Monthly Archives: July 2013

What We (Don’t) Talk About When We (Don’t) Talk About Race

I don’t like to write about things that everyone else is already discussing.  The recent constant discussions of race, however, are mostly interesting in what they don’t say.  Unless that silence is broken, we are missing yet another opportunity to wrestle intelligently with this issue.

Race is a damned ticklish issue.  It is a cauldron of dehumanization, class conflict, fear, oppression, and mutual ghettoization.  It’s no surprise that otherwise-fearless thinkers stay away from this issue, since almost any statement is potentially inflammatory or, at the least, insensitive and wrong.

What we get instead are non-discussions of race.  We get knee-jerk outrage that racism still exists.  (Did that sad-sack neighborhood vigilante unfairly assume that every black teenager is a criminal?  Let’s put him on the pillory and congratulate ourselves that such medieval thinking exists only among a few rednecks living in dogtrot shacks, shall we?).  We get sanitized courthouse commentary — hell, we got an entire second-degree-murder trial — in which the issue of race is carefully avoided.  It is as if we fear that if we look too long at this issue, we’ll become pillars of salt, white and black.

An Internet meme recently buzzed past, in which an Episcopal bishop is credited with saying, “I want to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home to get him out of the rain that night.”  Jesus H. Tap-Dancing Christ On A Cross, Bishop.  Every person who has forwarded this meme down the line is basically looking down primly from a moral high ground at the unfortunate deluded few whose hearts, heavy with hatred, can be lightened only by the Rapture.  ’cause, we sure aren’t living in that world now; and, dreaming of The Rainbow Connection isn’t likely to get us there anytime soon.

So, what is it that we’re not talking about when we don’t talk about race?

Example One:  At the Florida trial, the victim’s friend Rachel Jeantel testified that the victim had told her that he was being followed by a “creepy-ass cracker.”  For a moment at least, the issue of racial distrust and fear was a part of the trial.  And then, the curtains closed.  The witness swore on cross-examination that there was nothing racial about the term “cracker.”  Partisans filled the yammering Internet with gotcha comments, arguing that the scales were now balanced because the dead kid had used the word “cracker” before he was shot through the heart.  It’s OK…EVERYBODY’S a racist!  No harm, no foul!

No one, it seems, wanted to discuss the uncomfortable significance of a black teenager feeling nervous about being followed by a “cracker.”  No one wanted to talk about the experience of a black kid as a sometimes resident of “The Retreat At Twin Lakes,” a formerly-all-white gated community where a rash of petty crime was being blamed on the few black residents.  This is Sanford, Florida, where in 1946 Jackie Robinson and his Dodgers farm team were confronted by Klan members, where the mayor ordered Robinson not to play, and where Robinson had to leave town in the middle of the night to avoid violence.  You bet it’s significant that the man following Trayvon Martin around the Retreat At Twin Lakes was a creepy cracker.  But, that’s something it seems we don’t care to talk about.

Example Two:  Two Washington Post columnists have become lightning rods in the past week, for writing about the fear and mistrust that middle-class whites might have when encountering young black men.  On July 15,  Richard Cohen’s column invited politicians to “own up to the painful complexity of the problem and acknowledge the widespread fear of crime committed by young black males,” whom he said are “understandably suspected” of being criminals because they are overwhelmingly the people who are arrested for committing crimes.  (Some years earlier, Cohen had defended D.C. jewelers who locked black window-shoppers out of their stores because, “especially in cities like Washington and New York, the menace comes from young black males. Both blacks and whites believe those young black males are the ones most likely to bop them over the head”).  The next day, columnist Kathleen Parker wrote that it is only “human nature” and “common sense,” not racism, to be wary of young black men if young black men have been committing crimes in your apartment complex.

These two columns have produced a shitstorm of malevolence.  Everyone, it seems, believes themselves to be too smart and pure of heart to give in to this sort of “human nature.”  Everyone, it seems, knows that what Cohen and Parker wrote is misanthropic racism.  And yet, if that were true, then the Bishop’s dreamy offer-a-ride-home world has already come.  The fact is, that world hasn’t come.  In the screwed-up real world, many white people cross the street nervously when they see a group of young black men.  They carry deep misgivings, stereotypes, and fears, which are so socially unacceptable that they are never aired and therefore are never dispelled.  It is truly the hate that dare not speak its name.

So, here’s the thing.  As long as our response to race is a glib “ebony and ivory together in perfect harmony”…as long as we choose to tell the tall tale that we live in a colorblind society rather than discuss the truth of racial fear and mistrust…as long as we rely on saccharine memes about George Zimmerman offering Trayvon Martin a Coke and a smile…then we will never have a meaningful discussion of race.  We certainly aren’t having one now.

 

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July 18, 2013 · 5:13 pm

My Old Man

Father’s Day is set appropriately in mid-June, that tail end of Spring lousy with baseball, beer, and boozy screen-porch sentimentality.  Everyone, it seemed, was jostling last month to deliver an encomium to his Dear Old Dad.  I, though, am a wallflower at that orgy.  I have nothing at all to say about the wonders of growing up with a Pop, or even about the sadness of losing one.  My father, y’see, chose to go 1500 miles away and to pretend that I don’t exist.

If you listen to Steve Goodman’s brilliant song “My Old Man” or read this week’s Richard Ford essay “The Song Of The Suburbs,” you’ll get the impression that growing up with a father produces a lifetime of stories.  Not true for me.  Because my dad left when I was seven, I have barely a cocktail-party anecdote.

I remember him mostly as a self-invented “character”:  A jocular, impenetrable, and always larger-than-life fellow who cultivated a drily-amused plummy voice, a jazz hipster wardrobe, and an inventory of scripted “bits” that spared him from any sort of authentic connection to other people.  I’m sure that women (and apparently there were several during his marriage to my mom) saw him as charming, dangerous within acceptable limits, and maddeningly aloof.  My impression is that he lived his life as though rules did not apply to him, which (as we know from “Mad Men”) can be irresistible.

There is no way that my parents’ marriage was ever going to last.  She married him for the exact reasons that he was not marriage material:  He was rakish, unpredictable, and spontaneous.  She was ostentatious, self-absorbed, and brittle.  Their marriage must have felt like the closing act of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (or Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, or hell, anything starring Elizabeth Taylor after National Velvet).  For as long as they could live the edgy life, taking daring cross-country drives chasing nonexistent jobs or mingling in the nightclub culture of Batista-era Miami Beach or working as a bandleader at the Borscht-Belt Catskills hotels, there was enough bubbly high octane in their marriage to keep it going.  But, by the time Fidel took power, they had two babies and a suburban apartment in New Jersey.  The party was over.  After a series of false starts, my old man left for good.

There is nothing remarkable about parents getting divorced.  The unusual part of this story is that my father left and never looked back.  He didn’t simply disappear, as fathers sometimes do.  He moved in with and married his girlfriend, left for Oklahoma and, for almost fifty years, has simply chosen not to acknowledge my existence.

I’ve always known my dad’s address and his telephone number, and he’s always known mine.   Perhaps five times in those fifty years, I’ve been in the Oklahoma area and have gone to visit him.  Every time, he’s been studiously polite and thoughtful, the way you’d be if a business associate came calling.  He takes me to dinner, introduces me to his wife’s family, gives me little gifts to take away with me.  And, every time, after he drops me at the airport and promises to stay in touch, he forgets that I ever existed.

I thought of my dad on the day George Carlin died, June 2008.  George’s  on-stage voice, with its carefully-cultivated tone of knowing bemusement (“Why is it that someone going slower than you is an idiot, but someone going faster than you is a maniac?”),  reminded me of my father’s way of talking.   So, after maybe five years of silence, I called him.  I told him my latest news, which produced no reaction at all.  I asked him about his life, which elicited one-word responses.  After a short and awkward call, we hung up and he promised to send me his email address.  He never did.  He has not contacted me in the five years since then.

My old man is 83 next month.  I don’t expect I’ll ever speak to him again.  So, what have I learned from a lifetime of fatherlessness?

It would be too easy to talk about how I never learned how to be a man because I never had a father.  I do suspect that boys watch their dads closely, and adopt or reject their fathers’ values and manner.  So, it’s true that I never watched my Dad avoid a brawl, or copied my Dad’s way of shaking hands, or had anyone to teach me how to tie a Windsor knot.  But, if that is the only effect of fatherlessness, it’s awfully easy to overcome.  We parentless kids know full well that we haven’t learned the ways of the world.  We become as intensely observant as someone who’s lost his sight or hearing.  And, we learn.  It’s not as though I’ve gone through life with my neckties untied.

No, the lasting effect of my fatherlessness is the same as the lasting effect of my motherlessness.  When a parent chooses not to be a parent (or is an alcoholic, or mentally ill), the only way that the child can hold his world together is to excuse the parent and blame himself.  To blame the parent means accepting that the parent can’t be relied on; that the child is completely on his own; and that all that is left is anger and despair.  I found it far easier to believe that my parents were blameless, and that they chose not to parent me because I was so unlovable as to be not worth parenting.

Over a half-century, I’ve learned how to shake hands and tie a Windsor knot.  I’ve mostly gotten over my lifelong conviction that I must be unworthy of love (and of the parentless kid’s constant sense of cluelessness in social situations).  But, most of all, after many decades, I’ve given up on contacting my old man and believing that I can convince him to be my parent.  And that is the most important Father’s Day gift of all.

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July 12, 2013 · 5:14 pm