Thursday, August 08, 2013

Walk a Different Way

I waited on the Amtrak station platform, pulling fingers through my hair and trying to decide when to pick up the dime flattened against the pavement at my feet. I stood near a triumvirate of performance brilliance in the form of Sharon Bridgforth, Dr. Joni Jones, and the one and only Laurie Carlos (award-winning playwright and director, perhaps best known as the woman who brought us “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf”). I had earlier greeted them with hugs, and a handshake for Laurie, since this was the first meeting for us. I was hoping Laurie and I might have long and provocative conversations during our train ride, but she informed me that she had booked a bunk in the sleeper car and intended to go right to sleep after boarding.

Still eyeing the dime, but not wanting to look desperate, I started to work on my tangled hair, newly-washed and damp. I swung a 360 to see the folks around us, intuiting that someone was eyeballing me, with maybe a little derision.  I'm sensitive that way.  Sure enough, I saw a wrinkly elder-couple with a combined age of maybe a century and a half and they were whispering and indicating with unsubtle eyebrows, darting pupils, the usual facial squints. It was a comment about me, it was a comment about the trio of Black women next to me. It was about the four of us, all women of color.

Oh well, I'm used to that. I say, give ‘em somethin’ to look at, maybe they’ll get learned today. I continued to comb my hair with my fingers, and kept my composure. When to get that dime.

Next thing I knew, I became unwitting, unwilling eavesdropper of a loud conversation between that wrinkly pair and two other people, equally white yet a little younger. The younger male, of steely eyes and determined mouth, was speaking louder than I cared to hear.

"They think that it was wrong, even though it happened a long time ago. But with what the Japanese did to Pearl Harbor, it was necessary." "Yes, it was necessary," echoed the younger woman, who met my gaze as she turned toward me. "I mean they blew up Pearl Harbor, it was them who started the whole thing, and now they talk about how terrible it was, to be put in those camps. And they say they're still angry about that."

Oh, no, I thought, they're blatantly defending the U.S.-sanctioned internment camps, the camps where over a hundred thousand American citizens of Japanese descent were forcibly detained and segregated in the early 1940s. That’s what they were discussing. Why today, I wondered? Why on September 21st?

The younger male--maybe 55 years old—continued. "I don’t know why they have to keep bringing it up, to this day. But I did meet one guy, Japanese, he was in the Service with me, and he wasn’t bitter, which was good, ‘cause then I wouldn’t have gotten along with him. No, he was a nice guy."

"Uh-huh." "Yeah, that's good." Nodding their heads, his companions listened and agreed. And I imagined the subtext to their assenting grunts: "Good Japanese don't get angry. They don’t bring up internment camps with resentment, so that makes a good Japan man. If they know what's good for them they will keep things in proper perspective, like we do. Like accepting that this country had to distrust and suspect you, even to the point of forcing you from your homes and putting you in camps. Good Japanese don't get angry about what had to be done."

As I contemplated their smug contempt, my mind seethed and I felt my shoulders stiffen with resolve to speak, to contest, to refute. I turned towards the younger man, to assess his face, and to see how his companions showed their approval. I began to surmise how they might receive my words, if I retorted. But I hesitated and it seemed they were also frozen in time, as if they fully expected me to speak.

What would become of me, if I spoke? Would they silence me with glares and stares--might I be instructed to mind my own business? What is my own business? Is it tacos and telenovelas? What if I made a raging outcry about their prejudicial arrogance? What might Sharon, Laurie, and Dr. Joni think of my public display? Would they be made uncomfortable by my outburst? Would the white people try to shame them together with me, by association? Why is there always a struggle to stand public with others?

I felt the words forming, the ones I most wanted to say: "I don’t want to hear what you are saying, you should lower your voice."

I didn’t want to absorb their opinions silently, as if in assenting agreement. But to have voiced a complaint to try to silence their mouths would not have done a thing to change their set minds.  That would have taken much more time, more patience, a grueling endurance of their comebacks and mindsets.  And my train was due to be coming soon. I simply wanted to not know what they espoused, not at that moment, standing in transit.

And more, I didn’t want to be wishing them ill. Sometimes I get so tired of writing people off, because they don't get it, or they don't get me, and I feel a line between me and them has been drawn until the end of time. This morning, I had felt at peace, and I didn’t want enmity or enemy. I wanted that man to just shut up. To shut up about not caring about the sadness and bitterness of others. To shut up about getting angry at Japanese-Americans who resented an historic oppression. To shut up about wrong things needing to happen, policies put in place, which created indignities for fellow human beings. Shut up speaking your prejudicial hate cluttering and crowding out the truth--a hate that doesn't hasten justice. Shut up your mind in denial.

This white man didn’t want to be asked to empathize. Could not be bothered to consider another man’s sorrow. As if the expression of this could lead to his own miserable oppression. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have gotten along with him.” This pronouncement, a simple spoken sentence, haunted me. Made me surge palpably with grief and anger.

Suddenly, I felt as if all the memorials (to Vietnam vets, to exterminated Jewish families in Europe, to murdered women in Juarez, to African-Americans lynched in the deep South) were crumbling to dust, evaporating as windblown ash, in fulfillment of the great intent to disremember and the mandate to be left unmoved by injustice and, therefore, to refuse to make amends or create a space for peace and healing.

How dare this man proclaim his "I don't want to hear it" attitude so proudly within my earshot this morning! Did he and his cohorts presume we wouldn't care, because we weren't discernibly Japanese? They were standing so close to us--a Chicana poet and three righteous Black artists, who together could have kicked metaphorical if rhetorical butt--yet seemed to regard us as if we had no means of contestation. As if we were minorities with our minds on mute? Had these white people any idea that a 21st century politicized Chicana might give a damn about more than the Mexican in her blood? Don't be talking shit about my people, which includes my Asian-American, my African-American, my indigenous American allies! If you pick on them, you pick on me--THAT's the kind of Mexican I am in this country that needs to act grown!

But I didn’t turn to speak any of this to him or them. I did no renunciation. I did no re-education. I did not sound off this time.

I counted the seconds ticking. I wished for the train to come. I hoped to not see my arms rise with fists. I tried to be in control, to steer my feelings along the lines of the cracked pavement. I still had a dime to pick up and pocket. I still had a moment to become serene. An eternal moment to reshape my heart in the form of forgiveness and understanding, even as I clung to sparks of my temper.

My face burned. My ears felt dirty, as if stung by toxins. So sorry I had to hear their shit.

The train arrived, and I staggered with my luggage. I did not push anyone. I did not follow the elderly wrinkled couple to their selected seats, I did not preach or teach. I steered in the opposite direction of empty seats, and decided to let them be.

How safely they tucked themselves into the seats of their choice, how pleasant they might have felt their morning lives to be. How special the truths they refused to see. How unfortunate that they persisted with a Berlin Wall in their hearts, a detention center in their self-enslaved minds. How my feet kept walking and walking away, yes, a different way. Taking conscious steps of my own, to follow the only path left for me. A path that moves me forward, without blinders, and my footfalls loud as rolling thunder.

(Executive Order 9066, which called for the relocation of Japanese-Americans to internment camps in the U.S., was issued by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on February 19, 1942--seventy-one years ago.)