The Cellar

Another warm day: songbirds in the tall salmonberry bushes.  The fireweed are showing white seeds and dogwood flowers are in perfect flower along the creek beds.  Dogs rub their back in cut grass whenever they can and kids toter down sidewalks on their small bikes sucking on popsicles sometimes with their helmets unclipped. 

Tragedy of another shooting in the news and the talkers talk of the Confederate flag and gun laws and we parse our words trying to understand the difference between "madness" and "terrorism", between a politically motivated killing, and a culturally mandated one.  

I don't know.  But in amongst all the talk I heard the families of the victims speak of forgiveness, and I found that incredibly moving, black southern voices,  deeply Christian voices.  These people were struggling mightily against their own knee jerk attitudes to find their better selves in their public speech when addressing the man accused of killing their loved ones.  They didn't resort to lazy, or cowardly slander, they spoke out of their truth, and their love of Jesus.  

I so admired them.

If racism is part of what is on the table now, then we must confront it in ourselves.  My own racism comes out ignorance.  I grew up in mostly private schools, and rural communities in the north,  I worked many blue collar jobs and sat quiet for many racist jokes, and laughed and more than a few.  I told myself I was a "progressive" and even radical for my leftist political beliefs,  but too often I stayed quiet when real hatred was given voice and I didn't say a word against it.  Why should I?  There were no Black people around to hear.  I was always adverse to physical confrontation.  I was shy.  Bookish.  I would teach them in an essay.. or a novel.  

Sometimes I did.  But sometimes not clearly enough, and mostly those books never made it into the right hands.  The books were read by the few who were already inclined toward me anyway.  

Don't get me wrong,  I'm not interested in some kind of liberal tear fest here, or worse an AA style feel good confessional. My cheap white guilt heals no Black wounds.  I just think if we are really going to talk about racism we have to start with our own racism... our own limitations and prejudices.  We are all limited by our human experience.  Class and circumstance imprints on us all a certain set of expectations and prejudices. The people who said the sweet and forgiving words to the alleged shooter may well be saints.  But the rest of us live within the parameters of our own experience and we may not be able to love everyone.  We will love the ones we know and have judged to be worthy of love.  Now, of course, this is an argument for broader education and greater faith in our democratic principals and we should trust our institutions to help us resolve conflict with our perceived enemies, not to open fire on them.  But also... we should always be sure just to check ourselves.   Check our prejudices. 

When I was a kid living in New York city, (where my dad briefly had a job) I had snuck out to see B. B. King at the Fillmore East.  It was the late show and I hung out with my buddies after, through some mishap I got on the wrong subway going home and ended up at 125 street in Harlem.  This was 1969,  before it was Bill Clinton's neighborhood and before anyone ever heard of a Starbucks.  It was three in the morning and I crossed he tracks and as I popped down into the tunnel four black men blocked my path.  I took one look and said, "Ooops... I forgot something," and ran up the stairs and to another staircase.

When I got down to the platform I could hear laughter from the other end of the platform. and a young black man came down towards me.  Clearly, now I recognized him as one of the four from the tunnel: a student probably from nearby Columbia University, perhaps a professor,  thick glasses, maybe even a corduroy jacket with leather elbow patches (but thats probably an imaginative flourish)  he sidled up to me and said only,  


Prejudice.  Pre- Judgement.  I had pre judged him.  Roll those dice twelve times in that same situation and I would probably fail that test twelve times.  I would have needed to live in that neighborhood to know the signs.  I would have needed more information not to pre- judge those men.  

We live in a remarkable age of information.  Perhaps we can put it to use.  Perhaps with more love in are hearts and with less of an instinct to shoot and more of an instinct to point at ourselves we could finally really face the seemingly intractable issue of race, and class, in America.  


Warm evening, sitting

out in the red chairs with you

listening to the birds.