Black Boy, 2013 (and now 2014)
One of my boys is reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy for his English class this coming semester.
One of my sons has already read the book, and in a couple of years my daughter will read it. They will see that it was published in 1945, closing in on seventy years ago. They will see how hard it was to be a black boy in the United States back in 1945.
I was never assigned Black Boy in school. As a matter of fact I cannot remember being assigned a single black writer until I took an African American Literature elective in college. I was raised in a place that was not only lily-white, but white with a red neck. Black people did not willingly venture up the Elk River.
In an autobiographical sketch, Wright speaks of the “dread of being caught alone upon the streets in white neighborhoods after the sun has set.” He says, “While white strangers may be in these neighborhoods trying to get home, they can pass unmolested. But the color of a Negro’s skin… makes him suspect, converts him into a defenseless target.”
That’s what it was like for a black boy back in 1945.
In 1955 a black boy named Emit Till from Chicago made the mistake of whistling at a pretty white woman in Mississippi. White men dragged him from his cousin’s house in the middle of the night, strung him up in a barn, beat him, and gouged out one of his eyes. He was defiant, cursed the white men who tortured him. So they shot him dead, tied a seventy-pound fan to his neck with barbed wire, and threw his carcass into the river.
That’s what it was like for a black boy in 1955.
In the early nineties I attended a conservative Evangelical school in Virginia. More Koreans—actually from South Korea—were present than African Americans. I became pretty good friends with two black students in particular. One was from Nigeria. The other was from here in the US. His name was Hiawatha.
I wanted to understand Hiawatha’s experience of the world, and he was happy to try and show me. He told me to watch how people reacted to him, and I did, hanging back so that the reactions wouldn’t be mitigated by his being with a white guy. Indeed people gave him nervous glances in convenience stores. The young white girls at school gave him wide nervous berth in the hallways. I was astonished. Hiawatha shrugged it off in weary resignation. He wasn’t suggesting activism; he just wanted me to know.
Hiawatha was appointed president of the graduate student body after the elected president was deemed unfit to serve (a whole different set of issues). A charismatic presence, Hiawatha was invited to speak all over the south. He was extended an offer to come on staff at the seminary after graduation.
We discussed it and he eventually said to me, “I don’t want to be their token black.”
I said, “What are you talking about? They love you over there.”
“Yeah?” he said. “Let me try to date one of their daughters.”
What would it be like to live your entire life with this? I don’t know. I think of the Langston Hughes poem “A Dream Deferred”:
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore–
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over–
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?
I cannot imagine it not exploding. Still, that’s what it was like in 1993 for an educated black man who spoke and dressed in ways that could not possibly give offense. Twenty years ago.
After the man who shot the black boy recently was acquitted, a young man named Matthew Simmermon-Gomes blogged with barely-suppressed outrage that he knew, “what it’s like to be a Trayvon Martin. To be suspect. I do know what it’s like to be followed by staff in a nice clothing store; to be stopped by police for walking down the street; to endure the thousand micro-aggressions and the hundred fearful looks.” In short, he knows “what it is to be a person of colour in a world that privileges whiteness.”
Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson (Roots drummer and Jimmy Fallon bandleader) blogged, “the overall message this whole Trayvon case has taught me: You ain’t shit. That’s the lesson I took from this case. You ain’t shit.”
That’s what it was like in 2013.
The majority of the people where I grew up, and a large percentage of my family and acquaintances from my past there, are vehement in their justification of the man who shot the black boy. They just as vehemently insist that it isn’t really about race. It is about their right to carry guns, to be free to protect themselves. In some mysterious way it is about being a good American.
I want to shout, I want to argue. I want to delete them. I know that there has been an ocean of ink spilled on this already, and many people are sick of it. But I can’t get rid of this sick feeling in my heart every time I see something else about the case. I feel like I need to speak about it to those people who come from the same white place I did; then I think I know the one thing I can confidently say to them.
In his post, Mr. Simmermon-Gomes said that what he wanted white people to understand is that, “This is not about you.”
He is right.
What I have to say is just this: Shut up. Black boys are trying to tell you something, have been for a very long time. Shut up and listen.
Here we are in 2014 and another boy is dead. Another black boy, that is.
In both cases, “the real crime was a violation of a social norm that black people should always defer and be submissive to white people. If we do not do so we are guilty of being ‘arrogant’ or ‘uppity’. The White Gaze views black people as social lessors. When we say ‘no’, stand up for ourselves, or demand the same manhood and citizenship rights as white folks, this is an act of defiance, defiance that must be countered–with force–if necessary.”
CHAUNCEY DEVEGA “‘Lines Were Crossed’: White Racial Logic and the Michael Dunn Jury” (www.chaunceydevega.com)
While My Pen Gently Weeps
My daughter Gracie was helping me prepare dinner one evening. We were doing the boeuf bourguignonne from Virginia Willis’s amazing cook book Bon Appetit, Y’all, which puts a southern spin on every recipe—this one, by adding bacon.
As Gracie stood on her cooking stool and crisped the bacon at the stovetop, the aroma filled the kitchen and mixed with the onions I was cutting at the counter. She talked over the bacon’s hiss and sizzle about being a chef someday, quitting cross country, girls at school she liked and didn’t like, boys.
I drifted as she chattered, but snapped back to attention when she said, “And if you’re going to be a writer—”
“I am a writer,” I cut in. I wasn’t sure how we’d come to this.
Without a pause, she said, “You know what I mean: a writer everybody knows. Like Dr. Seuss.”
My first thought was of an interview I once saw Tom Petty do in which he said, even with all his accomplishments—including induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—his own kids were utterly unimpressed until he finally got a guest spot on The Simpsons.
Jesus said a prophet gets no respect in his own hometown; likewise, a parent’s accomplishments go largely without notice at home.
My second thought was of Joseph Grand, the hapless novelist in Albert Camus’ The Plague. I’ve always loved poor Joseph Grand. He’s a government worker when the plague strikes Oran, and he steps in to labor alongside Dr. Rieux combating the disease.
Every night he goes home and he writes. What does he write? What could he possibly find worth writing when death and disease wreak constant havoc all around him?
Eventually we get to see what he is working on so diligently: a single opening sentence to a story, one sentence that he revises and rewrites obsessively, “Evenings,” he says, “whole weeks, spent on one single word…Sometimes on a mere conjunction!” And why does he work so hard to perfect the sentence? So that someday his publisher will read it, stand up and say to his staff, “Gentlemen, hats off!”
We writers are—I suspect it’s true for artists in general, even the very successful ones—an insecure bunch. We need recognition. Not from our sisters and best friends, who will always say something like, “This is amazing. You should publish it.” We want recognition from those in the business whose approval we think will serve as a kind of validation.
Camus’ narrator calls Grand the “insignificant and obscure hero” of the novel. Why? He has, “a little goodness of heart and a seemingly absurd ideal.” What is that ideal? What is it Joseph Grand, the lonely creative artist, stands for?
It is simply the belief that there is goodness and beauty in the world, even under plague conditions. There is meaning beyond the suffering, and art is the path to it.
I believe that. What keeps me coming down to my basement cave at five every morning to get in my couple hours of writing before the kids and dogs strike up the morning noise, is the thought that I could someday create something that lasts, something that when I’m long gone will remain in the midst of other woe.
Still, I have my doubts. My wife works with the local neighborhood development foundation, helping the poorest of the poor. Last weekend she introduced me to another lady she works closely with, a bulldog lawyer who aims her considerable brains and energy entirely at fighting for the weak and disenfranchised.
Me? I write fiction. I spend my best energy every morning telling stories, with no clue who might ever read them.
I think now of George Harrison’s lines, “I look at the floor and I see it needs sweeping. Still my guitar gently weeps,” and I know the feeling. The art must be made, and it is important.
Yet the doubt remains. What if the lines go, “I look at the children and see they need feeding,” and my guitar keeps gently weeping then? What does that say about me?
Joseph Grand worked tirelessly on his one sentence. He stood for the seemingly absurd ideal that the perfect sentence had value, even in a world ravaged by plague; but Joseph Grand also spent his days in the trenches battling sickness and suffering.
I pour myself into my writing. I leave for work already tired, with this persistent fear gnawing at the back of my brain that it isn’t good enough.
I think what serious artists want is not so much to be famous—like Dr. Seuss, as Gracie said—but to be assured that what we are giving our lives to is worth something in the end.
The doubt will always be there, but a little recognition gives, for ever so brief a moment, a glimmering reminder that there is value to this work of art-making—not relative value alongside other, more useful tasks, but value in itself.
It is more than enough.
originally posted at “Good Letters” Wednesday April 18, 2012
Some thoughts on Dostoevsky’s Idiot Prince Myshkin.
Eternity in Our Hearts
He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
I watched a video on The Big Think website a few months ago about the center of the universe. According to the video there are two universes: one is the actual universe, which is infinite; the other is the observable universe, which exists in proportion to its observer. No one can say where the center of the actual universe is, or even if there is one. As for the observable universe, each observer stands in the center of her own.
When astronomy shattered the Earth-centered model of the universe, it came as a big shock. We aren’t the center? How can that be, if we’re the crown jewels of creation? What does that say about our place in the cosmos? It came as a further shock to realize that our sun was not the center of the universe either.
The more we gazed into space, the more astounded and disoriented we became as we realized how vast it is. We call it infinite; as far as we’re concerned it is.
Infinity is limitless space, time, or quantity; eternity on the other hand refers only to limitless time. When you blow away all limits though, it doesn’t matter anymore whether you’re talking about space, time, or quantity. I cannot think of boundless space outside of imagining how long you would travel trying to reach its edge. I cannot think of endless time without thinking of it happening somewhere.
Here’s an explanation of eternity I heard many years ago in Sunday school, and included in one of my stories called “Hush Little Baby”:
A bird lives on the moon. Every one thousand years this bird comes down to earth and pecks one sand grain from a rock the size of the Empire State Building. It gets one tiny grain and flies with it back to the moon. One thousand years later, it comes and gets another grain. And so on plucking one grain every thousand years. After that bird has moved the whole massive rock and rendered it a pile of sand on the moon, the time spent would still not be equal to one second of eternity.
Terms of time lose all meaning. So do terms of space. The bird could move a rock the size of the earth grain by grain and it would still not be long enough to register as a second of eternity.
Within this universe are numberless galaxies, and within those galaxies are myriad solar systems, countless stars. I once heard an NPR piece about the star Betelgeuse in the Orion constellation. It isn’t the biggest star out there, but for perspective, if Betelgeuse were nine feet in diameter, another star by comparison would be the size of a BB.
That star so dwarfed by Betelgeuse is our sun. The sun that could, according to Jonathan Keohane and Jim Lochner at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, hold the Earth inside it 1,000,000 times over. And on our Earth, humanity covers, by most estimations, between one and three percent of its surface—a humanity of which we each constitute roughly one in seven billion.
We are infinitesimally small by astronomical standards, small as a single-celled parasite in a mosquito’s intestine, smaller even. We are not large enough to be called a quark in the universe; likewise, we do not exist long enough to be called a blip in the light years of time it takes to get around in space. What we know is miniscule; our observable universe is a small briny bubble in a vast dark sea.
But wait. This might be the most astonishing thing of all: We have eternity in our hearts. The word translated as eternity in Ecclesiastes is cosmos, or the entire universe. All of creation is in our hearts? What can that even mean? We cannot fathom it, cannot get our heads around it.
Russell Edson calls our heads “teetering bulbs of dread and desire.” The dread and desire are born from sensing the cosmos in our hearts, knowing this raging desire for the eternal, and also knowing all too well that our end is rushing toward us.
Miguel de Unamuno calls this realization the “tragic sense of life.” We long for immortality, to exist in eternity, and yet we gaze out at a universe that takes no notice of our tiny existence, and will take no more notice when we disappear from it.
Is it not tragic to think that we carry this raging desire for the eternal inside us only to drag it with us into nonexistence? And don’t we know it in our hearts? We fight to survive, we strive, we love our children, we want our lives not just to be, but to be about something. We dream of heaven, of life after this short earthly existence.
Tiny specks that we are, we are here and we are looking out—the condition of knowing, the act of observing, puts us each smack in the center of our own observable universe. That is no small thing. We cannot see far with our eyes for sure.
Our hearts however, our hearts’ desires go to the farthest reaches of the infinite universe, and from there burst on through into eternity.
Originally posted at “Good Letters,” August 21, 2013
My latest blog post at “Good Letters.”