Just showing up

“Maybe I shouldn’t be here.”

The doubts came on almost instantly, brought about, no doubt, by the fact that I wasn’t seeing as many familiar faces as I would have liked or expected to see. (Cue social awkwardness in 3…2…1)

The church was emptier than I had anticipated. Not an aching, slap-in-the-face empty like Marlene’s funeral had been, but my guess would be that there were not more than 200 people present. It didn’t feel like it was enough.

It also felt so disjointed in a way that I don’t think Rick would have wanted it to be. Skot Welch‘s eulogy gave much honor to Rick’s work, but I felt like the message of racial reconciliation was too sanitized overall…as if the message was muted. Dear God, at my funeral I want people to be pounding their fists on the table, shouting against injustice, breaking the uninitiated out of their kum-ba-yah complacency.

(Someone later pointed out to me that this wasn’t Rick’s way…he approached these issues with grace and gentleness…so probably this is my bias. Also, I do need to acknowledge that some people (most normal people?!) would think that this was not the time or the place for such a rant.)

But if others I’d been expecting to see weren’t there, should I really be? I started to doubt myself. I had asked to leave work early so that I could sleep a few extra hours before the funeral. I had struggled to articulate to my boss the relationship I had with this…friend? colleague?  We had worked together, had common passions, spoke the same “language” when it came to issues of white privilege and injustice. But sitting there, alone, I was starting to feel like a fraud.

I’ve long wrestled with the vagaries of funeral rituals. The question I posed once of whether it’s more appropriate for a casual acquaintance to go to the wake* or the funeral itself was never quite resolved, with people landing solidly on either side of the issue. Today’s funeral was one of the type that seems to be more common this days…no separate visitation time, just a time to greet the family in the hour preceding the funeral. I debated whether or not to come and “greet the family”. I’ve never met the family…except for his “brother” and co-host Skot Welch. I came most of all because I wanted to hug Skot, to tell him how very much I ache for him, how I of all people understand how important friends are, and that there is a friend that sticks closer than a brother. If I could do that one thing, perhaps my presence there could be redeemed.

I wrote most of this (up until this point) during the funeral…on my phone. I imagine that the people sitting behind me were glaring at me disapprovingly, thinking I was on Facebook or some such nonsense. How to explain to them–to anyone, really–that I need to write in order to process?

The service was over, right on the hour, and I made my way out of the sanctuary. Skot was standing right near the door, and in my typical rude fashion, I cut in on a conversation he was having to give him a hug and to tell him how sorry I was. I ran into a few other friends, brothers and sisters in this work.  I almost felt redeemed. I was simply showing up. Whether or not I felt I had the “right” to be there, it was done. I had been there.

And hopefully, just showing up was enough.

*I had a friend tell me that calling it a “wake” is antiquated and conjures up images of drunken Irishmen. East Coast friends would disagree, and old habits die hard.

Sunday blogging against racism–The Help

(disclaimer: I’ve been pondering changing the label for these posts to “Sunday blogging about race”–because it’s not always directly about racism, and because I think that talking about race somehow seems safer than talking about racism, which by definition needs to name someone as a racist. [The term is one I originally borrowed from an event in the blogosphere called International Blog Against Racism Week.]

To begin the change with this post, though, strikes me as being a big old cop-out, the intention of which would be to separate myself from the “racist” label. And with what I need to muddle through right now, I’m afraid that I need to keep that label as close to me as I possibly can.)

So now I have seen the film, and have a renewed energy for finishing the book. Not because I’ve fallen in love with the story, but because I need to wade through layer upon layer of confusion. I don’t even know where to begin to process this, although I do know enough to know that my gut instinct, wanting to talk through it to (and at the expense of) my blak friends, is the wrong way to go. I am sure I will still do it, but at least I will feel guilty about it. :-/

There has been so much talk about the film, and I have read all kinds of commentary about its message. Even if I hadn’t, though, I have been in this anti-racism work for too long to be able to go into it expecting to be able to see it as a “nice story”. I am accustomed to questioning everything, and in particular, I am increasingly hypersensitive to movies about black folks that prominently feature a white hero.

Now here’s the weird part. I don’t think that this movie had anything to do with black women.

Yes, I know, the premise of the book was that this white woman wanted to tell the black women’s stories, to give them a voice. And I know that the storyline was intended to bring out many of the nuances of 1950’s American apartheid, so yes, I get it that race was prominent here. But what I really saw in the film (we’ll see how different the book is) was the way that people can live in the midst of something that is so morally reprehensible and yet not be willing to stand up for what is right. The real story here is not the two or three “good” white people who dared to stand up for these women, but the dozens upon dozens (and historically, thousands upon thousands) who stood by and let such pure evil continue, and for such trite and morally bankrupt reasons. It is a story of betrayal of the worst kind . . . of women turning their backs on the most real relationship they have in order to save face in front of a heartless bunch of shallow wenches.

The question that came through the loudest for me, the thing I am wrestling with, is this: In which areas of my own life am I complicit in evil and doing everything in my power to justify my refusal to do what is right? Katrina Browne, the writer and producer of Traces Of the Trade, has asked this question in her own context, but it’s the piece of this that is most troubling to me. What am I lying to myself about?

The “easy” answers include things like buying clothing made in sweatshops, or eating fruits and vegetables that I have paid impossibly low prices for because the people who labor to bring these foods to me are not paid a living wage. And I can engage in all sorts of self-deception. I have to eat, right? I have to wear clothes. And anyway, the problem is too big for me to address . . . it’s just how things are . . . the extent to which we can justify our complicity in the face of so much injustice is beyond what I can fathom.

I want to believe that i am a Skeeter; it helps sustain my frenzied denial of what I know in the deepest recesses of my heart to be true, that I have the heart of a Hilly. Feel-good movie? Not for me, and not for anybody who wants to be honest with herself.

What’s in a name?

“What’s your name?”

The elderly lady smiled at Elijah and asked him this seemingly innocuous question. I am certain that she had no idea how complicated this question actually was. I watched him, wondering what he would say. Most of the time lately, he will say, “I’m Moo-Moo” (TiTi Lena’s nickname for him from the start). When I call him “Elijah”, the name I’ve been calling him since before he was born, he answers to that name. But on this day, he turned to the woman and said, “Cecil*”.

And my heart sunk. Because yes, his name is Cecil. Cecil Elijah Davis (“Jr. III”, but that’s a story for another day).

Before he was born, Sara and I had managed to talk Mona into reversing the order of his names. Instead of Cecil Elijah, we had her convinced to call him Elijah, with Cecil as his middle name. “All of your other boys have names from the Bible”, we told her. And then there was what we didn’t say – that the Cecil he was to be named after was nowhere to be found. It was Elijah’s aunties who brought Mona to and from her doctor’s appointments in those long two and a half months between the time she found out she was pregnant and the time Elijah arrived. We were the ones who took her to her weekly non-stress tests. We were the ones who encouraged her to eat correctly when her diabetes was raging out of control. When the doctor told Mona, “We have to keep an eye on things because we don’t want your baby to be stillborn”, I was the one who had to ask her, “Mona, do you know what ‘stillborn’ means?” I almost came to blows with a friend of Mona’s who was goading her into mocking my assertion that hers had been a high-risk pregnancy, because I knew. I knew, because I was there.

A few days before the baby was born, Cecil Senior (who himself is also Cecil Junior; there’s a whole lotta “unclear on the concept” going on here) strode back onto the scene, with that toothpick dangling from his mouth and that creepy, controlling demeanor. When we wanted to visit Elijah in the step-up NICU,  we were not permitted to enter without him (or Mona) accompanying us. Nothing we had been through together mattered at that point. We were out, and he was in, and so was the new name. Baby Elijah was now Baby Cecil. (This was also the point at which I started calling the father “FOTY”, for “Father of the Year”, because he swaggered in acting like he was in charge and feigning great interest in the baby’s health issues while he was in the step-up NICU).

It’s been almost three years, and I’ve gone on calling him Elijah without giving it a second thought, until recently. By the time the above conversation occurred, this had already been nagging at me for a while. Part of the issue is that FOTY is in the picture to a much greater extent these days, and although I still feel like I need to wash myself in bleach every time I interact with the man, I have to begrudgingly admit that Elijah seems to do well with him. And although he’s never said a word about it, I am almost to the point where I feel like I’m being disrespectful by not calling the child by his given name in the presence of his namesake.

I think the hardest thing for me, though, is hearing my beloved Elijah refer to himself by this other name. When I ask him, “Who’s Elijah, then?” he points to himself . . . he knows that this is the name that Aunt Sara, Aunt Lorraine, and everybody in our circle calls him. But when he is talking more, and going into more and more situations where people will call him by his “real” name, I am starting to seriously question how I should handle this.

I can’t call him Cecil. I just can’t do it. He is, and always will be, “Elijah” to me. But I don’t know what to do about everybody else. When I signed him up for nursery at church, I listed his name as “Elijah”, and so his name tag does not say “Cecil”. I find myself waiting for the day when FOTY will show his true colors and fly into a rage about this, demanding that the name be corrected, and while I don’t think that avoiding a scene is a good enough reason to give in, I find myself more and more wondering what the “right” thing to do really is in this situation.

I know he’s not my child. But I don’t know what to do. What is the right thing to do in this situation? How can I be fair to his biological father while still acknowledging that I, too, am a part of his life, and that he has never been anybody other than Elijah to me?

What would you do if you were in my situation?

(*pronounced “Sea-sill”, not “Ses-sill” as in B. De Mille)

Sunday blogging against racism–love your hair, but not because I said you should.

So yeah . . . of course I absolutely love this video . . . but I keep hearing people say, “Oh, this adoptive father wrote this for his daughter, who is from Ethiopia, isn’t that so nice?” Well, yeah, it’s sweet and all, blah blah blah, but how long is it going to take before black folks can like their hair just because THEY decided to like their hair, and not because we benevolent white folks have given them “permission”?

I’m glad that this white father of an African-American daughter is conscious of these issues, and cares about his daughter’s self-image. Still, I long for the day when we as white people will stop feeling like we get to be the ones to give black women ‘permission” to call the hair God gave them “beautiful” . . .

Sunday blogging against . . . myself?

It has to have been seven or eight months since this happened, but it has haunted me ever since. So much so, in fact, that I have resisted writing about it here out of my embarrassment and shame. But, delinquent blogger that I am, I have to write something, and so here goes . . .

I was in the food court at the mall, and because I was still recovering from my ankle surgery last year, I was maneuvering with the help of Speed Racer. Sara had Elijah and was getting herself settled with him, and I was trying to get Chinese food and make my way back to the table. Yes, on one leg and while trying to maneuver a tray of food.

An African-American woman at the next counter over saw me struggling and had compassion on me. She told her son (who was about 9 or 10) to come over and offer to help me, which he did.

I was not paying attention to my surroundings, as usual, and so did not notice this sweet young man coming up to me until he was right next to me. When I realized he was trying to speak to me, I jumped . . . as I was trying to get his words to translate from my ears to my brain (something I tend to have trouble with under any circumstances), I looked at him with a panicked, forced smile and shook my head while sputtering something like, “no, thank you, I’ve got it, but I appreciate the offer”. I think I then said something about how I was shaking my head “yes” while saying “no” with my mouth–something like, “I know that I’m shaking my head the opposite of what I am saying”–but I don’t know. maybe I’m not remembering that part correctly.

I know I am remembering the forced, automatic and fake smile, though. My facial muscles still ache with self-condemnation every time I think about it.

I have so many excuses for why I jumped out of my skin when he approached me. Primary among those is the fact that having both ADHD and PTSD means that I both zone out easily and startle easily. One of my coworkers, after having seem me react that way one time too many, has taken to using very deliberate footsteps when she approaches me. I hate when I am jumpy like that, because it is never in any way the fault of the person who has (unintentionally) startled me, but people quite often take it personally.

But I have no excuse. This sweet, polite young man had absolutely no  reason to interpret the look of terror in my eyes, combined with the fake, plastered smile and meaningless words, as anything other than what I fear it really was.For this young man, and for his mother, my personal history was not even a factor. I am certain that they could only assume I was reacting in that over-exaggerated way because of a fear or a distrust of black men. How could it be interpreted any other way?

I still wish to this day that I had gone back to them and said something. I sometimes fantasize that I’ll somehow run into them again and will be able to make my apology, even though I barely remember what they looked like anymore. And I don’t want to give a complicated justification for my actions–“It’s unconscious–it’s a learned response”, blah blah blah, shut up, Lorraine . . . I just want to tell him how very, very sorry I am.

All I know is that in that moment, I wounded the heart of that little boy, and somehow sent the message that, no matter how many kind things he might do in his life, that there are always going to be white women reacting in unfounded fear at the very sight of him. And as I sat down for dinner with my own precious brown-skinned godson Elijah sitting next to me, my heart broke at the thought that he too will grow up in a world where people will instinctively and automatically jump in fear when they see him coming . . . even if he is the sweetest little boy in the world, and even if he comes with the most altruistic of motives . . . because at the end of the day, the inheritance we’ve all carried down through the years is one of mistrust, of irrational fear, and of unconscious, yet immediate judgments based on appearance.

I do not want Elijah to have to face the reality that I subjected this boy to . . . this young man who only wanted to be helpful, but who got only disdain and disrespect in return.

I can’t go back to that day and change my actions . . . all I can do is to continue to fight this monster of racism that rears its ugly head so often. I owe it to that young man to do so. I owe it to Elijah. And I owe it to myself, because this below-the-surface racism is a poison that needs to be eliminated from my body, mind and soul.

I’m so sorry, young man, wherever you may be. I’m sorry that you have to face a world filled with people like me. But I have to thank you as well, because your kind gesture taught me so much more than you will ever know.