Patricia J. Williams
Suffer the Little Children
I take my son to the playground several times a week. At two years of age, he requires lots of exercise before either he or I get any rest. If I go to the playground closest to my house, he is almost always the only black child there. This alone makes the playground political. Two incidents, for quick examples, happened on two consecutive days: On Monday, my son went over to the benches to play with a little girl who lives on our street. He sat on one end of the park bench, she on the other. They laughed and swung their feet back and forth as though they were trying to see who could swing their legs harder. Another little girl of about three ran up to the little girl with whom my son was playing and tried to drag her away. She told her to stop playing with him and she told my son to go away. She whispered in the neighbor girl’s ear and they both looked at him with sober faces. But the leg-swinging game was too much fun for the first little girl, who, after all, knew my son, and she went on kicking her legs—though considerably subdued. The second little girl gave up and ran to her mother who was standing within earshot, and said, “I don’t like that little boy. He’s scary.” Her mother advised her, “Well, stay close to me then.”
On Tuesday, we arrived at the playground and my son ran immediately to the sandbox. There were two little girls of about four already there. The moment my son got into the sandbox, one of the little girls started screaming: “Get out of here! Don’t you get near me! Go back to where you came from! Get out! I said get out!” My son was startled—his face literally crumpled and he burst into tears immediately. He came running over to me, threw himself into my arms and sobbed on my shoulder as though his heart would break. I held onto him tightly, trying desperately to figure out some adult response or neutral intervention, but still the little girl kept screaming, waving her plastic shovel like a can of mace: “I said get out of here and don’t you ever come back!”
New York Times essayist Brent Staples writes about the fearsome social profile of the black male self. He writes about his dawning realization, while a student at the University of Chicago, that white people were afraid of him:
I’d been a fool. I’d been grinning good evening at people who were frightened to death of me. I did violence to them just by being. How had I missed this? I kept walking at night, but from then on I paid attention. . . . I tried to be innocuous but I didn’t know how. The more I thought about how I moved, the less my body belonged to me; I became a false character riding along inside it.1
Staples describes how he went through a period of whistling Vivaldi so that people would hear him coming and “they wouldn’t feel trapped”; in effect he hung a bell around his neck, playing domesticated cat to a frightened cast of mice.
Then I changed . . . The man and the woman walking toward me were laughing and talking but clammed up when they saw me. . . . I veered toward them and aimed myself so that they’d have to part to avoid walking into me. The man stiffened, threw back his head and assumed the stare: eyes ahead, mouth open. I suppressed the urge to scream into his face. Instead, I glided between them, my shoulder nearly brushing his. A few steps beyond them I stopped and howled with laughter. I came to call this game “Scatter the Pigeons.”2
The gentle journalist who stands on the street corner and howls. What upside-down craziness, this paradoxical logic of having to debase oneself in order to retrieve one’s sanity from the remaindered edges of market space.
Fathers here, fathers there, fathers, fathers everywhere. Kind, distant, brutal, overbearing, biased, and wise. If Richard Wright “orphaned” himself, as author John Edgar Wideman contends in his book Fatheralong,3 it seems as though the present generation of African-American authors has en-fathered itself to a fare-thee-well. If Wright “leaves his father behind, a memory frozen in time, mired in the red clay of a Mississippi plantation, a pillar of salt turned toward the past,”4 this generation has made paternalism and avuncular glow central characters in the constitution of nostalgia. If Wright, “[a]s author, . . . steals the Promethean fire, assumes the role of father, creates a world and its inhabitants,”5 today’s authors are busy fanning the flames of a wistful ambivalence about how to make the world better for black men, an angst that has grown to a directed anxiety verging on obsession with compensatory fatherhood.
This rush, this compulsive drive to romanticize paternal authority, is a quite different enterprise than just appreciating fatherhood. On one hand, it is clearly a move to counter the wild, Willie Horton, seed-spewing stereotypes that so flood the media. It is also a move that has eliminated from public view much of the real-life presence of men, particularly black men, in its nostalgic yearning for the Dick-and-Jane nuclear family of the fictionalized past. In his fascinating ethnography, Slim’s Table, Mitchell Duneier documents a year’s worth of conversations with a group of black working-class men—a group generally rendered completely invisible in accounts of black social life.
Many of these men grew up in homes where the father was at least as absent as in today’s white middle-class families. Yet these are still people whom the contemporary men’s movement would envy. They are consistently inner-directed and firm, and they act with resolve; their images of self-worth are not derived from material possessions or the approval of others; they are disciplined ascetics with respect for wisdom and experience; usually humble, they can be quiet, sincere, and discreet, and they look for those qualities in their friends. They are sensitive, but not “soft” in any sense that the men’s movement sees as the basis of its gender crisis. They know how to put their foot down, and how to “show their swords.”6
On one level, it is astonishing to me that I have to cite a sociologist to convince anyone that a black working class exists at all, that it takes a social scientist in a lab coat scribbling down “objective” observations, to document the sighting of “decent,” “hardworking,” black men, as though they were mythical beasts or an extinct species whose existence has been long in question. At the same time, such a study is a welcome contrast and antidote to the overwhelming media mythology of black men as lazy, criminal, undeserving, and drug-addicted. Furthermore, Duneier introduces the idea, almost stunning in these times that such men could be role models for whites:
As the men’s movement searches for a masculinity it can admire, it might begin by studying black males of this sort and attempting to comprehend how the older ghettos formed men of such character. Indeed, sociologists and psychologists need to explore with greater care the hypothesis that the adaptations of some black men have produced at least some variants of a ghetto-specific masculinity with positive characteristics that might serve as a model to men in the wider society.7
Duneier’s reference to “older ghettos” reflects the fact that his study focused on a group of men in their fifties and sixties—and he and his subjects tend to locate their moral development as a product of a romanticized and long-gone past. Yet I would love to see him do the same study among some younger, black, working-class men— the postal workers, the window washers, the policemen and ubiquitous black security guards, the janitors, and the messenger “boys.” My instinct and my experience, growing up in a working-class, mostly black neighborhood, lead me to believe that the moral isolation the men in Duneier’s study expressed is less the result of age than of existing in a world where every public image, prototype, archetype, and stereotype denies the existence of Others Like You, this society relentlessly exceptionalizing those few blacks it acknowledges to be “good.”
We live in a world filled with the presence, not “absence,” of men, most of whom are fathers at some time in their lives. Sometimes black, sometimes white, sometimes heroes, and sometimes villains, they are more complex than Mrs. Doubtfire, less bathetic than Mr. Rogers. Most of them are quite impossible to summarize in a Disney movie about lions and hyenas. Most are just responsive interconnected beings in very tough times, neither captains courageous, nor victims, nor ideological icons.
But, with the agency of Reasonable or Average Black Men being pretty completely blockaded from the script of the great American dream, black men’s social lot is made far grimmer for having been used as the emblem for all that is dangerous in the world, from crime to disease. The conceptual cloak that makes any white criminal anomalous in relation to the mass of decent white citizens is precisely reversed for black men: any black criminal becomes all black men, and the fear of all black men becomes the rallying point for controlling all black people. The dehumanizing erasure of black men’s humanity has created a social cauldron of much rage, much despair, and even more denial. Anthropologist Carlos Vélez-Ibañez describes the related disproportionate criminalization and economic isolation of Mexican Americans in terms of a “distribution of sadness.” I think the term is a powerful one, because it captures some of the psychic and emotional costs of prejudice in the United States—the free-floating, poisonous enervation that corrupts our ability ever to have that long-overdue national dialogue about race, gender, homophobia, and all the rest that blocks the full possibility of American community. The notion of displaced sadness also captures some of the hidden social trauma inflicted upon whites as well as blacks, contained in lost images like the one conveyed to me by Boston University psychology professor Jessica Daniels: in her archival research, she found a photograph of a public lynching from just after the turn of the century. It showed the white citizens of a small Southern town turned out to watch a black man hang. Among the assembled was a little white girl, clutching a doll with a noose around its neck.
The trauma and violence of racism in the lives of white people seems generally unacknowledged as having a close genealogical relation to those all-too-obvious harms of racism inflicted upon black children living in inner cities. Yet Studs Terkel relays the story of a white woman whose experience embodies the way in which, I think, much white-on-white violence is made invisible in very racialized ways:
One time we were in a department store by the yard-goods section. My mother, her mother, and her grandmother. Four generations. My great grandmother whispered to my grandmother, “Look over there at that black man. He’s looking at little June.” . . . I can remember even at that time thinking “My God, this is crazy. I go all the time and tell you Uncle Bill or Dad or these other people are molesting me.” No black people had ever given me any trouble. Yet, they were so worried about that.8
You can pick a newspaper any day of the week and read between the lines for this kind of erasure. As I write, there is a series of stories in the New York Times chronicling the shooting of a black undercover officer by a white undercover officer. Police Chief William Bratton calls the mistake “tragic but understandable,” and promises to “consider instituting training that transit officers receive to teach them to be sensitive to the possibility that a person who appears to be a suspect may actually be an undercover officer.”9 Black men, even the upstanding, hardworking, model-policeofficer kind, have been defined as those who are apparently and categorically “suspect”; it is “understandable” to shoot them (in the back, several times) when there is only the slimmest “possibility” that they may actually be anyone other than a suspect. The police department just might “consider” training its officers about that presumption of innocence everyone’s always telling black people to have such faith in.
I Am Somebody
Wednesday morning. I stood on Sixth Avenue trying to hail a cab. I usually do not have too much trouble these days accompanied by a two-year-old; I am friendlier-looking, I am told. But this particular morning it was drizzling, and cabs were having a field day of market choice. I was competing with men and women in navy-blue suits and attaché cases. I held my son with one arm and waved his lunch box in the air with the other. Cabs stopped just short of me and just beyond me, cabs stopped on the southern corner for pickups that appeared out of nowhere, so I crossed over and stood on the south corner. Suddenly, it seemed as if all the cabs were having brake trouble, and they could not seem to stop, except for pickups on the north corner. My son was exhilarated by this game. He stuck his little arm out, with all the fingers spread (I guess I do it like that) and shouted “Taxi! Taxi!” with energetic delight. I think he is as cute as a button, but it was twenty minutes by the big old clock on the church tower before a cab stopped for us. An old driver said he had been a cabbie for forty years. He stops “for anybody,” he assured me, “doesn’t matter who you are.” He was a genuinely nice man, and in the effusion of my gratitude, I tipped him 30 percent which made him pretty effusive, too.
For the rest of the day, I pondered this odd status of being “anybody,” this postcivil-rights equality in which it does not matter who we are.
Walking up University Place behind two young, white men on a bright Thursday afternoon. A tattered, young, black man held out a paper coffee cup and asked for “spare change, something to eat.” Both of the young white men dug deeply and immediately into their pockets, and gave. As they continued up the street, one said to the other, “I’ll give as long as they ask for it in the right way.”
On the subway, later that day. There was an old black woman, a bag lady, stooped, asleep or unconscious, her smell overwhelming—so overwhelming that her end of the car was empty, as others who got on gave her a very wide berth. A white man in his mid- or late twenties stepped on board, and immediately began to fan the air with grand gestures. He said, “Oh, God!” loudly, and to no one in particular, but with great self-importance, his eyes scanning the passengers for someone with whom to complete the drama of his observations. He chose a young black boy of about twelve or thirteen years of age, sweet-faced, gentle-eyed, a knapsack of books on his back, a school kid in a baseball jacket, a random straphanger, an adolescent daydream written across his face. The white man looked over at him and intoned in a very loud voice, “You see that? That’s why you better learn how to work!” Heads turned. The kid looked stricken, then giggled tensely, looked back at the subway car full of those robotic eyes, and smiled a smile full of pure, incipient rage.
Early Friday evening, I was sitting by myself, having a very late lunch in a restaurant in Flushing, Queens. There was a table of six men in gray business suits and wide-striped ties. One had a strong Boston accent. One was black. They were all middle-aged and comfortably, not greatly, overweight. Their conversation was loud and cheerful, impossible to read my newspaper over. They gloated over “the fate of the yuppies,” now that the stock market was in a moment of great uncertainty. “They’re going to learn,” said one, “that there’s more to life than being a boy genius and driving a BMW.” The black man contrasted “them” to “people like us.” (Is this a victory of class over race? or Queens over Manhattan? or the co-opting of the yearning to belong? I listened on, trying to decipher the bounds of identity at work in this interestingly-structured line drawing.) They discussed getting reservations at the Golden Nugget Casino in Atlantic City. They discussed someone’s sister-in-law who works at Radio City. They told a funny story about riding on a train. A voice said, “Beautiful, beautiful—even the conductor was hysterical.” Another voice took up the storytelling: “We was in Vegas . . . ” And another: “We went to Niagara Falls and the guy says to me . . .”
The conversation moved on to cars. Trans Am. Camaro. Something with a lot of letters and numbers in its name. Someone said about financing, “Yeah, but it’s nice to have the clout.” The tone of that voice gave “clout” physicality. I listened to the inflections of the voices. They rose and fell with authority and braggadocio and reassurance. They were false and strong. They interrelated in a series of subtle vocal tests. Their voices rose with structured incredulity; their voices fell with the conspiracy of “well-of-courser”s. They laughed too loudly. They laughed too long. They repeated for emphasis and to fill emptiness. They closed ranks behind each others’ cruelties. They received phone calls from the bar, they received them with the smiles of the chosen, the important. The others conspired in donating the respect that comes with being in demand.
They were indistinguishable from yuppies, except for their ties, their grammar, and the brands of their cars. They were elitist, privileged, insecure, driven. They chewed up and spewed out the fat and gristle of expansive lifestyles. They strove with each mouthful of words to distinguish themselves from each other and themselves from the common world. They resented the possibility of others who think themselves “better” than they. They exacted the social grace of lowest common denominator, the narrow pluralism of eating Franco-American and driving Oldsmobiles—even as they reinforced this paradoxical hierarchy of the common man with words like “intelligence quotient” and “the brightest and best.” The permissible range of disagree-ment—and discussion—seemed to be things to eat, cars to drive.
They do the same thing in Manhattan, of course, except it’s about Dean & Deluca, and real estate with a view.
I felt for the others through the black man. I felt for myself through the black man. He was the most quiet. When he spoke, his voice was the most pluralistic, the most eager to gloss over and unite. There was yearning in his tone.
When the others were insensitive to someone’s feelings, his was the biggest silence. I listened to the depth of that silence, and imagined I heard him disconnecting; I imagined the internal noise of his silencing himself; I imagined the power of his disagreement and the struggle of his conformity, the power of his need to be seen as belonging, at a deep and eternal level. The others tested in their pushing away, their verbal gauntlets of double-edged jocularity. He took no such risks. His jokes were deep-voiced, anchored in forethought, encompassing, unimaginative, and safe. He ate the safest things on the menu; he drove the most conventional, big, male car made in America.
Some years ago, I had a black student who pelted me with his testy, angry, biting words. In weekly memos to me he evaluated my teaching in most unkind terms. He referred to himself as a “handsome young black revolutionary” seeking the instructive guidance of a “black brother,” of a people’s lawyer. He told me I was “cold” and “bourgeois.” I was terrified by the potential truth of what he said; I was lost in the impossibility of being brotherly.
I used to wonder at the source of his words—the competition, the struggle to be seen, the assertion at the expense of another. On several occasions he spoke out in class in such an angry way that everyone else was verbally obliterated. “You don’t know what it’s like to suffer,” he seemed to say. He obliterated to the exact degree to which his warrior spirit had been insulted and not honored. He spoke with fire and violent words.
I did not try to control him. I could not put out the fire in those words. But he burned me. He inserted himself into the innocent school-bookishness of the other students and singed them, too. Then he absented himself for long periods. He attacked and hid. He was both cowardly and deeply committed.
I wanted nothing to do with him. He annoyed me terribly. I braced myself against his approach—face-to-face, assaultive, seeking touch, confrontation, assertion, resolution. Who are you anyway, who is it behind that mask? (“You sound like an FM radio announcer,” he said, “always so composed and cool and unflappable; I want to turn your knobs to the AM dial.”)
He pushed every last one of my buttons.
The Name of the Father
The first black professor I ever had was in college. He was a truly great teacher, but I secretly subjected him to a kind of cruel scrutiny that came from my own need for resolution. Where did Mr. X’s voice come from, I wondered nearly obsessively. It was so calculated and formal. It was so pacifying and constructed and smoothly beyond allegiance to any region. It was a voice that swallowed up any trace of his history. I always thought of it as a self presented to hide another self. Sometimes Mr. X’s voice was like my father’s voice, rolling and bell-toned, from the diaphragm, plotted and planned with vowels arched like cathedral clerestories. My father was determined to eliminate the experience of the segregated South in which he had grown up. He wanted to be born again in the North, speaking in non-Southern tongues. I could never figure out what Mr. X might be trying to eliminate, if anything; I did not know in what world, or in whose mouth, he might have thought he had been reborn.
My own obsession with language comes from needing to escape the truth of my own childish voice, whose sound has never felt my own. Somewhere inside I have a self that has no voice, a me that has no means of expression beyond my body, beyond, perhaps the reenactment of my dreams.
Mr. X struck me as someone who used language to hide, too. He had a voice full of agendas. Sometimes his voice was that of a child, or of a grandmother speaking to a child, full of sinners redeemed, jealousies overcome, just desserts and blessed events and going with god. This was a voice full of innocence and mockery.
Then there was a voice full of seduction and charm, the voice that Mr. X used most of the time—his everyday voice, although it was not an everyday voice. The voice with which I was most captivated. The smooth flow of confidence and caring and protective control promising peace and love and the absence of discord for ever and ever. We students used to float like boats on that voice, that trust. The voice that invited us to go walking with him through the texts he assigned, the books he loved, unraveling their meanings with such suggestive mystery.
Then there was the voice that he employed in occasional flashes as the school year wore on: a stern and totally different inflection, filled with impatience and pique and fatigue. What was interesting to me was not just that he expressed anger and disapproval and always-tired-under-pressure-ness—it was that the voice itself changed. The accent changed, too subtly for me to put my finger on, but perceptibly. And the tone changed. It was not from the lazy, just-behind-the-eyes place of the flirtatious voice, it was not the innocent protestation of the young-boy voice; it was icy, and inflexible, and on the tip of the tongue, and at the front of the nose, and at the heart of his heart. This was as close to a real voice as Mr. X had; and it was cruel, tired. I call it real only because it came quicker than the others; it was the least thoughtful of his voices, it was the least premeditated and the most pronounced, the most regional, the most rooted in the body. It was rooted in anger, a sharp, dead voice, like steel. It was impossible to talk to Mr. X at those times. I made the mistake of trying once, but that was the voice that ended self discussion. I imagined that I had met his father in that voice, at those moments. It was the voice, though occasional, that I was afraid would overtake us all, this father of hate that spilled from the flesh of Mr. X’s nose and mouth; it was the voice that brought out my own worst, frightened-little-girl voice that will capitulate to everything, just-please-don’t-hate-me-like-that voice—it was the voice that made me scared and made me feel as though I should run for my life. If only, I used to think, if only I could just once learn to confront that angry voice with something other than the scared, intractable, but capitulating child.
But always and quickly, Mr. X resumed to the safe haven of that voice that he reserved for high theoretical discussions. He would furrow his brow to accompany the breathy, quick phrasing. He became innocently beautiful again, yet querulous; intensely and brilliantly convoluted, yet calculatedly puzzled at the inability of the average audience to keep up. This was the voice that reduced us all to peasants but, god, such adoring peasants. Bonny Prince X had captivated us all again with the sun of his words, the golden coin of his thoughts.
What I never heard in Mr. X was a genuine, grown-man voice that was relaxed, and good-natured, and could express without theater the knowledge that was stored so copiously in the prince’s coffers. I heard only the strain of a created being, very much like myself, the words cracking with politeness and convention, the voice as polished and rounded as my father’s in the throes of his self-conscious racial remake.
Writing is my best escape. My speaking is at odds with my writing, because my speaking voice is full of the tension of my ancestors’ aspirations and pretensions; my voice is their shelter and escape and surface-to-the-world, but it is not my vehicle for letting out the heart of things. My speaking voice is not trained for the job of intimacy, or silliness, or small things like washing dishes. My voice, like Mr. X’s, is full of grandeur and sweep and appalling civilization.
I write in silence, without the fierce distraction of my noisy voice. I write myself out as faithfully as if I were sweeping my house or caring for my son, because the act of writing is wild and simple and tolerant, in a way that my speaking voice is not. My silence is observant, an open eye, a secret shelter, vulnerable and dangerous and always deadly accurate. It is the distance that speech rushes in to fill, it is the honesty that the lie of my speaking voice rolls over like water, like cream, like the dangerous slithering of a deadly, impassive neutrality.
- Brent Staples, “Into the White Ivory Tower,” New York Times Magazine (Feb. 6, 1994): 24, 36.
- Staples (24, 44).
- John Edgar Wideman, Fatheralong: A Meditation on Fathers and Sons, Race and Society (New York: Pantheon, 1994).
- Wideman (71).
- Wideman (71).
- Mitchell Duneier, Slim’s Table (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 163.
- Duneier (164).
- Studs Terkel, Race: How Blacks and Whites Think and Feel About the American Obsession (New York: New Press, 1992), 346.
- Clifford Krauss,”Subway Chaos: Officer Firing at Officer,” New York Times (Aug. 24, 1994): A1.