November 06, 2017
I am watching a dance segment on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, three black males in their late teens or early 20s, performing physical feats that leave me breathless with amazement. They explain that they began street dancing to earn money to help their mother make ends meet. Per usual, Ellen hands them a wad of bills, $10,000, and per usual, I tear up. But then I hear my uncle sneer, “Now don’t go spending it on dope.” My uncle has been dead for years, so I hear this in some dark unquiet corner of my mind, and I immediately scold myself. What? I don’t think that way!
I’m watching a rerun of last year’s BET awards, and in my head I hear, or I should say I remember hearing, “Those blacks, they sure do sing nice.” I am appalled, again. In a drawer, I have tickets for Bruno Mars; we saw Hamilton and are saving up to buy tickets again. I know that these last two things mean nothing, even though I want them to mean something.
When I was a little white girl, my father owned a textile factory in a small city six miles but a world away from the split-level, snowy white New Jersey suburb where we lived. In the 60s, a time when it wasn’t required, he employed everyone. New immigrants with poor English. African Americans. Women. Older workers. Disabled workers. Hispanics. Vietnam veterans. He hired them quietly, moved them around or up to different jobs according to ability and business needs. He eventually cut every employee into profit sharing; he knew the names of his employees’ families, kids, and spouses.
Dad never taught me about “diversity,” a word no one used back then. He didn’t have to. I can see him even now, making his daily rounds, telling Fatima, the Egyptian fabric inspector, that her lunch smelled delicious; clapping Marvin, the black truck driver, on the back and thanking him for coming in early; joking with Audrey, the 70ish widow who worked in the retail fabric outlet.
My mother always chirped “Hello” as she walked the factory floor, but I noticed the vibrating vein in her neck, her gaze averted. Later, when I knew more, I found this odd. She’d grown up poor in a mixed-race, immigrant-laden, tenement-lined city, with an illiterate single mother who was “on the dole.” Dad was raised among white people, first-generation Italians, in the only single-family house in a neighborhood of two- and three-family homes.
When, at 17, I fell for a black guy who worked at the stable where I boarded an expensive show horse, my father shook his hand and learned to pronounce his name. My mother worried about neighbors and referred to him as “colored”—the way she described the man in the White House thirty years later.
I am my father’s daughter in important ways, including my relationship to words. I write largely because he read three newspapers a day, because he read me books and told me stories. At the keyboard, in notebooks, as I’m writing in my head, I choose each word with care, with intention. I choose words whose strict meaning and truer subtext I feel I understand.
But there’s Mom’s wordy influence too, and the words of other adults who peopled my childhood, relatives and neighbors on my suburban street, 12 miles and a year or so distant from the Newark riots. These are words that, even 40-some years later, a left-leaning, liberal grown-up can’t escape or forget. Words I abhor, phrases I never utter and don’t believe, meanings I reject.
Still, I hear them. I hear voices of people I once loved saying them and I don’t know what to do about that. How do I respond to those voices in my head? Ignoring them doesn’t work. They’re there, implanted in a way that isn’t silenced by my own silent NO.
At the bank, a little black girl is twirling, singing in a murmur, and I smile at her mother because I miss the joy of watching my own children little and feeling free, children who are now adults. But in my brain I hear, “Silly little ninny.” What? I know I got those words from Aunt Mary, pointing to the “jitterbugging’ little ninnies” on her Paterson, NJ street. She called me a silly little ninny too, but even as a child, I sensed the tonal shift, something behind the actual words.
I still hear and see my Noni leaning out her tenement window on a block peppered with blacks, people whose names she knew, people it seemed she liked and whose kids she helped watch out for, people who “sure do sing nice.”
In a summer writing class, the lone black teenage student leaves the room several times. In that dark, despicable place in my head, I hear a complaining voice, a long-dead relative muttering about those “lazy jig-a-boos” my “soft-hearted” father hired. My brain betrays and disgusts me, even while I try to ignore it. I step out to check on him, in part because I want him to return to class, to write and write, in part because it’s a big campus and I’m responsible for him for these two hours, but in part also because I’m worried his stepping out of our all white classroom means…something. It turns out, the boy’s allergies have flared and he’s been coughing and sneezing in the hallway, shielding classmates—and his so-called liberal white teacher—from distraction.
Why, forty, fifty years on, do I still hear these things in my head? What does it mean? Chastising myself doesn’t silence them. How near the surface does remembered, imprinted bigoted talk reside? I know it’s possible not to believe or sanction every random thing that passes through my brain. When he’s done something spectacularly stupid, I don’t really want my husband to “drop dead,” even though I think it, and even sometimes mumble it just enough so that only I hear. But this is not the answer.
Though I chase those voices away—I know this: this is racism. Silent, unbidden, disavowed, disowned, but somehow still present—decades-old scraps of what then sounded like adult truths heard by a child when her father wasn’t around to throw a cold stare at the speaker.
Do they mean anything about me now? Is talking about this just me being a whiny self-proclaimed liberal moaning about something she isn’t trying to solve? How does one solve something that lingers in the mind without consent?
I remind myself they are others’ words, not mine, the randomness of memory. I know I must raise objections when I hear them, but the calculus of that involves my need to feel safe—another problem. I did not speak when a beefy white guy screamed an insult at the lithe young black girl standing next to me in a store line a few weeks ago. I said nothing, paralyzed silent by fear. I did try to move my substantial white body in front of hers. But his words swirled in the air, and I was keenly aware of the children on that long line, impressionable and unformed, listening to those words, filing them in memory.