Schwarze in the Family
It was a lovely party, and a rarefied occasion: Aunt Tillies 95th birthday. Tillie, my husbands great-aunt, is petite, with a perfect coif, thick-lens glasses and a sunny nature that warmed me the moment I met her. Just before Alan and I got married, she invited us to her 90th birthday, making her among the first of my prospective in-laws to deeply impress me as family. Of course, Tillie is Jewish and my people are black, Creole émigrés from the recently stricken middle and lower wards in New Orleans, and this gathering a luncheon at the Brentwood Country Club was more elaborate than Im used to. After five years, Im still adjusting to the dynamics of my expanded family, and that dynamic is sometimes complicated by racial and cultural differences that require a constant negotiation of expectations: How much should they know about me and my worldview? How much is too much? Who has the greater burden of knowledge and empathy, and when? Fortunately for me, the abstracts havent mattered nearly as much as the reality that I get along very well with the Kaplans, et al. Ive been told Im the best thing to have ever happened to Alan. I am included in everything and invited everywhere, which is why I was at the country club today, standing in a receiving line to wish Tillie mazel tov. I have no illusions about assimilating completely, and dont want to. The fact that I like many of my in-laws at least as much as I like friends, co-workers and some fellow Aubrys is plenty.A singer-keyboardist who performed a bit of everything jazz standards, ballads, swing, show tunes, ditties in Yiddish or Russian was hired for the occasion. He did several versions of the song Tillie sang to family members when they were small enough to sit on her knee, You Are My Sunshine. He was easygoing, like a lounge singer, but clearly accomplished. I caught his eye more than once and clapped appreciatively after each number. I used to sing in a band and know the kind of passion it takes to perform for a living, especially at a luncheon like this where people are murmuring or clinking silverware as often as theyre listening to the music. Spry Aunt Tillie got up on the dance floor for an especially soulful rendition of You Are My Sunshine; after the food and the testimonials, the party had reached a high point, a glow, and settled there. The singer, loosening up on the mike with more impressive high notes and more patter, sang a line about the blues or the South. Then he ad-libbed the next: Thats where all the schwarze come from! I thought Id heard wrong. I stopped dancing. I saw my mother-in-laws face darkening with fury. Alan was staring openly at the singer, as disbelieving as me. I took my seat because I didnt know quite what else to do. I know I should have been as enraged as my husband and mother-in-law. Intellectually, I was: I had encountered this sort of thing before, many times. In grade school I was called nigger and refused entry to a white persons house, and in graduate school I was accused by a white professor of plagiarizing a term paper he insisted that I hadnt written because it was too coherent for the ill-spoken likes of me. But emotionally I was stunned, knocked off base. I felt like Sissy Spacek in the movie Carrie, the trusting girl who wears her best dress to the prom and then, after getting horribly spattered with pigs blood, is laughed at by everybody in the room. Here, everybody saw the spatter, but remained silent. Theyd heard the remark and had chosen to say nothing, either embarrassed or convinced it was no big deal. Or theyd heard it and thought it was funny. Or they hadnt heard it at all. I was suddenly negotiating again, frantically what had they heard, and what did they think about what they had heard, and what should I reasonably expect them to do? Now Alan was talking in low, urgent tones to the singer, but no one was showing the faintest bit of interest or curiosity; they had gone back to their tables and cake plates, back to the comfortable and comforting groove of the party. I was disheartened, more disheartened than I had been by past confrontations with racism. Painful as those had been, the perpetrators the girl who wouldnt let me in her house, the haughty professor were strangers. These folks were family, or at the very least people who knew I was Alans wife, a Kaplan. Yet in this awfully suspended moment I wasnt a Kaplan at all, but a schwarze; the overwhelming silence and/or sloughing off of the word confirmed it. The benign cover was off and the truth was out. I could imagine my relatives reasoning that, of course, what the singer said was inappropriate, that such sentiment was probably pervasive, but certainly none of it applied to me. Thats a neat, neo-liberal rationale that gets whites off the hook from actually having to confront their racism by claiming two opposing views of it that it is isolated acts committed by a few thoughtless people, and that it is a pattern and practice so embedded in modern life we only see, or hear, clear examples of it now and then. But both views warrant some kind of response, and in the aftermath of a visible racial incident there was virtually none. The message was clear: that this problem, however egregious everyone might agree it was, was mine to deal with. One of the most pernicious effects of racism is isolation, which we tend to think of as geographic ghettos and shtetls struggling in the shadow of shining cities on hills. But those degrees of separation are also right in the middle of crowded rooms, among presumed comrades, and they are no less acute. Sitting at the table with disappointment smoldering under a fixed smile, I felt entirely alone. Hardly an unfamiliar feeling, but not one I expected to have here, now. Such is the eternal optimism of black folk: Against all evidence and media images to the contrary, we like to believe that we belong, and were always surprised on some level to find out that we dont. I ate the birthday cake, but didnt really taste it.The episode wasnt over. After the exchange with my husband, the singer immediately came over to me, looking genuinely chagrined and embarrassed. He apologized profusely, said that it was the stupidest thing hed ever said, that the remark just kind of came out because it had once been so prevalent and nobody thought about it (which of course is the real foundation of racism). Hed worked six years with Sammy Davis Jr., for Gods sake. I nodded and said little in return, maintaining that fixed little smile that Im sure he took as tacit forgiveness. I didnt really forgive him, though he was the least of it I didnt forgive the whole room. I thought briefly about demanding that the singer make that apology on the mike, to everyone; after all, hed said it to everyone. It had potentially insulted us all. But in my heart I didnt believe that; nor did I believe that the singer would have said anything at all if my Jewish husband hadnt thrown down a gauntlet with this guy, if he hadnt felt the heat of consequence from one of his own. I am hardly proud to admit this, but I kept quiet partly because I didnt want to sully the party and the good mood. Sure, I didnt want to upset Aunt Tillie, but neither did I want to make racial waves, to have everyone re-evaluate me and conclude that Im not so exceptional or admirable after all, but merely another one of those hyper-conscious Negroes. I was accommodating when I should have been assertive, an impulse thats also part of racisms legacy of not not saying, not doing, not sitting in the front of the bus, not breaking the stultifying peace imposed by those privileged enough to always have the choice of addressing race however they wish, which in our current age of denial often means not addressing it at all. Its left up to those of us who actually live race to figure it out, to repeatedly put it in a context that the rest of the world is hell-bent on not seeing. Its enough to make you crazy, or make you think you are. And, whites are always assumed to be more rational about race simply because theyre white. Bill Bennett, the former Education Secretary, drug czar and self-appointed morality sheriff, posited recently on his radio show that aborting black babies would lower the crime rate a totally un-provable statement that he nonetheless said he knew to be true. Here was ancient racial paranoia and moral indecency dressed up as logic, though the most distressing thing was not the comment, but the relatively tepid response to it: Everybody heard and few people spoke out, save predictable outfits like the NAACP. It makes me wonder where, exactly, the threshold of racism lies these days what has to happen in order for reasonable people to agree that it exists and that something must be done? A rash of lynchings? A repeal of the 14th Amendment? Being called a schwarze obviously doesnt meet the standard. But in this post-post-slavery, postcivil rights age of presumed enlightenment, it should. By partys end, my bewilderment had officially become a slow burn, but I said nothing else, except goodbye to Tillie and her brood with as much affection as I had said hello. I set the unforgiving aside and will pick it up, Im sure, at a later time. Though I know there are never any good times for this, no ripe moments just overripe and I know Im going to have to intrude on some future party to really air my grievance about this last one. Ill probably get some strained looks and assorted intimations that I should have kept my mouth shut. But really, if you cant fight with your own family, who can you fight with?