Why I Am Now Writing What I Could Not Write 40 Years Ago
And What I Hope Will No Longer Be Written 40 Years From Now
In 1979 a disgraceful hush fell over a busy street in the center of a large Southern California city when a young black man yelled Look at that fine African sister with that white devil.
And my spirit trembled with wrath and sorrow as those words pierced my Irish husband’s heart and brought tears to his gentle eyes. He cast them down in down in shame and no one — black, white, or in between — on that street in a place that prided itself on being hip, cool, avant-garde, innovative, liberal, progressive, and modern, spoke a word of love or comfort to him. Most looked away, and those who did not shook their heads and frowned — not at the shouter — but at us, as if willing us to let go of one’s another’s hands and hearts.
Their disdainful stares accused us of the crime of a togetherness. It made them angry and uncomfortable. And reminded me of something my husband could not possibly comprehend because he had been born in an ancient nation that had not been founded on false notions of “racial superiority” — and he, and his people were a cultural kith thousands of years old, that had better things to do than pass laws that turned couples like us into criminals.
But here, in the place where I had been born, this epitome of the New World, where ancient civilizations had been plowed under to create “white society”, our marriage was only recently protected by weak laws that did nothing to change the hearts of minds of the people who stared at us in this street. These were people whose minds and hearts, unbeknownst to their own selves, had been formed shaped out of 400 years of prejudices that were the basis of this alleged nation — this rough collection of frantic get-rich-quick activities that has been marketed as a country and a culture — and not the mere corporate venture that it is.
Until 1967, our “mixed race” marriage would have been illegal. Various punishments would have been meted out to us, depending on where we had corssed the “colour line.” In some places, an annullment would have been issued, rendering our union void on paper. In others, we would have been sent to prison or exiled from one state to another, for up to 25 years. In still others, we would have been attacked — spat on, slapped, beaten, kicked, lynched, burned, or, as we were experiencing now, shouted at and shamed.
And even though the hippies and surfers and gurus and psychedelic music and flowing androgynous fashions and long hairstyles for men that were being peddled in San Francisco and Los Angeles made it appear that things were different in California, these were merely the latest profitable trends — marketed as a counterculture — but really, only another version of Disneyland-style illusion. Beneath the sruface of this frenzied hedonistic happiness was a racial hatred as real here as anywhere else in the United States. But, in keeping with the standardized American way of rearranging history, such prejudice had been cleverly reinvented as something that only happened in the Southern states, where sterotyped stock characters, made popular in shlock TV shows like The Beverely Hillbillies, and movies like Deliverance, were the only ones who would have come riding in at night in white cloaks and hoods, with burning crosses, petrol bombs, and nooses, in order to preserve the purity of the “white race.”
The moment in 1979 when the young black man shouted at us was just one more of the millions of nondescript moments in the tedium of California’s endless summer. Our presence somehow marred the pursuit of silliness that constitutes the sunshne state lifetyle and offended the Have a Nice Day smiley face happiness manadate that informs it. Us two walking hand in hand somehow pushed California dreaming too far for the liking of people who saw us, and their stern disapproving silence locked us into a jail of sorrow, where the punishment was to cry tears which invoked neither empathy or sympathy.
And we did weep together, in the furtive safety of one another’s arms, until the day my husband died three years later — still never understanding why a young man his own age, whom he had never seen before, and would never see again, and to whom he had never, and did not have in him, any reason to cause any offence or insult to, hated him so much that he was willing to strip him of every shread of human dignity and leave his tender heart wounded and exposed to the elements of prejudice.
This heartbreak was just one of the many bitter draughts he was forced to drink because of his love for me, and those cankerworms of intolerance gnawed at his soul, causing him to him toss and moan in his sleep. Many a time I woke without him beside me and found him sitting in the dark, with starlight stroking his hair to comfort him, as he implored the night sky for an explanation of what he had done to be so despised, and why I, the darling of his heart and the friend of his soul, was treated as a foul thing to be scraped off the bottoms of a shoe.
I sometimes believe his tender spirit simply could not abide California — a place that appeared strange and always foreign to him — and although I can never, and will never, be angry with him for leaving me to live alone, without him, on the earth plane, I still carry within my heart a silent rage that I never could still the tears that started day in 1979. This stays with me because, even now, 20 years later, I hear him still weeping from the otherworld. And I cannot do the only thing I could when he was here with me — take him in my arms and hold him — simply hold him — and hope that the power of my love for him would shield him from further harm in this place where there was, and still is, no respite from the sorrows of racism.
His sobs burn like an acrid river through my soul — a river that has been dammed up behind a wall of silence and denial that was built to hide the unresolved prejudices that infect every ounce of air, water, and earth of this place called the United States. My husband’s tears are only a drop of water cried by millions of people like him, like me, like us, in this place that refuses to look itself in the mirror, and these tears of ours clamor to break the dam and find their way to the sea, so that our spirits do not drown in the daily, nightly, perennial, dispassionate, discriminations that are as routine as traffic jams, taxes, toil, and tedium in America.
Given my childhood, one might believe I am able to bear the weight of intolerance — and indeed my skin colour condemns me to be expected to do just that without complaint discomfort or consideration. I was raised by a couple like my husband and myself — a pair who jokingly wrote Two Fools on a 1923 photo that featured them standing on the running board of an old jalopy at the edge of a field of high Mississippi cotton. These self-styled jokers were my step grandmother, a woman whose father was Irish and mother was African — a set of parents whose ancestors had toiled side by side in tropical cane fields since the 17th century and who brought her as a baby from the Caribbean to America in the early 1900s. In their seeking to find something other than cane to chop, they spent every dime they had to end up discovering that, for people like them, chopping was their fate, whether it was cane or cotton.
When my step grandmother came of age she, choose a man who like her father — a hard working honest and brave man — to be her common law husband. My step grandfather an Irish immigrant who fled Belfast during the Irish Civil War in 1921, taking the first ship he could afford to America, and, not knowing one place from another, landed in New Orleans. Finding no work there, he wandered the roads of the South until he met the woman he would risk his life to be with, and settled with her in a much too small crossroads place in Mississippi.
He was a man of few words, but many quietly solid actions, who did not know much about the United States. But he quickly interpreted the knowledge he acquired and soon deduced there might be better ways and places to live than the ways and places of Mississippi.
And so it was that he packed my step grandmother and their daughter into their jalopy, and left town in the middle of the night, turning his back on the small shop he had built. It was a place where people called colored gathered to share a Coca Cola and news on Saturday afternoons, people who had embraced him as one of their own. His decision to leave was not an act of cowardice. Rather, it was a wise thing to do. Spending the rest of his life wrangling with ignorance was simpy a waste of time and spirit that he did not intend to pursue. He had no reason to lose sleep each night due to the need to sit on the porch his pistol cocked and wait for yet another instance of the the Ku Klux Klan flung a flaming bottle of gasoline through the window of his small house on the Negro side of town.
So he drove North in the jalopy until the heap of terrified metal died of fear in a street in the black part of Boston. And he accepted being listed as Colored on the Census. And he never cared one bit that the Americans with Irish last names in that town rejected him — people who proudly proclaimed themselves to be the sons and daughters of a mythical Erin that they had created in their own minds — a place that exists on no map, and has not white people whatsoever in it, because white people were invented in the United States and not due to skin colour, but for other reasons — -resaons that do not resonate in places where people’s identity is based on things that are not so superficial. These people wanted nothing to do with my step grandfather and his Negro family, but he did not care, because he wanted nothing to do with people who he saw as just as ignorant as the ones he had chosen to walk away from in Mississippi.
No, he was was not offended by being rejected by people who ate a very-much-not-Irish food called corned beef and cabbage, dyed rivers and beer green, ran around pinching people who were not wearing green on St. Paddy’s Day, and telling everyone how their great great great great grandmother’s dog had arrived from Ireland at Ellis Island a million years ago, who could not speak Irish, and because of this last fact, often spelled and pronounced their own Anglicized names incorrectly.
When I was a child reading adventure stories, I liked to imagine the reason my step grandparents was always on the move was because they were bravely curious like the characters in the books. But once I got older I realised things were not as romantic as that. Their journey of from Boston to California was a complicated drama fit for a soap opera, replete with bizzare events such as their house catching on fire during a snowstorm after one of these plastic Paddy Americans had come fix the furnace. Although the fire was blamed on some mechnical malfunction, my step grandmother always made sure to point out that the only thing that had been wrong with it before the man came was that the switch did not work properly and that the source of the fire was nowhere near the wires that ran from the switch to the furnance. And, despite there being a pile of smoldering rags and newspapers in the middle of the basement, the fire department, also manned by plastic American paddies, listed the cause of the fire as being electrical. My step grandfather merely shrugged his shoulders, went to the Church on the corner, lit a candle to thank the saints that no one was home when the fire started, then took an extra job for a year to raise the money to replace the things that had been lost or damaged.
But it was not only disgruntled Americans whites that brought their anxieties into my step grandparent’s lives. In their all-black neighbourhood, the gossip about them escalated into fairly regular outbursts of disapproval — scowls, smirks, stares, silences that froze them out when they entered the barber shop, the corner store, the beauty parlor, or the diner, whispered insults, and endless commentary about their daughter, who was both envied and hated for her “nearly white” looks. And, despite the inherently insulting orginins of the term — she was easily and quickly labelly a quadroon — someone whose heritage in 25% black and 75% white —and those who did not use this formal Census classification reduced her to high-tone, high yellow, pinkie, or hig breed.
Things finally came to a head when she fought another quadroon — a woman who would become mother — in the middle of the street on a bright summer Sunday after Mass. Both of them were women with ivory skin in common but my mother’s straighter black hair distinguished her as the “better looking one”, according to the local folks.
Family lore had it that my step mother kicked my mother in the stomach that day, in front of everyone, including the parish priest, because my father had decided to leave town with her and head for the hills of Virginia to do something pastoral like farming or chicken raising. The one time my father talked to me about this incident he did not put it down to the jealousy of his wife. Rather, he simply said something to the effect of how he just could not be bothered with all the squabbling and was sick of the city. All he wanted, he told me, was to live where there was some fresh air and quiet.
But his wife was not about to give him up, seeing as how he was a linen flax toned man with wavy black hair, who people said looked a lot like Cab Calloway. And, he was relatively wealthy in Negro terms, because his free African ancestors had confidently carved out prosperous places for themselves in Virginia and Pennsylvania since the early 1700's. In the mid-1800s’ they wisely abandoned futures that narrowly consisted of scraping dirt to raise tobacco or dying from industrial factory pollution, in favor of taking a chance at striking gold in California.
They hit mother lodes and established themselves with cold hard cash in the Sunkist state, becoming known as a family whom Delia Beasley listed in the 1890s as one of the Negro Pioneer Families of California.
They were a set of people whose uniquely American race category changed with every Census into descriptions that jumped around like fleas on a mongrel dog — Quadroon, Mulatto, Negro, Black, Colored. This pestilence left a trail of bites that turned into sores of oozing sorrow that only people like those of us who are called Mixed Race feel, and whose itch covers our skin with a persistent rash of anxiety and grief.
The three year episode of the battle to claim my father ended badly for me. My step mother usurped my mother’s place and her revenge by refusing him a divorce and assigning herself as my mother in the papers that adopted me into his family. Not only did this mean I lived in much too close quarters with a woman who hated my mother and her husband each time she looked at me, it also meant my name was a lie that was just one more item on the list of lies that defined me.
It was not as simple as my being legally classified as the child of a woman who was not my mother. Rather, by wiping her off my record, the action also invalidated her lineage that flowed in my veins. And, being born into a family with African heritage, in a place obsessed with the amount of African blood in everyone’s lineage, also meant that the majority of my actual self was denied to me. Like my mother, my stepmother, my father, and four generations of people before them, I became a blood quantum creature — whose only identity was based upon the way whites in the United States categorised people like us.
Because, instead of being recognised as someone with both maternal and paternal roots in four ancient and historically interconnected nations — Ghana, Scotland, Ireland and Wales — I was simply listed as Coloured. This is a term that off-handedly reduces people like me to the “non-white” category. It is somewhat like being seen as a factory second — a product that is unfit for circulation in the marketplace of citizenship — something not up to the illusionary “pure whiteness” that is considered supreme and superior in the United Staes. Back then, I was Coloured. Nowadays I am “mixed”. Ultimately, I am incomplete.
It is only I who know my true self. Thanks to my elders, I know our family history. Long before the trendy ancestral search industry was created, I was told stories of those who came before me and this shaped my identity in a way that is impervious to the shallow calssifications hoisted upon me. And, thanks to being gifted this complete sense of self, I was not afraid to follow when my Irish husband’s heart called to me, and his hand reached out to me, and hsi spirit smiled and said: Come, let us flow into one another like two rivers heading gently toward the sea.
My spirit recognized my husband as soon as it saw him. He was a Black Irish man like my step grandfather and like Michael Maloney, a Great Famine survivor who married my paternal great great grandmother. My husband’s ancestors would have known my father’s Scottish ones for centuries. And like them, my husband’s Irish ancestors would have fought invasions of Vikings, Saxons, Normans, and English. His ancestors would have traded with the Ghanians in my lineage, whose kingdoms were world famous, wealthy centers of trade and learning and whose gold adorned Irish jewellry. My Northern African ancestors would have exchanged knowledge of science, philosophy and theology with my husband’s Irish ones, and between them all, they would have created some of the most beautiful illuminated manuscripts in the world, replete with a knotwork known nowadays only as Celtic.
But, inlike my husband’s ancestors — who somehow managed to survive the onslaught of capitalist atrocities — the plantation system, the slave trade, famine, mass murder and land theft — and remain in their homeland — my ancestors were uprooted and joined the millions upon millions whose 500+ year old history of encounters with the invaders who eastblish this place called the United States has created an Afro-Celt diaspora there that is yet to be racognized by most of the people who are a part of it.
Like mine, my husband’s spirit recognize dme as soon as it saw me. And one of the most precious part sof his courtship was his sitting with me my elders as they told family lore stories on Sunday afternoons. We heard of our ancestor Lachlan Dowe — whose family were vassals to the seventeenth chief of the Clan Maclachan and who fought at Culloden. We heard of a man named Jones who came from Cardiff in the early 19th century and carried the most common name in Wales — a name that seemed to stir some kind of ancestral memory in me when a Welsh singer of the same last name who looked like a darker version of my mother’s people rose to a fame level that caused white women to throw their panties on stage when he was singing and who black women swore was a black man.
We heard of unnamed Africans who survived the Middle Passage and stayed alive throughout the nightmare of slvaery. We marveled at the fact that on my father’s side of the family, every African arrived in the United States as a free person — one as a translator on a slave ship, another as an agent for the Tobacco Lords of Glasgow, and yet another, a woman, as the wife of a Caribbean plantation owner who fled the islands for Virginia, fearing that hte Haitian Revolution would spread and wipe out both his fortune and his family.
The bond between my husband and I was not merely that of two people who met, fell in love, married, and stuck together despite the odds against us. It was a deep, ancient, timeless bond, and we were simply one more couple in a long history of Afro-Celt couples.
Yet, this history is not known in the United States. And so it was that in 1979 someone could shut an insult across the street at my husband and I with no qualms and no sense of decorum. For people in the United States, our union had nothing whatsoever to with our richly shared ancestral lineage. We were simply a “white” man and a “black” woman whose union triggered the ever-present racial hostilities that define the United States.
The routine activity of choosing a designated lineage for people is something that happens every time a child is born in the United States. Although it may seem as if parents are free to choose the categories, those boxes to be ticked on forms are inventions of a system that has been throughly invested in classifying people in the context of a mythological, non-existent “race” called “white” for 400 years. In some sort of strange playing with dolls games that befits people suffering delusions of granduer, people like me are given the foolish names you might assign to mongrel dogs, or barnyard pigs — names like Tansy, Pinkie, Sukey, and Brownie, and we are colour coded with paranoid precision down to 1/128th Negro to ensure we cannot not “pass for white” and thereby pollute their pure Ayran White Anglo Saxon Protestant blood.
Taking me from my mother and placing me where they pleased was a modern practice in a tradition that included sending children like me the brothels of Natchez and New Orleans and New York and hot springs spa resorts in the countryside reserved for wealthy whites. Little girls with my color and hair texture were routinely auctioned by slave trades to white men who desired the highly priced mulatto concubines. Nowadays this practice continues, but is paid for by the hour, which no doubt makes luscious colored girl flesh accessible to a wider market, as most can afford the market rate of as little as twenty dollars to tast brown sugar.
And this had been the American way of life nearly four centuries.
So, by the time I was born, it only stands to reason that being such an ingrained part of the daily routine in the United States there was no concept nor reason to change it on my account.
Just as they garbled my mother’s lineage into the simplistic term Coloured they also assigned more Slave Schedule no-names to my father’s line as well. And, they mangled the names their brains could not comprehend, when they created a bureaucracy that allowed barely literate people to interpret these names and write them illegibly on the Census. These decisions were made by people who could hardly speak their own English language, much less understand languages as richly complex as Gaelighe or Akan.
What has always fascinated me about these people is that, while they are quick to classify other, if you were to ask them about their own heritage they disdain to answer. How dare you ask them to explain what being a white American means. They put you straight in your place with their silence and that place is this: never question them about the chaotic jumble of myths they wove together to create themselves as the white race.
It was these self-styled whites who bestowed on my father’s people the name Clanton — their American bastardized version of the Scottish name MacLennan, a siol that once populated the north-west of Scotland but has been scattered to the winds of history for nearly 300 years now. My father’s mother’s told me the story of how tempestous events blew one of their young men onto a Virginia tobacco plantation and how two years later he walked to Pennsylvania in the winter with his pregnant African wife — whom he had married in a ceremony attended by their fellow unpaid field workers, who smiled and clapped and sang and danced with them as they tied their hands together with brand new white cloth and jumped together over a broom as their ancestors had done in Africa and Scotland for centuries.
And he carried her most of the way on his back so she would not trip over hidden rocks and felled trees buried in the snow that came up to their knees. This was the fate they faced when some white man claimed ownership of her and intended to take her somewhere too far away for my Scottish ancestor to follow without being hunted down as a runaway his own self.
This couple made it safely to Pittsburgh, where, twenty years later, when a Northern census taker labelled him a Mulatto because she said the way words formed in his mouth was some kind of Negro gibberish. his daughter stated firmly My father is not talking gibberish, he’s speaking Gaelighe because he is from Scotland. That proud woman was someone of whom my father’s people said I had inherited the same haughty look and proud intellect and she had a daughter who married a man named Maloney.
Michael Maloney survived Black 47 and a coffin ship and was an apprentice in the livery stables of one of my free Negro ancestors. Falling in love with this man’s daughter, transformed him from Irish in the 1850 census to Mulatto in the 1870 one. This did not happen because he was sitting in the kitchen covered in coal dust after working all day when the government man knocked on the door. It had more to do with what ensued after he said he had been born in Ireland the Census taker shook his head and mumbled something under his breath about yet one more an Irish nigger lover sitting in a mulatto gal’s kitchen.
Saying this to a tired working man who was not born in a nation where it is an insult to have African blood in one’s veins was most not a wise decision on that Census taker’s part. Things rushed rapidly in a very wrong direction and by the time the paddy wagon came, not only was there a need to send out another Census taker at a later date to replace the one who ended up in the hospital, but the American police with Irish last names wrote Mulatto on the booking record just to show this man they called a n****gger turned inside out they would not tolerate someone they expected to be a son of Erin taking a stand for a negress.
All this stuck with Michael Maloney until the day he died. But it never made him any mind. My grandmother reported that, as he put it: the useless bastard insulted my wife and if that makes me a mulatto so be then and I’m proud to be one.
My life in Southern California seemed thousands of miles away from these things which most Americans swear are anomolies or lies from a long forgotten and dead history. And, when the word racism is impolitely spoken, the responsibility for creating it is placed firmly and squarely on the shoulders of white people born beneath the Mason Dixon. How many times had I hard people swear that what we were watching on TV — dogs, waters canons, little girls being bombed at Church, people being murdered, and tens fo thousands jailed for demanding a new way of life that did not include hatread of black folks — how none of this nothing whatsoever to do with the brave pioneers who slapped a place called the Sunshine State down on top of stolen Spanish haciendas and indigenous bones and created a frantic way of life that includes wearing a permanent frozen grin on one’s face, always being happy, commanding people to have a nice day and living with only one simple-minded and shallow purose — to enjoy the weather.
I grew up with an everpresent sense of being nothing more than a doomed cartoon character in a sinister version of its a small world after all. This was made terrifyingly clear to me the first last and only time I went to that gallery of glittering pretty horrors called Disneyland. This was cast a melancholic shadow over my childhood. And, it was only the peaceful strength of my step grandparent’s that offered me solace, so I ended up visiting them so much that their daughter finally screamed just stay there and don’t come back I’m sick of looking at you as it is. And, I gratefully moved in with them, and enjoyed living in their high-ceiling bungalow with deep eaved porches, a cool back yard of bougainvillea, banana plants and elephant ears as tall as trees, and a parlour library of hundreds of books, all of which brought me a reprieve form the incessant glaring sun that burned my skin and the punishing microwave heat that dried my hair to a frazzle and made my nose bleed every day.
But the weather was not the only thing that kept me locked away in my room with the curtains drawn. One of the greatest miseries were children with dark skin and short wooly hair who taunted me with names like high yellow, redbone, cromey, domino, graham cracker, half baked, half caste, and swirlie.
And there were older dark people who chastised me for not liking their desire to smile at me as if I was a cute baby animal they wanted to pet as they coo’ed look how pretty and long your hair is you sure do have some good hair and how when you grow up you’ll look just like Lena Horne so you better learn to sing and if you keep out of the sun you’ll be able to pass for white.
Yet in strange unexpected moments the darker folks took a liking to me. Such as the time, in 1963, when I was six years old, and President John Fitzgerald Kennedy visited our city. Everyone from my neighborhood squeezed into the crowd that jostled to touch him as he walked alongside his car, shaking hands and smiling with every one of any colour who could reach him. My step grandfather held tight to my hand as he pushed through the crowd, all the while saying Come on let’s get a good look at our Irish President of the United States. And when we got to the front, somehow I ended up standing right in front of the Great Man Himself, who smiled, scooped me up in his arms, and kissed my cheek.
A cheer rose from the dark people that made me feel like some kind of child champion all day, and that feeling has stayed with me all my life. And it soothed the dread I felt whilst watching one more scene from the never endng soap opera of hatred that is American history — the televised murder of this man whose warmth and love had brightened my gloomy days only a few months earlier, in a rare moment when I felt I belonged, somehow, to someone, for some reason.
After President Kennedy died, things went back to the usual in my neighbourhood, and it wasn’t just my Crayola beige family that people said mean things about. They had special hurts to heap upon one another: jungle bunny, jigaboo, rusty butt and nappy head cotton picker. And even though every one of them had the stunning facial bones and elegant bodies and ways of talking, singing, dancing and cooking that their African ancestors had gifted them they all claimed no connection to that place which they had only seen on American television. Being thus educated, they reckoned Africans were naked people dancing around in the dirt with bones in their noses, beating drums, and scaring the Hell out of fragile white girls who big apes fell in love with.
This misinterpretation of Africa came to a head when Father Sean — our liberation theologist priest from Armagh, who sometimes chatted with my step grandfather in Irish — hung a photocopied page from an art book in the church community room that showed a black Jesus smiling as he blessed us all. Father Sean told the congregation that it was more likely Jesus had been an African than a blonde blue eyed Teutonic Viking Anglo Saxon something or other and this sent the congration into an indignant tizzy.
Most everyone said that picture don’t look like any Jesus I’ve ever seen and the Jesus that loves me ain’t no African hulu bulu zulu. Everyone was highly offended except my step grandfather, who said ach their arses are out the window, how would they know who Jesus was they’ve never seen him at all have they? A Mexican elder cautiously suggested Jesus might be black, or at least brown, because his mother came to visit my ancestors and she looked like us Mexica people. But no one listened to either of them and people stopped coming to Mass, shunning Father Sean until he finally took the picture of black Jesus down and reinstated the one who looked like the undiluted pure type that would have made the Nazis swoon. And it was this Jesus that vigilantly watched over us, to ensure that no one in the congregation ever decided that black or even brown was beautiful.
The dark people in my neighbourhood lived in constant fear of being discovered to be Africans. I suppose I did not make things any easier for them when I spent all my pocket money on Aqua Net hairspray so I could force my hair to keep the shape of the Afro I wanted because I longed so much to be Angela Davis. People said things like she has all that pretty hair and wants it to look nappy and who is this Davis woman anyway well I couldn’t tell you for sure but I do know this I seen her on a FBI Most Wanted Poster in the Post office and all’s I have to say is anyone’d be a fool to want to look like her what with the white folks looking for her and all.
And even though I was vexed with them them for saying these things, something in my 14 year-old heart also understood that they said all these things for the same reason they had all tightly locked their windows and doors and turned the radios and TVs down low to nervously watch the dogs and water cannons and tanks set loose on people who looked like them. Fear froze their darkened living rooms cold as the Artic during the Long Hot Summers. But, despite this, some quietly hummed We Shall Overcome when they were working as cleaners janitors gardeners cooks bottle washers and garbage men and were sure white folks were not listening, and this made me proud.
But, it came as no surprise to me when they turned horrified away from me once I mastered the art of keeping my Afro intact. And, my childhood foreboding of gloom to come for me was fulfilled. Yet, I had known it would all along — since the time I was five and had written a poem about a butterfly who emerged from its cocoon with a smiling brown face and who floated free in a clear sky high above white people who could never catch it with their nets. Folks in the neighbourhood were preplexed and made nervous when my white teacher had the poem published in the newspaper. From then on, they had made it clear I simply was too strange to be trusted — what with writing poems that white people liked, imagining freedom, talking funny talk with my step grandfather when everyone was fishing in the creek that ran through our segregated unincorporated area, talking funny talk and laughing and playing with the Mexican kids who came to our church, my spending the long summer days hiding reading books written by people by James Baldwin, James Joyce, Richard Wright, Padraig Pearse, Langston Hughes, Bobby Sands, Zora Neale Hurston, Karl Marx, Howard Zinn, Dorothy Day, and Lucy Parsons.
I ignored them and hung around the church rectory until Father Sean invited me in to have Coca Cola with himself and Sister Bernadette, letting me sit with them and talk about the progress of the Civil Rights movement, the Anti War movement, the Black Panther homework club and the Catholic Worker house. This gave me no time to not sitting around in the neighbourhood, watching TV programs like The Jeffersons while mean old Miss Perkins doused nappy heads in grease and ran straightening combs over them to kill hair folicles and prevent them for living happily kinky everafter (at least until water or sweat hit them). I reserved my entertainment for doing things like sitting up at night listening to Jimi Hendrix, who, along with Richie Havens, the neighbourhood folk thought were nothing but hippies and they said who in the Hell has ever heard of a black hippie well I guess there are some so that must be where she picked up that boy she done gone and married at one of them places where hippies dance around naked and smoke that loco weed.
But I had not picked my husband up at a hippie gathering, neither of us smoked marijuana and when we danced we preferred to imagine the taste of one another’s bodies through our clothes, as we closed our eyes and melted into one another to songs like Let’s Get It On. And we didn’t dance wildly in the sun — our solitary dancing was behind drawn curtains in the apartment where he lived in a building people with white neighbours whose poverty and prison records had driven them from small places in other states to the anonmynity of California. They minded their own business, never saying much more than how ya doin’ if they happened to run into us on the stairs. No, there was no hippie heaven for us who had met in the hushed, deep night, protective silence of a graveyard shift at work. There was only a secret garden of afternoon delights that we guarded with our very souls, and so content was I to join him in it, that I simply could not be bothered to explain anything about my husband to people who had constantly rejected me since the day I was born, yet continued to expect me to be loyal to them to prove that Coloured folk did not betray Negroes.
Because it would have taken a thousand years of unravelling hundreds of years of American race lies to explain that the man who loved me was not what they called a a Messican but was Black Irish. And that was fine with me, because, even though my stepmother called him a dirty hippie, my father liked him well enough to invite him to go fishing, my step grandmother said she knew a good man when she saw one and he was one, and my step grandfather was happy to chatter way with him in Irish all Sunday afternoon over a game of cards and glasses of whiskey. He loved me and was loved by those who loved me and I loved them all and so love protected me from the peering eyes, frowns, stares, teeth kissing, and general dull gossipy malaise that infected people whenever they saw me with him.
Something in my husband’s eyes, and in the way he moved, and how he drifted into me so tenderly, kindled mysterious memories of those ancient people called Celts whose blood ran in my veins. His kisses and our touches felt as if they had been shared for centuries between people like us — eons before I was called Colored and he was called White. And something in my serious demeanour and the books I read and the way we enjoyed combing and braiding one another’s hair on quiet nights with the full moon shining through the window of his apartment soothed the loneliness of being ten thousand miles away from home and sheltered him from the lustful intentions of bikini clad white girls with leather skin sntans, who squeeled over his rock star looks and became aggressively offended when he was unwilling ot indulge their sexual curiosity. We became one another’s soul sanctuary and Love’s soothing melodies lulled us into a dreams of safety, serenity, and soalce — from which we were rudely awakened when the young black man yelled Look at that fine African sister with that white devil!
So much about that’s young man’s cry of rage and pain was wrong that, even now, with all the reading I have done in my lifetime, I cannot begin to explain it. And for 40 years I have pondered how in that moment I went from being called a whitewashed zebra to a fine African sister, and why my Irish husband — who never liked being called white, because as he saw it that there white thing is one strange American thing and I’m no Yank — had gone from being the angel who was sent to heal my heart, that had been broken into so many pieces by the taunts and sneers and other dysfunctions that American racism bred into my people — how had this man who loved me so deeply that he was willing and able to stand between me and people both black and white who hurled barbs of fury, fear, meanness, jealousy, hatred at me and let himself be pierced by their bullying arrows — had had this man, my shelter from the storm, the refuge where I could go to smile and laugh and dance and love — how had such a man been transformed into a devil?
And who had the young black man our own age felt entitled to disrepect me in so many ways — as someone who shared African blood with him, as a woman, as a wife, as a full fledged human being — ways that were mirror images of the way white Americans disrespected he himself?
And what could I do to protect the man who was my literal other half — the part of me that had I had been missing and searching for from the time my ancestors were thrown onto the shores of this wild untamed place by a tempest that left them reeling from the pain of having their names and selves stolen from them? This man was someone whose smile routed diverted rivers of my bloodline together formed a pool of renewal in his arms, and in my soul. And he was strong and brave enough to make me feel safe, as I floated there without care and rejoiced in being made whole again.
But he was not strong enough to withstand the power that emanated from shouting young black man who shook his fist from across the street and caused his tender heart to tremble in pain. And that illegitimate and misused power was the result of everything I have chronicled here — those 400, 500, even more hundreds of years of dismantling Afro-Celt history and rearranging it into narrow classifications of “race” that reduced me, and my husband, to binary type of “black” and “white” which only serve the purpose of oppressing everyone, including the young man who mistakenly believed he had the authority to fling those manipulative categories at us like weapons — bullters of hatred meant to kill our spirits who knew, not only who we truly are, but loved one another precisely because who we are is what bond us together.
My husband was a person who loved everyone, without question. For him, a person was simply that — one more human being making their way through the world — and experiencing exactly the same things as himself, from triumphs to failure, from struggles to victories, and everything in between. He was the type of man have would have happily smiled and called out All right, my brother? when the young black man stopped dramatically in the middle of the sidewalk and fixed his eyes on us. He was the type of human being who would have reached out from his heart and soul to this young man to make a new friend on this road called life.
But he never was given the chance to do this. All he was given was a slap to his soul, one that stung so deeply it caused him to often cry himself to sleep in my arms, when I’d encourage him to stop waiting for the stars to explain the bottomless ache that slap left in his very being.
And, for 40 years his tears have whispered to me, in far too many deep nights devoid of the solace we somehow managed to carve out of the pain. I sit up and listen to them admonishing me, pleading with me. You must tell someone. Please tell someone. Do not be afriad. Tell someone how much this hurts. How much this hurts, how much this hurts, how much this hurts. You must, you must you must. Tell someone. Somewhere. Somehow. Some way. Someday. Please.
I have sat in the in the dark many a night over these 40 years and wished my husband was still here, so that we could cry together. Shared tears are so much easier to bear. But he is not here. I am alone. And for 40 years, I have never told anyone how much this hurts. And because I have never told anyone, the hurt has been my only companion — a dreadful, horrible monstrous thing that I would not wish anyone to have to exist with. An unforgiving thing that spends all its time contructing a cage of sorrow and locking me inside of it. It is a cage made from the tears racism cried for centuries by people like me and like my husband, whose rightful heritages have been stolen from us, and refashioned into prisons from which we spend our entire live trying to escape.
And our fingers and hearts bleed from picking at the lock of the cage. Our spirits grow weary, waiting and hoping for someone to come along and steal, then throw, away the keys — those keys which are all the invisible things people of all colours do to perpretrate and maintain this lie called race.
Who will be brave enough to do that — steal those keys and open the doors and set us free?
I have spent 40 years longing for people to do this, so that the stuff from which those keys and these cages are made — the lies that is this false thing called race — lies, which, if we believe them, only cage us all forever in fear, sorrow, anger and pain — -that this stuff will be melted down and turned from metal bars of hatred to plows of love that will prepare the earth for a different kind of harvest — one of love, peace, unity, and kinship amongst us all.
But, until then, my husband’s tears, and mine, will continue to flow, forming two rivers that join in sorrow to flow to the sea, mingling with the tears cried for hundreds of years by people like us. And, no matter how much it may hurt, I will keep crying until someone finally hears, because so no long as no one does, this pain that I, and millions like me, bear, will never be healed.