Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The In Between


We finally reached a truce.

Following myriad pleas, cajoles and threats, my family finally agreed to not use certain epithets in my presence. After long arguments and subtle persuasions both sides realized the gulf of understanding was too deep to bridge and instead chose that very southern solution - polite silence.

My mother would occasionally slip and seeing me nearby would apologize. It was one of those stomach flipping moments where all realized the child now led the way and the parent would forever follow.

My brothers and sisters continued to follow the truce until our mother left us. With her passing we were placed in the position of the top rung of the family. Families, like the packs of predators which are their heritage, require leaders and perhaps it was that struggle for supremacy which led my siblings back to the hidden truth - they desired to again casually use certain words in my presence.

At first there were gentle corrections then as things turned ugly not-so gentle accusations. Soon, as four people splintered, sides were taken and I was inexorably pulled towards the brother who was most like myself - except he was 13 years older, a product of the turbulent sixties with its bussing and violence and although no one would ever say it was dominant in his life, bigoted.

He used certain explosive words as thoughtlessly as a man might use the word Coca-cola to describe what he was drinking. He flatly stated if his daughters brought home a black man he would remove them from his life. When told that Barack Obama may win the Presidency, he rolled his eyes and muttered, "what is the world coming to?"

The polite silence was irrevocably shattered when one of my nieces finally crossed that ultimate line of race. For the dating habits of a 19-year old girl, I was sent flying on a 400 mile trip to attempt to heal a broken family.

After many tears, the family did not heal completely but remained together. They reached their own uneasy truce. The father would not interfere but the daughter would not "put it in his face". My brother frankly told me that he knew we were different and there were things I took as the way of the world which he could never accept.

We as a society have moved so far in this particular struggle but it is close by where we struggle so hard. I could no more remove my brother from my life than I could cut off my right hand because it offends. But events of this week have shown that we must all work harder. We must be willing to tell those we hold most dear, "brother, I love you but when I'm around there are things you can't do".

And change will come. Perhaps all the ones we love will not change but with each passing of that love change will be inevitable.

Many months after the "boyfriend incident" as my brother sat rolling his eyes at the possibility of a black man being President, my niece standing just behind her father sotto voce told me, "I think he'll be a good President".

6 comments:

Grayson said...

Interesting how we turn to what we learned (in fact are still learning) in our own families after the Obama speech. I imagine there is a universality to this, um, intropective process.

Amber said...

We must be willing to tell those we hold most dear, "brother, I love you but when I'm around there are things you can't do".

YES. Exactly.

I've said this before... and the right-wingers with a hard-on for "free speech" (when it suits them, of course) always come out of the woodwork to tell me how much I hate America.

I predict they'll be here on your blog within 2 more comments. (But I hope I'm wrong!)

But, yeah. This is so true. People need to understand that being a friend, a true friend, sometimes means laying down the law.

catherine said...

Many moons ago, I had the privilege of hearing a lecture by former Black Panther Angela Davis. The bulk of her lecture was about talking back to the ethnic (or sexist) joke; calling friends and family on offensive language. I came away from that afternoon with a new-found strength to do just that. It's been more than a decade (heck, maybe two, I can't recall exactly) but I still think of her when I politely (OK, sometimes not so politely) ask someone to refrain from offensive language.

Change will come. Remember the words of Bobby Kennedy:

"Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance."

Amber said...

Catherine, this blog post really resonated w/ me, on the topic of talking back to jokes, etc.:

"I noticed this happening just the other day, while hanging out with 3 of my male friends. I could feel inhibitions settling in, and though I scolded myself for allowing these guys, merely by their presence, to have so much control over what I said, I still found myself sitting quietly, laughing politely at things that weren’t particularly funny to me. I noticed that I was restraining myself from saying anything that wasn’t clever, witty, or otherwise profound, as if I were representing all of womankind.

This is not a healthy environment if a woman is to be free to be herself. If we keep acting like we’re expected to, nothing will change. Women will continue to sit quietly, laughing politely at misogynistic comments, choosing flats to make a man feel more masculine. It takes courage to act unexpectedly, to risk ridicule or judgment. It takes courage, but courage we’ve got."

Anonymous said...

James, This is a beautiful story. Beautifully written, but even more beautiful because of the strength it takes to stand up for what you believe is right. Silence is easier, but I greatly respect your strength and resolve. Thank you for sharing this story.

Jim Ainsworth

LarryE said...

I came here via Jon Swift's compilation.

Nicely done. My family didn't go through that, but my first wife's did, including achieving much the same truce of some things just not being said when she (or I) was around - and they weren't southerners, being from central New Jersey.