Saturday, April 07, 2007

The Guilt That Keeps on Giving

Michael Jackson and Prince should still be slaves!

Shocked? Yeah, me too. When I heard the skinny white kid say that on the school bus one morning in 1981, my mouth fell open. I was surprised, and embarrassed, and angry. I was surprised because it was a horrible thing to say. I was angry because the black girl two seats away, the only black kid in the neighborhood, sat silent and looked him in the eye, her face completely blank. And I was embarrassed because the skinny white kid who said that was me.

A couple of weeks ago my mom picked up copies of Barack Obama’s books. After she finished reading Dreams from my Father she told me I had to read it. Said it was interesting and compelling, and that once I started reading I wouldn’t want to stop. So I started to read it and found that she was right. The memoir is well-written, thoughtful, insightful, and teaches me things. I liked Obama before I started reading this book, but now I realize he’s the antithesis of the current administration. A thoughtful human being who wants to help others, reminiscent of the late Paul Wellstone, who was one of only a handful of politicians I’ve been able to respect.

One of the reasons I admire this book is Obama’s willingness to explore—even expose—unflattering events from his past, actions he took that reflect poorly on him at that time in his life. He discloses drug use, pettiness, and selfishness. What redeems him are his responses to these events, his willingness to admit fault and learn from them.

He talks about being the new kid in his school, how he had no friends and a funny name. He describes his isolation. There was another black kid in class, a quiet, isolated girl named Coretta. They didn’t talk until one day on the playground, when they spontaneously started chasing each other around the yard, which led to tackling, which led to wrestling.

Which led to taunts of “Coretta’s got a boyfriend!”

Obama’s reaction was cruel. He not only denied Coretta as a girlfriend (what ten-year-old wouldn’t?), but (literally) pushed her away and yelled at her, told her to stay away from him. She ran, and they never talked again. Obama admits to the cruelty, and its inclusion in his memoir twenty-five years later speaks to how it haunts him. I like to think that this awareness makes him a better person, but I fear selfishness might motivate my belief.

Reading this anecdote reminded me of that bus ride in 1981. I was in much the same position then as Obama had been. We’d moved back to Minnesota two years earlier, and the friends I made right away had recently cast me out. As a group, they decided I was no longer one of them, and they embarrassed me whenever they could, they spread rumors about me. In a couple more years I’d find more friends, better friends. The friends I made in 1983 are the guys I still consider my best friends, but for those two lonely years in between I was on my own. None of that should be taken as attempted justification for the events of that day on the bus—there is no way to justify that—but to identify one of the reasons why it happened.

I never had the guts to sit in the back of the bus, but I wanted to be a part of that rowdiness, the easy bickering, the early attempts at pack dominance that characterize boys finding adolescence. I didn’t have any friends, but I also didn’t get in fights, didn’t hate anyone. I was a complete neutral. One day, that day, I decided to inject myself in the banter. I didn’t want to be anonymous anymore. I wanted to have friends and a reputation.

Music was a constant subject of loud debate, and in our middle-class white neighborhood hard rock and heavy metal were what most kids listened to. Debates about whether Led Zeppelin was better than Judas Priest, or AC/DC better than Van Halen were common. Pop music was scorned, especially “femmy” artists like Michael Jackson and Prince, with their high voices and mincing dance moves. (That heavy metal would move in a “femmy” direction we couldn’t predict at the time, and wouldn’t realize even while it was happening.)

So that morning, while the back of the bus burbled with another inane debate the subject turned to how bad pop music was, and I saw my chance.

“Michael Jackson and Prince should still be slaves!”

My talent for saying outrageous things didn’t really develop until my early adulthood, but it must have started with this outburst. It came without forethought, its only object to ingratiate me to those who had expressed similar (though not reprehensible) opinions.

I don’t even know if anyone laughed, or if the intended audience heard it. As soon as my mouth closed on that last syllable I saw “Coretta,” her caramel-colored face without expression, her dark eyes setting the image, branding me dismissed. Blood pounded in my neck and my face felt heavy. For the next few minutes, after Coretta turned her back to me, I made a number of connections. Slavery wasn’t just a concept we learned about in history class—actual people had been slaves. People like Coretta. Michael Jackson and Prince weren’t just celebrities and images—they were also people. I suddenly understood the horror of what I’d said—that just because I didn’t like their music—no, that just because I wanted to proclaim a dislike of their music in order to impress a bunch of preteens—Michael Jackson and Prince, and by extension Coretta, should be property instead of people.

Holy shit. Had I really said that? I went through a number of mental exercises then. I didn’t really mean all black people should be slaves, just those two. I certainly didn’t mean Coretta should be a slave. I liked her. And I didn’t really think Michael Jackson and Prince should be slaves. I was just trying to be funny. But none of that was true. It wasn’t false, either, but I couldn’t claim any intention toward what I said. I just didn’t think.

If either of my parents had heard me say that they would have killed me. And in those minutes, as the bus jounced along toward school, I would have rather been dead than sitting there facing my stupidity.

The thing is, while we weren’t friends, Coretta and I got along fine. I even felt a sort of affinity with her because two years earlier we had both been new students in the school, and we sat at the same table in Mrs. Borken’s class. She was quiet and seemed more mature than the rest of us. She never got squirrelly or obnoxious. She was probably the most decent human being on the bus. And she never even looked at me after that day.

I think of this every once in a while. The Obama book was almost a direct hit on the disgust I still feel for myself twenty-five years later. And that’s why I don’t entirely trust my admiration for Obama’s memoir. It’s possible that my inclination to see his reflections as a sign he is a better human being than he was that day, that he’s better precisely because of that day, is a subconscious attempt to elevate myself. I want to be better than what I presented in 1981. I hope I am.


Mike said...

I think we all have moments in our lives that we look back on and wonder just what it is we were thinking during that moment of truth. I have felt the sting of someone's words at the mere mention of my name. I have also giggled when someone else was at the brunt of jab. I have been the one to blurt out a hateful word at someone that had done nothing to me all in an attempt to hide my own insecurities. I for one my friend hold you in high esteem as being a person of incredible character.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I have known you for a very long time and I was never aware of that event. I realize that you don't get "student of the week" for that kind of thing, but still... I think you've come a long way since 1981. Hell, you've come a long way since you cut off your mullet!!!

Jason said...

Yeah, I don't think I've mentioned that little event to anyone before ever. So why now? I guess because the reaction I had to the book was that strong.

Either that or I'm succumbing to the twenty-first century American trend of conspicuous disclosure.

The mullet's still there in spirit.

Wait, no it's not.

dchmielewski said...

I will take conspicous disclosure over conspicuous consumption (which is very 20th century anyway, right?) any day.

I think everybody has closet racist tendencies anyway. The temptation to categorize and stereotype based on looks, gender (obvious visible differences) is too great. Its awareness of these tendencies and how one acts on them that makes the difference.

You certainly demonstrated awareness. Too bad your yap got the best of you in the old days. But gaining an enhanced sense of humility and shame is never a bad thing.

Given that you have chosen the english language as your profession, I am sure that your grasp of the meaning and power of words is greater than most of us possess. This is a gift in itself I guess. Too bad you cannot show this to Coretta now, I am sure that you would if you could.

Jason said...

I actually looked for Coretta at the ten-year reunion. I didn't see her, and I don't know if I'd have had the guts to say anything about this then. I doubt she'd welcome that kind of discussion at the reunion anyway, but I could have arranged a time to talk about it when it wouldn't be so awkward.

I Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett argues that the ability to simplify experience into categories may be an adaptive advantage, in that those who could sort out safe from dangerous most quickly survived best. Our tendency to identify "us" and "them," even in benign circumstances, could be a holdover from that. Looks like I had that up to my ears when I was 11 (I almost wrote "in spades," but decided that was in poor taste). Dubya can't move past it.