confronting other(s)

The children mulled around in the shade drinking cream soda and lemonade, while grownups huddled on the patio nibbling sushi and drinking wine and pale ale. We three were some of the first to arrive. I started off by greeting our hosts with some kosher tidbits while Michael held Calvin and spoke with some folks he hadn't seen in a while. I brought Michael a beer then escorted Calvin to the kids' buffet. We stood by ourselves aside the picnic table as I fed my drooling boy bits of sushi, chunks of cheese and bites of tortellini. He guzzled pink lemonade from an open cup that I held up for him. After some time, having been unable to drink a beverage while tethered to my son, I grew tired of standing. I spied a comfortable spot to rest, a few cedar benches in the back of the shallow yard. There, Calvin wanted to sit on my lap where he was content for a bit, hugging me and kissing my nose. From our perch, I watched the partiers snacking and laughing and taking sips from their drinks. Calvin and I remained by ourselves awhile longer, but no one came over to say hello.

The thought occurred to me that some folks might subconsciously think Calvin is contagious, or perhaps simply repellent, like when a certain woman—not really a friend, though no stranger to me—regularly averts her eyes to avoid us at the grocery store. After all, even I've felt disgusted by my own child at times. Then, I thought that perhaps some of the guests might've been avoiding the risk of hearing too many wearisome details about our fucked-up kid (I can tend to go on ad nauseum when asked about Calvin) prompting them to steer clear. Perhaps it's best, however, to assume that no one noticed us sitting there. Nevertheless, I rarely hesitate inserting myself into gatherings where there are more than a handful of folks I don't really know. So, with my shirt-stained child in hand, I dived into the eye of the storm, asked a dear to pour me a drink, sat Calvin next to me on a low slab of granite and chatted with several friends, craning my neck skyward to see their lovely mugs. A good time was had by all.

At home later I recounted the party and how nice it was to laugh and smile, see friends and enjoy how well Calvin faired amongst the hubbub, reminding myself how long it has been since I've worried about him having a seizure at that time of day. I still questioned the half hour or so of solitude, though thankfully I hadn't observed anyone, not even the children, gawking or casting aspersions, unlike strangers sometimes do. Everyone had been kind and inviting. I realized that the world has made some progress regarding Other since I was a child, and that I live in an pretty inclusive town.

At dusk, Michael and I sat down to eat the baby back ribs he'd been braising in onions and wine for three hours. We watched the film I Am Not Your Negro, in which James Baldwin so eloquently describes what it is to be Other in this nation, specifically to be Black. And though I myself have been drawn to Other (non-white, non-straight, non-Christian, non-American in my case) since I was a youth, and though my social circle, romantic and otherwise, has always been racially and ethnically diverse, it wasn't until after the birth of Calvin—through the lens that is him—that I began to see with greater clarity what I'd known quite well for some years, namely the shunning, the maligning, the misunderstanding, apathy and injustice that Black people experience in America.

Even in the face of mounting evidence revealing the legion of innocent Black men, women and children who have been beaten, choked, shot and killed by police, many Whites remain in denial. They stand their ground and condemn the innocent by saying that the victims should have simply not resisted, selectively forgetting the doomed who did comply. They complain that Black people are bitter and angry and should simply "get over" slavery, an admission that proves their willful ignorance of the conspicuous struggles that Blacks continue to face, all of which were born out of slavery itself. They fail to see how daily life is more of a struggle for some people—i.e. people like Calvin and People of Color—because of stereotypes, discrimination and other societal and systematic impediments. Many Whites, even those who insist they aren't racist, feel entitled to judge how an oppressed people peacefully protest their subjugation (think Colin Kaepernick's taking a knee during the National Anthem to protest police brutality and other mistreatment against Black people) in a nation where we are all ostensibly free and equal. Would those critics condemn suffragettes today?

James Baldwin's words still resonate:

But, you know, when the Israelis pick up guns, or the Poles, or the Irish, or any White man in the world says, "Give me liberty, or give me death," the entire White world applauds. When a Black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal and treated like one and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger, so there won't be any more like him.

Too many Whites don't truly know their Black brethren, haven't befriended them or spent time in their homes, haven't broken bread and imbibed with them. Instead, they keep their distance, glued to their sets and their radio maniacs and talking heads, which spew ceaseless lies about an entire race of people whose enslaved ancestors literally helped build this nation, yet who bear the burden of racist policies and the rotten policing many Whites want to believe are anomalies.

James Baldwin articulated this phenomenon so effectively when speaking about the Birmingham Campaign in 1963, in which police used fire hoses and attack dogs against peaceful civil rights protesters; he might as well have been describing Ferguson, Missouri:

White people are astonished by Birmingham. Black people aren't. White people are endlessly demanding to be reassured that Birmingham is really on Mars. They don't want to believe—still, less to act—on the belief that what is happening in Birmingham is happening all over the country.

The other day I read a recent account of an eight-year-old boy of color from New Hampshire who had been hung from a tree with a tire-swing rope by some White teens spouting racial slurs. He suffered rope burns so bad his little neck bled. I hear stories every day of Black men and women, some of them dear friends of mine, being harassed, mocked, threatened, beaten by white civilians. I see acquaintances on Facebook sharing stupid memes about the righteous removal of offensive Confederate monuments. Their ignorance is clear to me. I mean, you don't see swastikas and monuments of Hitler and his generals populating Germany.

I went back to thinking about the nice party, about my peculiar boy and how, in retrospect, no one really seemed bothered by his presence. Then I considered the larger marginalization of disabled people in this nation and the advances they've made, and I wish the same for Black Americans who have suffered deeply and who continue to pay dearly, some with their lives, for nothing more than the pigment in their skin. Another quote from James Baldwin came to mind:

Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

I recalled a moment years ago, back when Calvin was wearing his safety harness due to his poor balance, when a classmate of his asked me if he was a dog. I was determined not to let her get off easy.

"No, I said, "Are you a pig?"

She visibly shuddered at the notion, frowned and hurried away.

The only thing the girl chose to see was that Calvin was somehow different and, for whatever reason, rather than be kind and open to understanding, she decided to be mean. Her reckless judgement stemmed directly from her willful ignorance and indifference toward Other exposing her own failures and inadequacies.

We all choose who and how we want to be.

Photo by Michael Kolster

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