Monday, February 28, 2005

Jamey Foxx and other loves ...

Last post before trip to Ashland.

On Saturday we attended a beautiful evening of chamber music -- a string quintet of fine women musicians; two cellos, two violas, and a brilliant violinist, the concert master for the S.F. Opera orchestra. It was another performance of the Gold Coast Chamber Players of Lafayette.

It was also an afternoon spent in Walnut Creek -- our family home from 1950 through the early 70s ... birthplace of my personal formative journey through the Black Revolution in White Suburbia. There is much residual pain, still, but I'm finally confronting it with some feeling of having "overcome."

Tom lives less than a mile from the home that we built and where my children grew up. I've rarely had occasion to drive past the old neighborhood -- and, indeed, have purposely avoided doing so most of these past years since returning to bayside. On Saturday before concert time I found myself in a situation where I was not driving -- a passenger in his car that was heading up Boulevard Way -- past the house at 2501 Warren Road, on the way to pick up something at the art store that now replaces one of ramshackled small homes that once stood there in a small orchard, across the street from the grocery store (also long gone).

Strangely enough, all of the angst seems to have been used up at some point and my only response to passing our lovely old home was to marvel that anyone would have painted over a redwood house! How on earth ...! Also, noted that the swimming pool was no longer visible, but had been filled in with earth long ago. Many of the old trees had been removed but the interesting amphitheater-shaped site was as lovely as I recalled. There was just a twinge of regret, but nothing profound. I've lived a lot of life since those years with few regrets. This house had served us well and needs to be released now to yesterday.

The experience was still near the surface when after dinner -- as we drove the short distance from Walnut Creek to Lafayette to the concert hall I felt the rush of other memories: I began to tell him about the time that Bessie Gilbert (my closest neighbor and a devout Mormon recently from Utah) and I were driving home from a shopping trip. At the bus stop on the highway nearest to our homes there were about six African American domestic workers gathered in conversation while waiting for their employers to pick them up. I was at that time waiting for a new housekeeper to arrive from Nicaragua (friend of a friend) but had placed an ad for interim help. As if sizing up a group of slaves my friend remarked casually, "Betty, when you find someone, be sure she's not built like those. They have a hard time cleaning under the beds!" I sat horrified. She was not being anything more than Bessie, and she was my friend. I could find no words to push down the beads of perspiration that suddenly popped upon my upper lip and the flush to my face. Shamefully, I sat in a painful silence as she drove on in her innocence.

When I finished my little story Tom's only remark was, "...but you have to admit, Betty, you aren't really quite Black anyway, and I don't really understand your insistance being so identified." I found myself (now older and wiser) not willing to accept his lack of understanding of my point. My voice got louder and more insistent. "I am the great granddaughter of a slave. I am African American. Why can you not simply accept that?" I am now and have always been a child of the one drop rule. Nothing will change that during my lifetime. And I have no wish that it have it otherwise."

We arrived at the concert hall where we heard the lovely Quartet #2 in D major by Borodin and the Quintet opus #39 by Glazunov. I was the only African American within a mile -- may ten -- of that historic building, I'm sure, but the appeal of such music is universal, and I got lost in it as always. The Borodin served as the source of Broadway show, Kismet -- (Baubles, Bangles and Beads -- This is my Beloved, etc.)

Last night I joined black folks everywhere to watch Jamey Foxx receive his well-deserved Academy Award for that brilliant portrayal of "Ray." I was struck by his defensive posturing during his acceptance speech -- obviously, he was finding that he was being asked to identify as an actor and not as a black actor. He was being anointed by the industry and was finding it hard to accept this conditional acceptance. I heard myself. I felt his pain. I knew that this young man was having the same struggle I'd not quite worked through, even as late as this weekend.

As usual, the answer was lying right behind my eyes and surfaced shortly before sleep took over:

Those good folks (Tom included) were puzzled by us. Why on earth -- when the door was finally being thrown open for us to walk through to unconditional integration -- would we balk?

The answer for me is that subtle racism is hidden in the fact that it is the resistance to altering the wrong perception of what an African American is. Instead of adjusting to the fact that that those perceptions were wrong and needed to be adjusted to include me instead of moving me out of my racial group and leaving it bereft of what I may have brought to the whole. That is the problem. There needs to be recognition of the fact that black folks are as complex as any other group, capable of greatness on a par with any other. Instead there is the hint in that conditional acceptance that, "...we know that you are just as good as any other. We accept that. We no longer need to categorize you in a sub class of artist (person). But don't think this means that you can hold the door open for all your scroungy relatives. You're the exception. You've risen above the others and we recognize that."


There are those of us who bust the stereotypes, but that doesn't mean that we're a separate class of human being. It only means that, like anyone else, we're all one-of-a-kind people and need to be seen that way. We also demand the right to identify ourselves and not be externally defined like children. Jamey Foxx need not have been so defensive had others not made a condition of his great achievement in the movie industry that he lose something essential to his being -- something that has shaped his life 'til now, and that will continue to do so despite arguments to the contrary. His humaness came through clearly in his brief acceptance speech, as did his forgiveness of those who've trespassed against him ... .It is that this made him transcend the obstacles placed in his path at earlier times in his life. He, as did others before him, transformed the ugly stuff into heart that fuels his work and his art. He and others like him may someday translate that into systems that will help others to overcome as well. At least that's what I seem to have heard him say, though my paraphrasing may be less than perfect.

And I suspect that the breadth of my musical sensibilities -- that embraces not only Borodin and Grazunov but that still has an even more visceral response to the artistry of Ray Charles, Billie Holiday, and James Brown -- may suggest something pretty important -- though that's yet to be defined.