When my husband and I built our house at Pickwick Lake, we built it into the high bluffs that circle the lake. In order for this to work, the architect had to take steel beams and drive them through the shifting mud until he hit bedrock. The house was thus anchored and then built around these beams.
I keep thinking of this image as I ponder the murders in Charleston, South Carolina. What I keep seeing is that the steel beams anchoring the house of America is racism. Yes, the house we’ve built around these beams has many wonderful things, particularly an impetus to help others during times of need. But the beams are there, firmly embedded in the rock, holding up the house.
I can’t wish away the beams. I can’t pretend they aren’t holding up the house. I have to say, hunh–look at that. Without these beams, we wouldn’t have the country we have. Slaves built the White House. Slaves built Wall Street. Leased convicts and sharecroppers and Jim Crow labor—our entire economy has segued from one racist exploitation to the next. The steel beams of racism have run through our American house since we laid the 3/5 brick then wearied of Southern complaint and let Reconstruction lapse into Jim Crow and then discovered the magic of mass incarceration. Was this racism necessary to build the house we chose? Could we have created a wonderful country without it? Sure, but that’s not what we chose. We white Americans chose where we wanted to go and we chose racism as the tool to get us there. We forged those beams and hammered them into the bedrock and never looked back.
Now what do I do? First, I own it. I quit crawfishing. I quit attributing our social problems to everything but our bedrock racism. When our racism erupts into view I do not automatically blame mental illness. Lack of gun control. Erosion of family values. Economic disparity. Too little God in our lives. When our leaders and those around me try to obfuscate, I say, well, first, there’s racism.
First, there’s racial hatred. When I’m unwilling to purely and cleanly condemn white culture’s jokes, name-calling, “Southern” pride, and revisionist history. When I deny the pain we’re causing with our racist statues and buildings and street names and flags and holidays. When I place other things above the pain we’re causing. When I cannot even admit we are causing pain, there’s racial hatred.
First, there’s obdurate racial blindness. When I believe I must somehow allow white people to be victims too; when I insist my white feelings be taken into account; when nine African-Americans have died at the hands of a racist white man and yet I must type all lives matter. When I cannot step off the stage, cannot keep from pushing myself into the forefront, cannot quit bleating about my own issues. When I feel the need to say, okay, but. When I don’t even realize it’s my white culture causing the problem, when I think the naming of pre-existing racism is divisive or hostile, there’s racial blindness.
First, there is racial denigration. When I refuse to acknowledge that we Americans have always used black lives to create our shelter, when I can’t see that we are still doing it. When I let state legislatures pass laws that place the burden of “progress” on black lives—balanced budgets, criminal reform, drug wars, voter ID: is there any social “problem” we haven’t asked blacks to bear the burden of solving?—then label it “politics” or “conservative” or “Southern” or “sound fiscal policies,” instead of calling it racism, there’s racial denigration. When I cannot admit the truth but keep adding stories to the racist house, then I must stop and say: first, there is racism.
First, there is racism.
First, there is racism.
What is the answer, what is the second thing? I don’t know. But I cannot go onto the second thing until I give up my vested interest in denying, until I give up any and all push-back against the reality, until I admit the first thing.
When I began talking about a Door of Hope writing group book, people told me the book had to include my voice. Feature my voice, even. This was not what I wanted. Specifically, I didn’t want to be the well-off white woman who began working with those who had no shelter and immediately had the bright idea to write a book about her experience. What I wanted was for people to read the book, get to know the writers, and shift their view of “the homeless.” Specifically, I wanted readers to eagerly approach the authors at book signings and start talking to them as if they knew them. I wanted the book’s readers to love and appreciate the authors as much as I did.
But how to structure the book? I went around the block several times over this but eventually landed on a group memoir: WRITING OUR WAY HOME: A GROUP JOURNEY OUT OF HOMELESSNESS. Chronological chapters tell the authors’ stories: When We Were Young, As We Grew Up, What Sent Us into Homelessness. The wonderful review done by Chapter 16.org noted that this structure gives the full picture of the authors’ lives, not just the “dramatic second act” when they experienced living on the streets. How grateful I am for this insight. Because homelessness is only one part of the authors’ fluid lives, an overwhelming, proud-to-have-survived part, but nonetheless only a part.
As I am in New Orleans recovering from hip surgery, I couldn’t be there in person to accept the award. My good friend and proud homeless champion Marisa Baker accepted for me. And here’s the group photo of all the winners:
I love it that the book is literally standing in for me, accepting the honor. So very fitting. For the award means my decision long ago to focus on the writers’ voices was the correct choice. The Champion choice. The one most supportive of those who have experienced homelessness in their lives. For they, the authors, are the true Champions.
To honor this award, please go to Amazon and buy a copy of the book. Read it, then pass it along to whoever you feel led to share it with. Thank you!
When we were interring Daddy in the Old Chapel Hill Cemetery (x marks the spot, a shovel, and an urn), rain fell. We held umbrellas, but we were moving, digging and tossing dirt. The August rain dripped slow and steady—not warm, not cool, just rain—and even as it was happening, I knew I’d never act afraid of the rain again. No running to get out of a sudden shower. No hunched shoulders. No grimacing face. Just rain.
The dog and I exit for our 1:00 walk, and rain patters the cobblestones. The clouds have been bruised all morning, but if I’d known the rain had finally arrived, I would’ve worn my yellow slicker—I love every opportunity to wear my yellow slicker. Without the slicker, I stand in the white tee I stole from Tom, the rain wetting the cotton and revealing my turquoise bra beneath. We wander across the parking lot, and petrichor rises from the hot cement. This—walking in the rain without exhibiting any of the social conventions that silently say I know I’m caught in the rain, nothing I can do about it—is the start of insanity. Or sanity, maybe.
When I was a child, rain fell in sheets from heaven, marching down Arlington Street while I stood with arms outstretched, willing it to come to me. Exhilarated at its arrival, I scooted beneath the giant oak whose sturdy arms umbrellaed me as rain splattered the ground. How long does it take to get back to the joy of rain? Not looking through the rain to the sunshine returning on the other side, but the dimples in the puddle, the fish at the surface of the pond opening its mouth, the rivulets sluicing through the waving green grass. Rain for the joy of rain. Does anyone ever pray, dear God, send me what I love even if no one else in the world would ever want it?
The shade on our living room window diffuses the light. When the sun’s going down, the room glows golden. A blue turquoise Christmas tree from Target sits on the window sill—the apartment is decorated in white and black and turquoise. I left the tree up after Christmas as a spot of color. Backlit by the sun, framed by the skyline of New Orleans complete with blocky buildings and telephone poles, the tree stands like someone’s idea of hope.
The moment is static, the present. In the so-recent past looms the cogitating face of the boy, his mind working up images of a REALLY scary bird, a description which, in the end, makes him laugh. And the waggling head of the little blond-headed boy who runs into the bedroom, giddy with the joy of being awake for another day.
In the future is the half-remembered pain of surgery and debilitation. No bending, no getting out of the bed by yourself, the loss of proper day and night. But, in the hallway, under the bench, inside the basket, lies a new backpack bought for the coming days when I transform into an intentional walker, a woman who will not let one crank of these new fake hips go to waste.
The sun gathers itself into a bright ball, no longer spreading. The light gives way to a royal blue horizon. At the edge of mountainous cloud, sits a crown, as golden as the thin bracelet on a child’s wrist.