It is time to post this. I’ve spent too long on the draft, I’ve forgotten the perfect title I came up with for it, and the fire’s dying.
In 1966 and 1967, Apaches at Cibecue portrayed “the Whiteman” as hippie — mumbling, awkwardly effeminate, and… “rich but pretending poor.” In 1970, VISTA volunteers descended on the community, and before long they were also providing materials for secondary texts. “The Whiteman” as VISTA worker was gushingly altruistic, hopelessly incompetent at simple manual tasks, and, for some reason I was never able to pin down, invariably out of breath. — from “Portraits of the Whiteman” by Keith Basso
When I returned from my mid-March trip I was carrying too many books. Among these were My Traitor’s Heart by Rian Malan, The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, and Portraits Of The Whiteman by Keith Basso. I brought the first with me; I bought Fadiman’s book (which I had begun reading during my last days in the evil government program) and Basso’s book (based on my love for an article of his I read in a first-year anthropology class) while I was still in Seattle.
My Traitor’s Heart is a book on South Africa and apartheid written by a white man, an Afrikaaner. I had read it once before, in Michael Lesy’s nonfiction class, and hated it. In those days, when my ear for prose was hypersensitive, I found it uninspiring. I picked it up again in February because I needed it, badly.
I left for Seattle feeling completely overwhelmed. The year of government service I had just completed had been rotten. I had been lied to about my job description, and the disparity between what I thought I should be doing and what I was asked to do, compounded by blackmail on my boss’s part when I tried to change posts, left me feeling demoralized. Office crowding and the hostility of the management made us all paranoid and suspecting. I had just begun to add up this toll on my emotions by the time I left.
Without good reason, I had come to furtively blame my unease on the Bronx itself. I felt I had no tolerance left for the people in the community. Their values, thought processes, and responses to conflict struck me as maddeningly backward. I looked forward to leaving. I fantasized about getting a cushy job at a magazine someplace, editing copy or writing silly little new-product features, something with a lot of perks and no relation whatsoever to my sagging commitment to social justice.
The aggravation I felt with the people around me frightened me. Did this mean I was racist? Was I lying to myself about the depth of the few friendships I had with people of color? Were my motives in coming to the community suspect, more missionary than solidarity? Should I not be working in impoverished communities at all if I had such a visceral reaction to the people there?
I took my questions with me to Seattle, where the friend I was staying with was halfway through a much happier year in the same program. She suggested I ask her boss, who has worked in youth services for fifteen years. We went drinking one night with her and some other friends. I asked the boss whether a person could be of service to a community when she felt so much frustration with the people there. Her response cut through the boozy haze of the evening. Maybe you should find another line of work, she said. You have to like the people you’re working with.
It was a good time to be reading Malan and Fadiman’s books, Malan’s especially. The author tries earnestly to wrestle his most unsavory feelings about Africans to the mat. I frequently felt pangs of recognition. Malan talks about good but naïve intentions, internecine conflict, and fear. Late in the book he takes on love. “I was desperate to win black trust and friendship,” Malan admits,
“to have done with the absurd bullshit, and often thought I saw an answering yearning in black men’s eyes. I hate to inflict yet another contradiction on you, but I think this was a symptom of love. I had been obsessed with blacks all my life, you see, and it was not so different a feeling from that of first love, the truly intense and tragic kind. It was all distance and tension, and I read once that romantic love is a function of those very things. My relations with blacks had always been somehow adolescent, sweaty, and nervous, full of awkward gropings and unrequited yearnings — and what is that, if not love?”
Fadiman takes a more clincal approach, considering ways in which medical practitioners can successfully bridge culture lines. She suggests that among educated white people who work with Hmong communities both in the States and in Laos, those who are most successful with their patients and clients love them:
“…Francesca Farr liked the Hmong. Loved them, I should say. That was something she had in common with everyone I knew who had ever worked successfully with Hmong patients, clients, or research subjects. Dan Murphy once said that of the ten most admirable people he had met in the last decade, seven or eight were Hmong. Jeanine Hilt told me that if her house caught on fire, the first thing she would grab was a framed [embroidery given to her by a Hmong client]… Sukey Waller said that after she spent time with her Hmong clients, Americans, by comparison, seemed dry. The anthropologists Eric Crystal and Dwight Conquergood were so intoxicated by Hmong culture that their ethnographic commentaries, while academically unimpeachable, sometimes sounded like mash notes.”
Do I love the black and Latino people I work with?
I had to kick Catherine out of writing workshop soon after I returned from Seattle. She talked over all of my instructions. She interrupted me whenever I had tried to pose a question to the class. She asked if she could play music, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, use profanity in her writing. With each of the example poems we read, she exaggerated the point that each detail in the poem showed that the author was GHETTO. I’m GHETTO, she said, interrupting again. I’m GHETTO too.
I sent Catherine to the program director. She balked for a good five minutes, pretending she was writing. Finally she angrily followed my co-teacher out, muttering in Spanish about how I didn’t listen to her when she only wanted to ask a question. She said she would tell her mother I had sworn at the class.
I had sworn, more or less at my students. In an ill-advised, half-staged fit of rage intended to show them I meant business, I told them I wasn’t there to stand around while they goofed off, that I was there because I thought it was a fucking shame that the kinds of things they were writing about– one of them told a story about a landlord who had murdered their neighbor– had to happen. (I didn’t realize until later how ironic it was that Catherine was going to tattle on me when she constantly begged to use profanity in her own writing.)
When I talk to people about the Bronx, I tell them about what it lacks. I tell them about children who can’t read because they are never taught the correlation between letters and sounds. I tell them about parents who encourage their children to stay home from school every week. I talk about the principal whose cockeyed understanding of educational standards is that they should be written at the top of every blackboard — “5e: Third grade students will be able to analyze a story for narrative elements” — and copied by students before the lesson begins. I talk about teachers who, it seems, never took a pedagogy class.
I have what the school lacks (or if I don’t have it, I have access to it). I only realized this within the past few years; I had taken what I have for granted. It’s funny that the little kids frequently look up at me and ask, “Are you Irish?”, because I often think of myself as a leprechaun: Catch me, and I will be forced to give you my pots of gold, which are full of multiplication tricks and mnemonic songs and reading lists and the complete contents of SAT prep courses.
On the train home the day I swore at my class, I unburdened my soul to my friend Terrenova, who is large and black. I like Terrenova not because she is black; I like her because she is like me. A nerd.
I grant I like her better than many people in the program because, like my Puerto Rican friend Natalie in my last job, she reached out to me before I had a chance to pull into my shell, and welcomed me into her life. Terrenova started out talking about plays she was reading, and ideas she had for her own scripts. She has a philosopher’s nature and isn’t hung up on superficial things. In the first email she ever sent me, she told me, “By all means please pass on my e-mail, to whomever you feel is like the Tin man, Lion and Scarecrow and is on the ‘Journey’… I met two other people yesterday who are moving in the Art/Music/Drama direction. So quite possibly one day we can all get together and change this damn world.”
What Terrenova said about the ‘journey’ popped into my head later that week when I spoke with my mother. I forget what we were talking about — it might have been why she chose her academic field, Slavic studies — but mom said something to the effect of, I have never felt like I belonged in American society. I have always felt like an outsider.
This was the first time I ever heard my mother say something like this, though I know I took it in with her milk. I got it from my father, too. Little messages about social standing and normalcy said under the breath. Don’t revere the lawyers. Don’t be a cheerleader. Let’s talk back to the newscasters. Stick out your tongue at that man who thinks the president is doing a good job. We’re atheists.
Ultimately I think this is why I came to the Bronx to begin with. I identify with underdogs and rejects, the Oppressed and the Outkast. I’d like to think if you talk with any white middle-class nerd for long enough you’ll find an empathy and a sense of justice that would be an asset working in a poor community.
Terrenova suggested my problem with my rambunctious writing club students is that it’s so clear I’m not from the GHETTO. You should come into class next time, she said, and the first thing you should say is, I know I look like The Man, but I got news for you: I’m not.
Should I tell them I went to jail? I suggested, thinking that might have some cred. Terrenova didn’t rule it out. You should dress up, she said. With the mm-mmm (indicating hips) and the mm-mmm (breasts), and walk in and be like, yo, you heard of J-Lo? Well, here’s G-Lo. A little bling, and the earrings, and the baggy baggy, and the cornrows all up in your hair… She got lost in her fantasia.
I laughed hopelessly. Terrenova has only known me for a year, so she doesn’t know how much a part of my high school persona it was that I couldn’t get white-girl style right. I gave up trying one year for Lent, in a blaze of loud plaid and deliberately mismatched socks. How am I supposed to pull off the fitting-in trick in a language I don’t even understand, with people who think their day job is laughing at teachers’ clothes? (I think I’ll take her up on the offer to go get cornrows done, though. I’ve been wanting to try that.)
If only it were possible for me to erase all my own cultural habits to appproach this work.
I would like to think there’s another way. Fabiola, another of my students, approached me the Monday after the cursed Friday, and told me she was glad that there were white people willing to come to the Bronx. I thanked her, and we got to talking. Girls swirled around us, plotting fights to avenge each other’s petty slights. Fabiola avoids fights, she says. In the midst of enthusiasm for other future jobs like Poet and Actress, Fabiola says she wants to help her community, run for office, or something. She seems to understand that the anger her peers sling at each other is misdirected, that there are more important uses for it.
There are certain people much older or younger than me, from places quite unlike those where I have lived… They are more familiar to me than the people who grew up with me simply because they were my age and their parents had similar socioeconomic standing. I wish that fate hadn’t seen fit to separate me from these people because of age and rank and culture and geography. I hate the school where I work more than anything else because it keeps me from talking and playing with Fabiola and my other favorite students in an informal setting. I hated my own school for doing the same thing to my own teachers.
I share my father’s reflexive misanthropy. I wish I didn’t have to deal with the women with huge gold earrings and ten-foot nails on the subway who talk loudly about what they want to buy and who they are going to get back at, and who shove pacifiers in the mouths of their children, youngsters who are frantic with needs and questions about the world speeding by outside the scratched train windows.
I don’t like uneducated, unthoughtful people. I do blame this on the racism of our society. I wouldn’t have this prejudice if I hadn’t been fenced into all the places a white girl with Mayflower ancestors gets fenced into, and if everyone else hadn’t been fenced out. If I hadn’t drunk from the same wellspring as William Safire and John Simon and similar as$holes. I have enough of a superiority complex, or am idealistic enough, that I feel everyone should join me on the thoughtful side of the fence.
Being intellectual doesn’t make me a good teacher. Today in my cooking class, a tiny Dominican girl piped up and said, “Black people and white people are enemies!” I scruffed and shook her with questions. Did she really think that? She delivered the answer she knew I wanted to hear. I issued some blandishments about how those were the kind of words that make people fight. I had no idea what else to do. I am so lacking in empathy, intuition, and knowledge of the folkways that I hadn’t a clue who might have put those words in her head, or why she would choose to repeat them so loudly and cheerfully.
Give up my predilection for people of reason, or cling to it… both ways have their price.