We’re on our way back to school from gymnastics class. And only in Boulder, Colorado, the kids are singing John Lennon’s “Imagine” at the back of the bus, when
Jesse stops herself mid-verse, stretches her arm across the aisle like a sunbeam, tugs at the edge of my shirt and asks, “What does hatred mean?”
Jesse’s five years old. Anything I say, she’s gonna believe. But I realize, I don’t know the answer. I’m not sure what hatred means. I could guess and say it’s the opposite of love. I could guess and say, “Jesse, hatred is why there are nothing but white faces on our private-school bus.”
But Jesse isn’t white yet. Go ahead and ask her.
“What color are you, Jesse?”
“Well, it looks like I’m pink.”
Shane thinks he’s orange. Skylar says she’s tan. Rhett says he’s see-through. “See, you can see how my veins are blue but they’re red when I bleed.”
And I wish there was no such thing as springtime. ‘Cause I don’t trust the machines that will one day be planting seeds in these gardens teaching them that some people are flowers some people are weeds, rip the weeds by their roots ignore their screams tilt your own face to the sun take what you want, you are the chosen ones.
Sitting Bull said white people are liars and thieves. I wanna tell Jesse he was wrong.
I wanna tell her we didn’t come like a time bomb, gunpowder on our breath, teeth built like bullets, that this land didn’t weep when our feet first mercilessly hit the ground. I don’t want to say we drowned and maimed the children, sliced long strips of their skin for bridle reins, I don’t wanna say the moon was slain, the constellations dispersed like shrapnel. Mothers killed their babies, then killed themselves when they saw our faces on the horizon and all that we left was a trail of tears.
But if I have to say that, I wanna say our boats stopped there. I wanna say the waves never saw the sails of slave ships, never heard the sound of chain links, but Jesse, think slaughterhouse. Think people branded, suffocating, foaming at the mouth. Can you imagine what kind of pain you would have to endure, to throw yourself overboard 2000 miles out to sea? Lungs gratefully exchanging breath for saltwater, gratefully trading life for death.
Can you imagine being chained to your dead daughter? How many days would it take you to stop searching her hands for lifelines? To stop searching her fingertips for remnants of sunshine? To stop searching her wrists for a pulse, for just some sign of time turning backwards to when you knew people could never do things like this?
And Jesse this is not just a picture of our history, not just a picture of our past. We’ve been hundreds of years measuring the size of our hearts by the size of our fists, erecting our bliss on the broken backs of dark skin. The present is far from gift-wrapped.
Ask New Orleans, Ask mothers in the Bronx, chasing rats out of their babies’ cribs. Ask the fathers of the kids whose lives we exchange for cheap gas. Ask our prisons why jail bars always come in black. Ask Afghanistan, Palestine, Iraq. Ask the woman in Thailand whose cancer builds our laptops. Ask the Mexican man working in a field fertilized by nerve gas. Ask his daughter when she’s born without fingers or hands to pray with. Ask me how long I could keep going with this list. God might be watching, but we are not.
You are white, Jesse. There are bodies dangling from the limbs of your family tree. Our people pull people from the soil like weeds. Breathe in our story. Force yourself to hold in your lungs ‘til you can hear our hymns sung beneath white sheets. ‘til your can feel your own finger on the trigger of the gun. Feel yourself fire as they shout. Do not look away as bullet enters heartbeat. Now breathe out. This is where we come from. This is still where we are. Now where will we go from here?
I don’t believe we’re hateful. I think mostly we’re just asleep. But the math adds up the same. You can’t call up the dead and say, “Sorry, we were looking the other way.”
There are names and faces behind our apathy, eulogies beneath our choices. There are voices deep as roots thundering unquestionable truth through the white noise that pacifies our ears. Don’t tell me we don’t hear. Don’t tell me we don’t hear. When the moon is slain, when the constellations disperse like shrapnel, don’t you think it’s time, something changed?
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
In you, O LORD, I take refuge;
let me never be put to shame.
In your justice rescue me.
Into your hands I commend my spirit;
you will redeem me, O LORD, O faithful God.”—luke 23:46
“Nothing is ever really lost, or can be lost,
No birth, identity, form—no object of the world.
Nor life, nor force, nor any visible thing;
Appearance must not foil, nor shifted sphere confuse thy brain.
Ample are time and space—ample the fields of Nature.
The body, sluggish, aged, cold—the embers left from earlier fires,
The light in the eye grown dim, shall duly flame again;
The sun now low in the west rises for mornings and for noons continual;
To frozen clods ever the spring’s invisible law returns,
With grass and flowers and summer fruits and corn.”—walt whitman
just missing this place & those faces a lot a lot. i wish i could stow away with the new team going this year. relived the memories with my team tonight & shared them with the new team. ohhh how i am jealous of them. can i go back? right now? pretty please?
after coming back from Indonesia last summer, and even still, this is something i’ve been working on articulating. i guess somebody already said it better than i would ever be able to. shocking.
"It was curious to think that the sky was the same for everybody, in Eurasia or Eastasia as well as here. And the people under the sky were also very much the same—everywhere, all over the world, hundreds or thousands of millions of people just like this, people ignorant of one another’s existence, held apart by walls of hatred and lies, and yet almost exactly the same…"