home to Hurricane Katrina). She’s raised three children of her own and helped raise nieces who were orphaned. She runs her own foundation and tours the country with a message for all adults — the uneducated and the highly educated; the rural, urban, and comfortably suburban; the conservatives and the liberals who would like to believe it only applies to people living in Jasper: “Racism is a grown-up disease and we must stop using our children to spread it.” If she could emerge from those schoolhouse doors as focused and forward-moving as when she walked in, why, exactly, do I worry about my 6-year-old knowing the story of the 6-year-old who did the walking?

Happy Loving Day

A lot of times, when I get that not-so-post-racial feeling around town — when my presence at the local ice cream store curls the faces around me into question marks; when a stranger stops me, tells me how cute my kids are and then asks where their mother is — I think of another interracial couple who made their way in small-town America: the Lovings.

In 1958, when she was 18, Mildred Dolores “Bean” Jeter married the man she loved, a bricklayer and family friend from her Virginia hometown, Richard Perry Loving. A month after their out-of-state wedding, the newlyweds were roused from their beds in the dead of night by police. They were arrested, jailed and, for all intents and purposes, banished from the state for violating the Racial Integrity Act. In facing the charges against them, Mildred and Richard pleaded guilty in court, because they were guilty: Their marriage certificate, which hung on their bedroom wall, was no good, just like their mixed-race union.

Clearly, Virginia wasn’t always for lovers. But on June 12, 1967, 44 years ago today, the US Supreme Court unanimously rejected the state’s argument that keeping the races from marrying was part of God’s plan. The couple’s convictions were overturned and, after 25 years in exile in Washington, D.C., they returned to the only place they had ever wanted to be, Caroline County, Va. Now every year on this day, Loving Day, those who walk in the Loving’s footsteps celebrate the love that started between a boy and a girl, and that eventually dismantled anti-miscegenation laws in more than a dozen states.

Like me, Mildred Loving had three children. Her husband was proudly blue-collar, like mine. But while I sometimes experience our biracial outpost like some kind of frontier pilgrim in the rural depths, Maple Street is a racial utopia compared to what the Lovings endured. When I started to feel frustrated, I called a web developer and created a blog. When Mildred Loving felt frustrated, she called then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy, and created a racial firestorm. I can’t comprehend how shunned they felt, and I can hardly believe what they sacrificed — their own safety, the safety of their children, the much easier road of staying with their own kind. But I am so grateful.

Mildred and Richard Loving, 1967

Francie and Brian Comiskey, 2011

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