Last night, I met my friend Anita at Barnard College to see the poets Robert Hass and Claudia Rankine read some of their latest work. Rankine, whose "Citizen: An American Lyric" has been called by Hilton Als "the best note in the wrong song that is America", is a haunting book that speaks to the issues of social class, race, identity and what being a citizen of these United States actually means for anyone of color.
Afterward, as we sipped our Malbec, elbows propped on the cafe table between us, our conversation turned as it so often does to current events and social injustice. We recounted some of our favorite lines from Rankine's poetry:
And you are not the guy and still you fit the description because there is only one guy who is always the guy fitting the description.
"I didn't think I was going to be able to pull myself back from the edge during that one," I told Anita. "I could feel the sobs at the back of my throat."
For Anita, it was Rankine's remark about the police who never have to be forgiven because they're never charged with wrongdoing that struck her. How brave it was, to stand in a room full of people and make such a bold statement. Who knew what the reprecussions might be from somone in the audience? We assume, when we're at a reading at a well respected college in a liberal city like New York, that those in attendance share our beliefs or at the very least, our interests. We are there as a show of solidarity. Me, too, we think. I feel that way too. Who could be sure, though?
I guess that's the point, I said. Claudia Rankine is speaking her truth. Come hell or high water, she's going to stand up for what she believes in.
I couldn't stop thinking about this as I walked home.
When I was in high school, "Love See No Color" t-shirts were popular. Race doesn't matter, we'd say to the handful of minorities in our class. We're all one, we'd insist. Our fellow white friends would nod in agreement. Well-intentioned idealism? Or unintentional whitewashing?
I'd like to think that the former was true. If push came to shove back then, though, would I have had the courage to stand up in a room full of my peers and demand equality? Would I, like Claudia Rankine, have been brave enough to speak my truth? Maybe there were opportunities to do so. Maybe, because I enjoy the countless priveleges of being white, those opportunites presented themselves as such and I never even noticed.
And now? As a white woman who is in love with a black man...as a person who has been horrified but not shocked at the epidemic of police brutality against black men...as a citizen who is outraged by the blatant racisim that exists in our "land of the free, home of the brave" society...would I be able to find my voice, now?
There isn't even room for a choice.