Saturday, June 20, 2015

Charleston: my confession

In memoriam

Three days ago: nine shades of human, wiped forever off the palette.

Around the rest of the globe: how many others?

Nine people singled out in a church ... Nine people, among others, who welcomed a young man into their midst, who sat with him in a circle for a Bible study. I wonder what verse they were pondering and discussing when he drew his gun.

He spared one woman, apparently, telling her to remember what he had done.

We will all remember. We are all saturated with memories of people who have drawn guns, knives, and other weapons against other people. We're all overloaded with the images, the sounds, the bloodshed. We all wonder who is next.

Around the world, we wonder.

Meanwhile, the voices rise. "He's mentally ill," say some. "He's a racist thug, a terrorist," say others. "He's a gun nut like his father, who gave him a gun for his birthday," say more. He's barely out of boyhood and he's come to hate his fellow human beings who have varying shades of cocoa-coloured skin.

He was immersed through his life in a culture of hate. Who taught him to hate? I can't name any one person in his case ... but I can in my own. In the wake of this killing, I recall my own immersion.

I'm white. More a pinky-beige, but my ancestry is known as white. Mostly WASP, with some Western European and Pennsylvania Dutch thrown in. I'm a mutt. Right there, my skin tone sets me against what we perceive as its opposite: black. Right there, we drive a wall into the ground of being by calling one person "white" and another "black."

The truth is, there's one theme: skin tone. Its variations number in the billions. Skin tone is as unique as a fingerprint. Whose skin truly is white; whose truly is black? There are a few of us, relative to the billions, whose albino skin comes close to the white of this page. There are a few whose skin tinge is authentic black. All of us ... variations on the theme of human.

We tend to stick with our kind. Our familiars. One could say that we are pack animals in our way. The question is, Do we become communal pack animals, or contrary pack animals? Are the circles of our relations permeable -- will we open our arms to others, or will we close ranks and tighten our grip on who and what we know, refusing to admit others as potential kin?

I learned early in life to tighten my grip, even as my essential nature was attracted to kinship outside my family. I was contrary in that respect. A familial belief that I heard again and again was, "You can't trust anyone outside the family!" My parents had money enough to hire other people to tend their home and children; these people came from all kinds of backgrounds foreign to mine. Women and men from Finland, England, Ireland, the Caribbean, Yugoslavia, and other countries cleaned our home, cooked for us, sometimes tucked me and my siblings into bed. Most of them radiated kindness and care; one of them has adopted me, in her heart, as her other daughter. She is the mother of my soul, and was my father's most faithful friend for the last ten years of his life.

I heard the "n" word spoken when our Caribbean helpers weren't around. I heard other words that insulted people whose racial origins were different from mine. Every such word came from my father's mouth. From whom did he learn those words? I don't know.

Until I was about ten, when I'd been thoroughly immersed in my father's imperative of racism, I was baffled: How could my father love me and our family, but appear to hate so many other people? How could he call our domestic helpers by name, sometimes with affection and what I sensed as respect, but refer to some of them with epithets when they weren't around? I came to believe without comprehension what I'd been told I was, even as I often felt like an alien in my own home. Somehow, I was deemed superior because of my skin tone. Somehow, my pale skin made me more human.

When I was eleven, I was invited for a sleepover at my best friend's house. My friend -- I'll call her Olive, after the tone of her skin -- and I formed a club whose members numbered two: us. We called it "Pick-a-Pants." We drew cartoon faces on an easel draped with big white sheets of paper. The faces were classmates we didn't like. If I recall correctly, we shot spitballs from thick straws at those faces. The girls in question we judged as stupid, fat, ugly. We spit-balled and thought ourselves superior. We doubled over laughing at our classmates' faults. Then we went to bed. Olive's bed was draped with a duvet of down; it was big enough for two, and there we lay, nattering away with secrets and schemes.

A moment arrived of argument. I don't recall what we clashed about; I only know that as my ire arose, a word shot out of my mouth, right into Olive's ear.


Olive turned to ice; she rolled away from me. Her stony back became a wall. Her ice became my tar. Shame. Panic. Death in a bed. I'd shot her with a word, and the shrapnel deflected off her back and sheared me through and through.

The next morning: stone in a bowl for breakfast. I could barely choke down the cereal that her mother laid before me. Olive's eyes refused to meet my own. She tore ahead of me down the driveway to the bus, and sat herself down with the first familiar face she found. I sat alone. Later, in gym class, she sat beside another girl; I was again alone. She did look at me then, once. Hatred; purest hate. She would not speak with me again.

I never learned of her ancestry. I did learn what one word could do to a bond, to a soul. To two souls.

I never used that word again ... out loud. Beneath the shame that curtailed my mouth for life, nigger and its vile cousins spun about through my adolescence, lashing at my throat, taunting for release. Those words can still rebel against my native curiosity and fascination with other cultures, other peoples. They still pop up, in rare moments, to the front of my mind when I meet someone whose heritage bespeaks profound, seeming difference. There's even a pair of words that erupt against other "whites" from whom my background differs: "White trash!"

That phrase made a brief appearance yesterday when I saw the image of the young man who shot those nine people in Charleston. I shook my head against it, as I always do when one of those despicable words erupts. Human, human, human, I decree. I also tell myself, as Viktor Frankl believed, that there are only two human races: the decent, and the indecent. I sometimes think that another pairing of similar contrast is human ... and humane.

We're all human. Do we choose to be humane? -- Already, several relatives of the nine people killled in Charleston have expressed forgiveness towards the young man who shot them. Here is decency and humanity of the highest order: what I call humane-ity.

One loathsome word, spat at a friend when I was a child, stopped me cold from ever spewing  such a one again. I admit the immersion, and my lifelong vigilance against allowing a racial slur to move from old habituated thought to speech. I was infected, early in life, as was my father ... and I apply the medicines of awareness, silence, and humane seeing if the old insults bait my throat, wanting out. I want to know my fellow humans by name, by story, by culture ... by music, dance, cuisine. Curiosity cures the caustic, mutes the fiend in me, the fiend who was just a child immersed. (Unlearning can take a lifetime.) I want to be a friend; I want to learn. The world is full of wonders ... and countless colours, costumes, cultures.

Never again a spittled word of hate. Never will I draw a word, or a gun, against another being. I've never even held a gun, and I pray I never will. Instead, I hold my hands against my heart and murmur, Mercy.

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