When I tell people that, for six years in the eighties, I taught psychology at an historically black college near Jackson, Mississippi, they often say, “So you got to feel what it’s like to be a minority?”
As one of the few white teachers at Tougaloo College, I did feel “different”, always aware, if only slightly, of the contrast between my skin and the skin of my students and colleagues. I was mostly accepted, but something of an outsider. “I suppose I did get to feel that,” I’ve answered.
Recently, though, I remembered something that makes me question my response.
One stifling hot September day, at lunchtime, I was driving the blacktop road that exited the college grounds. My air conditioner was on High, battling the breath-sucking heat. The road was lined with elm trees, Spanish moss streaming from them like long grey beards. The radio was on. Aretha Franklin.
I was almost to the main road, where I’d turn and head to town, when, with a loud Crr—rack!!, my driver’s side window shattered. Glass flew all over me and the dashboard and the seats. I was stunned. My head prickled in a hundred hot places. A rock? A gunshot? But I saw nothing in or around the car to support that. I tried to breathe for a minute, then turned and drove back to campus.
Shaky and teary, I climbed the stairs in Magruder Hall. At the top, I saw Angie, the tall, thirtiesh Social Sciences Secretary. “What in the world?” she said. She listened, shaking her head, while I told her what had happened.
She walked me to the campus clinic where the nurse picked glass from my head with tweezers. Dr. Mehti, a middle aged East Indian man, squinted at me, and, with his precise English, said, “I saw this happen a month ago to a young man driving on the highway. The outside heat collides with the inside cool and the shattering is intense.”
“Ah,” I said. I saw Angie’s eyes close, just for a moment.
We returned to Magruder, and when we reached the front door, Angie stopped. Her face was troubled.
“Oh, Carol,” she said, “I’m so glad I wasn’t with you in that car. I’da thought it was somebody shooting–somebody who didn’t want black people and white people riding in the car together.”
I was too dazed to do much but nod. But, reflecting on it now, though I’d briefly thought “rock” and “gunshot”, I had not, for a second, thought my shattered window had anything to do with race. But that was the first thing that came to Angie’s mind.
Because she was black. She was a minority. And I, I see now, was not. I was a privileged, white teacher with only a sterile, intellectualized idea of what it was like to be black and afraid in the racist South. I didn’t know jack.
I still don’t. But as I watch and listen to and read about how minorities see the world, my view of myself as a good little liberal with a clue is being shattered, albeit less dramatically than my window that day in the car. It’s time to wake up. Past time, really.
LET US BE TRUE
I used to wonder, reading a novel about Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia, how oppressed and threatened people managed to carry on in a constant state of fear. When I saw them going through “normal” motions, I’d feel wary, off kilter, as if evil were about to burst through the drapes into rooms where people drank tea and knitted scarves and quarreled over petty things and laughed at silly ones. Did those people have some way of turning off the fear? Or were they just braver than I?
Recently, during our annual “Revelry on the River” reunion, I watched our family avoid talking about our country’s perilous state. We did gasp an occasional, “Oh My God!” when newsfeeds on our phones offered us another atrocity. The gasper would then say, “Sorry. Sorry. Not going there. Not now.”
We had a new baby here, with the most infectious smile, and a newly married couple, still glowing. The children hung out in the treehouse and concocted secret missions on their walkie talkies. Their parents worked jigsaw puzzles, made rhubarb pies. We watched The Red Turtle with the kids and Carnivale without them. The old folks (That would be me) loved seeing everyone so happy.
At dinner on the deck one night, we slipped up and fell into politics. Michelle, our forty something niece and the new baby’s mama said, “I feel so helpless. Like nothing I do makes any difference.”
I heard myself say, “But we’re making a difference now. By being here for each other. By not letting Trump and his puppet masters destroy us. By not letting them steal our souls.”
Our niece looked doubtful. I didn’t blame her. I’d surprised myself, and I had to look deeper to see if I really believed what I’d said.
I do. I’m not being a Pollyanna. I’ll keep making phone calls to Congress. I’ll continue to resist this regime. But I won’t spend time obsessing anymore, and I won’t use my energy to despair, because I have loved ones to hold close and nurture.
Last week, our thirteen year old granddaughter, Sophie, holding the sign, “I support LBGT+”, marched with Ed and me and the Snoqualmie Valley Indivisibles in our small town parade. Near the front of the parade, staff from a local healing center carried a long, funny-looking thing made of yellow foam blocks. When Sophie and I walked closer, we saw that the blocks were vertebrae and the strange looking thing a spine, the individual pieces forming a backbone that snaked through the North Bend streets.
That’s us, I thought. A collective spine keeping us upright, moving us forward.
I picture that spine now when I feel afraid, and I believe I know how those fictional characters coped. They refused to let evil keep them from enjoying each other’s company. They refused to let fear steal their souls, and thus their connection. They were there for each other.
“Ah, Love, Let us be true to one another,” Ed often quotes me from Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”
Yes, let us.
LET FREEDOM RING
I don’t know exactly when I began flinching at the sight of an American flag. I know it’s been since last November’s election, as I’ve watched civil rights crushed and truth trampled and our beloved national landmarks turned into private assets. I know these wrongs have dealt me an internal seismic shift, leaving me off balance, angsty, scared. And I know that for some time now, when I glimpse a flag, I automatically assume it belongs to a family or business group of Trump supporters, and I check to see if there’s a billboard close by, blaring “Lock Her Up!”. I know I’m painting a complex landscape with a ridiculously broad brush, but that doesn’t stop me from flinching and then feeling bad about it.
Not that the flag has ever particularly moved me. I saluted it at school, by holding my hand over my heart as I sang, “From every mountainside, let freedom ring!” But the words were mostly words, the song a rote recitation. As an able bodied person with white skin and an advanced education, I’ve grown up with so much freedom I’ve seldom questioned it.
So, when the Fourth of July happens, rather than celebrate my country’s freedom, I usually overeat at a barbecue and complain about the ear-splitting fireworks that boom three days early here in the Valley, and the flag is just a piece of the holiday scenery.
Last January, sick of being alternately depressed or enraged at the latest political blow, I helped organize a celebration for Martin Luther King’s birthday at our local Methodist Church. After I’d recruited Washington’s poet laureate and two fine activists for Seattle’s homeless population as speakers, I got anxious that too few people would come, and I went into high gear, spreading the word.
I needn’t have worried. Folks told me they were no longer shell-shocked and were hungry to be with like minded people, to find comfort and direction. The day of the event, I watched those people throng into that church till they filled it to overflowing. I watched them as they listened to the speakers, their faces hopeful, yearning. And, after the choir sang “Precious Lord, Take my Hand,” Dr. King’s requested song at his funeral, I stood with the people as we closed with “My country, ’tis of thee. Sweet land of liberty. Of thee I sing.”
I saw the American flag standing in the sanctuary, bold with red and white stripes, stars spangling the dark blue square. I saw the people, singing from their hearts. And though I don’t think a national flag belongs in any church, I felt the magnitude of what that flag symbolizes, and I shifted again, to fierce pride for the rights our people have fought for, and to the preciousness of those rights as we ended with a rousing “From every mountainside, Let freedom ring!” Yes, I thought. Please.
So, this year on Fourth of July, I whined about the stunningly loud fireworks, and I ate too much at a barbecue. But I also made a sizeable donation to the civil rights warriors at the ACLU. And I went outside and stuck an American flag, one Ed bought at Ace Hardware, in the ground right in front of our mailbox, bold as could be. I claimed it. Because it means let freedom ring. And because it’s mine now. Mine.
Dogwoods are blooming among the cedars and alders and cottonwoods across our river. Rhodys sport clusters big as cabbages. Buds on our rosebushes are fat, about to pop. They’re doing their June thing, the one I celebrated in seventh grade Choral Music class. They’re bustin’ out all over.
We twelve years olds were bustin’ out ourselves, budding breasts, hair sprouting in new places, voices that cracked– June is bustin out all over! All over the meadow and the hill! School bored me, but bustin’ out some songs was all fine.
It was fine with me too, that year, to “join the church”, as expected before turning thirteen in our Southern Baptist congregation. The choir crooned Softly and tenderly, Jesus is calling, their voices as tender and soft as the beige mouton jacket I wore as I slipped from my pew and walked, anxious but determined, down to the aisle to the preacher who clasped my hands and said, “Welcome, Welcome.”
My baptism was scheduled for Wednesday night two weeks later. Four of us recent dedicators, we were told, would wade into thigh-deep water, where the preacher would lean us back, immersing our faces. Daddy said he’d take Mama and me out for a lobster dinner afterwards. I loved lobster more than dill pickle juice poured over crushed ice, which was a whole, whole lot.
When it was time to leave for church on Wednesday evening, Daddy swilled from his murky glass of bourbon and squinted at me. “Where’s your bathing cap?”
“What? I’m not wearing one.” I hated bathing caps and put up with chlorine green hair every summer. And I blushed to think about wearing one of the ugly things in front of God and the church and everybody.
I glimpsed the beginning of a purple flush on Daddy’s face. “Yes,” he said. “You will wear a bathing cap.”
“Because we’re going out to dinner after. Because I said so.”
“But I don’t want to. I’ll pull my hair back in a pony tail.”
He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “I didn’t say ‘pony tail’. I said ‘bathing cap’.”
“But— It’s my hair.”
“And it’s my dinner offer,” Daddy said, that look on his face, the haughty drunk one I hated. “What’ll it be, Queenie?”
I couldn’t believe this. I loved lobster more than Dr. Pepper. And I loved Daddy’s approval. When he was happy, he could be funny, in a teasing-sweet way.
He tossed back the rest of his drink. “You’re hard headed, you know it? Now. You wearing that cap and we gone eat lobster?”
I took a breath. Another. I heard my voice, a little low, but clear. “Nope. No bathing cap.”
Daddy’s eyebrows arched. His mouth pursed. He shrugged. “Allrightee then. Your loss.”
An hour later, I got baptized. The preacher seemed solemn, the picture behind the baptismal font surreal with a crystal blue sky and clouds pink as cotton candy and the whitest robe draping a glowing Jesus. My immersion lasted only a few seconds, and what I most remember is warm, soft water on my free flowing hair. “In the name of the Father…”
Afterwards, I sat at my kitchen table, my hair still damp against my neck, and ate the bowl of canned tomato soup Mama heated and the cheese sandwich she grilled and cut in triangles. I remember it tasting sweet, a little tart, like the bold orange salmon berries about to emerge from frothy white blossoms on our river shore. I felt on the verge of something, but not sure what. Bustin’ out all over.
On the wall in the coffee room at the Sylvia Beach Hotel in Newport, WA, hangs a three by three foot display in a simple black frame filled with squares, each square representing two letters of the alphabet. It’s titled “Fictional Character Alphabet Chart—Egads!” When S intersects with F, the character in the square is Scout Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird”. When J meets E, we have Jane Eyre. Since there are 676 squares, many characters are obscure. The T and L square, for instance, is filled by Taduz Lemke, a gypsy in Stephen King’s “Thinner”. It is a massive project and impresses me to no end.
People who frequent the hotel know that Goody, the owner, made the chart. Goody is a character herself, who lives in Portland where she also owns the Rimsky Korsakoffee Shop. She named The Sylvia Beach for an ex-pat who ran a bookstore in Paris in the early nineteen hundreds. The hotel attracts book lovers, writers, and slightly strange folks who like staying in slightly funky rooms named and decorated for authors. I’ve stayed in Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Dr. Suess, Robert Louis Stevenson, Amy Tan, Agatha Christie, Emily Dickinson, Tennessee Williams, and Edgar Allen Poe (no longer available, probably because the pendulum in the ceiling over the bed and the thumping telltale heart under the bed, gave guests the heebie jeebies).
When Ed and I met Goody two years ago in the coffee room at the Sylvia Beach, we didn’t know she was the owner. We saw only a short, intense-looking woman with a mane of grey hair whose face lit up like a little girl’s when she looked up from her Scrabble board and said, “Will you play with me?” She proceeded to beat our butts, delighted as a child when she got a letter that upped her game. Her passion for words and writers and books delighted me.
We hoped to see Goody on my birthday trip this year. We stayed in F. Scott Fitzgerald, read Bernice Bobs her Hair, one of Fitzgerald’s short stories, and had serious fun discussing it, reminding me how much I love being married to a former English major. We hung out in the third floor “Library”, also Goody’s creation, where guests sprawl in chairs and on couches, reading, writing, and dozing, looking out windows at the wind blown sands of Nye Beach, watching foamy white tides break in the swath of stunning blue ocean under a lighter blue sky where gulls swooped alongside brightly colored kites flown by children of every age. We agreed that the scene looked like a B grade movie set in the best sense.
But Goody didn’t show. So, to keep her fresh in mind, in the hotel’s family style dining room, Ed and I told our breakfast companions about how she knocked our Scrabble socks off, and about the other, “bigger” game she was playing when we met her.
Goody was, she told us, “Living the Alphabet”. She allotted two weeks to each letter, and, during that time, she ate, slept and breathed it. So, when her letter was “C”, she’d Cruise to the Corner in her Car, get out and dance the Cha Cha while drinking a Coke, and then Crush the Can before she got back in the Car and Cruised home where she’d listen to Choral music while eating Canned Corn and Chicken.
Crazy? You betcha. Do I envy her? Oh yeah. And I’m practicing. When I sit at my computer to write, instead of dreading the impossible task of getting it perfect, I remind myself how cool it is to Live Life with a passion for words and the messages they convey. I’m gonna play now, I tell myself. I get to do this. I really do. Oh, Goody!