Part I: Ships Passing in the Night
This is the second installment of a series of long-form essays on race, history and politics. Previous installments can be found here: Prologue
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, ‘Nigger.’
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.
“Incident” by Countee Cullen
I spent a weekend with friends at a small cottage in Rhode Island, soaking up sun, good company and far too much booze. After a long Friday drive from Washington (ten hours, including hellish rush hour traffic), we arrived eager to begin the festivities. We decided to take a midnight stroll along the beach to inaugurate the weekend.
As we walked toward the shore, the lights of the town behind us receded, and a panoply of insects serenaded the marsh. We crossed a bridge, and it grew darker still. Above us the firmament was alive with stars – the Milky Way glimmered across the sky, towards the horizon. The ocean lapped gently at the beach; a soft breeze came off the water. All was quiet, save the sound of waves, wind and our voices.
Our conversation touched on a lot that evening: the scale of the universe, the meaning of our existence in it, the nature of humanity, society and the relationship between the two, the sky, the surf and the impenetrable darkness.
It was then that we met two very faded seventeen-year-olds.
Logan and Kyle* had driven the sixty miles to the beach looking for two girls in a camper tent. They’d gotten lost and misplaced their bags, and they were trying to retrace their steps while engaged in some deep conversation.
They saw our party, and approached us. We exchanged drunken pleasantries. The contours of the conversation have been lost to me over the past few days, but eventually we got to the topic of the towns we were from.
Logan, towheaded and the more exuberant of the two, claimed to hail from “the biggest cow town in America” (some Connecticut suburb.) Everyone there, he lamented, was a racist hick who threw around how much they hated “niggers and spics.”
The die was cast. We were going to have a conversation about race. As the group’s sole black member, I was going to have to quarterback.
Many black people have been in the position of explaining to an insistent white person why they shouldn’t throw around ethnic slurs. College campuses are notorious for this, be it the obnoxious guy who wants to say all the words in the rap song or the future law school asshole making a larger point about political correctness. Logan employed another well-worn trope, where the speaker utters racial slurs in an effort to take away their power, all in the name of a colorblind utopia. “Nigger is just sounds, its just words,” he asserted. “It doesn’t mean anything. We’re all the same. I’m a white nigger.”
I thought about what kind of response would be appropriate to the situation. There were a number of mitigating factors that made what would normally be an annoying or offensive incident feel like a “teachable moment.” For one, by dint of law and experience, I was the adult in this conversation. The fact that the confused white person was a teenager – a drunk one at that – gave me some leverage and softened my perception. Second: I, too, was drunk (if not more so) and I had decided that I liked Logan. Finally, the entire situation was so surreal. In addition to the almost mystical setting among the stars and waves, I was wearing a full-length blue cotton bathrobe because I’d forgotten to bring a sweater to the beach. In my whiskey-fogged mind, I felt that I must look like a powerful wizard. At the very least I could be a part of an epic “magical negro” tale, the time a black guy in a bathrobe appeared on a beach and taught some stoners about racism.
I could have given Logan a long history lesson, something I am wont to do, but I had the feeling it wouldn’t have made any difference in the moment. I could have also pointed out that by using racial slurs to make a point he wasn’t really differentiating himself from the hometown hicks he’d derided moments before. Or I could have just called him a racist, which a cursory understanding of the situation would support. However, I decided to go full-on elementary school teacher, perhaps because of the age difference.
“Logan,” I said, draping a drunk arm about his shoulder. “I’m going to drop some knowledge on you. You shouldn’t go around saying the N-word. You don’t know who you’ll offend or how people will take it.”
“Well yeah, I mean I wouldn’t say it in the hood or anything, I’m not stupid.”
I decided not to point out why his statement was problematic in service of the larger point. “No, you shouldn’t refrain from saying it because you fear bodily harm,” I retorted. “You should refrain because you don’t want to hurt another person. I know you don’t mean it to hurt anyone –“
“Of course not! Dude, I didn’t mean anything by it at all.”
“I know that Logan,” I said, using the father-knows-best voice I save for such occasions, “and you know that. But you can only control what comes out of your mouth. You can’t control how people react. And that word hurts people. You don’t know who it’ll hurt until it happens.”
Logan was silent, but you could hear the gears working. “You’re right dude,” He said. “I’m sorry. I hadn’t even thought of that.”
It was then that I realized that, for Logan, racism was an abstraction to be debated rather than any real evil. And how could it be otherwise in his all-white town?
He apologized to me a couple more times over the next half hour, and I accepted his apologies. In our conversation we learned more about Logan – how he planned to attend the local four-year university and was content with that. He congratulated me on graduating from Harvard, saying it was something he had never considered doing and that he was sure wasn’t for him. His friend Kyle had recently lost his mother to cancer, and his father to a heroin overdose a few years before that; three months ago, Kyle quit high school, determined to find his own way by living off a trust fund established in his name. Our hearts broke for him.
At some point in the darkness, Logan (because he was faded) insisted on seeing our faces, because by seeing them we would know each other. We took out our smartphones and held the glowing screens up in the darkness, looking at each other’s eyes. Reflecting back, I am reminded of Longfellow; we were as
Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, only a signal shown, and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life, we pass and speak one another, only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.
Eventually, we had to ditch Logan and Kyle because they wanted to park their car at the cottage.
I resisted writing this because I didn’t really know if I had a point – only that I found the incident very compelling. Like Cullen (author of the poem in the epigraph), I found myself returning to my encounter with Logan on the beach. The distance of time has clarified my thoughts, and I am grasping at their meaning.
One of the most remarkable components of the movement for LGBTQ equality has been the speed with which people’s attitudes have changed. Ten years ago, opposition to same-sex marriage helped elect George W. Bush to a second term; today, same-sex marriage is legal in nineteen states. Part of this shift occurred because people realized that, unbeknownst to them, they knew gays and lesbians and liked them as people. Once you know someone, it’s much easier to empathize with him or her.
In the long history of our country, due to the immutability of skin color and the tragedy of our collective saga, white people and black people have not often been afforded this luxury – we cannot discover anything new about each other, or truly empathize with each other, because our identities are defined in opposition. And our identities are marked by our appearance. More damning, through corrupt and unjust housing, education and prison policies our country has created totally different realities along racial and socioeconomic lines. Sixty years after the Supreme Court struck down school desegregation, our schools are as segregated as ever. Sixty years later, “the average black household with an income over $60,000 lives in a neighborhood with a higher poverty rate than the average white household earning less than $20,000.” Sixty years later, a young white boy from the biggest cow town in America could honestly use the word nigger to make a point about our “colorblind” society.
And I would submit that Logan, white and privileged though he may be, is a victim of that society too. For he has been fed the lie of meritocracy and forced to participate in historic amnesia. His elders have not leveled with him, for to do so would be to shame the memory of their fathers. It has been easier to hide from the past, to separate ourselves and avert our gaze, than to own the truth.
Growing up as we have, is it any wonder that Millennials are so confused about racism? Or that 63 percent of Americans believe that black people themselves are responsible for their own social immobility? From behind the walls we have built to run from our past, we fail to truly see the present around us.
*Names changed to protect the innocent.