Watching The Brothers
I do not say such a thing lightly. One of the wonderful things of my lifetime has been the transformation of American race relations from its ugly state when I was a child. Whatever racism persists privately and semi-consciously among white folks [more than most will still admit], the general stamping out of overt and blatant racial prejudice has been America's greatest accomplishment of the past 50 years.
Nobody white who is more than fifteen years younger than I am can truly understand how bad it was. Most white folks older than this have simply repressed the memory of it. But you can see it still in the news photographs and news films of confrontation in the Civil Rights era. When I look at them, they still give me chills.
As a child, I heard the words and the voices of the people you see in those films, jeering at black school children or college students, their faces horribly distorted in sheer rage. I remember the casual coarseness, redolent with hatred and fear, in the voices of adults when they talked about Civil Rights and Martin Luther King. It scared me even then.
I knew that tone of voice very well. When you encountered is personally as a child, it was usually followed by having a trouser belt or a paddle applied vigorously to your bottom and then by 20 minutes crying, face down on your bed, or sniveling when you returned, with the teacher, from the elementary school hallway.
It is not possible now to even conceive what was going on in the minds of the children in the pictures on the right when the first black child was taking her first class on the first day of a newly integrated school. But I can give you some of the flavor of what it must have been like.
My parents had enough decency, good sense, and self-awareness not to be overtly racist. But they were, as everyone white was then, at least racist to the degree that segregation had kept blacks and whites in totally different worlds--and this was certainly racist beyond anything we see openly today. So at about age 5, I was curious about black folks but a little frightened of the gaps and holding back in my parent's voices when they talked about race.
Most of our neighbors, however, were quite overtly racist. The sound of the commonplace slur of "nigger" puntuated many conversatons of men and women, even when the topics talked about had little or nothing to do with race or color. I marvel yet that they could see so little of the image they presented to the world and feelings they were passing to their children.
My mother, my next door neighbors' little 5 year old girl, and I were heading downtown on the bus for one of those wonderful excursions to the biggest department store in town, which I loved for its luscious lights, stately elevators, and thrilling escalators. It was a warm day back when busses were not air-conditioned, most of the windows were open, and on the seat across the asile was a black man, perhaps in his mid-thirties, lost in his own thoughts, in short shirt sleeves and wearing a dark brown, narrow brimmed straw hat. It was the natty style of hat that often graced the head of Frank Sinatra on the LP record covers of the day. The seat next to this man, and the two seats across from him, were the only three seats left.
My neighbor's child literally begged my mother, in obvious distress, to sit by the opposite window, with my mother beside her, while she cowered from the gentleman in the seat across the way, whom I sat next to, with, I'm afraid, rather too open curiosity. I'm certain, if you were black back then, you were well used to either being stared at, or ostentatiously not stared at--a racist double bind in which all of us were locked, whether we wanted to be or not.
Just imagine being a hardened and terrified racist at the age of 5! Children like this were undoubtedly part of that schoolroom pictured above. Not all of them, but many of them and even, occasionally, a majority of them. What child could possibly be that way now?
Such levels of racism are largely gone, and we have largely come to public terms with our racial and cultural diversity--whatever strong predjudices remain privately--in a way that would have absolutely astounded anyone living in the 1950's and 1960's. But what remains, still, I think, is a cleavage of culture, from so tormented a division of American experience, between those black and those white.
The place where I currently work employs a large number of African-Americans, a sufficient number, in fact to be noticably different in cultural tone from my other jobs where this has not been the case. Most of my past jobs, though not all of them, were where African-Americans were entirely absent, or present in but twos or threes. In such jobs you only saw hints and glimpses of that so strongly alternative culture. You might see it, say, when the lady of color at the desk in front of yours was talking on the phone to her mother, her son, or her gentleman friend.
These hints largely passed all of their white co-workers by, but I have sharper senses than most, and was lucky enough to have worked for two years in Federal Civil Service in the mid-1970's, which had been desegregated more than 20 years by then. So I have been, most of my life, exposed to the subtle differences and nuances that occur when African-Americans interact among themselves, rather than with me, or with other white folks. Each of us has our own distinct Freemasonry of culture, half-conscious, instinctive, "just natural".
But at my work, and, particularly in the immediate office section where I sit, African-Americans often predominate, and their Freemasonry of culture is effortlessly and easily on display. Buddhist meditation--and the years I spent being a photographer, trying to hand hold a camera without blurring the pictures--have made me capable of sitting very, very still, and projecting virtually no subconscious social signals whatever. So, if I wish, I can almost completely disappear when my co-workers of color are conversing, and there have been many times, I think, when they have totally forgotten I was there, and so made no automatic adjustment, as we all do, of their own social signals to adapt to mine.
When they do notice me I usually take the opportunity to play a comic foil to the social and cultural differences between us. One day, two or three ladies stopped by the office cubicle where I and my boss, who is African-American, work. Everybody but me happened to be wearing open-toed shoes, and the conversation quickly turned from trading information about bargain shoe departments to admiration of each other's professional pedicures. To answer your mental question, of course they all had professional pedicures!
One of the ladies made a remark about "how good Lashonda's feet were looking." At this point Brandy looked up at me. Brandy--these are not their real names, if you haven't guessed--is a mid-level supervisor perhaps 5-7 years younger than me, who is always coming to work dressed in elegant new outfits, and is so chic that the rest of us can hardly stand it. She also has the watcher's compulsion, just like me, and her dark butterscotch eyes miss very little, just like my steel blue ones.
Brandy shrewdly pointed out to everybody that I was getting an unusually intimate glimpse of the casual lives of women of color. What I said in reply was that, generally, when my feet look good are the days when I don't have to use Desenex.
African-Americans refer to each other as "brothers" and "sisters" when speaking of people of color in the third person, as in "so-and-so is a brother". This usage seems to me to be more common among women than men, but my experience may be skewed. This is not just a verbal oddity, as are so many of the things we all say in English, that most eccentric of languages. It is truly a celebration of that Freemasonry of culture above.
A few weeks back, I was down in our basement cafeteria, on afternoon break, well after the lunch hour. I was watching, as I always watch, who was there. Four white gentlemen, including myself, were all sitting, widely separated, along the cafeteria wall.
One was a man in the middle to late twenties, casually dressed, totally absorbed in his I-Pod, and staring into space. Another was a man a little over forty, in a presentable, but not the most expensive possible, dress suit, hunched and intent over the Wall Street Journal laying flat on the square table in front of him. The third, about thirty-five, was jabbering away on his flip phone, incurious of the fact that he was talking as loudly as he would have if the party on the other end of the line were actually in front of him, clearly gesticulating to an imaginary picture of the other caller in the seat across his table, and completely oblivious to how much of his private business he was telling the entire room. And then, as I said, there was me.
In the dead center of the room were five or six African American men, between thirty and fifty, at three tables shoved together, talking with great animation about their weekend, the latest professional football game, and other matters tangential to generally relaxing and enjoying life. As I sat there watching the men of color in the center and the white fellows spread out along the walls, I was stuck very forcefully by the thought that those men gathered together really were "brothers" in a way than most of us who are white are but orphaned only children.
The men at the center table were as social and relaxed as they would be if the table was in the kitchen of one of their own homes. Clearly, nothing else in their day was more important than the socializing they were doing, right here, right now. And the four pale men were each solitary, driven by an inner hunger eating through the fundamental isolation which I and my tribe have everywhere but on our own comfy couch, in our own home-as-castle.
Though all of us were physically present, our minds were all somewhere else more important, in the Dow Jones Industrial Averages, in the head space of our favorite music, in an overheated conversation with someone miles away at the other end of the call, or, like me, in a work-break daydream of the intellect. And, in my case, imbued with the unhealthy watching, watching, watching of everyone else, as my forebears watched the storm filled horizon from the deck of a ship or the far blue mist on the heather for the approach of the English enemy.
We watchers watch for them still.
We who are pale are not brothers. We cannot relax, in the moment, with our peers. We are always doing something else, headed toward somewhere else, striving to keep our next appointment with someone else, and all of these far more important than the here-and-now can ever be. In other words we are still glamored with mere fantasies and dreams, though for five hundred years we have chased them to the ends of the earth and failed to catch them yet.