Love, to a Guinea Hen

Pretty much everyone in our neighborhood knows Kanga and Charlotte, the two goats we inherited a while back from Brian’s uncle. In one of my early posts for this blog, I explained the unlikely but true story that Kanga and Charlotte were the perfect goats for us to inherit, because they are racially loaded. What I mean by that is, Charlotte happens to be the fluffy, docile, utterly non-threatening white goat. And Kanga happens to be the hostile, aggressive, apparently troubled black goat, forever trying to jump the fences and escape. Now, there’s a lot one could say here. But this blog post is not about goats, so for now I’ll only say two things. One: The task of explaining to your kids’ friends that they can pet the nice fluffy white goat, but they can’t touch the mean black goat, is just more than what should be asked of a black woman living on Maple Street. Two: Kanga, I feel you.

One of the biggest gulfs we’ve had to bridge in this marriage has to do with animals. I often tell people that over the years, I’ve been conned into living in the animal menagerie that has overtaken our house. It’s not even a very good con, but somehow it always works. “Come on, Francie Pants, the cat won’t bother anybody!” (Hello, allergies.) “Come on, Francie Pants, chickens will be fun!” (Hello, chicken shit in the driveway. Hello, bare feet of three children casually stepping in chicken shit in said driveway. Hello, chicken shit on the living room floor, from chicken wandering inside screen door left wide open.) “Francie Pants, that’s a mother raccoon and her babies. We can’t kick them out of our chimney in the dead of winter!” (Hello, raccoon urine dripping down fireplace. Hello, bullet hole in brand-new cabinet wall from gunshot husband fired when mother raccoon terrorized our kitchen).

I curse the animals, I ignore the animals, I roll my eyes when Brian turns to me and asks, after a long silence, “Francie Pants, what do you think the cat is thinking right now?” The one thing I don’t do — that I can’t do — is feel. I’ve never felt anything for an animal, ever. The animals make my two sons and my daughter giddy with joy, and I’m aware that that happiness is something I have no way of understanding. I’m aware that Brian knows all about it, because of the epic love stories he and his family have shared with the dogs in their lives. Rags. Smiley. Caesar. Sequel. Seeing that love in our kids makes me jealous, but it also makes me feel warm.

One morning a few weeks ago, I was standing in the kitchen and noticed one of our guinea hens on the ledge of the back porch. Guinea hens make the most grating sound known to man. (It’s often the sound that wakes me before 6 am. Again, conned.) I don’t know why, but I started looking at this guinea hen differently on this particular day. It was focused and insistent. It did not move from the ledge. “It’s calling for its mate,” Brian told me as I reached up for the cereal bowl. A few days earlier, one of our guinea hens had wandered onto Maple Street and got run over. The ledge on the back porch looks directly out onto the road.

And for the first time, there it was. A feeling. I listened to that scraping, awful cry and I thought, if the pain of losing someone you loved were a sound, it would be that sound. I kept listening and the more I heard it, the more that cry sounded like two words. Come back. Come back.

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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.”

When Your White Husband Is Blacker Than You

A few years ago, Brian ran into a woman he knew while hiking in the woods in Dover, the sleepy, semi-rural town just over the bridge from our sleepy, semi-rural town. He was with our son Sky, who was then 3. It was summer, and Sky’s skin had that bronzed, Meso-American tint; the woman was a distant acquaintance and middle-aged. The conversation went like this:

Woman: “Is this your son? Oh, he’s adorable! Where did you get him from, Guatemala?”

Brian: “No, I got him from my wife.”

What he desperately wanted to say was, “No, I got him from my wife’s uterus” — and he would have, if he hadn’t known the woman. That he had the presence of mind to formulate a comeback (not to mention a reserve comeback he refrained from using) proves the maxim I have occasionally found to be in true in our nine-year marriage: Sometimes, and I hate to say this, Brian is a better black person than me. He’s never seen Do The Right Thing and he can’t hear the difference between Kanye and Q-Tip. But when it comes to knowing what to say in the face of racial ignorance — and not being afraid to make people feel uncomfortable in their ignorance — Brian’s got me beat cold.


My husband is one of the strangest white people I’ve ever met. He’s a blue-collar roofer with blond hair whose CD collection includes Public Enemy and a compilation of MLK sermons. He’s the baby of six in a traditional Irish-American family who believes the shortest route to anywhere you’re going is through Dover (the town where he was born), but who spent his 20s hitchiking the country — often with no plan and next to no money. He’s an award-winning slam poet who can’t stand what hip-hop has done to slam poetry, and an avid radio listener who can’t stand what right-wing shock jocks have done to radio. For years, I’ve had to deal with my own husband riding me for patronizing a local sub shop whose owners blast right-wing radio 24/7, and who generally seem to fit the profile of Obama-hating Tea Party loyalists.

“How can you eat there?”

“I don’t know . . . their subs are really, really good.”

“Francie, if it was up to people like you, blacks would still be sitting in the back of the bus.”

And yet, before we had kids, Brian was the kind of person who basically subscribed to the belief that if you focused on raising your kids right, things like race and their sense of blackness would take care of themselves. Now that we actually have kids, he is realizing that it is much, much more complicated than that.

Not long after we moved here, I was driving along Main Street and spotted a yard sale at a church. On a sunny weekend morning, nothing makes me happier than stumbling on a yard sale. Nothing. I hopped out of the car, and as I roamed among the vintage chairs and side tables, a woman working the sale — white, middle-aged, nice-as-pie smile — came up to greet me. “Now, tell me,” she said, “how on earth did you find out about a yard sale all the way out here?” And just like that, she crushed me. She crushed me and she also froze me: For what seemed like minutes, I couldn’t come up with anything. Then I said, very quietly, “I live here.”

Back in the car, I called Brian and told him how a woman I had never laid eyes on before ruined my day in under 15 seconds. When I told him what she had said, the comeback was instant. How did I find it? Well, I was on my way to a carjacking and thought I would stop and pick up a desk lamp. I would need a separate blog to document every time Brian has come up with something like this. It’s as routine as brushing your teeth in the morning, and quicker than the snap of a finger.

I often think: Why can’t I do it? Why am I always unprepared for racism, and Brian is always fully prepared? Is it because I’m a girl? Girls, we are taught, shouldn’t make others feel uncomfortable. Is it because I’m a good little immigrant black girl? Good little immigrant black girls, we are taught, should never, ever make the people around us feel uncomfortable. Even if a stranger can’t fathom that you live in her town; even if a sales clerk asks you for ID, not having asked the white person in line in front of you; even if someone tells you that the prejudiced thing they did or said isn’t their fault because they’ve only ever been exposed to people who look like them, do not, under any circumstances, go off. Because if you do, you will become “that” black woman. “That” black neighbor, “that” black coworker, “that” black sister-in-law or school mother. The trap door to that stereotype is so unconscious and so seductive, it will fly open every time.

My husband once told me that if he were black, he would be walking around in a constant state of anger and rage. I relayed that statement to a black friend a short time later, and he articulated in words what I already knew. “He’d be in a constant state of anger and rage for about five minutes,” he said. “Then, he’d just be tired and resigned.”

Spoken like a true black person.

Of One Blood

From my tiny New England town, I am cheering the tiny Kentucky town of Berea.

Until this past week, the only thing I could have told you for sure about Kentucky was that Abraham Lincoln was born there. I couldn’t have named Kentucky’s capital (Frankfort). I couldn’t have told you that Berea, Ky., is one of the fastest growing cities in the country, or that it was founded more than 150 years ago as an intentionally interracial town, where blacks and whites would live side by side. And I would not have guessed that in this little slice of Madison County, an entire population would stop its everyday comings and goings and rally behind an interracial couple victimized by racism.

On July 7, Damon Dunson and his girlfriend, Melanie Stamper, woke up to find the cars in their driveway spray-painted with racial slurs. According to Dunson, the word n***er was spelled three different ways. Dunson is black; Stamper is white. Most of the messages were directed at her, telling her to leave town.

In the two weeks since then, here’s what’s happened: A town resident named Mae Suramek walked to a local bank and set up a fund to raise money for the insurance deductible on the cars. A body shop owner in a nearby town offered to donate his time and labor to fix the cars. More than 40 residents invited the couple to a potluck dinner to talk about the incident and, according to Suramek, “make it known as a community that this would not be tolerated.”

Now, a group of citizens has asked the city council to establish a human rights commission. In doing so, they urged the city not to view the vandalism as an isolated incident, but as an opportunity to examine quieter, more pervasive forms of racism that go unnoticed. Their leaders have heard them: the mayor denounced the act as cowardly and deplorable. The president of Berea College threw the weight of the entire institution behind the couple, writing an open letter in support of them last week.

Every state has its stereotypes: Massachusetts is supposedly the land of ivory-tower intellectuals and die-hard liberals. Kentucky is supposedly the land of back-country rednecks and don’t-stop-for-gas-at-night-if-you’re-black racism. But looks can be deceiving. Here is a bluegrass state whose abolitionist founder built a church, school system and entire municipality on the principle of racial “interspersion,” a town whose college board of trustees passed a resolution allowing interracial dating in the 1880s.

A former colleague of mine, reflecting on the courage of protesters during the 1960s, once pondered whether she would ever be brave enough to stand up in the face of injustice. The sad truth is, many more people than we’d like to believe lack the courage to stick their necks out when they are witness to bigotry. I don’t want to take sides. I wish you weren’t so angry about this. I’m sorry it happened, but there’s really nothing I can do. That’s as true in the liberal lap of New England as it is in the Kentucky hills. But today, the ordinary people of Berea, Ky., want everyone to know: It is not the truth about them.

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?

Out of the Mouths

Kids are freakishly wise. This is a feature I started in the pre-Wordpress version of my blog to document the freakishly wise things that occasionally spill from my kids’ mouths.

Sky can knock me over with his musings sometimes (“Mama, why is Aunt Jemima always smiling?” he asked at age 3). But Rose, now 3 herself, is catching up.

On the staircase Tuesday night, staving off the inevitability of bedtime, a feminist was born:

“Mama? You know that Snow White story-show with the Snow White princess and that bad woman and that apple, and then she eats the apple and she dies on the floor, and then that big guy comes and he undeads her and then she wakes up and they begin to get married?”

“Yes, sweet sweet. What about it?”

“That’s really boring and sad.”

“I think so too, sweetie. I think so, too. Now go to bed.”

The Sometimes Ironic T-Shirt

A while back, I bought Satchel a t-shirt that reads “She’s My Mommy, Not My Nanny.” It’s a funny shirt.

What’s funnier is that because I’m an overextended working mother, and because I don’t pay much attention to what I yank from Satchel’s drawer in morning rush to get him dressed, he is much more likely to be wearing the shirt when he’s with Jana — our, um, nanny. Which means that in addition to people not thinking I’m Satchel’s mother when I’m out with him, people generally think Jana is his mother when she’s out with him and he’s wearing the shirt.

Being hip and ironic about your mixed-race family is complicated.

If you’re interested in these shirts, you can purchase them from the  Swirl Syndicate. They’ve got a bunch of new styles, too. The line-drawn blender is my favorite!!

Cleanliness Is Next to —————.

The summer after my junior year in college, I went to Paris to research what I thought was going to be my senior thesis topic: the art of the French Revolution. It was late June 1991, 20 years ago almost to the day. I had gotten caught up in the whole beheading thing, and in one painting in particular  — The Death of Marat. It memorializes the Jacobin hero Jean-Paul Marat, lying in a pool of his own blood following his murder in 1793. Marat had a skin condition that caused bouts of violent itching and required cold baths. He was taking a bath when his asssassin entered his room, pulled a knife and stabbed him clean through the heart.

I had my fellowship money, my department-approved proposal, my ridiculous Paris apartment that no 20-year-old should have. Then one day, while researching hygiene rituals from the period in a library, I stumbled onto something. It was another image of a figure bathing. At first, I didn’t know how to process what I was seeing; it didn’t look quite like anything I’d seen before. But after a couple more hours of digging, I called my adviser to tell him I wasn’t going to be writing about the French Revolution. Here was an ad for laundry bleach (one of hundreds I would later find) whose premise rested on the idea that it could tackle the most stubborn dirt imaginable: the skin of a black person.

What do ads for 19th-century detergent have to do with raising biracial kids in a small town in 2011? I’m not really sure, but I found myself pulling out my thesis two decades later, realizing how much this picture speaks to ideas about whiteness and blackness, especially in a child’s mind. Being dark(er) in a light world means getting the idea early on that your darkness is a ‘thing’ — not just that it’s less good, which our kids will inevitably be made to feel at some point, but that’s it’s some kind of layer, something that demands some kind of explanation. Something that, in this country and in this environment especially, people will react to continually, one way or another.

A few months ago, my oldest said to his dad, “Daddy, I wish I was white.” When Brian asked why, Sky’s answer was pretty straightforward: “Because everything would be easier.” Indeed. I remember feeling that way as a little girl myself. I remember thinking: What if, somehow, I could wash it off? Wouldn’t that make me just the luckiest dark girl in this white world?

Shake Rattle and Roll

The antidote to Maple Street can be summed up in one word: Brooklyn.

When I say antidote, I don’t mean that our life of bubbling brooks and shingled barns is somehow poisonous, of course.  But whether or not people who live here realize it, it is an extreme. Any place where llammas outnumber black people by at least two to one qualifies as an extreme environment. When the extremism of a town like ours starts to feel like the real world — and when day-trip adventures in a remarkably still-segregated Boston just aren’t cutting it — New York is medicine. It’s the remedy, the counteragent, the elixir. The fix.

This weekend, Sky and I got to call Brooklyn home. For his (long overdue) birthday present, we rented a place in Brooklyn Heights — a lovely apartment we hardly got to know because we used it purely to rest our heads, brush our teeth, and store our stuff while we hit four out of the five boroughs. I’d have to sit down and calculate this, but it’s very possible that we spent as much time on the subway as we did in our actual accommodations. Sky was in heaven: To a 6 year old, the F or the Q or the 4 or the 7 aren’t just ways to get to and from the Lego store, the Staten Island Ferry, the Teacup Ride at Coney Island, the 100-year-old great-grandmother at the end of the line in Flushing, Queens. They’re destinations all by themselves.

Things happen in New York that don’t happen anywhere else. For example, you catch an uptown train at Whitehall Street and four guys who sound like they could be an award-winning doo-wop quartet break out into a rendition of “Shake, Rattle and Roll.” You go to Junior’s in Brooklyn on a Sunday morning, order a plate of silver dollars, look up and realize that Spike Lee and five of his closest friends are sitting three tables away from you.

Which is weird, because I was thinking about Spike Lee last week. Specifically, I was thinking about Señor Love Daddy, the local DJ from Lee’s 1989 masterpiece Do The Right Thing. (If you’re reading this post and have never seen Do The Right Thing, you are uneducated about one of just five movies in the history of American film to be chosen for preservation at the Library of Congress in its first year of eligibility.) I was thinking about Love Daddy’s parting question, which is really more like a challenge: “Are we gonna live together? Together, are we gonna live?” Sunday night, as I pass the grazing deer on country roads that wind back home, I realize it’s a question that could just as easily be asked of a semi-rural New England town as it was of Lee’s fictitious Bed-Stuy, engulfed in flames on a hot summer night.

I’m Lighter than You

It’s summer time, which means the little caramels in my life are turning into the sticky, summer versions of themselves. It means day camp in the morning and the water hose snaking down the driveway and deep into the yard. It means chasing chickens half-naked (as opposed to chasing chickens in bubble jackets). And it means a melanin boost that can only be described as delicious, and that I find myself wishing they could keep all year long — not only because it looks great, but because life on Maple Street feels just a little sweeter, a little less complicated, when I look more like my kids’ mommy and less like their nanny.

 

 

 

 

Generations pass. My grandmother on my father’s side lived in Haiti, where my parents were born and raised. As kids, we would go there to visit relatives and when we did, my grandmother would urge me to stay out of the sun. She understood well the laws of our colorstruck world: lighter is better. White is better than black; and among blacks, light has always been better than dark. What my grandmother wanted was to make sure I didn’t get any darker than I already was. Every day, thousands of black girls are born to mothers and grandmothers who want the same thing — to be something other than what they are.

Despite everything we’ve done to shield our kids from this scarring logic, it is seeping through. In the car a few days ago, Rose decided to pick on Sky with these words: “I’m lighter than you!” Upon hearing that, I could barely maintain my lane.  And then before I could even react: “No you’re not! I’m medium and you’re medium! We’re both the same!” I wish I could say that I have no idea how a 3-year-old could absorb colorism at such a young age, but the truth is I have a very good idea: She lives in the world.

Amazingly, there is a documentary film coming that will address this very legacy head on. The film is called Dark Girls, and it is a labor of love brought to us by the black film director Bill Duke. If the trailer is any indication, it’s going to be a searing mix of cultural history and personal revelation, of families passing down untold pain and girls going to bed with eyes squeezed shut  — hoping, praying that they might be lighter when those eyes open.

The sun was spectacular today. Let summer begin.

 

 

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