Excerpts from Selections from Truth in Progress
There is a unique, hold-your-breath moment when an older brother is introduced for the first time to a younger sister. I’m imagining the kind of presentation when an infant is brought home and by her entrance creates a new world for the older sibling. There is a familiar sense in the face, a bond, though at the same time a bitter sweetness. Here is a new addition to the family: combination new play-thing, unknown entity, competitor for accustomed attention, and personal protégé. The baby is busy being a new life form and doesn’t awaken to her kinship for several months. But over years of shared, formative experience there is a unique relationship that emerges.
But ours was a different introduction for brother and sister. Though Gil and I were born on the same day of October 28th, he arrived in 1933, I in 1961. He was brought home to an African American family, me to a mostly mixed European-rooted one. He was born into a North Carolina black community, I to a North Dakota white one. The larger society thought this black male child inferior for his color. My world embraced my color though my femaleness would be of ambivalent value. Gil’s heterosexuality was in his favor but later when my sexuality revealed me to be a lesbian, my status in our larger society would be categorized as perversion, aversion, need-for-conversion. Brother and sister would not meet for 38 years after I entered the world, extraordinary decades of change and inertia, history in the making and history in a repetitive cycle. When we first met in 1999, his 66 years brought enormous wit and wisdom to my 38, including his awareness of our shared experience as outsiders, the power and limitations of our edge-living.
February 4, 2004,
Dear Younger Sister,
The challenge of talking about race in mixed company, talking to persons whose race is different from our own, all present a daunting challenge. The description of “antiseptic” is interesting. It conjures up woundedness, illness, etc. The fact of the matter is that race has injured all of us in this democratic Republic. We must be careful on a variety of levels as we talk to each other about race. First, we must speak our truth, antiseptic or not. Second, we must avoid the attempt to either antagonize or appease the other in our language and in our thoughts. Third, we will never reach, is it nirvana in our conversation and relationships. If after, 46 years Grace and I disagree, agree to disagree, continue to discover the differences in our individual culture, etc., why should we expect anything other in our conversation across the historic racial and other divides? An aside: I wish that early in our relationship, Grace and I had been able to identify our differences more openly and honestly. It is fun and bonding to do that in our later years. Will that “preach” in all relationships?
It seems that there are at least two things that happen to conscience-raised White people vis-a-vis race. One, there is a tendency in one’s own healthy introspective activity to take on the sins of the White race. Sometimes I wonder if Unitarian minister, Jim Reeb who was with me on the plane to Selma, who was clubbed that day and later died; what would he say about White folk from the grave? I want to think he would not take unto himself the guilt about Whiteness because his killers were white. (By the way I am using lower case for both black and white I notice you do it differently, and I was following you.) This is a minor matter. Second, white folk may “try too hard” to find and say the words, not to appease, but to connect with black folk. Remember my; “I want to me without making it difficult for you to be you.”
Ah, the use of the “n” word that you bring up. Is there any word that carries so much emotion in declaring/describing how people feel about another people? Does “faggot” or “dyke” or “bull-dagger” (I am in over my head using these words. Enlighten me and don’t hurt me), carry the negative power of the “n” word? Have you read Harvard professor Randall Kennedy’s book titled Nigger? In my Black History month piece I mentioned that the word/name Negro in part was an effort to circumvent the “n” word. Some, particularly hip-hop muscians, use it in various forms in an effort to de-mythologize it. I am not “there” yet, and do not expect to be. On Pioneer Day, “I wore an Indian outfit”. My goodness, what a powerful statement! Both, political and fashion. Have you written much about, “I was an outsider in other ways…”? Do you, have you, shared with others (or me) in writing, your process of orientation self-discovery? Is that important in our conversation? (I am fearful of repetition). But here goes, “Standing in a five and dime store with my father when I was 5 or 6, he was about to make a purchase, a white woman rushes up and says to the clerk, “What do you mean serving niggers before you seve white folk?” My father stepped back and I knew. Quite different from my heterosexual awakening…