A Seat at the Table
Edited and updated on August 16, 2017
My dad and I broke the legs off of the spice covered crabs and dipped the white meat in melted butter, our fingers covered in a mixture of Old Bay, vinegar and said butter. My nose began to itch, just like it does when I’m washing the dishes and I don’t have a dry hand to appease the persistent, annoying prickle. My kids were running around somewhere, their bodies encased in a layer of sweat and earth and sugar. Baths were non-negotiable that night. In fact, given the amount of dirt they had acquired each day from hours of tree climbing, frisbee, barefooted running etc., each of the three nights that we were at my parent’s house was a bath night, while at home they might go three or four days without one. I call it ‘Cat’s Theory of Subsequent Kids and Soap’: with each additional kid that is added to your brood, the days per week that are devoted to bathing go down — it’s proven science, except when at the grandparent’s house, or when lice invade. The theory doesn’t hold in those scenarios. Fucking lice.
Against the backdrop of a soft, grey sky and somewhat unseasonably cool, May air, the gathering of kids and cousins reveled in their freedom to roam as various adults ate and talked and kept an eye out for the littler ones. The newest cousin, at just over two weeks old, lay bundled and cocooned in his mother’s arms. Almost all of my six siblings and I plus our families had gathered at my parent’s house the second to last weekend in May to celebrate my oldest brother turning 40. To an extent, 40ish is how I still picture my parents in my mind’s eye even now. They are as I remember them when I was a kid. My dad mows the lawn, my mom too. She cuts fresh basil from her garden, grabs a few tomatoes from their vines and slices some mozzarella for an afternoon snack, all of it topped with a bit of sea salt. But when I look back at pictures of when they actually were 40, they do look different now, older. Of course they look older, that was over 20 years ago. Time — and the passage of it — is such a weird concept to try and grasp. It leaves me bewildered and awed and sad. And yet it actually can’t be grasped — it’s literally always in motion, doing it’s work silently and relentlessly with no regard for status or power, fame or family. We will all bow to it eventually. It’s true that the heavy eyed, ever yawning newborn is a walking, bumbling, cheerio eating one year old before your own eyes, but, how? Further, today matters, what we do in our lives has consequence and holds weight. But it’s also true that dust returns to dust. This strikes me as simultaneously freeing and a little defeating. We will all die eventually, so live loud and large and without fear. We will all die eventually, so what’s the point?
The talk turned briefly political between my dad and I on that moody afternoon. I wouldn’t say that our home was a particularly political one growing up, more so religious, if I had to contain it in one word. But, inevitably, religion always intersects with politics at some point.
Home is cathartic, for me anyways. For some, it is nothing but pain or pills, a place to escape from, a reminder that you are never enough. My years away from home have shown me that not everyone is like me. Of course I knew this before I left, but not in the flesh, not in my face. In my experience, home is a falling into softness and nostalgia, into familiarity, even though much has changed. Time has not only done her work on skin, eyes, hair, but the weeping willows and the driveway and my ideas as well. Still, home is a chance to let out my breath. It’s easy to laugh, ok to cry. My kids feel this comfort, this freedom. They move about that space with ease and joy and a sense of safety.
It was about gay marriage — the conversation with my dad while we ate crabs on the patio. We don’t see exactly eye to eye on some things anymore. Like my parents, I am not the same in body or in mind as I was twenty years ago, or even ten. I once held up certain ideas as absolute, immovable and untextured truths. Certain things have begun to change my mind — time and art and blood and words and screams.
I emailed my dad a few days after that conversation. I had picked up on a subtle shift in his mood after we switched topics. Our talk didn’t get contentious or ugly, it’s almost impossible to go there with my dad, but I could tell something was bothering him. So I asked him via email: did I say something that upset you? He replied back that it wasn’t so much that he was upset, but rather, discouraged and down. He felt that he had somehow failed me as a parent because my views on gay marriage had shifted to the point where he felt like they don’t line up with Scripture anymore. Our home was built upon Scripture. I could see why this would be crushing to him. He ended his email telling me that I am a great mother and daughter. He told me that he loved me with all his heart.
I, in turn, felt pretty crushed, too — not because we disagreed, but because the thought that my dad felt like he had failed me was sad. And not sad in the way that the President uses that word in his tweets, as in pathetic, but genuine sorrow. As a parent myself now, the last thing I want to feel is that I’ve let my kids down.
But I don’t think my dad has let me down, and I told him so. I told him that I think one of the hallmarks of good parenting is raising independent and critical thinkers, which is what I’m trying to be (excuse me while I pat myself on the back.) I told him that he and my mom showed me how they think I ought to live, and I have taken that in, and now I am trying to figure out where to land (do we ever really land though?) I asked him: Wouldn’t you rather have me read and think through and question and doubt and analyze rather than blindly and dumbly follow along whatever happens to be right in front of me? I told him that I wanted my convictions to be my own, not something I believe in just because my parents or a small group of like minded men told me to believe in it when I was growing up. Have you ever wondered what you’d believe if you grew up in a different family? If you were born in India? In 1712?
I’m much more interested and intrigued by the complexity and contradictions that human nature seems to encompass, rather than boxing everything off into strict dichotomies and blacks and whites. Yes, truth has to be concrete and constant and solid. But truth is also fluid, depending on circumstances and context and PERSPECTIVE. Not everyone is a woman. Not everyone is white. Not everyone grew up in the suburbs and went to private school. Not everyone is like me or has experienced life as I know it, I know this now. And that changes things.
Where does truth and real life intersect? Since real life is relative, maybe we’ll start to have an idea once all the lives and all the voices have a seat at the table. This means elevating those who have historically been less seen, less heard, less valued. It’s that simple.
It’s never that simple.
Do I truly believe that everyone, everyone, should have a seat at the table? The racists, the bigots, the mean spirited, the rapists, the murders, the thieves? Does David Duke, for example, get invited to the table?I am mulling and feeling like I am missing something when the thought hits me square in the face: David Duke has already been at the table for a long time. White men have had a seat at the table for centuries. This is not an affront, simply a fact.
I can already hear the protests, I can feel the defenses going up. I’m not a man, but I am white, and I used to bristle, too, when I would hear the words white privilege. I took it as an assault on the way I was born, something I had no control over. Ah, the irony, the hypocrisy. How many generations of black families have actually been enslaved, assaulted, mistreated, demeaned, cheated and murdered because of the way they were born? What’s worse, this is not ancient history. Consider this:
“Fifteen thousand men, women and children gathered to watch eighteen-year-old Jesse Washington as he was burned alive in Waco, Texas, in May 1916. The crowd chanted “Burn, burn, burn!” as Washington was lowered into the flames. One father holding his son on his shoulders wanted to make sure his toddler saw it.
“My son can’t learn too young,” the father said.
Across the South, someone was hanged or burned alive every four days from 1889–1929, according to the 1933 book The Tragedy of Lynching, for such alleged crimes as “stealing hogs, horse-stealing, poisoning mules, jumping labor contract, suspected of killing cattle, boastful remarks” or “trying to act like a white person.” Sixty-six were killed after being accused of “insult to a white person.” One was killed for stealing seventy-five cents.” (The Warmth of Many Suns, Isabel Wilkerson, p 39)
Fast forward to 2017 where there was a white supremacist rally held in Charlottesville, VA, and the President neglected to immediately condemn white supremacy and neo-nazism. Consider what was then published on The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi publication which has since been removed from the internet:
“Trump comments were good. He didn’t attack us. He just said the nation should come together. Nothing specific against us. He said that we need to study why people are so angry, and implied that there was hate … on both sides! So he implied the antifa [anti-fascists] are haters. There was virtually no counter-signaling of us at all. He said he loves us all. Also refused to answer a question about White Nationalists supporting him. No condemnation at all. When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him.”
Is it any wonder that racism is alive and well?Though it’s painful to admit, this is something that I did not recognize until recently.
Malcolm Gladwell said this in his podcast Revisionist History: “The path to a better world is hard. Is that depressing? I don’t think so. I think what’s depressing is when we ignore everything history is trying to tell us.” (This quote is from the special event episode, which is what I’ve started with, but the entire series sounds interesting and worthwhile.)
There is nothing inherently wrong (or better) about being white and male. But tradition and habit are powerful vehicles, thus blind spots are sure to occur if the field of vision remains narrow. Not only that, but generation gives way to the next generation through stories and longstanding beliefs and ways of life and, perhaps most powerfully, official policy, the narrative and rules being controlled by those in charge — case in point: a toddler at a 1916 lynching. Tradition can be lovely and meaningful, but it can also stagnate. Sometimes, it needs to be upended in order for growth to take place. Oftentimes this requires sacrifice on the part of the privileged in service to the greater good. The ironic thing is, the greater good includes the privileged. Those who practice altruism often reap the benefits, too. Let the last be first kind of sentiment.
This is quite messy, no? Being alive is inherently painful, but with potential for beauty. Surely there are blind spots on my part. But I cannot be silent anymore because this is too important to keep ignoring.
I ended my email to my dad like this: You have not failed me. Just because we may not see eye to eye on everything is hardly a sign of a failure as a parent. If anything, I’d be worried if none of us pushed back. You are a great father.
I’m trying to find and think my way through these muddy waters. I’m trying to figure out how to resist and disagree while not de-humanizing the other side or forgetting that I might be wrong in some aspects. I’m trying to push back in love. I have not yet landed. I am just one person. But I am inclined to believe that the table, just like the landscape, is textured, multi-colored, large.
(ps didn’t mean to cop Solange’s album title, that was never the intended title until nearly finished with this essay. That’s one of the things I love about writing, it leads you to places you didn’t even mean to go. Her album is really good, you should listen to it.)