25 years ago, today, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and President George H.W. Bush declared the Cold War over.
“America’s history is longer, larger, more various, more beautiful, and more terrible than anything anyone has ever said about it.”
- James Baldwin
If one thing is clear after the events of last night it’s that the killing of Michael Brown is serving as an emblematic reality to a lot of people. It has become larger than the actual event itself, as physical events sometimes do: the breaking of the Berlin Wall, the assassination of Malcolm X, Julius crossing the Rubicon. All these became freighted with meaning. Simple acts like taking a sledgehammer to a wall, crossing a river, and taking one person’s life can become – in just the right political and social contexts – something much more.
The question surrounding the Michael Brown shooting is what more is it than what it is? According to most black commentators it is archetypal of the black/white power struggle in America where whites inevitably win out because of their privileged status and the questionable handling of power against minority groups. A lot of white commentators have similar things to say. Others claim that this is the result of an overblown media event, a spectacle rather than a real issue, propagated by ideology.
Regardless of where you stand it is hard to evade the claws of ideology – that much is clear. There are a couple of things to have handy in your mental toolbox when you’re confronted with an ideological issue like this, and specifically with the case of Michael Brown.
Here are some basics:
1) The typical liberal explanation of human events places much importance on social factors and the typical conservative explanation of human events inherently denies the existence of most of those social factors.
This sounds fancy but it’s not. Modern day liberalism, influenced most profoundly by Marx, assumes things like ‘class-conflict,’ and ‘power hierarchies,’ exist and in fact they underscore liberalism’s entire interpretation of political reality. This polishes the Michael Brown emblem to shine more brightly and clear: Darren Wilson as the powerful oppressor and Michael Brown as the trampled on oppressed; each representing millions of people. None of this is assumed by modern day neo-conservatism whose rubric is almost entirely based on individualism; picking yourself by your own bootstraps and making happen what you can on your own. The concept of power politics does not exist for the conservative, or if so, only very seldom.
This divide muddies the waters in cross-conversation between the two sides. One can easily see how the extremes on both sides are wrong. We live in a world where both large social factors are at work and in which individual action can play an important role. Each side has a portion to offer in understanding the reality around us but neither side is the whole truth
2) It is not only a racial divide but a political and cultural divide that separates us.
This divide between these two perspectives exacerbates the problem of race. How is a black citizen of America supposed to communicate his ails to co-citizens who do not recognize the social reality in which those ails exist? I’ve seen this happen in painful and misunderstood ways. In order for black and white reconciliation there has to be valid and empathetic communication. Too often conversations of race become nit-pick wars of ideology, pitting one social perspective against the other. This becomes even more complicated by the cross-cultural division in which we find ourselves talking past one another.
Real empathy is going to reach past political, cultural and racial divides. It’s listening not talking.
3) Awareness is key.
If you’re not aware of all this it’s about time you hop to it. Racism still exists. It always will. The question is how we deal with it. But it’s rarely defined. It is a complicated and messy social problem that is subtle, insidious and often times taken for granted as something everyone understands.
Part of being aware is being able to cut through the dumb caricature that society-at-large presents us with. Always criticize. Always dig deeper. It is worth it and I promise there are things to find. The best way to do this is to have conversations with intelligent people on every side of any issue you can think of and to listen carefully.
4) There is a truth to be found.
After journeying, after cutting through ideology, media hype, frustrating conversations, fits and starts of empathy, your own selfishness, etc., there is a haven to be had at the end. The conservative will find out that progress is a real thing because there is a real standard of justice to be worked towards, and the progressive will find out that the entire status quo is not all bad and that there are valuable things to keep from the annals of history.
The reality in which we live is larger than the social narratives we paint for ourselves. Until we come to terms with that there is very little we can do to improve the situation in any direction.
P.S. I hope you know, I’ve never loved one like you
Sympathy and rags
Darlings of doctrine…
Simply stunning realities of trees and leaves; and of houses lining old streets of favor.
But long before I met you
I only saw blood & the heartless
Contract killings & puke
& card tables cluttered with glasses of vodka.
Men sleeping with women who only desired profit
The sliest cats reaching into my pockets.
But know that I know you
I can only see human, not perverted
No longer do faces look like digits
Or skirts like fractions waiting to be
I see eyes, and human hands
& love & endless plans
The End, they say, is quickly coming
Prophets, Magistrates, and Delegates are becoming pessimistic
So please darling don’t stop running; until you find your brilliance
Mother Nature will bend to your will
Don’t be afraid at all. Dive in, idealistic
Whether it’s a fire or a fire drill; it doesn’t make a difference
Write like a poet, sing like a flute
Believe me from New York, from France
Believe me from Beirut; believe me from whatever the distance
I can hear you from anywhere
From the tops of buildings, or the Himalayas
Massachusetts or Delaware; from all over, whatever day it is
What a dream that was! – Us, under diamonds
Imbedded in the side of a Great Rock in a café
In its temperate climate; taking the path of least resistance
All I mean to say is I think you’re the best
And if it’s all ending, or never was,
Don’t let the inexpressible go unexpressed
Summer would not let go of autumn’s heels. It was October – schools were back in session, the pools were closed, lemonade stands were packed up, lawn chairs tucked back in dusty corners of garages – but it was still hot with an aboriginal heat well into evenings. It was a typical Ohioan revolt against the fixed laws of Mother Nature. Even now, close to midnight, the damp air wrenched droplets of sweat down Reinaldo’s arms and chest as he lounged in Vivian’s front porch swing, swinging back and forth to his own rhythm. The swing’s wooden beams were splayed into gnarled splinters and its rusted chains suspending it over the concrete porch were pulled taut beyond physical explanation; the wooden seat rounding to accommodate his large center of gravity. Against all sound structural judgment and the 110% humidity, he swung with his fingers laced behind his head. His head was resting on his palms, tilted so from the corner of his eye he could see Vivian, perched on her plastic chair behind him swinging her legs back and forth like a girl much younger than she was.
Beyond Vivian, down on the street, spectators of the first Lebanon High school football game of the year were unloading minivans into driveways around their neighborhood. In the light of garage door security floodlighting out of one came Wayne the Warrior, the school mascot: a large, polyester Native American stumbling over his head mask’s long stream of chief feathers causing him to lose his step. After his tumble out of the van’s opening he turned to close the automated sliding door behind him. His feathers got caught in the door without him noticing and as he walked away he was yanked back and ker-plopped right on his ass like a dog on a leash.
Vivian started a slow clap sardonically applauding Wayne’s fall and called over to him, “Way to go Wayne!”
Wayne looked over and waved at them in full acceptance of his defeat. He hung his head but had to be smiling underneath the large foam head. He stood back up and opened the minivan door retrieving his train of feathers and hobbled to his front stoop with a bit of a limp behind his mom already unlocking the house’s front door. It had all happened and the mother was apparently totally unaware of the spill. After Wayne closed the door behind him there was a small piece of feather peeking out from underneath it, stuck yet again. Vivian doubled over in laughter. She almost tipped over in her chair.
“Did you see that Reinaldo? The mascot just got tied up in his mom’s minivan and fell right on his ass! That was the funniest thing!”
But Reinaldo wasn’t looking and didn’t say anything.
She continued, “Don’t tell me you just missed the massive cartoon Indian splatter onto his driveway?”
Reinaldo’s eyes were fixed on the tops of the cedars in Vivian’s yard. He swung without answering her again.
“Sorry Viv I’m just not in the mood I guess.”
“Not in the mood? Not in the mood to have been one of three to witness the Wayne the Warrior eat it right on the driveway? Reinaldo this is not about moods this is posterity. We just witnessed the Lebanon High school Mascot-Minivan Conflict of 2014.”
“A mascot fell over. Whoop-dee-doo.”
Vivian knew though why Reinaldo was not himself. The Warriors lost to Centerville 14-17. Reinaldo rushed for 189 yards and had scored both touchdowns but had lost a fumble on the goal line that would have won the game.
She looked over at him but he did not take his eyes off of the trees. He rocked himself with one foot and sighed deeply. She felt bad for him but had no idea what to say to make him feel any better. As his best friend, she tried thinking up what to say to take his mind off of the game.
She asked, “Did you see the way Wayne was walking? Looked like his butt really hurt.”
“Well he didn’t fall that hard.”
“…Help me out Viv. What are you getting at?”
A short silenced passed. Vivian looked down smiling at what was in her mind.
“I just wonder if he’s a Village People Indian and that’s why his butt really hurt if you know what I’m saying.” Vivian could perceive just the subtlest smile from Reinaldo. “I think he’s more of a lover and less of a fighter is what I’m getting at.”
“Yes, yes I got it Viv,” and Reinaldo smiled big now, his gapped teeth fully visible. The ice started to melt and Reinaldo started swinging a little higher, kicking off the cement with force. He was still looking up and saw the moon retreat behind the cloudscape just north of them so that the only light left besides porch lights were the stale lights over the football field just across the street that were still on from the game. The old ratty bleachers’ age was exposed and the green turf radiated up off the ground. All the houses around them started growing dimmer as lights turned off, one by one, and their sounds died down to silence (even Wayne’s). The subdivision sat quietly in a patchwork of cornfields and lawns like a big checkerboard of different greens. Reinaldo could hear the swooshing of cars from the state routes, humming with the nightshift and stragglers from the game. The settling quiet was tranquilizing and both Vivian and Reinaldo eased into this physical shift brought on by the heavy sigh of the neighborhood sinking them both deeper into fixed, candid relation with one another; whatever pretenses left between the two dropping. Vivian could smell Reinaldo now. Much unlike sweat, he smelled like sugar. Mixed with the wet grass, soggy from rain and early dew and the sleeping neighborhood, everything now was brought into focus as picturesque for Vivian and Reinaldo swung at the center of the picture, affable as ever.
The last piece of manmade light to go out was Vivian’s parent’s room right above them. Just the lamp clicking off was enough to distract Vivian into thinking about her parents. She liked to think of anything but them. She sat staring at the swinging Reinaldo trying to push away those thoughts. Something about his simplicity made this possible. Though she never felt romantic feelings for him all their lives something took root deep within her for him, nothing obviously corny or sexual but not platonic either. It felt good but she was simultaneously ashamed to feel it. Something ended. Something began. One freedom was replaced with another.
“Reinaldo have you ever liked a girl?” She turned and looked at him quizzically and playfully asking, an eyebrow shot up and her lips pursed for emphasis. It was a silly question but it flew out of her mouth without her brain ever having a say in the matter.
He looked back at her and smiled again, “Who wants to know?”
“It’s just something we’ve never talked about.”
He rolled over onto his stomach to make eye contact and look up at her, “And my question was, who wants to know?”
“Just me – it’s not a big deal or anything. I just had the passing thought.”
“Don’t make this weird Viv.”
“I’m not making it weird! It’s no big deal. I don’t need to know. We’ve just never covered the topic in all our years sitting on this porch, you know.”
He laughed but didn’t respond. The air felt cool on his skin blowing against his sweaty limbs. He took a deep breath in and then out. The moment brought with it a pang in Reinaldo’s stomach. Vivian thought, ‘What did he mean by “Don’t make this weird…?”’
After a minute he spoke up, “What about you?”
“What do you mean what about me?”
“I mean have you ever liked someone?”
“Sure, I’ve liked a lot of boys.”
Vivian got up out of her chair and motioned for Reinaldo to sit up so she could sit on the porch swing with him. He made a show out of how put out he was by sitting up and moving by grunting and moaning as he rose to make room for her. The two rocked back and forth and enjoyed the quiet again for a bit, each feeling slightly awkward from the turn the conversation had just taken but neither willing to go back. Just as Reinaldo’s body was as rigid as it could get in fear, Vivian put her hand into his. His eyes grew wide. He couldn’t interpret what she was doing but did not take his hand away. She looked over at him intentionally, no longer playful or quizzical. He saw her look at him out of the corner of his eye but kept looking straight ahead.
Looking ahead he saw a kitten crawl out from underneath the porch steps. It looked only a few weeks old, so much so that he thought at first glance it could have been a squirrel. Its tail swung with pomp against stray dandelions and taller blades of grass in the yard as it walked over to the birdbath in the yard and jumped up unto its stone rim. He wasn’t genuinely distracted by the cat at first. It was just an excuse to not face the current reality with Vivian. But the more he looked at it the more he became absorbed by it. The cat was licking at the water and the moon’s reflection bounced around in the bowl as Vivian grabbed Reinaldo’s arm.
“Reinaldo?” His neck felt stiff and he was unable to move it. He glanced over at her from the corner of his eye again. His stomach sank as he expected what was coming. Vivian let down her hair which he hated because it always made her look so pretty. Her messy, mangled topknot – her usual hairdo – fell down all over her thin shoulders in bulky streaks. “Reinaldo?” She said his name again but with more insistence. The cat stopped licking at the water and stared at them both. The ripples died in the water before Reinaldo turned to look at Vivian.
“Yes?” They looked at each other for a few moments. Vivian eased her head forward towards him far enough into his personal space for him to feel that she was equal parts welcome and not. She waited for him to respond but he did not move in. Their faces were only inches apart. The expressions on their faces did not move or finish until Vivian finished her moving in. Each looked at the lips of the other and then back at their eyes. Vivian grabbed the back of his neck and pulled their lips together. She did not know which way to lean her head and neither did he so their noses smashed together at first. Each’s stomach fell down into a different dimension and then buoyed back up for air. They inhaled through their noses at the same time tickling each other and smiling at it.
In the middle of the repose the two fell and heard a loud crack and felt a sharp pain. They looked around them as they were on the concrete ground. The swing broke. The chains were sprawled all over like tentacles and the wood seat they were sitting on was split in two. Both sets of eyes grew wide at this and scrambled for a quick solution. Before they could do anything Vivian’s parent’s bedroom light turned on and they froze. Reinaldo’s mouth dropped wide open and his eyes smiled at Vivian in fear. A few seconds passed by in complete silence. Then they heard the window open above them, separated only by the roof’s canopy hanging over. A 23 second eternity passed by before the window shut and the lights were turned back off. An audible sigh of relief let out of them both.
She took away a hand from his chest and looked at him. As the shock from the fall, the light turning on, and their kiss faded it was replaced with an about-face of emotions. The open mouths closed and eyebrows sunk back into their normal positions. Each thought, ‘What now?’
“I should go home Viv.”
“Okay.” There was the smallest, almost imperceptible disappointment in her voice.
Reinaldo stood up, helped Vivian to her feet and turned toward the porch stairs to leave. His football cleats clicked loudly on the concrete as he stepped down and at the bottom step was the kitten, looking up at Reinaldo like it had something important to tell him. Its mouth was charged with potential energy but didn’t move. He carefully stepped over the cat, smiling, and as he did its head swiveled to follow him while the rest of its body stayed put. He looked up at Vivian who was standing on her porch with her arms folded and her hip jutted out to one side. He waved at her and she waved back. The cat was now facing Reinaldo. There was something about that cat. He jogged across Vivian’s yard towards his house and as he jogged he noticed he was limping much like Wayne had been. This was enough for him to smile at. Once he hit the street the clicking of his cleats resumed and it echoed throughout the empty neighborhood. She watched him run all the way to his house, three houses down and across the street from hers. She noticed the limping too and held back her chuckle with a clenched fist pressed to her lips. Once he was there he closed his front door quietly as to not wake his own sleeping family. Just before his head disappeared through the closing door’s crack she saw him look to see if she was still watching from her porch. Then he slid in. After his retreat back into his house Vivian felt a cloud of mixed emotions settle. The excitement of kissing Reinaldo, the spontaneity, dropped into confusion. He had left so soon and without an ounce of closure or acknowledgment of what had just happened. She stood still folding her arms for a while longer and thought about that. The last thing she wanted to do was go inside her house but that’s what she eventually did. She even thought about sleeping on the porch in the porch swing but that would be difficult now.
Begrudgingly she turned the doorknob of her front door and pushed it back into the darkened living room, taking careful steps forward. Her mother was asleep on the couch breathing deep sleeping breaths through her mouth like she always did, her head wrapped in a purple bandana, curled up with a pillow in between her legs. As Vivian strode lightly across the hardwood she could not help but pity her mother intensely. Her frail body, racked by chemotherapy, shivered and twitched in the chill of the air conditioning and from a dream she was having. Vivian glided silently towards the table lamp just above her mother’s head and turned it on. In the light she noticed the spots on her mother’s head underneath the bandana just above and around her ears that were bald. A welling of sadness grew in Vivian to the point where she could no longer take it and she clicked the light back off. Her mother did not budge from her sleep. In the darkness Vivian saw less. Her eyes readjusted to the light. Her mother looked like just a human outline with a ghostly face with the same wrinkled forehead and concerned eyebrows. Vivian noticed as her mother’s cancer progressed and the prognosis had grown grimmer over the past year, people began regarding her as a condition, the cancer itself, wrapped in a failing body with a 3% survival rate. They treated her differently; with a pretext and charade that belonged to cancer patients but had nothing to do with her mother; coddling, consoling, and wishing well. They told her to ‘fight’ it, to fight cancer. Hundreds of cards said things like ‘kick cancer’s ass,’ and ‘fight the good fight,’ like her mother’s efforts had anything to do with the terrible microscopic foreign agent that was ripping her body apart, the thing that came back no matter how much poison her mother injected in her body to kill it. Vivian’s lip quivered and she made her way to the stairwell.
She heard her dad say something slurred from upstairs. She wanted to cry but couldn’t. The tears were nowhere in her. Walking up the stairs she was choked up but couldn’t let out a sob or even a whimper. Rounding the corner at the top of the landing on her way to her room she could hear her little brother’s TV. He was playing some shooting video game. The door was slightly ajar so she peeked in and watched him as he was playing from the edge of his bed, bathed in cold LCD light. He looked and saw her dark silhouette outside his door.
“Creep,” he droned with the driest humor imaginable. His facial expression did not change at all.
“Douche bag.” And she stuck a long manicured middle finger through his door’s slight opening. Then he smiled.
Her dad’s door was also open just a crack. As she passed by she couldn’t help but look in. He was passed out now. He must have just then. His end table was littered with assorted bottles that were mostly empty. This newly acquired drinking habit that came with her mother’s cancer had, like her mother’s cancer, grown much worse as of late. He was snoring which he never did. She noticed one of the bottles had fallen and its broken bits covered the floor by his side of the bed, were strewn all over. Tanya, their golden retriever was asleep next to him on the bed. She opened her eyes and propped her head up from her sleep and looked at Vivian wearily, looking about as beat down from life as Vivian felt with her eyebrows drained and drooping and then put her head back down and continued sleeping. Her dad’s thick meaty hand was laying on Tanya’s back and his head was tilted back against the headboard accentuating his snoring and bulging Adam’s apple. Some courtroom drama had lulled them both to sleep.
Vivian resumed walking down the hallway to her room. Her big door awaited her at the end lined in with white beams.
Inside she felt for the first time since walking into her house, shielded from everything that had happened that night. The familiar walls and soft light softened Reinaldo’s ambiguity. She checked her phone and she had no texts from him which was a bad sign. She wanted him to confirm the ridiculousness of the whole thing but she under no circumstances was going to be the first one to send a text. The kiss would have happened inevitably anyway. It didn’t mean anything. She wasn’t even sure she had liked it. But had he? He was probably just scared the broken swing would set her dad off into a predictably stormy reaction; Reinaldo and her dad never had gotten along. Skittish was the perfect word to describe his countenance after everything had happened. Her bed received her like a cloud of down in the middle of her room as she dove into its mangled covers face first and groaned with muffled frustration. But landing in the bed had brought with it, far from the relaxation it seemed to promise, doubts about her simplistic reconstruction of Reinaldo’s thoughts and feelings about that night.
“What if he did like it?” she thought. The only previously romantic complication in their otherwise innocently friendly friendship had been a short hiatus in 1st grade when they held hands at lunch. It was a dare. She remembered even now the strength and warmth of his hand that was larger than average even when he was seven years old and the other kids staring at her: the white girl holding hands with the black boy. “There’s no way; it was nothing,” she mumbled with false confidence, laughing a contrived a laugh. “He’s the definition of ‘friend zone.’”
The inaccuracy of what she was telling herself sank in uneasy as she turned over on her back and stared up at the ceiling.
The two TVs from her dad’s and brother’s rooms were murmuring through the walls. They stymied her thoughts about Reinaldo and brought them to focus on the whiteness of her ceiling. It was textured with those sharp droplets that hang in patterns that make it look like the surface of the moon. A car drove by the house and the headlights from the street formed a large swinging isosceles triangle of light that swung across the ceiling and then faded from view. Vivian got up to brush her teeth and came back into her room, now rethinking about all that had happened and her mother. She wondered why she couldn’t just cry about it already. Whenever she felt the saddest, she felt the most need to repress the sadness and always overcompensated by shutting out even good feelings and thoughts later. But the confusion egged on by her kiss with Reinaldo made way for some emotion to finally freely flow in a way she couldn’t simply shut off. One tear slowly followed another as she lay on her back again, and then another and another until her vision got blurry. Her deep set eye sockets became reservoirs for a year’s worth of pent up sadness and fear. She had to continually rub out little pools of collected tears with the backs of her forearms.
“What will my dad do without her? What will I do?”
She had never faced the possibility, the very real possibility, of her mother’s death. It was as foreign a thought as she could have. The odds over the next few months though were not good. Panic seized Vivian and sobs began. Her face grew stiff as she clenched and convulsed. Then she realized how much she would miss her mother. ‘Missing’ would be an understatement. Even though her body would be gone though, would she?
Vivian did not want her brother to hear her crying. She regained a measure of composure and was able to cry silently at a steadier pace now. As she quieted down she was able to make out a strange sound that sounded like it was coming from far off. It was coming from across the street. She got up out of bed to see what it was. There was only one window lit up across the street but her vision was too blurry to see which. Again, she wiped her eyes and got down on her knees in front of her window. Through the glass she saw that is was a window in Reinaldo’s house. She squinted and saw the large, muscular frame of Reinaldo’s body outlined in shadow against his close blinds with the lights on behind him. He was raising his hands above his head, and then bringing them down to his chest, jutting them out to the side like he was scooping the air beside him, and then bringing them to a point again above his head. She smiled curiously and closed her eyes to pinpoint the noise. It was the song ‘YMCA.’ He was dancing.