Those who know marvel at how close we are; and we are. Yet months can pass without our speaking, often a year without seeing each other. Despite the sure love and the near distances, we remain, oddly, day-to-day strangers. There are five of us, black men. We are brothers, and we are brothers. I pull out my snapshot.
Christmas 1977. I bought as gifts five identical bracelets made of heavy brass, thick and roughly hammered. I was 33 then and flew in from New York, where I lived at the time. The Harlem merchant who sold the bracelets warned that the yellow metal would turn green, then black, unless polished with brass cleaner. As it happened, even with the instructions for their upkeep, the bracelets were a hit. I am the second born. York (older than me by five years) called for a picture. Marcus (three years my junior) angled his camera on the tripod, set the timer, then joined us on the floor. We lay in a circle, our right arms extended inward. The automatic timer whirred, tripping the photographic eye that opened and closed once, capturing in a blink the image of five arms extended, five hands clenched in fists.
Hokey. I remember thinking the photograph was sure to look hokey. And when I got my copy in the mail, I saw that I was right. But when I later lost my bracelet, I was glad we took the picture, for today it is all I have. At the time, both York and Marcus wore pinkie rings. In the picture, because of those rings, I know their hands. But to this day I pause, uncertain, when I come to distinguish my hand from that of my youngest brothers, Shawn, 24, and Andre, 23, at the time.
I happened to be born colored, like York. By 1950, with Marcus, we had become Negro. Today we are African Americans. However, when the snapshot was taken with Shawn and Andre, we were all known as black -- black men with brown arms, wrists, and hands. When I look at the photo I pause, engaged in distinguishing whose hand belongs to whom. And there is something else. Sometimes those solid bands of metal look like what they are, jewelry made of heavy beaten gold. But sometimes I think of them as handcuffs or shackles. It depends.
I am not sure it happened that Christmas, but sometimes we find it necessary to shut ourselves off in a bedroom -- tall, full-grown men sprawling across the bed and on the floor talking about what needs talking about. Maybe I cry; others do too. An hour later the crisis has been addressed; if a private hurt, soothed. We then stand and go into a kind of huddle, with shoulders touching and hands held. We offer a prayer of thanksgiving, for what we have found together lies beyond reason; where we have come to has no name.
This worries me, for I am a writer who holds to the New Testament line, "In the beginning was the Word." That is, without a word, a name for where my brothers and I come to, there is no certainty for me that this place exists, no matter how much I tell myself to trust that it does.
Which is why I decided to interview my brothers.
I could not much explain my reasons, but my brothers agreed to be interviewed anyway.
I take off from Oakland at 7:00 in the morning. My knee is killing me. The week before I'd injured it, and so for the trip I have wrapped it tightly with an Ace bandage. Still, as I stand and pull my stuff out of the overhead and make my way off the plane onto the ramp and into the terminal, I am in agony. With each step, the ball and socket of my knee rub together, raw bone against raw bone. I find a phone booth and make a call. Five minutes later I am resting outside the terminal when a white van rolls to a stop. A man wearing a badge that reads "Hector" leans over and opens the sliding door. He asks if I called for the shuttle to the rent-a-car. I say yes. "Well, fall in," he says, and I do. We take off. Hector has meaty good looks and ink-black hair. The windows are down. The air rushing in smells of ocean, a smell that always tells me that I am back.
"Welcome to San Diego!" Hector brakes in front of the office and slides open the door. I make my way inside. To explain what happens next, I must first share the fact that my great-great grandfather Weaver was a Plains Indian from the Blackfoot tribe. For him, a dragonfly flitting past his face in sudden iridescence or a blue-black raven rising out of tall summer grass offered a foretelling. Sadly, the Blackfoot blood must run thin in my veins, for if animals bring me what my forebears called "medicine," I don't catch it. I may have lost the eye, so to speak, but I've been recompensed with a writer's ear. Words teach me. They are my medicine, holding for me a magical power, which I hope helps to explain why when Sue, the rental-car lady, assigns me a sporty red number and I explain that red cars make me feel hot, sorta like I'm driving an oven, and her response is that the Ford Aspire is the only small car they had on the lot -- like great-great grandfather Weaver, I stop dead in my tracks.
"What was the name?" I ask.
"What do you mean?" She says. "The Aspire...?" saying the word synonymous with breath, with longing -- the stuff of life and spirit.
Ten minutes later I turn the key in the ignition of my red Aspire. A deep bass thrums through the speakers. The radio is set to a jazz station. Fusion, cool jazz,
Ahmad Jamal and Miles, Paul Simon and Coltrane, a bossa nova beat and the classic stuff, perfect for that morning with its shelf of big white clouds pasted onto the windshield. I take I-5 heading north, stepping on the gas. The speedometer climbs. The Aspire is soon trembling. Forty years ago James Dean smashed his silver Porsche into a tree. Not long before he died, he starred in East of Eden, a drama of youthful despair, rebellion, and sibling rivalry. I'd catch the movie on the tube later that evening.
I make it to Vista in no time. My parents are separated, and my mother lives there now. While my father was serving in the Navy, she ran the house, kept rein on five boys, oversaw the construction and management of several apartment buildings and went undercover for the government in the '60s to help identify housing discrimination. Today, at 74, that long-ago woman has been replaced by a quiet soul, pale and almost timid, who answers the phone with "God bless you," stays indoors all day with her drapes drawn, usually with the TV on, and who slowly, inexorably, like a label peeled away from a jar, finds herself being separated from what was once familiar as herself.
I use her phone to call Shawn. I tell him I am on my way. While he gives me directions, on my mother's TV a talk-show host gets personal with her three young guests. The show's theme is "Out of Control," and these girls are. One girl, at 16, is pregnant for the third time. Another girl, also 16 and also pregnant, holds up for the camera and studio audience a list of 72 boys she'd slept with since the age of 11, when she began having sex. To a wide-eyed host, she explains that there were more, but she couldn't remember their names. My mother shakes her head in wonder. "What is this world coming to?"
I wonder too, even though I have a pretty good idea of what is about to happen to mine. You see, I nab a handful of Hershey chocolate kisses before I take off for Shawn's house; and as I make for the freeway, I tear at the silver foil with my teeth, popping those babies like there is no tomorrow.
My thing is sugar. When I start, it's like a roller-coaster ride that won't let me off. Because I'm what is called pre-diabetic, the sugar kicks in images that one day may be my reality -- daily insulin injections, blindness, amputation, death. I know the ride, and still I jump on. What can I say? I am in San Diego to interview my brothers. I have two full workdays ahead of me. And I eat those kisses.
- Man is a long time coming.
- Man will yet win.
- Brother will yet line up with brother:
- This old anvil laughs at many broken hammers.
- There are men who can't be bought.
- -- Carl Sandburg
Shawn opens the door and then hurries back to the fish tank that he is cleaning. It is an elaborate ritual involving hoses, sponges, and drains, because the tank, unlike any I have seen, sits on the floor and is maybe two feet square and just shy of six feet tall. He drains the murky water three times and sends a clear rinse through. Then the goldfish are returned. Most fish in most tanks swim round and round in a pattern of endless lassitude. Not here. Behind their walls of clear Lucite, these fish take to the vertical, scaling the great distance of a tall man's full height, breaking the watery surface like coins dropped into a fountain, except here they rise in a glimmering reversal before plunging back down to the bottom, where they nudge among the tiny blue stones before heading back up again for the top. It looks like hard work.
Shawn regularly speaks before large crowds. When he does, he is often plugged into a mike that wraps around the ear and mouth, like a rock star in concert. Charismatic, he can hold any stage and seems, up there, larger than life. Up close, however, Shawn is small boned, almost delicate. He has many responsibilities, and his thoughts sometimes drift; then he appears to blur at the edges. He was the fourth, born with a ruby underglow to his complexion and eyes that even then held a piercing depth.
Careful of my knee, I sit with Shawn at the dining room table. The house is a large, rambling affair, contemporary, in colors of white and pale blue, with lots of glass and polished surfaces. Shawn married Laurie when he was in his early 30s; now he is 41. They have lived four years in this house.
I take out the tape recorder. At my back, the goldfish steadily climb that watery pillar and drop.
"Let's offer a prayer before we start," he says, and we do. To get us going, I ask what prayer means to him.
The question comes like the report from a starter's gun, with Shawn off and running. I have forgotten that he has answered questions like this thousands of times since April 17, 1971, when, as he recounts, "I asked Jesus into my heart." Now, with the tape going, he moves easily, making reference to John 15:5, "...for without me ye can do nothing," expertly twining text with personal statement like pearls strung onto waxed string, creating a precious necklace of gospel and verse reference that feels fresh and sounds good, but which, unhappily, makes me feel like one of those biblical swine upon which such spiritual pearls are utterly lost.
The Shawn I'm looking for is not the preacher, the chaplain for the Chargers, the public figure. I am seeking out the man, my brother. He speaks of his church, which (I know) was newly built at a cost of $4.2 million and draws up to 2500 weekly attendees, all in less than five years of his and Laurie's settling here in the Oceanside community. According to him, the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity seemed an ideal spot for a kind of church like New Venture Christian Fellowship, "We chose to target people of all backgrounds, because that was the kind of exposure I had as a child."
(Now, I thought, we're getting somewhere.) "Can you talk a little about that?" I ask.
Shawn explains that the experience of multiculturalism began for him at Our Lady of Angels and then St. Rita's, during his elementary school years, where there was a rich mix of black and white and Hispanic.
"Then when I was in the sixth grade, we moved out to La Mesa. At Briar Patch Elementary, I remember standing in line, leaning with my hand against the wall, waiting to go into the lunchroom, when I overheard a couple of girls whispering behind me. 'Look at his hands!' one of them said...."
Which reminds me. I show him the photograph. He remembers the shot, when it was taken, and cannot tell whose hand belongs to whom. I return to the subject. "Were you the only black?"
"Just Andre and me, and it was that way into high school." At Grossmont High, as one of four blacks, he was often asked to speak before classes on the black experience in America. "They wanted to know what we ate, what we watched on TV, where we lived. This was 1970, 25 years ago. These were the children of the upper-middle class community near Mount Helix, and I'm not sure it was their fault that they knew so little. Later they'd come up to me and say how grateful they were for what I'd said, how their impressions of black people had been changed."
"For the better?"
"Oh, definitely. While most had never met a black person before, they still had plenty of negatives in place."
Just then, Little Shawn flies into the room, a sky-blue balloon tied to his wrist. Laurie comes in with the groceries. Wearing slacks, her dark hair pulled back, she lays her bags on the counter, greets me with a hug, and at once goes about getting the child lunch.
"See my balloon, Hawkins?" I sweep the three-year-old up in my arms.
"Do you know the color or your balloon?" I ask. His answer is that it is blue. "Good," I say. I decide to make an educational game of this and point to the carpet. "Blue!" I point to the yellow stripe on his T-shirt. "And what color is this?" He looks down, studying that stripe. "Blue...!"
We move to Shawn's study for privacy. His desk is covered with papers, open books, pens, a Rolodex, pink message slips on a spindle. There is a fax machine, an Apple personal computer, speakerphone, and behind him a wall of books spilling off their shelves. He takes the swivel chair with padded support for his back. I sit opposite him, on the other side of the desk. At my left a window overlooks the front yard. It is a quiet street. No cars would pass during the entire course of the interview. Far off, Little Shawn is heard settling in for lunch.
I ask if he remembers his first experience of overt racial abuse. It occurred, he answers, as he and Andre were crossing the street, walking home from school their first year in La Mesa.
"Suddenly there was a sound like an engine revving behind us. We turned. There was a pickup on top of us. We jumped onto the curb as a truck roared past. The two men were maybe in their 20s. They were yelling the 'n-word.'" (Shawn, visibly uncomfortable with expletives, does not say "nigger.") Later, he says, there were other incidents -- bullies in school, whites firing a pellet rifle at him while he jogged in Balboa Park, an incident of harassment by the Los Angeles police following the Rodney King incident. (I compare my New York cop harassment incidents with his. Most black men I knew there had similar stories.)
"How do you feel about this?"
"When, for example, I saw the videotape on Rodney King, and later, when the police were acquitted, I did feel rage. But it was short-lived, because I was able to keep in mind the fact that the root of racism, prejudice, bigotry, hate, is the fruit of our sinful human nature." He quoted from Ephesians 6:12 ("For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities"). "What I'm saying is that I could take it personally or I can recognize there is something going on behind all this."
Outside, the lawn is a deep green. Beyond it, the street is empty and quiet. At my back, in the next room, goldfish are climbing. I asked about racism in San Diego.
"You have to understand that this is a very laid-back, casual town. It's a conservative place, with more of a live and let live attitude than in many other cities I've visited. But if you ask if there's racism here, I'd have to say yes, of course.
For me, I say, it seems like American racism is so much a part of the daily fabric of our lives that it can only be removed by tearing apart the entire cloth.
Shawn wonders too. "We live in such a color conscious world. So many blacks are angry, and so many whites are scared or want everything to be loving and happy."
"What about members of the Christian community?"
"I'm not sure how much race comes into play," he says, "but I am sure that it does." He repeats what Arthur Ashe had said, that it is more difficult to be a black man in this country than it is to have AIDS. "That sure says something, doesn't it?" he says.
"Isn't one aspect of that burden the sense of being under constant scrutiny? Maybe I should say 'surveillance'? It seems as if you do not belong."
"You know," he says, changing the subject, "I always thought when I visited Africa I'd feel this was home and that I belonged. Then I did visit and discovered that I was an African American, with an emphasis on the American."
He is not alone. Keith Richburg, in an account of his time in Africa as correspondent for the Washington Post, reported critically of his experiences there, concluding that "by accident of birth, I am a black man born in America, and everything I am today -- culture, attitudes, sensitivities, loves, and desires -- derives from that one simple irrefutable truth." Kafka said it more broadly, "You are not from the Castle, you are not from the village, you aren't anything. Or rather, unfortunately, you are something, a stranger."
Unable to call Africa home, uncertain of what to make of his situation here in America -- what does this foretell for his African-American son?
"I had a wonderful childhood. I hope that my son will say the same thing one day." This may help account for his spearheading a new youth center project, with gym and classrooms, which will emphasize the care of abused children. "And for the rest, I hope he grows to love God, know Christ, and never fails to like himself."
A merciful God has seen to it that Shawn's son is in a school district where teachers are sensitive to the different needs of a multicultural community. Children less well-placed find that the behaviors that help them survive on the streets trap them in special ed and a scholastic dead end. Today African- American educators and their supporters face this challenge of contradictions. Using texts like Countering the Conspiracy to Destroy Black Boys, by Jawanza Kunjufu, they are advancing new curricula, training teachers and volunteers, and revamping local school districts in an effort to stem the tide of black school dropouts. God, it is said, helps those who help themselves.
"Even so," I ask, "isn't it hard to like yourself in a culture like this one, which sets you always apart as the unloved stranger?"
Shawn thinks about this for a minute. "Sure," he agrees, "there are negatives that come from being a black man in America. But I feel that with the help of the God that Laurie and I both know and the confidence we each have together, we'll be able to help him in this. It may not be easy," he adds, raising a cautionary finger, "but his time, the new age, will be the millennium of color. People of color will be the majority. My son will soon represent the majority of America. I like to imagine it as a time in this country where, as Dr. King said, a person will be judged by the 'content of their character and not the color of their skin.'"
I turn off the tape. Shawn and I talk as I gather my things. I am glad I have started with him; the way I figure it, the others would be a piece of cake. I go into the kitchen to say goodbye to Laurie. We step out back, where Little Shawn is playing. I pick him up. He is by now less interested in his balloon than in the string that tied it to his wrist. "I came to say goodbye."
He gazes at me, his eyes dark like his father's but touched by that curious, unperturbed grace of childhood. "Bye-bye," he says. That was that. I put him down and turn to Laurie, getting directions to Andre's. Suddenly the boy cries out. We look first down to him and then up to where he is pointing. The string has come undone, and the balloon, already ten feet in the sky, is rising fast. The child looks from the balloon to his mother. Tears have already welled and are ready to spill.
"Say bye-bye," says Laurie, making a waving gesture. "Say bye-bye, Shawn. Bye-bye, balloon."
"Bye-bye, balloon," he repeats -- and then almost at once he says it again, but this time with pleasure. "Bye-bye, balloon!" I stare in astonishment. His child's disappointment is forgotten. The tears are gone. He is smiling.
- Which of us has known his brother?
- Which of us has looked into his father's heart?
- Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent?
- Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?
- -Thomas Wolfe
I grab a handful of graham crackers on my way out Shawn's door and an hour later am turning into Andre's driveway in Lakeside. He is standing there when I pull myself out of the car. "What's wrong with your leg?" he asks, giving me a hug. I explain matters to this man whose diapers I used to change, now taller than I am, now, thanks to Nautilus, more buffed than I will ever be. Our family carries age well, and Andre looks 30, a full decade younger than he actually is. He wears gray sweatpants and a black L.A. Raiders T-shirt that reads, "Real Men Wear Black."
Inside, a taupe-colored carpet covers the living room floor. I take off my sneakers. Creamy four o'clock sunlight streams through the windows.
"Did you eat? How about an egg sandwich?"
This sounds good to me. He goes to work toasting a couple of pieces of whole- wheat bread while I check out his place. I ask how long it has been since I'd last been there. We compute that it was maybe ten years before.
The living and dining rooms form an L. Between them stand an immense umbrella tree, a schefflera, and an airy ficus. From the kitchen, butter hits the heated pan with a hiss. On the dining room table sits a glass bowl filled with chocolate-covered peanuts. I reach out and take one, pop it in my mouth, crunch down and swallow; I admit that I am ready for sin. I reach out and take another. And another. Finally I take a handful (I have large hands), put the bowl on a shelf (out of sight, out of mind), and move through the house, crunching and favoring my right leg. The second bedroom has been converted to a gym, with free weights and Nautilus machine. The master suite, with bedroom and bath, are shipshape. Tidiness and order. These seem to me signs of a confirmed bachelor, a man grown unsuited to the messiness of relationship. On the king-size bed, a teddy bear wears a "Love" T-shirt. A woman's pair of gold hoop earrings are on the dresser.
"How's Cathy? I call to him in the kitchen.
Andre does not invite inquiry into his private life. He says "Fine," and that, as they say, is that.
Back in the dining room, I retrieve the bowl of candy from where I've hidden it. I gobble up another handful and once again replace it. A photograph on the wall, a black-and-white sports shot, has Sonny Liston on his back looking up at Muhammad Ali, who stands over him. His mouth guard loose, Ali is yelling at the downed man. His face is sweaty and distorted, his leather gloves held high and folded in like a couple of huge portobello mushrooms.
"It's ready," Andre sets the plate with my sandwich on the table.
I have a choice of what to drink. Milk or a coke translates as an actual choice between more fat or more sugar. With butter in the skillet and mayonnaise on the bread, I'm already getting plenty of fat. Besides, I've got a rush going from those chocolate-coated peanuts, and why, I ask myself, should I mess with a good thing?
I wash a mouthful of egg sandwich down with Coke and ask about the photograph. Andre says he hung it because he likes Ali. "He was his own man. He changed his name and became a Muslim. He said he wasn't going to Vietnam, and the country went crazy on him. Then he won his championship back, on his terms. You have to respect a man like that," he says.
The photograph follows the moment when Liston fell, downed by a phantom punch that no one saw and a review of the tapes would never prove was thrown. But if Liston was selling the fight, from the look of things, Ali was not buying. In the shot, he towers as an enraged Muslim Jesus ordering his downed Lazarus to rise, goddammit.
I finish my sandwich and start the tape. I ask Andre to talk about the death of his next door neighbor. I explain that while I did not recall much of the story, I remember how upset he was at the time and that this seems a good place to start.
"I was upset," he admits, and goes on to recount the story of how he and Bill and Eleanor, his elderly neighbors, became friends when he moved out to Lakeside, how one morning he was getting ready for work, when Eleanor called out to him from the porch next door. Bill, she said, had fallen and couldn't get up. Andre hurried over and found the man turning blue.
"Was he dead?" I ask.
"Not yet. I started giving him mouth-to-mouth. Eleanor was pacing back and forth. I told her to call 911. I had to tell her to stay on the line and what to say. Meanwhile, Bill threw up some coffee, so I thought he was coming back. Anyway, we're waiting for the paramedics, and it seemed like they were taking forever; and then when they came in...." He pauses. "You know what the first thing one of them says? 'What're you doing here?'" Andre looks at me. "Can you believe it? And of course I could tell from their expression that they were concerned about a black man in the house. And here is this guy dying...." He shakes his head. "Anyway, I told them I was a neighbor and that Bill needed help."
"Was he dead?"
"They told me to take Eleanor in the other room. When they came in a little while later, they said that he was." At the dining room table, as he talks, Andre hunkers down, a big man going small as he concentrates. If he looks like a linebacker now, most of his life was spent as a skinny kid. When he was born, the rest of us were hoping the new baby, the last, would be a girl. What he has grown up to be is tender, easygoing, and playful. But at the moment, recalling the incident with the paramedics has stripped Andre of his fabled good nature. He is angry; and like a fire catching, his anger spreads. He speaks of the petition that circulated before he bought his place in 1982. His neighbors worried that a young black man would bring in an undesirable element. (A similar petition had gone around 15 years before, when my parents bought their home.) Andre moves forward in time, from the past to the present; he complains that he is always being watched. "Like when I go into a store, I can feel their eyes on me, as if I'm going to steal something."
This is not paranoia speaking. I say that when I lived in New York, I visited Tiffany's. I had to go to the store manager because the security guy was so obviously tailing me that I kept bumping into him.
"What did the manager do?" Andre asks.
"Nothing. He said he was sorry, but the man was just doing his job. So I left. Which is what they wanted. The security guy was just doing his job, and his job was to keep people like me out of Tiffany's."
He nods in agreement.
I ask Andre about his first experience of racism. I expect him to recount the experience with Shawn, of being run onto the sidewalk by a pair of young white guys racing past in a pickup. But memory is peculiar and private. He instead recounts three incidents that occurred in rapid succession while he was in the fifth grade. He was stalked by a bully, called names in the school yard, and spit on, full in the face, by a couple of teenagers on motorbikes who whizzed past him when he was walking home from school.
The image of a ten-year-old, my brother, being spit on cuts through me. As he speaks, a mounting free-floating jab of sympathetic pain lodges at my knee. We go into the living room, where I sit on the couch and stretch out the leg. In Black Skin, White Masks, Franz Fanon writes of the "decolonization of the mind" as a shift from denial and self-hatred to affirming self-acceptance. Fanon maintains that this is essential in adjusting the distorted mindset of any colonized people. Shawn experienced this "decolonization" in the course of time he danced with the Soul Train gang on TV. For me, affirming self-acceptance came in New York with my street-smart friends who had been born in Puerto Rico, within a culture that was not so color-biased.
"What about you?" I ask.
Andre answers that growing up in the predominantly white community of La Mesa had left him discontented and self-conscious. He didn't know what he was feeling, however, until he started hanging out with friends at Chris's Barbershop. "I'd be there every week hanging out and talking smack," he said, referring to that easy-going banter that has served as a healing balm to black men for generations.
The sun is setting; inside, the changing light washes orange color over the walls. Ali and Liston, behind glass, have caught fire.
Our conversation drifts to his job. A few years ago, a racial incident deprived him of a management position, but just this week, he'd been invited back into management. The offer brought with it a substantial hike in salary, but he declined. "They were looking to fill a quota. So they weren't seeing me. They knew I could do the job -- I'd performed well before. But what they were looking for was a black person to fill a spot. And that's the problem. When you're black, you're a part of a quota, a part of a problem, or a pain in the butt. You are not a person."
Given his feelings, I wonder about his politics. I ask, for the record, if he would be willing to declare how he votes.
"I don't," he answers.
The telephone rings. It is Laurie. She has found my glasses on the windowsill in the kitchen -- which means I have to drive back to Oceanside tomorrow. I show Andre the photograph, which (without my glasses) is a blur to me. He cannot make out whose hand belongs to whom, so it's more or less a blur to him too. That seems about it. I thank him, mentioning that I am especially grateful for his cooperation, knowing, I say, how much he values his privacy, how shy he is.
"I'm not that shy," he responds. "You just don't know me."
Sometimes in the course of an interview there is a moment that opens up like a big hungry mouth and swallows all the air. It happens now. It feels like a bell jar has been dropped over me. I look at him and say, "What do you mean I don't know you?" My voice sounds flat, like I am speaking behind glass.
Andre smiles at me. "It's all right," he says. "It's not that important." But of course it is.
In the movie made from the popular romance The Bridges of Madison County, the mother writes a letter read by her children at her death. In the letter she confesses to a secret infidelity. She expects that this information may leave her children troubled, but, she explains, she does so because "what is important as we get older it to be known."
Early on we learn to determine our worth from the reactions of others. If my response to Andre ignores who he really is (or has come to be), then am I mistaken in his very reactions to me? Am I then who I have come to suppose myself to be? Am I the name I call myself?
- Throw out the lifeline across the dark wave.
- There is a brother whom someone should save.
- -Edward Smith Ufford
Is there a "maleness" factor at work that encourages distance and engagement, being at once cool and yet connected? If, I ask myself, I knew my brothers so well, would I have had to come down and interview them?
John Edgar Wideman writes that the "bedrock issue raised by the paradigm of race...is whether [one] can be someone other than a white person in this society and stay healthy, stay alive." Is there another aspect to this paradigm of race? Are we all, white and black alike, caught in early definitions of self? Do we freeze-frame our perceptions into stereotypes and limit the full uncalculated humanity of each other?
What have I done to my brothers?
I park the Aspire at my brother York's and get out. All that is left of the sun is a deep crimson color rimming the western sky. I knock and enter, and within ten minutes (seven used up by the microwave) I am chewing and swallowing food without much noticing, because what I am feeding at this stage is a binge craving, not hunger. I want sugar -- and I don't want to call my father, who is unhappy about an article I wrote.
I tap out his number, and he picks up. He says hello, and I say, "Hi, Dad...." This is the first time we have spoken since the article was published. We get into it quickly enough. He tells me his feelings; I tell him I'm sorry that he is unhappy and hope he will enjoy the story about my brothers. But I wonder. I have come here to find members of my family and to report those findings. His role, as he saw it, was to provide for and protect his family. He understood that as a black man this was best done by quietly going about one's life, remaining essentially anonymous. Are my job as a writer and his life as a black man and father at odds? The question saddens me, for I love my father.
York Mitchell, Sr., is smart, generous, and widely liked. He grew up in Alabama, at a place and time where a man might be lynched for distinguishing himself, for being known. Today at 80, my father sometimes recounts stories of his childhood. In one of those tales, about the Alabama mine, he speaks of the mules that were born and died miles underground, working their entire lives without ever seeing the light of day. So used were they to those dim caverns underground, he likes to say, that if ever one saw daylight, the shock would instantly blind it.
My father left Birmingham as a teenager. He carried one small suitcase and the only sure ticket out: military service. He never looked back, and there was no need to, for he carried, like each of us, his history with him. Now as I listen to him on the other end of the line, I think of those overworked mules and the blinding sunlight they would never see. I imagine a single mule guided by straps running as a halter under its hard belly, drawn slowly out of the dark, climbing upward where it smells the air as thinner, with a sweet fragrance. Pale light hovers ahead. The mule drops its head as it is brought forward into the light.
By the time it is outside the mine, in full daylight, it is rendered blind. This has happened, as I imagine, not from the sudden brilliance of unaccustomed sunlight. Rather the mule is blinded from that first vision of the world, a wondrous spectacle hovering not far beyond the first pale light. Here is a landscape stretching to the horizon line, and the mule will never see it.
My father and I chat a little longer, then we hang up. I turn to York, setting the tape recorder down on the coffee table in the living room.
A span of 16 years does not explain what separates my oldest brother from my youngest. I think of it this way: York was born two years before the U.S. officially entered World War II. He was a teenager in the '50s, a soldier in the '60s, in Vietnam in the '70s, and already looking at retirement from the service at the same time that Andre, not long out of his teens, was dancing the robot to disco hits like Brick's "Good High."
In the muted light, York's hair and beard are silvery. He wears the trim quality of decency I associate with firemen. He is a handsome man with a strong Asian cast to his features. He sits near the door, on one of the pair of leather sofas set at angles to each other. Mahogany paneling covers the walls. The furniture is dark. If Andre's place offered afternoon luminescence, night has rendered this a dark cave with a promise of ancient rites and mysteries. From my seat on the other sofa. I can make out, in silver frames set all over the room, photographs of Thelma's children and grandchildren. Thelma is a pale blonde who speaks quietly and laughs easily. She does so now, inviting me to feel free to use the kitchen. Then she retires to their bedroom. I hear the TV set go on.
York is silent. Even as the interview begins, in the early pauses before it picks up and takes its rhythm, there hovers about him a stalled quality, a weariness that has more to it than exhaustion at the end of a work week. He seems to hold within a sadness, an unspoken grief. At these moments he looks haunted. I turn on the tape recorder. My first question is about his marriages. "Your first wife was black, and Thelma is white."
"Do you feel anything about this?" I ask.
"That my first wife was black and my second is white? No, I can't say that I do. I loved my first wife, and I love Thelma. They are both good women."
"Is it that simple?"
"If it's your life, it is," he says, laughing. "I know some think by marrying Thelma that I put down black women and probably more who look at it like it's proof that white is better, because I'm with a white woman. The fact is, I married a black woman and lost her because I was young with a macho attitude. Now I'm blessed to have Thelma. She is my support and my best friend. And between the two of us, our hearts don't see color." I wonder if this means he lives comfortably within the two worlds of black and white. He answers that he would not say he was uncomfortable.
"Would you say you're especially comfortable?"
He pauses and then shakes his head no. Until recently, York served as an assistant pastor at Horizon Christian Fellowship of East County. He knows a lot of people and gets along well with them. "I have good friends in the church," he says, "but to say we visit each other in our homes or that we're intimate? I'm not sure, but it seems to me that's a quality of neighborliness I knew as a kid but which doesn't exist anymore. The world's just too big."
I share with York that Andre has said I know him as shy when he, in fact, is not. "He says that I don't know him," I say. York, using the Greek word for fellowship, koinonia, says that this is one way to open up the dialogue. I'm not sure I buy it.
"Is he so different from the person I think he is?" I add, knowing it's a stupid question, "Are you?"
"I don't know who you think I am," he offers kindly.
I decide to move forward and ask how he finds the general conditions of blacks in the country. "They're not lynching men in the streets," he says, "but with drugs and unemployment, you'd have to say that a lot of people are pretty miserable."
He recognizes that the problem is complex. As for the solution, he offers a return to the family values voiced by members of the Christian Right. (York proudly calls himself a conservative, adding for the record that he supports affirmative action and is not comfortable with the proposed cuts to welfare. I've lost the interview, and I know it. The racial stuff is fine, but my head is buzzing with sophomoric questions about mirroring identities and meaning. Also, I'm tired and I'm trying to control a sugar fit. And there is something else, a niggling, troublesome feeling that I cannot place. York's thoughts on growing up in San Diego bring the interview to a close.
"We were blessed growing up here," he says. "It was a quiet town, and we lived in this mellow neighborhood at 19th and I streets. Not with the kinds of stresses you find now." Indeed stress has wrought havoc with York. As a child, he was severely asthmatic (said to be a psychosomatic response to stress) and had to undergo a lifesaving tracheotomy; his skin, today, is a sensitive barometer of his emotional ease; a dyslexic, he has only recently learned that his stress-filled years of school were the consequence of a learning disorder. A sickly childhood, a tour of duty in Vietnam and contact with Agent Orange, a full-time job, the demands of service as an assistant pastor, and the responsibilities to his wife and family have all taken their toll. He takes medication to control a heartbeat that is sometimes erratic.
I turn off the tape and show him the photograph. He pauses, considering, when Thelma, on her way to the kitchen to brew a cup of chamomile tea, glances over his shoulder at the snapshot and at once correctly attaches names to hands. Unbelievable! Asked how she did it, she explains about size of wrist, shape of hand, and so forth -- elements of a feat of perception I choose to assign to some arcane and mysterious womanly power. Later with the pair in bed, I raid the kitchen and destroy a full box of graham crackers while watching James Dean as the unhappy son and troubled brother in East of Eden. In the movie, he stays home while the good son goes to war.
When York was in Vietnam, young black draftees accused him of serving the white man. (Malcolm X had already made famous the quip that no Viet Cong had ever called him a nigger.) "I was their sergeant," York has said, "and they felt that I should ease off on them. They said it was the white man's war."
Did he ease off? No.
"I had my job...."
I have another story: When Marcus enlisted in the Navy and was sent to Vietnam, York searched until one afternoon he found him stationed near Da Nang. Having pulled duty the night before, Marcus was on the bottom bunk sleeping when York stepped inside. He bent close and spoke low, "Hey! Bro! What's happenin'...." Marcus opened his eyes, crying out for joy at the sound of that familiar voice.
These are my Vietnam stories, because I did not go there. Instead, I marched in protest up New York's Fifth Avenue. Later, when I was living in Germany and working as an archivist for the American military newspaper Stars and Stripes. I saw photographs of war atrocities on both sides. That same year I was notified to report to the Frankfurt induction center, where I declared the war unjust, its induction patterns racist, and both sides culpable. My interviewer assured me that with my attitude I should not expect to be called up again. That this turned out not to be the case is a different story, just as, it seems to me, is the fact that 30 years later, in Washington, Robert McNamara, the hawkish Secretary of Defense, waited more than 20 years to release his memoirs and say of the war that "we were wrong, terribly wrong." But I had two brothers who did what they were told and went to Vietnam.
It is late. The house is quiet. I'm glad when East of Eden ends. Dean, the bad son, gets both the girl and his father's love; and I get to go to sleep. I'm exhausted. But as soon as the credits run, another movie, Naked Prey, comes on. The story is a simple one: Cornel Wilde, buck-naked, without shoes or weapons, runs across Africa in flight from a nation of trained warriors, black men, trying to catch his (quite literal) white ass. This movie, made in 1966, has a "cast of thousands," all trying to outwit our lone hero. I don't think I have to wait to find out if the good (i.e., white) guy wins out. Besides, it's after two. I use the remote control.
The sofa is short and the leather is hot. Careful of my knee, I slide onto the thick area rug, where, almost at once, I am asleep.
I wake up once. It is something after five. I think; too dark to read my watch, but light enough for objects in the room to begin to separate from their shadows. A large abstract painting in deep red and blue floats off the wall, drifting with me into sleep, where it becomes part of a dream I remember only for the inclusion of the painting itself. The next thing I know, the room is light and York and Thelma are in the kitchen. I misplace my dream somewhere between sleep and awakening. There was the red-and-blue painting in it -- I remember that -- and I come back as well understanding something of what lay in the exhausted, haunted look I'd seen pass over York's face before the interview began the evening before. This, I recognize in retrospect, is what had troubled me.
James Wolcott has written that the tragedy for the black man in America remains that he is "perceived not as a live-size figure of Humanity, but as a moody archetype of animal and shadow, all appetite." I agree with Wolcott in so much as I recognize his observation has translated in my own life, as smiles lifted like white flags toward anxious ladies alone when I step into elevators; poses of easygoing goodwill I offer to those in line at the automatic teller machine; polite coughs I sound behind strangers as we make our way to our cars at dusk. Thus I spend a massive portion of my days assuring a world of passing strangers that I do not mean to rob, rape, or murder them. Mine is an ongoing personal campaign to de- demonize the black man. Over and over again -- hour after hour, day after day, year after year -- I broadcast a simple message: I A-M W-O-R-T-H-Y. So I have used up much of my life.
Over breakfast, I share with York my thoughts about that haunted quality I'd seen on his face the evening before. With our energies spent cooling out the negative responses our presence engenders, "It's like you die if you do," I say, "or you die if you don't." York answers that he understands what I am saying and agrees. Except for the haunted feeling I said I'd seen. He says he did not feel that he was haunted by anything.
Twenty miles later and that much closer to Alpine, I pull into a rest stop and scan the men and women moving in and around their cars. Doing what comes as second nature for black men, I drive slowly past a couple (white) strapping twins into car seats; an elderly pair (white) in a long RV, eating breakfast cereal from bowls; a teenage couple (white) stretching their legs and admiring the view. Finally I see what I was looking for. Two men (white) are standing outside their car peering over a book. They have the milky skin and groomed look of foreigners. I coast close and stop.
"I am sorry," I say, speaking clearly, pronouncing each word and throwing my voice, "I think I am going in the wrong direction. Do you know if this is the way to Oceanside?"
They look up from their book, staring at me with alarm.
It has been my experience that a white man is less afraid of me than a white woman, that two white men are less afraid than one, that a white foreigner is less afraid of me than a white American, that it is better to address a white stranger before dusk, when darkness sets in. The way I figure it, these two guys are my best bet. Yet they stand in place, not speaking, simply staring at me. Then I understand.
"Sprechen sie deutsch?" I ask, and they nod, smiling. Of course. It was not me but the language they were afraid of. And so while I trot out my rusty German, they put away their guidebook and bring out their map, which we use to get me going in the right, but opposite, direction.
With the windows down and the radio blaring, I fly down the highway. Okay, I tell myself, now I've stepped in it twice. Andre had said that to call him shy was not to know him. York had denied that he felt haunted. What is going on here?
I stop for gas at one of those stations that carry everything from swimsuits to burritos. This one had balloons and a helium tank. I am in the station collecting my change when a young black man enters. He takes a bag of mixed nuts from the shelf and brings it to the counter. Next he goes to the back and selects a root beer. He lays this on the counter. Lastly, he fetches a package of Oreo cookies. This is set down as well.
Here at the gas station stop, the attendant eyeing the young black man has no reason to suspect him of even attempting to shoplift. He has his stuff, and I have my change. We nod at each other, brothers. He leaves and I buy a root beer (more sugar) and a yellow balloon that the attendant fills with helium and which I hide behind my back when I find Little Shawn in his back yard a half hour later.
Like yesterday, Laurie has her hair tied back, but today she is in jeans and sneakers and down on her knees, intent on ridding her garden of weeds. Her son sits close, his own small spade in hand.
A large black bird kites low overhead. I can't tell if it's a crow or a raven. I point, asking Laurie if she knows. She looks up, shading her eyes. "Aren't ravens smaller?"
"Balloon!" says Little Shawn, reaching for his present. I loop the balloon around the baby's wrist. Shawn joins us.
"How're the interviews going?"
They were going well, I say, adding that Andre and York left me wondering if I knew them as well as I thought. I had come to interview my brothers hoping that in understanding them, I'd better understand my place in the world. I had not come to have my world, my perceptions, threatened.
Laurie shades her eyes, looking up at me. "You know, a person can communicate well without being intimate." I feel as if I were losing it. “What are you talking about?” Shawn says that communication and intimacy are difficult when we come loaded with assumptions, with prior histories and reputations.
I look at them, wondering if I'd come to San Diego to have my assumptions about my brothers validated, my aggregated world valorized. I'm not sure and can't say more, because just then the baby pipes up.
I look down to him and then up to where the yellow balloon is sailing over the rooftop.
"Bye-bye, balloon!" he calls, waving.
"He must have untied the string," Laurie says, laughing.
"Yesterday was a near-tragedy. Today it's a game."
I'm not laughing. My head feels like that yellow balloon.
- Oh, call my brother back to me!
- I cannot play alone:
- The summer comes with flower and bee --
- Where is my brother gone?
- -Felicia Hemans
Marcus is standing outside his building when I drive up. His flight from Phoenix was delayed, and he had arrived home late the night before. He looks tired as he gets in his car. I follow as he zigzags through cross streets. At Pacific Coast Highway, we turn right, heading for the rental car center. Because they close early on Saturdays (making it impossible to deliver the car on my way to the airport), I plan to deliver the Aspire, then come back with Marcus and spend the afternoon with him. He'd take me to the airport that evening.
He drives into the lot, his German-made sedan and vanity plates embossed with his initials (MEM) setting him apart, a yacht among rowboats. I sign off and jump in with my luggage. We return to his home on the 11th floor of a building that had the year before gone co-op. Inside, beyond the wall of windows in the living room, lies a sweeping view of Balboa Park, downtown San Diego, and Tijuana. I remember yesterday Shawn saying that it was in this park that he had been fired at by someone with a pellet rifle.
The glass coffee table is massive. A vase of blown Italian glass (a gift from my mother) sits on the corner. Against the wall, a banquette stretches as long as a white limo. A baby grand piano holds one corner. The framed prints of classical Roman architecture look ready to slide down the walls from the sheer weight of their images.
Marcus takes me onto the back deck that overlooks the airport. A jet roars past overhead. It flies so low I feel I could reach up and touch its great cargo belly. A mile away, another airplane, its wingtips gleaming, is taking off directly into the sun. "We saw the America Cup trials from here." He points below, to the blue harbor. It is Saturday, and Rhonda, who had spent the morning at the architectural design firm where she works, is now in the bedroom taking a nap.
My knee aches. I sit on the sofa and stick my leg straight out. I show Marcus the photograph. He picks out himself and York, because of the rings. I put the tape recorder on the coffee table. With my first questions, we're in trouble.
"You ask me," he says, "about my experiences growing up black in San Diego, but my problem is that I can't remember back before I was 13 or 14." (His earliest memory of racism, he says, was with his second wife when, while living in El Cajon, a truck passed, and some young whites yelled out "Nigger lover!")
"You can't remember anything before that?"
He answers that he can't. "My memory is foggy."
Today there are many children's therapies, techniques for working with unhappy kids. When we were young there was only one generally approved method: the rod. And as a child, Marcus was famous for being on its receiving end and famous as well for the rice and bananas, milk, and slices of white Langendorf bread -- "comfort" food -- he ate to assuage the pain of "therapy." I did not play a varsity sport in high school. My brothers did. Shawn was on a championship football team at Grossmont. Andre played basketball. York teed off for St. Augustine. Marcus played both golf and football. He was skinny then and until he went into the Navy. He came back from Vietnam muscled and heavy, as if he were wearing armor. He has remained a big man ever since.
While growing up, he says, he does not remember being close with blacks, with whites, or (as the middle child) with us, his brothers. (I take this remark full in the gut.) Feeling isolated within the home and outside in the community has meant, he says, that he has had to work for everything he has achieved.
I don't get the logic here or the rationale behind his conclusion, "That's why I make a point of surrounding myself with people who do not think in terms of color."
I suggest that he does think in terms of color. "You have married three white women. So what are we talking here, coincidence?"
He reminds me that his earliest relationship was with a black woman. "But as for my wives, I think each one was a very fine person who happened to be white." He calls himself a product of his environment. "If I'd grown up in Los Angeles or Oakland, where there is a large black middle-class community, the choices I made, from the women I met and fell in love with to the work I do, all that would have likely been different." I explain that as a black businessman married three times to white women, driving a Mercedes-Benz, and living in a condominium overlooking the park, he represents a certain social type. Whether he sees himself as fortunate or having worked for what he has, does he not feel that oppressive conditions still hold for the black man?
"Certainly prejudice and racism continue to exist. But I try not to let it bother me."
Unlike my two younger brothers, neither York nor Marcus acknowledges deep connections within the black community. I ask what the police beating of Rodney King that sparked the L.A. riots meant to him.
"It told me that our liberal justice system is in trouble."
Maybe the system is a mess, but I'm not sure the fault lies solely with the liberals. "Statistics," I say, "show that the judicial system, however you characterize it, is more likely to work in favor of a white person over a black."
Probably so, he answers, but cautions that statistics can be used any number of ways. I ask and am told that he does not approve of affirmative action. ("Do you think a quota system is good?") I suggest that the white good-old-boy network is also a quota system.
"Racism," he replies, "will always be with us."
As we ramble over the conservative landscape, he makes approving sounds about Clarence Thomas, the black Supreme Court justice; about welfare cuts and the strict monitoring of the poor. ("They could get a job if they really wanted to.") Marcus calls himself a moderate. He believes in the power of the individual to create his destiny.
I am beside myself. "You're nuts!" I tell him, and he laughs.
Marcus seems to me to speak in the way of so many Americans who currently find themselves disaffected. He espouses a political position while remaining essentially nonpolitical, thus seeing the world in terms of personality and individual responsibility, hence, of praise or blame. While he speaks with breathtaking assurance that puts my own wobbly liberal views to shame, his views are inconsistent. For example, his ethic of individual determinism is at odds with his claim that he, himself, is a product of his environment. "This country," he says, "faces dangers from unions, the welfare state, and unemployment. The big three that brought England down."
(I tell myself the danger is real. I'm just not sure bucking the unions, drastically reducing aid to the poor and unemployed is the way to address it.)
"Hi!" Rhonda appears, sleepy-eyed. A honey blonde, warm and affectionate, she is from Down Under and even her "Hi" has that Australian twang. She goes into the kitchen to fix dinner. Marcus and I wind down the interview.
He says growing up in San Diego allowed him to follow what he calls a moderate path, and he's glad for that. He quotes Martin Luther King, saying he has been lucky that he has been judged not on the color of his skin but the content of his character. (I remember that yesterday Shawn said that same thing, offering it as a hope for his son.) Maybe, Marcus admits, he has been like the ostrich burying his head in the sand, but "life is difficult enough as it is without having to agonize over the issues of race that you seem to be troubled by."
He goes over to the baby grand that turns out not to be a piano but a synthesizer housed to look like a baby grand piano. If objects speak symbolically of their owners, and Shawn with his fish tank, Andre his photograph of Ali, and York the dark painting hanging in the air are in a sense described by these, then surely this electronic sound system speaks of Marcus. It is advertised as completely self-contained, with an 88-note keyboard and 100 sounds of "breathtaking authenticity, including flutes, brass, basses, and drums....and other special effects as chorus, tremolo, and vibrato....and it never needs tuning." Because Marcus has not yet mastered the playing of it, the thing sits there, certainly not a baby grand, not even a synthesizer, but more a costly, unused toy. It falls into the same class as comfort food, vanity plates, and a prized bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon 1986 Silver Oak (Alexander Valley) that he shows me.
Because I know him to be both intelligent and sensitive (despite what he has chosen to say in the interview), I wonder how much he truly cares about these things. Are they diversions, narcotics used to ward off the pain of everyday life?
Rhonda announces supper. We sit down to a creamy pasta primavera, tossed salad, and white wine. Over our meal, the pair trade remarks, gently chiding each other. They have been married a year. In their give-and-take, two things become clear: They are enormously happy, and Marcus, who holds some opinions that I think are wrong-headed, maintains a kind of integrity evidenced in the quality of their relationship. What am I to make of this?
For dessert Rhonda has baked flaky apple tarts, topped with big scoops of vanilla ice cream that for me provide a sugar rush that has not subsided by the time I take off from Lindbergh Field two hours later, strapped in and accelerating fast into the night air, on the way home.
The guide pattern of lights of the airport drop away. Air flight leaves me restless. Tonight, however, my feelings of distress are acute. I feel small and lonely. Earlier, Marcus had pointed from his back porch to where the America's Cup defender finals were held. Now far below lies the water route taken in the elimination trials. Stars & Stripes, capturing the Citizens Cup over Mighty Mary and Young America, had won the right to sail against the New Zealand team's boat, Black Magic. It has been a strenuous two days. I wonder how close New Zealand is to Rhonda's Australia. I play the names in my head: Stars & Stripes, Young America, Black Magic. With the right verbs, they combine nicely as a metaphor for U.S. race relations. There was another metaphor that had made news earlier in the spring, when a team of molecular biologists published their findings on genetic ancestry in Science. The researchers had examined a tiny portion of a single gene from the Y chromosome in 39 ethnically diverse men from widely scattered parts of the world. Determining the rate at which human genes mutate and analyzing the genetic snippets, the research team concluded that every man now on earth is related to every other man, that we each share a common ancestor who lived among the earliest members of the race now called Homo sapiens. This "father of us all" lived in Africa roughly 270,000 years ago.
"Thus, in a sense," writes Svante Paabo, translating the findings into that single metaphor I remember months later, "everyone on this planet looks like an African." That each human wears the face of Africa is to say that all men, everywhere, are African. Thus all who reside in the U.S. are African-American -- black, white, yellow, red, and brown. I ran through my list of African names for "brother": Ndugu (Swahili), Aburo (Yoruba), 'Dan'uwa (Hausa). Genetics, I know, doesn't much matter. We are what personal histories and daily behavior make of us. But it was pleasant thinking that Africa, condemned for centuries as backward and uncivilized, should have been the place of our origin.
When I think about it, I'd left home early the day before to interview my brothers. Returning, I feel I'd somehow lost a little of each of them. (This is why I feel small and lonely.) But if I had lost them -- or at least some assumptions about them -- recalling those research findings and recognizing their implications means that at some level I am returning with a couple of billion more.
What a trip.
- The man of flesh and blood;
- the one
- who is born, suffers and dies --
- all, who dies: the man who
- eats and
- drinks and plays and sleeps and
- and wills; the man who is seen
- and is
- heard; the brother, the real brother.
- -Miguel de Unamuno
The sugar craving and jitters die about three the next afternoon. In the interim I'd had a few hours of ragged sleep, gone to church (in San Francisco), and eaten brunch nearby, then walked the streets gazing into store windows. While behind me, darkened bodies reflected and flattened by glass, passed back and forth, I recollected how I had done what I always seem to do when I visit family in San Diego -- just as I did what I always do when I left: I'd managed to eat myself into a numbing stupor, gone into sugar overload, zoned out on TV when possible, and then when I got home had forced myself to go cold turkey. And why?
Standing on Portola Hill, overlooking the city where below jeweled hills rise and drop in an ocean of pastel-colored buildings, where the steel-trellised bridge snaps ahold of the distant lowlands of Oakland like a giant claw, and the bay is set adazzle with afternoon sunlight, worry over some tacky compulsive behavior seems small stuff indeed. I had gone in search of the name for the mysteriously luminous feelings my brothers and I sometimes shared when we all got together. I'd come back not only empty-handed but with hands and body trembling with fired nerves. Why is it not enough to know that we love our families and that they love us? Why cannot such knowledge free us of the tensions that love sometimes arouses?
My knee hurts. I make my way down toward the Castro, hoping to walk out the pain.
We each, my brothers and I, live in homes with pleasing and attractive things at hand. No one has spent a day in jail. We are not afflicted with AIDS, drug addictions, or (for the moment) unemployment. Karl Marx claimed socioeconomic class more strongly influences behavior than race, and it seems that he was right. But how does middle-class status account for our wide stretch across the political spectrum, from liberal left (in my case) to the conservative right? We have each walked through days with taunts of "nigger" ringing in our ears; we've met with unfair treatment on the job and from police. At the same time, we concede that gains have been made in race relations. And if those relations appear stalled, we claim for them our share of America's sunshine virtues -- ever- dawning optimism, ever-springing hope.
One of my great-grandfathers was born a slave. He, like his son, my grandfather, and my father, each in his time, was gifted with motive and intention (essential to creating and maintaining a middle-class life), and each had found the means by which to actualize these. The same can be said of my brothers. And, all things being equal, so it will be for Little Shawn and the next generation.
Which is not to say that it will be easy or that it is ordained. Malcolm X reminds us that we remain, every one of us, black. Blackness throws generational class privilege always in question, tying us into a relationship that is not vertical, like father handing down to son, but horizontal, as brother handing across to brother. To trace a shared mutuality across five generations, from a man born enslaved in the middle of the 19th Century to his great-great-grandson who will reach maturity in the new millennium, means that we, linked as brothers to each other, have also, each in his time, borne the task of turning to the one who stands beside and saying, as did two characters in the film Sounder, "I beat the death they had planned for me; I want you to beat the life."
Standing, we link together as a chain in that combustible match of color and gender: the black man. In our culture, brothers sometimes use another word by which we are known. We call each other "Blood."
If my brothers and I feel ourselves (in Unamuno's words) not enough "seen or heard" when we are together, surely the willingness to criticize that lack indicates a level of communication, a vulnerability, at once deeply rooted and rare. Surely Andre was "real" when he told me I did not know him: and he was generous when he said it did not matter, between us. And so each of the others. They expressed their differences and showed me that what we had was okay. Laurie said that communication was not the same as intimacy, and she was right. It seems to me, however, that communication is essential to intimacy. And I have, on tape, beginnings of a new closeness.
Jesus says in the Gnostic Gospels that if you "bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you." I worry what this may mean for the nation as a whole, but I have no fears here for myself or my brothers.
We together represent a wide spectrum of opinion and choices met. We will go deeper to find "the brother, the real brother." I am no longer so sure I know who they each are and what I will find. But what of it?
James Baldwin wrote of the relations between the races as "literally and morally, a 'blood' relationship, perhaps the most profound reality of the American experience, and we cannot begin to unlock it until we accept how very much it contains the force and anguish and terror of love."
I ask myself what if this "anguish and terror of love" were shared by all my brothers, we who share the many different faces of Africa. I cannot hope (aspire?) to answer so large a question. Yes, the black man faces serious challenges, but having survived slavery, Reconstruction, and all the rest, I expect him to pass through this too. This is not to address whether the African American is "an endangered species," however; that answer must be a firm and unqualified no. As geneticists remind us, we are too many.
I take a seat on a stoop and look up at the sky. How long ago two afternoons seemed, when Little Shawn's balloon whipped out of his grasp and lifted. In his child's heart, his blue balloon was a thing of joy, beautiful, timeless, and much prized. But now it was suddenly drifting away, moving farther and farther out of reach. Uncertain that this precious thing could not be called back, he turned to his mother. She instructed him to say bye-bye to the blue balloon, and he did, participating in the event, waving goodbye for what was quickly on its way to being gone forever. But of course it was not lost. Nuclear Physicists at Berkeley and Tibetan Buddhist monks in the Himalayas share with us the knowledge that nothing is lost, that appearances simply change.
Yesterday he got another balloon, but by then wafting balloons were no longer an irretrievable calamity. By then (and for the moment) tragedy was tamed into an experience of transition, a playful moment in life that was itself a child's game of fleeting changes.
Shawn's balloon was never lost. Yesterday, he'd said goodbye and watched as it flew upward and became, so very quickly, the sky itself.