"And we are put on earth a little space, / That we may learn to bear the beams of love." William Blake.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Fire in the Sky, or Trailer Court Lessons on Race

About race: my parents, grandparents, pastor and teachers all had lessons they tried to teach me about it. They taught me lessons called "Inevitable" or "Irreparable" or "Institutional, but...." But not, Race. Not a personal problem, if I don't say N******, if I treat everyone with dignity, if I see beyond appearance. They tried to teach me what they wanted assurance of: "Exculpated."

Those lessons backfired. They fed my contrarian habit of thought. If they got the lessons about personhood wrong, I was free to doubt all the other moralisms they tried to teach me. It took Ta-Nehisi Coates' to give words to that truth, which he did in Between the World and Me: 

"Dreamers reap what they had sown, we would reap it right with them. Plunder has matured into habit and addiction; the people who could author the mechanized death of our ghettos, the mass rape of private prisons, then engineer their own forgetting, must inevitably plunder much more. This is not a belief in prophecy but in the seductiveness of cheap gasoline....Dreamers... plunder not just the bodies of humans but the body of the Earth itself. The Earth is not our creation. It has no respect for us. It has no use for us. And its vengeance is not the fire in the cities but the fire in the sky."


Once on a Saturday night, my father pulled me over onto his lap and let me steer past my grandparent's olive green house. My grandfather named the road for himself, Bade Drive, and owned the only home, a standard American model with three bedrooms, no central air, one-car garage, on a basement in our trailer court. It seemed like a mansion compared to the trailer in which we lived. I felt my father's right leg moderate the gas pedal, so that we drove the car like a riding mower. With the power of the wheel in my hands, I felt like the reigning princess of a kingdom. One of the grandkids of the park owner. Special.

My grandfather took pride in his fiefdom. Enormous concrete pots spilled out flowers he planted himself. He owned two barns, a tractor and a cadre of small machines which my dad and uncles used to keep the roads black and dust-free. He built shelters for everyone's mailboxes on a patio so the mail deliverer could slide all but packages into slots in the back. Although it was illegal, he could slide in the lot-lease reminders as well. He made a shelter for all the kids who rode the bus, which was not me, because my parents homeschooled us. I didn't have to shelter with the freckled red-heads, the blondies, the nut-browns, the bleach-blonds, all those white-skinned kids who kicked me around after school for being different.

I thought being the princess of the kingdom made me their target. Yet, I knew the truth. I wasn't a princess. We didn't own the land on which our house sat any more than any other family in the park. In fact, we didn't even call our trailer park neighborhood. My grandmother called it a trailer court and my grandfather planted more flowers and called it a park.

And, I grew up learning bit by bit that my dad worked off the break on lease fees when he plowed the streets for my grandfather in the middle of the night, whether he had a shift at seven am or not.  I learned that a body could own her dwelling without rights to land beneath. This lesson contradicted the narratives I read in history and heard elsewhere. As a result I learned to unthink- or maybe just to  worry less about- the Dream.

Because my grandfather protected us, dealt bountifully with us, I decided we must be more like Chief Tecumseh and the Shawnee I read about on our Indiana history mugs. Each told the tale of the Indiana Territory- Mad Anthony Wayne, our city's founding father, and Chief Tecumseh, his rival. I'd read those narratives enough, evaluated them over shirley temple eggs, eggs on toast, scrambled eggs and pancakes that I found Mad Anthony and the white man's clutching at land superfluous. A body could live in a place without possessing it. We were fine. Our neighbors seemed content. We had our bikes and El Dorados under tarps. We had our bullies and hung-over single moms, the lady with emphysema. My best friend ate Cookie Crisp for breakfast, Boo Berry after school, let me sneak into her house for cartoons with her and never ratted me out. My parents told me not to go in there, not to disturb her dad, a Vietnam vet who slept odd hours but kept the house and curb spickety-span while his wife brought home the bacon. I didn't know what PTSD was then. We just weren't supposed to make loud noises.

When did I realize the truth?

My father never grumbled about what my grandfather exacted- okay, maybe once, but "Dad gets tired, Maria," my mother explained.

My mother could not explain why she had to turn away the neighbors when the three tornados touched down near us.

"Get back under the mattress," mom ordered. But I couldn't My best friend, her little sister, her mother and few other mothers and children in tow stood on our porch. They needed help. They saw a danger we didn't. Mom had us under mattresses in the hallway.

"What should we do if they turn our way?" The other moms pleaded. "Please, can't we go to your dad's house to the basement? Can't you call him?" I don't remember my mom's replies. I remember her silent despairing inability to help. I remember seeing one twister, a kind of ribbon shadow stirring smoky dust at the touchdown, off in the distance. I remember ordering my younger siblings to "get back under the mattresses in the hall." I remember that at some point after she closed the front door, my mom mumbled about what the radio squawked. Two more tornadoes had grounded President Reagan's Air Force One on the tarmac at the Air Force Reserve Base. It was two miles away as the bomber flies. I think my mother muttered something about staying put, somethings about sheltering in place being good enough for the president and good enough for the owner's daughter.

"Should we go to Grandpa's? To the basement?" She didn't answer. She shook with fear or anger, I'll never know.

We couldn't, I gathered. Not because grandpa would turn away his daughters but because the neighborhood would follow us and he'd turn them away. I remember something about it being a Christian thing to do. Whatever that meant.


Between our park and the neighborhood stood an tight arborvitae fence, tall and old. My parents said we should never ever sneak through and trespass. Sometimes, I wound a tight running line close on the other side or hid in the greens. It hurt my conscience to flirt with disobedience like that. But what was on the other side?

"Black people," my friends told me. "That's where the black kids live and they are all in gangs at school." I wouldn't know since I didn't go to school. "They are so mean on the bus, Maria. You wouldn't like them." My aunt transferred her boys to our church school so that they wouldn't have to be around black kids.

A few months after the tornadoes, a new menace had a couple of the neighborhood dads banging on our door after eleven on a Saturday night. Mom and Dad stood at the door, asking them to keep down their voices.

"A black spook with a butcher knife is running crazy through the neighborhood. Call your father-in-law, Pete." Mom said, "Pete, don't. Just call the police." Instead he called the brothers-in-law and told the men to go home. He didn't want a posse of white men trawling the trailer court for something was literally a spook or a woman defending herself.

I made up delicious tales for my friends the next day. We congregated on my red porch, the only trailer with a big porch, a motherly maple and a park-sized swing set on the lot. We had the best lot in the park, so even red-headed bullies had to kiss up to me from time-to-time. When my father figured large in saving the park from dangerous black women because he was the owner's son-in-law, all the kids had to come to me for the scoop. Of course my dad and uncles would take care of it, I assured them. My dad, the hero. But when my dad heard me talking "too big for your britches, Maria" he sent me inside where my mom rebuked me gently for gossip.

"But, she was real. People saw her. Other people's dads. Why didn't we call Grandpa or the police if she was real?" I asked.

"We never found her. We did let your Grandpa know, had to," my dad said. "They are just afraid of black people."

The kids had scattered when my dad sent me inside. Having cleared my way to the only version of the truth my parents would give me, I worked out my thoughts alone on the red porch. I felt full of big thoughts. Were we, our family- my parents and such- afraid of black people? Last night, was my dad of a black woman, crazy with knife? What about my uncle whose boys went to the church school to get away from black kids? What did my cousins and relatives think of the one black family in our church. I played with their daughter. My dad joked around with the dad, who preached much shorter and more interesting sermons when our pastor wanted a week off. So why did my parents order me never to trespass the greens into Crown Colony? Were they afraid of gangs and black people? Did they think old folks would be mean to me? (Probably. I didn't know how curmudgeonly some could be).  We had to stay in our park and come to think of it, we had no Orientals on this side. No Spanish. No black people. 

"Are there mostly black people in Crown Colony?" I tried for a bit of fact checking my parents. "I didn't see them when I had delivered newspapers," which my father had allowed while my cousin went to camp. One of the parents followed me sleepily while I threw papers towards front doors in the pre-dawn light. I saw only old people, shuffling down driveways between green lawns, plastic daisies, faded tulips, hedgerows. My mother shrugged. She couldn't say. 

According to my friends, the place was crawling with "blacks." I just had to see for myself. "You've only seen people in the early morning. Only old people are up then. Ride your bike with me. You'll see them." I wanted to see these people. I didn't have a television and only my one friend with her baby sister. I wanted to see the people my friends wanted nothing to do with. I needed truth, so I peddled further out, faster and longer on the clean white paved roads of Crown Colony. The unseen black people must be richer than us, like my church friend. They had things I didn't to keep them inside: televisions, cable, instant cereal to keep them inside.

Why don't black people live over here on our side, I asked my cousins. My parents never provided a satisfying explanation.

"Oh, Grandpa screens them out. He screens out all the dangerous people," my cousins educated me.

When my friends and cousins were at school, I pondered that on the red porch, my legs dangling off the side, kicking the skirting around our trailer.

That's not right, is it? Grandpa wouldn't do that, would he? That would make him a racist wouldn't it? Racist. A taint.

Why would Grandpa screen people out, I asked. I think my father gave a cagey reply. "I wouldn't do that, Maria. That's all I can say."

Next time...
2. Don't marry a black man and I'll tell you why...
 and after that, Dr. King wasn't a national hero because he cheated on his wife.