Mar 2, 2010
For Black History Month in February, I thought of referring folks to one or both of these poems, but I wondered if they were angry downers more than celebrations. I also reasoned that everyone already knows both poems and the arguments behind them. I’ve changed my mind.
Incident by Countee Cullen : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.
Harlem by Langston Hughes : The Poetry Foundation [poem] : Find Poems and Poets. Discover Poetry.
A few weeks ago at a gas station on I-95 in Florida, the vehicle in front of me was a large black pick-up with Florida plates and a West Virginia sticker in the rear windshield. Pumping its gas was a broad-shouldered white woman with short, straight, salt-and-pepper hair. She appeared not to have smiled in years. (I always smile while pumping gas).
Her bulk suggested that in her time she’d wrestled a few critters into the slaughter pen. When the gun jammed, she used a hammer.
Her bumper sticker read, “Don’t blame me. I voted for Jeff Davis.”
I was dumbfounded. I thought of saying something to the woman, trying to open a dialogue. I always think that and always return to this: What could I have said that would have mattered, would have done more than make me feel good? What skills do I have that could have made her question herself, her thoughts, feelings, motives?
Who hurt her so badly that she needs to parade her anger that way, to strut her festering rage?
Had I said something, how long could I have remained non-confrontational? Though larger than I, and probably capable of pounding me into pink flakes, she was a woman. How would that aspect of the situation have played out? Can a male take a tire iron to a racist’s pick-up if the fart-mouthed racist is female?
Did she mar the day for anyone else? Did somebody else call her on it? If so, who will narrate that episode?
As of the 1980s, a stale, stereotyping quip about the (Caucasian) South was, “They’re still fighting the Civil War down there.”
I know the limits of such slogans; I've lived in the South, have often traveled in the South, and have probably seen as much evidence of racial harmony there as in the North. After all, the cities of Pontiac and Howell in Michigan were centers of KKK activity not so far back. About 20 years ago, I went to a bluegrass concert at a county fair in central Michigan, and just as I heard the music from the parking lot, I also saw the confederate flag flying. (I haven't been back; they miss me desperately).
So my brain knows better than to over-generalize because of one pickup owner who might be somehow connected to Florida and West Virginia.
I just checked the facts and discovered my brain . . . (that sounded so cute I decided to let it linger. Forgive me).
I learned that my brain is less than 2% of my body weight. The thinking part of the brain is about 10% of that 2%. I guess Madam Pickup, that muscular Ma Kettle, and I share a limitation. I wonder if she knows.