Show me the color of your right hand, pt. I

5 07 2015

Ta-Nehisi Coates, after excerpting a story of his experience with racism, has invited his readers to submit their own experiences. A misreading of this invitation (“talk about your experiences with race”)  prompted the following response from me. I thought I’d whittle it down and submit it, but upon re-reading his post, it’s clear my response isn’t on target and so won’t be submitted. Still, I thought it worth posting. Here’s part I:

I didn’t know I was white until I was an adult.

Even now, long into adulthood, I’m not always so sure.

As a kid in the 1970s, growing up in almost completely white town in a mostly white state, I knew I was white—but white meant pale, white was set against tan, not black. White was about the sun, and the more sun—the tanner you were—the better.

I could get a decent tan (we used suntan lotion back in the day, not sunscreen, and only until we had a base tan: then we’d switch over to baby oil), but mostly I found laying out boring. I wanted a tan to look better, to not be white, but it was a hassle not being white. You had to work at not being white, so while I worked enough not to look sickly—pale—I never achieved the glorious tans of some of my friends.

I wasn’t completely oblivious of race back then. We had a t.v., after all, and on trips to or through Milwaukee I would see black people; on family trips around the country I’d encounter black people, and they were utterly other to me. I wasn’t afraid, wasn’t particularly taught to be afraid by my parents, but it was always a little thrilling to talk to a black person like it was a normal thing to do.

*Caveat: I am running off of memory, This is how I remember the experience, today; how I actually experienced it, in the moment, is gone.

“Nigger” was not used in the Peterson household. No nigger jokes, no racial jokes, generally. Did we say “nigger pile” when we three kids jumped into my parents’ bed on Sunday mornings, or were we admonished not to? Did we change the words to “eeny meeny miney moe”? I don’t remember*. I do remember my dad telling us about the separate drinking fountains in San Angelo, Texas, where he served for awhile in the Air Force. There was at least one black man in his unit.

I liked to imagine, later, that it was this experience, along with, perhaps, seeing on t.v. the brutality of white resistance to civil rights protesters, that set my parents against racist talk, but I don’t know. It’s not something we talked much about.

My time at college at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, was my first sustained exposure to black people. Some lived in my dorm, some taught my classes, some worked at The Daily Cardinal, but however friendly we might have been with one another, we weren’t really friends. I was always conscious of their race; I had barely begun to think I, too, had a race.

It wasn’t until graduate school that I thought, truly, to do something about my other-consciousness, which meant admitting my self-consciousness. I remember reading a bit in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune of a white woman who, while waiting for a bus, thrust out her arm and screamed out STOP! at a young black man running up to her, intent, she was sure, on stealing her purse. He was, of course, only running to catch the bus, but this woman justified her scream with a well-he-could-have. . . .

I was scornful of this woman. Of course he was only running to catch the bus, how racist could she be? But if I wouldn’t have screamed like that woman did, I might have had the thought behind the scream. I knew that when I looked at one black person I saw every black person. They were all the same to me, I admitted, and if that wasn’t racism, little was.

I didn’t want to be racist, and knew that whatever good anti-racist politics I might hold, if every black person I saw was every black person, I was a racist.

Cont.





My eyes are the stars in your deepest night

4 09 2013

From “Requiem” by Anna Akhmatova:

No, not under the vault of another sky, not under the shelter of other wings. I was with my people then, there where my people were doomed to be.

Instead of a Forward

During the years of the Yezhovschina, I spent seventeen months standing outside the prison in Leningrad, waiting for news. One day someone recognized me. Then a woman with lips blue from the cold, who was standing behind me, and of course had never heard of my name, came out of the numbness which affected us all. She whispered in my ear (for we all spoke in whispers there): “Can you describe this?”

I said, “I can.”

Then something resembling a smile slipped over what had once been her face…

(Wholesale blog theft from Brad DeLong)





Springtime for Hitler

28 07 2013

Austria kinda creeps me out.

Rest assured, I have no reason to be so out-creeped—it is not my area of study, I’ve never visited, I used to enjoy this bar/restaurant in Minneapolis that served Austrian food, and I have fond memories of my time in The Sound of Music—but somethin’ about the place sets me off.

Hitler! You might say: It’s Hitler!

Ehhhh, maaaaybeee—except I’m not creeped out by Germany. Yes, der Futur Führer was born and grew up in what is now Austria, but he was just a whiny loser as he mooned about Vienna: he did his real damage while based in the country to his north.

Still, there may be something about German efforts to come to terms with its past which contrasts favorably to Austria, which, famously, has not.

Ah: the creep may come from a sense of all kinds of nasty shit fermenting away below the surface.

Remember that guy who kidnapped and raped his own daughter and kept her and her kids in his basement? Not surprised that this happened in Austria.

Now, I repeat: this is completely unfair to Austria, especially given the recent escape by three women from years-long imprisonment from a house in Cleveland. There are psychopaths and serial criminals—not to mention unmentioned crimes of the state—in every country, so it’s unfair to single out Austria.

But I’m still singling out Austria.

All of this is a very long way to a very short point: the recent “discovery” of a village bell dedicated to Adolph Hitler is yet another crack in  the Austrian-victim-of-Anschluss excuse for history, and as such, ought to be celebrated.

I get the point of Raimund Fastenbauer that the bell could become a pilgrimage site for neo-Nazis and thus should be “disappeared”, but given how much mid-century Austrian history has been disappeared, I think getting rid of the bell is the exact wrong approach.

Let it ring out, literally and metaphorically. Let it be seen, and heard. Let it be talked about.

After 80 years, let it finally be talked about.





Hey look-a here, just wait and see

17 07 2013

The summer between my third & fourth years at Madison I worked “maintenance” for the university.

I put “maintenance” in quotes because we didn’t really do any maintenance—that was left to the regular civil service staff; mostly, we cleaned.

I’d worked food service the summer before, but “maintenance” was much better because there were more hours: full-time, M-F, in the Southeast dorms (Sellery A & B, Ogg, and Witte).

The first 4 or 6 weeks we cleaned all of the windows in all of the dorms, inside and out. The supervisors (also students) would come around and stand sideways to the windows to check for streaks and missed spots and ponies, telling us to re-do a bunch if we were on schedule, or just to wipe up the errata if we were behind.

Then they’d task us with various bullshit—cleaning out window wells, cleaning and painting dumpsters (not as bad as it sounds, actually), removing the tar that seeped up through the cracks in the basements. (Word was the Southeast dorms were built on a swamp, and tar had been used as filler. I don’t know if that was true, but tar really did ooze out of the cracks.) Anyway, they kept us busy until the end of the summer, when they needed us to do real work again.

A big chunk of that real work was cleaning up after bankers. The university ran seminars for businessfolk, putting them up in the dorms, so we did the maid-work, cleaning rooms, bathrooms, etc., during and after their stay. It wasn’t a bad gig: the dorms were air conditioned, and the bankers would often leave booze and food behind.

We were supposed to toss these leavings, but, c’mon, who does that? The regular civil service staff and the student workers had a silent understanding, each taking what was left and saying nothin’ to nobody.

As we worked these various jobs, our work crews would shift. I ended up maid-ing with a couple of girls I didn’t know very well, and, really, hadn’t been terribly interested in. Nothing awful: they had their group, I had mine.

They, however, turned out to be the perfect pair to work with. There were no awkward conversations about keeping the booze, and, like most (although not all) of the student workers, saw no point in working too hard. We did what we needed to, nothing more.

Anyway, what prompted this reminiscence was the one girl, whose face I can barely make out, but she had straight blond hair, who’d walk around muttering “she’s sure fine lookin’ man, she’s something else” at her friend (also blond, but curly), and they’d both crack up.

One lunch hour—for which we had to punch out—we took some of the leftover beer and whiskey and found a spot decently away from the main office and all ate together. I finally asked her about the line.

“Eddie Cochrane,” she’d said, then repeated, “She’s sure fine lookin’ man, she’s something else.”

I didn’t know the name of the song, but remembered Eddie (after briefly confusing him with Tommie) Cochrane, and way later found a best-of cd with, (what else) “Somethin’ Else”.

So, after that verrrrrrrrrry long prelude, for your listening pleasure:

I was listening to it early this evening. It’s a great song.

And not a bad memory.





I won’t recall the names and places of each sad occasion

9 07 2013

Twenty five years, a quarter century, almost half of my life—so far away, in so many ways.

I’ve mentioned before that I no longer recognize the desperately self-destructive person I once was, that on those rare occasions I read journal entries from later in my career as a failed suicide I think Jesus, I wrote this? Who writes this?

For twenty years, a fifth of a century, almost half of my life, I berated myself for my life, and in the midst of that fifth I tried, again, and failed, again, to end it. It would be over a decade before I would, finally, leave it all behind.

It’s been over a decade since I left it all behind.

These swaths of time, overlapping and flapping against one another, floating back into and obscuring past versions of myself.

This is the story of everyone’s life, I have to remind myself. Does anyone recognize who they were, then? Who sustains the same line all the way through?

Still, some lines are sustained, if even fictionally. There are pieces of memory I pick up and thread on to the knotted string I call my life, but I can barely remember who I tried to erase and what remains are these odd hard bits that nonetheless are unsettlingly warm in my hand.

Over a decade since I left it all behind, I cannot hold these strange remains for long without fear I will string them all together and back to that long dissolve. And so before I am too warmed I shake my hand and scatter those remains.

And so there are some ways I cannot know today of who I was before.

This is not a tragedy; this may not even be a loss. I wish I could know, nonetheless.





I am thinking of your voice

3 06 2013

I’m not much for happiness (as you may have noticed), but oh, it makes me happy to hear Suzanne Vega on the radio.

Well, it was a segment on Soundcheck about the Suzanne Vega/DNA mashup of “Tom’s Diner”, but still, that counts, right?

(And I have to write “Suzanne Vega”, not “Suzanne” or “Vega”. Suzanne Vega.)

I may have written about this before, but what the hell: I was introduced to Suzanne Vega the summer before I went off to college. It was a presidential election year, and I was doing screamingly boring scut work (something about checking election or registration rolls against the phone book ) for the local Democratic Party. I set up a card table in my parents’ living room in front of the t.v. and switched between CNN (I still have affection for Jeannie Moos) and MTV.

Remember, I am old, so this is still when CNN was new and Turner-owned, and MTV played music.

Anyway, this video came on of this wispy woman with wispy hair with a cool, cool voice singing this song about. . . I don’t know what. Huh, I thought. Not the usual MTV fare.

Then the next day or later that week, the vid played again, and I thought, I gotta write this down, and probably got her name (since I did track down the album) but mis-wrote the song title as “Marianne on the Wall.”

It was, of course, “Marlene on the Wall”, and I never again saw that vid on MTV.

Well. I loved loved loved that album, and loved her cool, cool voice. It’s by no means a spectacular voice—I had no trouble singing along to all of the songs and while I can carry a tune I can’t toss it in the air—but there was a knowingness to it, and a kind of intense detachment. She’s paying attention, she might even get sucked in, but she can still see, she can still sing.

None of my friends were into her music, but that was all right: they hadn’t been particularly into Supertramp or the Jam or the Violent Femmes and yet we still somehow all managed to get along. I saw her by myself at the Union in Madison and then later (I think with a friend) at First Ave in Minneapolis.

She lives in New York and gigs about town, but I haven’t gone to any of her shows. It’s less that my ardor for her music has cooled than that my ardor has cooled, generally.

But I still remember when the mere mention of a favorite artist could lift me out of my shoes.





Listen to the music: Just call me Joe

26 11 2012

Where’d Joseph Arthur go?

I coulda sworn I had a cd or two by the guy, but I look at my list of pop music and stolen pop music and he’s nowhere to be found.

Did I own him, then get rid of him? It’s just possible that before I left Somerville I sold or gave away some cds that I didn’t listen to, and thus removed him from my database, but.

But, goddammit: Did I really erase him from everything?

Dammit. Maybe he wasn’t stolen, maybe I bought him post-burglary, then got rid of him pre-Brooklyn, so there’s no record of him ever having graced my collection.

It’s not so much that I miss him—I remember a distinct “eh” upon listening to [pause while I look this up] Big City Secret—but that I’m unhappy that I’m messing with my own memory.

Shit, I do this with books, too: My database is only for current books, not every book I’ve ever owned.

That’s fine, actually, that I don’t obsessively track everything I’ve ever had (just the books and music I do have. . .), but, jeez, this is how I end up gaslighting myself.

Hmpf.








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