Race, Step One

Step One

Admitted we were powerless over X and that our lives had become unmanageable.

(what did I mean by using “X”, there?)

I’m a liberal. I mean REALLY a liberal. A Wellstone liberal. All the more reason I think it’s important I admit something. Because if you don’t hear about it from me, you might hear about it from the conservatives. Because if I don’t admit it and talk about the truth, the other side might. Or people who feel like me might assume they must really be conservatives and then vote that way by mistake.

I’m a racist. And I need your help. There are situations where I really, really don’t know what is right. But I know pretending race isn’t the issue isn’t a good option.

I have to think about race every single day. I think lots of white folks do. I know lots of black folks do. And for right now I’m only going to discuss black and white, for simplicity’s sake (as opposed to discussing zebras, which combine black and white in a sophisticated, attractive stripey pattern). But I can only speak for the white folks. Actually I can only speak for me. There. Settled on that? I am speaking for myself (my white self, because as usual, my black self is having to play second fiddle) today. Right now. But secretly, I’m hoping I’m not alone.

And right now I am a racist in a one-day-at-a-time recovery program. I’m working on it. But I have found that the first step in my recovery makes a lot of people really uncomfortable. I am admitting I am powerless over the issue of race and that my life has become unmanageable. I am a racist. People keep telling me I’m not and stop saying it. But they’re not inside my head.

When I lived a mile and half south of here, I could go days without seeing a black person walking around in my neighborhood. There was one Mexican couple next door, but no black people (and the relationship between the blacks and the Latinos will just have to wait for another day, but Dios Mio! They have some dysfunction to deal with, too). Now in my newly adopted neighborhood which I love and never want to leave, I have to think about my problem on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

Here are some of the situations that have led me to conclude that I have no control of my thoughts and ideas about race, and that I need to start to work on it. Better yet, let me just share with you what being a racist means to me. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like black people. It certainly doesn’t mean I am cruel to them or would deny them housing or a job. I don’t find them inferior to me in any way. But I do find them terribly and distractingly…black.

Being a racist means that when I am around black people, it takes a really long time for me to get to a place where there isn’t a monologue in my head about the fact that they are black. Maybe this is an obsessive compulsive behavior, which I have a slight tendency towards, but that’s another story. Here’s what goes on in my head when my teller in the bank is a young black man.

A nice looking young guy, dressed like a bank teller, but not too slick (did I say that just because he’s black?). Just a guy. Who is black. Keep in mind that I am carrying on the niceties of banking while my mind is causing all this static.

“Oh good I get the black guy he looks nice black black black ooh look how his undershirt shows through against his black skin with that white dress shirt maybe black guys really need brown undershirts he is black I am white should I tell him I am sorry because I am and he is still black I wonder if he will get to go to college maybe he’s in college he’s black I’m white you’re black buddy you do nice bank tellering but does it annoy you all this static when white people talk to you are you having the same kind of stuff in your head about me being white? I don’t mind that you’re black. I notice but I like you do you hate me? I won’t yell at you or call you boy…. “Thanks, you too.”

Maybe I have the same kinds of monologue about large breasted women at the grocery store and I just don’t notice it or feel bad about it. I’ll have to pay attention to that.

Wow fabulous and cavernous cleavage I think that bra could be a cup size bigger and we’d both be more comfortable with it I am not staring at your breasts but they are impressive and thanks for sharing them with me… “Can I borrow your pen?”

I have a rental property. All my tenants have been black. It seems almost racist for me to have noticed, doesn’t it? But I did. And seriously racist to have participated in the white-landlord-black-sharecropper-or-renter legacy of our country, don’t you think? Who cares that I thought I was participating in rebuilding a neighborhood torn apart by the systemic racism that killed Rondo (a St. Paul black neighborhood that was gutted by the construction of I94). I thought I could to help. Like a whole cadre of paternalistic white liberals before me (sorry).

The neighborhood is largely black. Not African (they live closer to University Avenue). My tenants have been black. All of my applicants (save one who was African, and one mixed race couple) have been black. Not all the people who have expressed interest have been black. Not all the people who have visited the house have been black. Only the people who were interested, saw the house and the neighbors and still returned my calls. Got it?

So I am admitting today that I am powerless over race (and breasts). Can’t get over it, can’t go under it, must go through it.

Victoria

The Jehovah’s Witnesses probably saved her life, if not her everlasting soul. If she hadn’t answered the door, covered in blood, who knows how things would have turned out. There seemed to be some concern for her safety even once she was in the hospital because they had armed guards outside her room.

I had some warning from her dad and his girlfriend that she’d be coming around. Otherwise she would probably have seemed like just another mouthy kid with too much attitude. If they hadn’t warned me that she was leaving the hospital with scars from hundreds of stitches, I would have had pause, I guess. And I’m sure I wouldn’t have believed her rehearsed answer, “I was in a bicycle accident and I don’t want to talk about it.”

Her dad’s girlfriend wanted to be sure I didn’t coddle her or expect her to be the little survivor the newspapers made her out to be.

She was still just a kid, “And Lisa, that child is trouble. Believe me, I know how she is. Even after what she been through. Don’t let her make you feel sorry for her. She got to live in this world.”

Well, the newspaper accounts didn’t exactly paint her as a sweet little victim child either. I read between the lines even before I knew she’d be living down the street. The nurses talked about her, “fighting spirit, feisty and stubborn nature, even after all she’d been through.” We went and bought flowers for her and sent themwith her dad to her hospital room.

She played with the other kids on the block, but not quite with them. My front yard with the two big, fat rope swings hanging from the maple tree always had a magnetic quality. There were actual playgrounds less than a block away in two directions, but the tree swings and the porch made my house kid-central. That and the Band-Aids and water and occasional snacks. But no way would you mistake her for just another kid.

Neither did the kids. They knew bullshit when they heard it. Maybe some of them knew the real story, maybe they didn’t. But from my perch on the steps I heard enough of them muttering about how those marks “weren’t from no bike accident, no way.” Or how the scars on her scalp, looked like when their cousin had the ringworm. They weren’t gentle with her, whatever they knew. The collective wisdom of children has no mercy on the traumatized.

And she could take it. Her attitude was almost never one of victim. What it seemed like, and how they treated her was like she thought she was better than them. It didn’t make her any friends. And her superiority didn’t keep her from starting to cry when it was her turn to get off the good swing. She was way to old too cry about that, and it wasn’t a sad cry. It was an angry kind of crying that made her turn her back on everyone until it was over.

She was difficult. But I knew the story, and no matter what anyone said, I cut her slack. I hugged her, admired her new hairdos and let her come and sit next to me on the steps which she liked to do as much as anything else. For God’s sake, she saw her mother stabbed to death and now she had to live with her dad in a rented room. Of course I felt sorry for her. This girlfriend of her dad’s was unable to see past her own inconvenience to open her heart to the child. You bet your ass I coddled her. Most of the time.

Compromise was not part of her repertoire. It frustrated me, and I had to hold the line on her a couple of times. That made her mad. Sometimes she stormed home to her dad’s house. But she always came back.

For all her injuries, by some miracle (probably by the miracle of self defense) most of the stab wounds were on her scalp and her arms, almost none on her face. She was still a beautiful child. And her mom loved her, but didn’t live long enough to save her life. What saved her life was being stubborn, playing dead and either luck or divine intervention.

Whaddya Think?

I have an oportunity to submit some writing to a very small and not too prestigious writing contest. It is sponsored by the Brainerd Writers Alliance. It seems to me that organization should have an apostrophe in it, but who am I to judge? They’re in charge.

I know the stories that move me the most, but I’d like some direction from other people who live outside my head. Could you help me out?

The categories are Short fiction, creative nonfiction/memoir, essay and poetry. I think I have some of each of those. If you were me, or you were (god forbid) the boss of me, what would you do? Which story should I send along for those people in Baxter MN to read and decide if I deserve the very small cash prize?

I know this means you might have to peruse back a while, but if you have the time, and you would, I’d be very grateful. Also feel free to add any spit and pollish directions for me.
Thanks!

Little Girl (the rest of the story)

Preface:

Read this, what I have so far. Tell me if it’s interesting enough that you want to know the rest:

Berneeta and John Henry. By the time I knew them, they were old. I remember them coming over for Thanksgiving dinners, her doting on him and him towering over her, even as hunched as he was. I once asked my dad, in all seriousness, “Why do you think Granny and Grampy don’t fight?”. This wasn’t a commentary on my mom and dad’s relationship, it was genuine puzzlement. And to be fair, they did bicker, I remember hearing tell of it, but I never saw it. Kids see different things.

My dad sighed. At the time it seemed like he was bored with my chatter. “Well I suppose they’re both old enough to know it doesn’t do any good.”

Much of what I know about my Grampy Dunn is based on the various artworks we inherited. As far as I can tell, he had impeccable taste which I inherited. Grampy loved little glass blobs, he loved chandelier pendants, loved anything in gilt. His sculptures and paintings are something you’d have to see to believe. The one I remember best, which I think was tragically lost at some point, was a picture of either the UnitedStates with glass blobs in key cities, or it might have been a tooth, roots and all, with glass blobs for accent, or to represent cavities. It depended on which way you hung it, portrait or landscape style.

I know very, very little about Granny Dunn. All that survives to me is her pronunciation of the word Fabulous, which was “fab-a-liss”. I know my Grampy called her Little Girl until the day she died. Legend has it that she treated John Henry’s skin lesions (cancer) for years with witch hazel.

They lived in Edina across the street from a park, in a place where horses still sometimes came trotting up the streets. It was quiet, just the kind of place Great-grandparents should live. They drove a Lincoln or a Cadillac, or some other kind of boat of a car.

My aunt Martha used to go over once or twice a week. She picked up groceries and drove them to doctor appointments. She listened to Berneeta complain about John Henry and to John Henry tell the same stories over and over. She checked the supply of pink-perfumed toilet paper and witch hazel, noting what needed re-stocking.

As an aside, there’s your evolutionary advantage for spinster aunts, lesbians, bachelor uncles and gay men in the family. They’re the ones who take care of the elderly and the sick while their procreative-sex-crazed, child-saddled counterparts are busy making and rearing children. If not for them, the pull between caring for one’s parents or one’s kids might tip towards the elderly, leaving the children unmade, unfed and generally neglected. (Oops, did I digress again?)

Well Martha went over to do her Christian work of mercy and she couldn’t get them to answer the door. Her stomach sank. This was bad. Because the only time Granny and Grampy went anywhere it was because Martha took them. She did a quick mental calculation. Nope, she hadn’t taken them anywhere. She went to the window to their bedroom and peeked in.

What she could see didn’t make her feel better. She could only see part of granny’s leg on the bed. That leg didn’t move, even when she knocked on the window. But something in that room moved, just a little.

 

What she could see didn’t make her feel better. She saw granny’s leg on the bed. Even when she knocked on the window that leg didn’t move. But something in that room moved, just a little.

THE REST

After panicking, pacing, knocking and fretting, she went to a neighbor’s house and called the police who came and helped her break in. The house was dark and quiet. You know when someone has been sleeping all night and half the day in a room with the door closed, the smell? Kind of sweet, funky and icky old air smelling? The whole house smelled like that. It made Martha gaggy.

In their plushly carpeted, sheerly curtained bedroom it smelled worse. The sweet sleepy breath smell met up with a sick ammonia smell and something else. The cop called for paramedics as soon as he hit the door. He had done this before.

Martha could hear grampy whimpering and mumbling. “Grampy? Granny? It’s Martha.” It took everything she had to approach the bed, because it was becoming clear that Granny was dead. She had been dead for a while, more than a day.

“Oh Martha! I was sleeping and having the most terrible dream. I seem to be a mess here, but I just couldn’t get up and I kept having this dream. I was with a little girl…Oh the poor thing. She fell into the water, the little girl. She fell into the water and she was so cold. I was holding onto her, but I just couldn’t warm her up. She was so cold, and I couldn’t get her warm.”

He was delirious and dehydrated, laying next to his dead wife. She had been dead more than a day and he was unable to get out of bed. Granny had always been in charge of making sure he got up and going.

He went into the hospital where he lived only about a week. My aunt Berneeta came into town from Louisiana to be here for Grampy and the rest of the family. My mom’s family was always too hard on Berneeta. I think because she was always just a little too earnest, trying too hard. The harder she tried, the more people laughed at her. With slightly knocked knees and a voice that carried like a tropical bird, she was an easy mark. She was also serious and awkward, which in my family is just begging for trouble. On top of it all, she had a child who died, which I think made the family want to treat her as ‘other’. They would probably never admit that, but I think it might be true.

Berneeta (the younger) sat with Grampy in the hospital while he died. Family lore has it that she put lotions on his hands and massaged them while speaking quietly to him. Sometimes she wasn’t so quiet, she got worked up about being there for Grampy. It was during those times she could be heard down the hospital hall, telling Grampy, while massaging his hands with lotion, “I’m right here Grampy… Grampy, I’m here to help you over to the other side. I’m here with you. Berneeta’s here, Grampy, I’ll help you over.”

To this day, people in my family snicker about massaging people’s hands and helping them over to the other side. And when my mom was dying, my brother said to her, “Mom, I can make you one promise. If Berneeta shows up, I’m not gonna let her fucking touch you. She will not be helping you over to the other side as long as I’m around.” It made the corners of my mom’s mouth turn up, which was all we wanted out of a day with her.

The problem is, that when Berneeta showed up, Patrick started to get belligerent with her and everyone in the family. He said my mom didn’t want her around and he was going to keep his promise. He said my mom didn’t want Bern to remember her as a sick person. But Berneeta just wanted to hug her sister once more before she died. Eventually we all pulled rank on Patrick, but it wasn’t easy. Because he was deadly serious about it. It wasn’t a family joke anymore.

Hockey

There’s this guy I know. He’s a decent guy, for real. Not a Chauvinist, not a pig, just a nice guy. But we had this conversation the a while back that got under my skin.

He was involved in some peripheral and not-high-cool-factor way with the Olympics. He told me, “You wanna know the number one thing people want to see on the Olympics website? The slide show of the US women’s hockey team members. And numbers two, three and four are other pictures of women athletes.” I guess these other ones are sort of racy pictures, maybe even light porn. You know, accidental nipple and crotch shots and that kind of thing.

When I heard about the hockey team, I thought that was pretty cool. I don’t really do sports, but even I have a soft spot for women’s hockey. Of course people wanted to see them. My guy went on to say it just really struck him how much Sex is what sells. I bit just a little at the suggestion that the hockey women and the porno shots were the same thing. I hadn’t seen them, but I just didn’t buy the idea that people were getting their thrills by looking at the US women’s hockey team.

He said, “Well, you have to see the pictures. Some of them are in V-neck sweaters, sitting on fences, some are even taken in what looks like a women’s bathroom with a red light in the background.” V-neck sweaters! Ooooh, how erotic. Sitting on fences? Oh my goodness.

Now I hadn’t see the pics, so I couldn’t argue too forcibly. Maybe these chicks were sell-outs sleazing for the camera. Later in the day, he’s sitting with his computer and when I approach, he turns it my way, “Here’s the pictures.”

Two things I want you to keep in mind right now, maybe three. One, this is at least the second time this guy has looked at these pictures in one day. Two, he hadn’t gone looking for the pictures to show me. I just happened by. Thirdly, the pictures were really not that interesting to me. Normal, healthy young women. Some in street clothes, some in their hockey gear. Some clearly had breasts and hips. All could easily take my dear friend in a bar fight.

But one of two things seemed to me to be happening. Either these pictures were doing something sort of exciting for this guy and a lot of other guys. Because here he was looking at them AGAIN. And because when he described the hits on the website, he lumped them together with the accidental porno shots. Or it didn’t occur to him that people could possibly be interested in women’s hockey and the players for non-sexual reasons.

Maybe women who can kick your ass are secretly very exciting to men all over the world. Maybe it’s just curiosity about what kind of woman plays hockey (which only explains one hit per person). Maybe the hits are women, who are more interested in the actual people who are playing the sport than other kinds of fans.

I wonder what’s going on here? With this good guy and all the other guys out there hitting on the same pictures. It isn’t disappointing or surprising, just curious. I’m interested to know if it’s me, or if this really something I need him to think harder about (though I know for damn sure, he doesn’t need to do anymore research into the subject).

The Latest

Please, Anonymous and everyone else, please comment on anything here, content or style, punctuation (I need more KINDS of punctuation in my language) or my lack thereof, stories you wish to hear about, stories you want to know more about, stories you are waiting in fear and dread that I am going to write about YOU. I’m in need of the inspiration to bounce off of. Writing is the easy part, it’s the thinking and starting that’s the hard part.

I try hard to walk the line of between love and hate and tell enough truth that you can see why I usually end up loving so many people so hard. So I hope people don’t really fear that I will write about them. I haven’t really trashed anyone in the blog, have I?

We have in-laws coming this weekend, so I’ve been preparing my house for the onslaught. I should just call all of them and tell them to pack some rags, a mop and some antihistamine and hope for the best. Just where the hell should all this stuff go? Oh my god, I’m overwhelmed. But I’ll muddle through.

Un beso.

lisa