I wrote these five posts in the summer of 2006. Entitled Turning (toward) Black: Professor Zero’s Relaxation Guide for White People, they were a response to a series of blog conversations on race, in which a number of apparently well-meaning Euro-American commentators seemed to want to find a way to shed racism, or at least to be absolved of it, in a day.
I conceived of the posts as illustrations of the point that shedding the racist educations we all have takes some time. There is always another layer to peel away. I realized in the process of writing that the posts were the stuff of memoir, and that they were about living in general more than they were about race. So here they are, as a work in progress.
Turning (toward) Black
When I was three, and acquiring knowledge about the world, I was fascinated with the different systems you could use to get things done. We ate with forks and knives at home, for instance, but in Chinese restaurants, you could eat with sticks. We slept in beds and sat on chairs, but my favorite book was set in Japan, where they sat on cushions, slept on futons, and had moveable walls made of paper inside their houses. We had an alphabet and wrote from left to right, but in Arabic there was a different alphabet, written from right to left. The Chinese and Japanese used characters, which they painted on the page with brushes, top to bottom in straight lines.
Some people we knew, spoke other languages. I realized that there were looks which corresponded to the languages: Chinese, Japanese, Spanish. Black people seemed to speak only English, although my father explained that in Africa, they had many languages. I still thought they should have a special activity here, given that they looked different and all. This question put my father at a loss, since I was only three. He thought for a moment, and then said they did have a special activity, improving the Constitution of the United States. I did not understand, but I was satisfied to have received an answer. White people came from Europe, which had several languages, although not as many as Africa. Europe had castles and windmills, and there were people there who wore wooden shoes.
All of this took place when my hair was still blond and I was never taken for anything but white. What you are told at that age, sticks with you. The idea I formed from that conversation, that Black people were some kind of special agents, on a mission to improve the Constitution, influenced my perception of Black people for some time.
I have conceived of this occasional series of posts on ‘Turning (toward) Black’ for the benefit of white readers. The white people I know in person, are not uncomfortable in Black venues, and I tend to think of my own experience as rather run-of-the-mill. But noticing the high level of discomfort on a few blog threads, I thought I might share some of my various, non-scary experiences. Maybe these stories, of being a white person with all kinds of hilarious blind spots, will help a few people to calm down.
Don’t go there, it’s Black, you won’t be welcome! Well, when in doubt, ask. But you probably will be, in actuality. As long as you stay cool, sit back and relax. Do not try to absorb all the information at once. Do not expect to be the center of attention.
One semester in college, I shared a large apartment with a lot of people. Besides myself, there was a Puerto Rican woman, Costa Rican woman, a Black woman from Chicago, and three white men. One of these men was straight and living with the Puerto Rican woman, but the other two were gay.
The woman from Chicago was in a state of deep culture shock, because that university, and that town, were the first ‘integrated’ environments she had ever experienced. There was no all-Black area, or all-Black social environment, to which she could retreat. She kept saying, “I hope my mother understands why I am hanging out with all these white people.”
She was the first ‘non-integrated’ Black person I had ever met, and I found her very exotic. I kept saying, “Wait, let me get this straight. You are never in places where you see white people, except on relatively rare occasions when you go to the Loop, or when you go to class.” I did not know Chicago, and I had a hard time believing this was possible in a practical sense. Her parents had apparently managed to avoid dealing with white people altogether since leaving Mississippi.
She started to relax around me when she realized that she was not my first, but my second Black roommate. It hadn’t occurred to me to bring it up at the beginning, and she seemed to like the fact that I had taken it that casually. That may be part of the reason she put up with my finding her so exotic, because I did say and ask a number of things which made her roll her eyes.
We were very disorganized in that apartment, and we had a lot of conflicts about housework–in particular, getting and sharing groceries, and cleaning up the kitchen. We devised a system whereby, since there were seven of us, each was responsible for the kitchen one day a week. Each person would still procrastinate about it sometimes, and would have to be told by everyone else toward the end of the evening, it is your day, now you do it.
One day when our Black roommate was procrastinating that way, nobody dared say anything. You could just hear them thinking, she’s Black, you can’t order her around like that, it might be mean. But then there was the issue of the kitchen, and the schedule, and the division of labor, and the fact that tomorrow was Monday and it would be nice to start the week out right.
So it was getting on towards eleven o’clock, and we were sitting around the dining table drinking tea and pretending to study. Once in a while, someone would glance toward the kitchen door. Suddenly I realized that the situation was funny, and I said, Mandy. My training says, we don’t order Black women into the kitchen any more, but it’s your turn today, and I’m pointing that out right now! And we both laughed.
The next semester we decided to move out of that funky-ass apartment and get a smaller place together, since we seemed to be the only two in the group who really wanted to keep a clean kitchen. And yes, we got along, we had fun, we have a lot in common, and we are still friends.
That does not mean, though, that either of us shed all of our anxieties about race by moving in together, nor that I learned from this experience, everything I needed to know. Sharing that apartment was just one thing Mandy and I did, one year, and Mandy is just one person, and that was a long time ago now.
A book I would like to be reading this afternoon is Rainer Maria Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salomé: The Correspondence, translated and annotated by Edward Snow and Michael Winkler (Norton). Their circle included a number of luminaries, and the letters appear to be very witty. Georg Brandes, for instance, is called “more an amusement park than a human being”. Louise von Salomé was born in St. Petersburg in 1861, and her family seems to have spoken German at home. She is a fascinating figure.
Education, as they say, is (or should be) broadening. Over the past few weeks of watching white people get defensive and feel hurt upon first reading the words of Angry Black Bloggers, it has occurred to me that one reason I am able to remain sanguine is, I have read the words of Angry Black Writers before. Quite a few times, actually; enough to have gained some understanding of what they are talking about.
In middle school, the history teacher had us do a series of research reports. I like research and writing, and I had already more or less decided I was bound not just for college but for graduate school, so I was ‘into it’, as we say now. I did far more work than was necessary, spending recreation time with my nose in books and my pencil handy. “You do not need to do that,” said my friends, “you must know you already have an A.” “Yes, I know,” I would respond, “but this is just too interesting.”
I did a report on witchcraft, and learned that the persecution of ‘witches’ was part of the oppression of women, and the containment of folk cultures and the poor. I studied the Inca Empire, and learned how much advanced culture there had been in the Americas before our time. I studied the building of the Panama Canal, and learned a great deal about modern structures of colonialism and imperialism. I studied the Russian Revolution, getting my first glimpse of the difficult conjugation of democracy and modernization. I wanted to study Black History, too, but by the time the signup sheet got to me for that round of research reports, the topic was already taken. Black Literature was still available, though, so I took that.
Our library holdings were a little spotty, so I read about many writers, and only read a few. The books I remember the most clearly from that endeavor are the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, which shocked me because I recognized the names of some of my own ancestors in it; the Autobiography of Malcolm X; Richard Wright’s Black Boy and Native Son; Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man; James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain and The Fire Next Time; and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul On Ice, which I considered the least profound. (This was in the days before curriculum revision, and I was not able to get my hands on any books by women writers.)
My paper was basically a summary of my impressions of the books, and what I had learned about the literary and historical contexts in which they had been produced. I remember commenting on the representation of poverty in Black Boy, where the hungry narrator talks about drinking large amounts of water from outdoor faucets in order to approximate the feeling of being full, the narrative structure and imagery in Invisible Man, and the role of religion in Go Tell It on the Mountain.
The only truly original insight I had on any of the material was that Eldridge Cleaver was a rigid person. Though he was daring now, he was likely to turn, in the end, either to Christianity of the ‘born-again’ variety, or to the Republican Party, or to both. It was not otherwise a brilliant paper, but I learned a lot from reading those books. I knew it then, but looking back, I suspect it was particularly important that I read them at that age. Now I do not have the Rilke-Salomé book I want to read, but I am watching this 2001 Library of Congress webcast by J. C. Cooper.
Speaking of Eldridge Cleaver (and so, necessarily, of patriarchy) and of women, I have talked to a few men over the years. Some of these, I would classify as unreconstructed patriarchs, but gentlemen. Others have been unreconstructed patriarchs, but not gentlemen. Still others have been working towards feminism, with varying degrees of success. And then there is a fourth group, which calls itself ‘modern’. This ostensibly mild-mannered group accepts, gladly, some of the effects of feminism: birth control, better sex, dates who share checks, wives with good incomes, paternity leave. They would not describe themselves as feminist. In this they are correct, since they in fact resemble the unreconstructed patriarchs, with the difference that they demonstrate the requisite characteristics in a covert, rather than an overt way.
Perhaps we can draw a loose parallel between these ‘modern’ guys, and white people who wish to be absolved of racism and then move, instantly, to reap the cultural or other benefits of ‘integration’. Yes, you can go out to the zydeco, and be effusive, and say some theoretically sophisticated things. But you looking cool, is very different from you being cool, and that again is very different from dismantling the system.
These posts, intended as Light Posts, have brought me to a realization. I believe myself to have led a Latin-tinged Anglo life, with some Black and Asian people in it, but that is not quite true. My life has been ‘Blacker’, in terms of cultural contexts, than I think. And those experiences are the stuff of a memoir, not a Relaxation Guide; and the memoir would not be about race and cultural identity specifically. Its center would lie elsewhere. And I have far too much material about perceptions of race and what one of my students calls “blackening” (as opposed to “whitening”), to include all of it in these posts, or in any Relaxation Guide.
I would like, however, to follow up on the comments by the Changeseeker and Morphological Confetti on the discovery of all-Black venues, and all-Black lives. I absorbed as a child the idea that integration was good. It would solve the problem of separateness-with-inequality. They would come to our schools and neighborhoods, and we would be nice, and affirmative action would serve for reparations as long as was necessary, and there would be cultural exchange, and, well, we would all be free at last.
One piece of information this vision did not take into account, of course, was that there were enormous, well established, all-Black areas, like my roommate Mandy’s neighborhood in Chicago. The first time I visited her there, the neighbors all turned out to meet the first white person who had come to that street in thirty years. They laughed and congratulated me, with a good dose of irony all around, on my derring-do, coming into the neighborhood and more than that, driving on the Dan Ryan Expressway. This was no ‘inner city’, of course, nor had I expected it to be. I just did not expect this barrio to be so large. I knew, of course, that there were nice areas of Harlem, but I did not fully comprehend that there were large, middle class Black areas in many cities. ‘They’ may not have any reason to come to you, you might have to go to ‘them’.
Sometime I will describe that visit, and the adventures I had later on in that neighborhood, in greater detail. While he was alive, Mandy’s father never did allow us to go to the Checkerboard Lounge, which he considered unsafe, but we did some other things. The whiteman in Trinidad thought it was because of living in New Orleans that I was not shocked to find myself in an all-Black place, but I had gotten used to that, and more, long before I ever came here.
It is very easy if you know someone, or even if you go alone to a Black venue or area knowing that white people are ‘allowed’ there. I had heard, though, that there were places we were not welcome, and which, out of respect, we should not invade. I ended up taking a few chances on that, when I started living in northeastern Brazil.
For example, there was an open market on the same block as my house, where my landlords had forbidden me to shop. This was unfortunate, because it was nearby and very tantalizing. All that fresh meat, fish right out of the ocean, the newest vegetables, perfectly ripe fruit. I did not realize that I was forbidden to go for reasons of class, primarily. White women who shop there, are housemaids, and in that town you had to be poorer than the average Black woman to be white and a housemaid, and I certainly would not want anyone to think that. It might (and later did) cause the traffic policeman on the corner, clearly a poor man, to pay a visit to my landlord and ask whether he might take me to a dance.
I thought I was forbidden to go because of race. It was very, very, very Black. Not only were there absolutely no white people, there was no mulato or anyone showing any kind of mixture. It is not for you, you will not be welcome there. Do not invade. Or alternatively, It is not safe for you there. Do not risk life and limb. So I trudged to the supermarket under the tropical sun, carrying back the poor provisions I could find there. Every morning, though, I still saw all those beautiful vegetables and fruit go into the market, and one day, I could stand it no more. If they’re offended, they’ll let me know, I reasoned. Pickpockets, I was not worried about, I had been to Indian markets all over Mexico and the Andes, already. Curiosity, I could handle. So I went and shopped, and nothing happened, and people barely looked at me except for the sellers I chose, yes, one kilo, here’s your change, glad you came in, do you need anyone to carry that, have a nice day.
After that I had decent food at home, but I still had another problem, having lunch downtown. In a Spanish speaking country there would have been restaurants at my level, but this was a big country town in what was, in many ways, still a slaveholding area, and people went home to eat. Restaurants were cumbersome, expensive, and slow. I had located a few cafeterias for secretaries and factory workers, where you could sit down and eat a real lunch and some of the clientele were white. But I had to eat in these places on the sly, because they were not of my social class, and I would catch an earful from classmates, co-workers, and my landlords if they discovered I had been there. And they were not that conveniently located. I was expected to go to these vile, middle-class luncheonettes, and eat sandwiches, and there is no way, in a tropical, Latin country, where breakfast and dinner are non-events, that a sandwich will get you through the afternoon. Still, I attempted to comply.
In a convenient location, near the other market, there were some informal restaurants with an all-Black clientele, serving up tasty Creole food. I would eye these rather longingly as I labored on through the heat to my luncheonette, and think, no, it’s not for you. One day a proprietress, in her turban and skirts with all her gold jewelry dangling, came out as I was passing by. My dear, she said, do you not wish to eat lunch? Would you not prefer to stop fooling your stomach with sandwiches and gaseous drinks, and eat a real meal, for a change? We have crabs today! So my lunchtime problem was solved, too.
During the time I was dealing with my problematic therapist, I took a walk one day, with the objective of buying pita bread at the old Mona’s, if I remember correctly. On the way, I passed by the outpost of a battered women’s shelter, and found myself going in. May I help you? Well yes, it occurred to me when I saw this place, that I might be suffering from emotional abuse at the hands of my therapist. All right, just a minute, someone will come and talk to you.
I waited among a crowd of mostly working-class women who already knew each other, and were holding animated conversations. No, girl, believe what I am telling you, the next time I start seeing a man, he is getting a background check! I want to see that rap sheet, and that credit report, and those receipts for child support. I want to know who it is I’m talking to! My God, I thought, who is it these women contemplate seeing, that they feel the need to ask for this kind of documentation? I then realized I might have done well to ask my therapist for such documentation. And it dawned on me that I was myself seeing a man who had actually presented it, without my asking.
I had met Will at a party where I knew the hosts, but not many of the guests. Carnival was coming, and some people were already trying out costumes. I was taking pictures. Will liked the shots, and we fell into conversation, and he asked whether I would feel comfortable dating a Black man. Had a woman asked me that, I would have said girl, I lived in Brazil, but this was a man, so I just said, in principle yes. And how about me? Maybe. Well this is my number. Well this is mine. What, you are going to give me, someone you don’t know, your home phone number? Yes, I don’t call men. You will have to call me.
So he called, and we talked, and he said well, I don’t normally do this, but since we don’t really know each other, and you live alone, let’s meet in the afternoon at one of those Caucasian-oriented espresso bars you frequent, and we can talk some more.
I went, and he was there with his documentation, most notably his rap sheet. He had dealt drugs in high school, and had been arrested, and tried as an adult, and done some time. It was years ago, but it was there. I want you to know this now, and think about it when you’re by yourself, before you decide whether we should go out. You can check me out, and maybe you’d like to meet my sister.
I was less impressed with the rap sheet than I might have been, because I was working with prisoners. These guys may or may not tell you what they are in jail for, but when you see their rap sheet, you can see what else they have been charged with. The lists can be very startling. Then there are the one-time murderers, killed someone in a barroom fight, didn’t plan on it but it was first degree for technical reasons, terrible experience killing someone, terrible to know you did it, wouldn’t want to do that again. Others are there on minor charges, plea-bargained with an indigent defenders, long hard time, but normal people–just like some of my students, in fact, who had private lawyers, and are on suspended sentences, so long as they stay in school.
And then, did I know many Black men who had not been arrested? There was my colleague, arrested in the Dominican Republic because of smoking marijuana on the beach, sharing a cell with guys being brought in with huge gashes across their backs, he was saved from that, at least, by being American. And the extroverted Math T.A. I had worked with at Upward Bound. Tall and Rastafarian, he did not look at all like your standard mathematician. He lived in a nice white neighborhood, and he liked to walk home in the evening. Friends had to go twice to get him out of a holding cell, where he had been taken on suspicion of ‘intent to tresspass’. And then there was Mandy’s brother, constantly followed on suspicion of something; he had good reason not to feel comfortable in white neighborhoods.
And so I went out with Will, although the therapist said I was rationalizing my way into terrible danger, and thought it was jungle fever or an attack of overzealous liberalism. And we ate eggplant with shrimp, and I liked his sister, and we went fishing, and heard jazz. I learned to distinguish colors: black, brown, red, tan, yellow, white. He thought I had missed my calling, and ought to start a new career as a rapper. And we got along, and had some things to say to each other, and he would leave his better library books at my house, to keep them safe from his forgetful cousins. And then we stopped, because it was not an entirely serious relationship, and I had job interviews in the East, and he had an enormous teaching load.
I was assaulted at work that year, and I just missed catching a bullet meant for someone else while sitting outdoors, in broad daylight, at one of my Caucasian oriented espresso bars. But I stopped seeing that therapist, and I never passed any danger with Will. Living in New Orleans, seeing Will, and working with the prisoners in tandem with my friend Maureen, I felt at home. When I went in to work, my historically white university might as well have been Planet Mars. The Department of Women’s and Gender Studies was discovering ‘cultural diversity’, bell hooks visited and was fawned upon, and I listened to the white feminists gush about ‘awareness’. Watching their behavior, I knew that if I were to describe my evenings and weekends to them, they would fall through the floorboards in disbelief. Mandy visited, warning me ahead of time not to take her to too many Caucasian oriented venues, where she wouldn’t feel comfortable. She was by this time a professor of Computer Science in Chicago. We realized, with great hilarity, that my venues at that point, were actually ‘Blacker’ than hers.
Life changed after that, and I did not think of Will for a long time. But he and his family have crossed my mind more recently, because of the hurricanes. Did those people get out? Their neighborhood, and the one I was living in at the time, were both flooded. But they may have escaped the worst of it. They have resources, and family in the Midwest. If they just evacuated to their country cousins’, they will have caught some of Rita, but not Katrina. They are probably rebuilding. I hope so.