Prompted by the recent protests, some of my students have been writing about race. Listening to their work has inspired me and also helped me realize that in the past few weeks I’ve gone AWOL on my own writing.
This has happened before. It happened in the aftermath of 9/ll and following the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, and it’s happened again after George Floyd’s death. I had no words. I didn’t want to utter a single syllable on the page because I feared an avalanche of thoughts and emotions might crush me. I didn’t want to look at what was going on inside. It hurt and felt easier just to shut down and not deal with it.
But this strategy never works long-term, and I’ve learned over the years that the greatest act of self-love (and boy do we need love in the world right now) is to act on creative urges, so I gave myself the gift of one hour of “free play” in my journal. I gave myself permission to let loose on the page. No holds barred.
Getting started is often the hardest part. I wrote nonstop for an hour, pouring out my earliest recollections of racism, rooting out my own hidden and insidious racist thoughts—words I’d never spoken out loud. I was taught (in subtle and not-so-subtle ways) that black men were dangerous. I explored where this came from. How could this be the case in suburban Long Island with liberal, educated parents? My father was Jewish and my mother’s father was Cuban. They understood discrimination.
I’ll never forget one evening circa 1965 when they piled us kids into the station wagon and took us to a community theater production of South Pacific. In the days that followed we spoke about the song “You’ve Got to Be Taught.” I was five, but the lyrics touched me. Especially “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear.” And later in the song, “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all the people your relatives hate.”
I remember thinking nonsensically, Oh it’s not too late for me. I’m five. I’ve been taught. I didn’t know what I’d been taught, but I trusted my parents and assumed they’d taught me well.
I wondered then if that song had anything to do with the lady relative of my father’s who came to our house, the one with the tattooed number on her forearm. Nobody mentioned concentration camps, but I felt in my bones that her tattoo suggested something sinister, something beyond my comprehension, something unimaginably evil. Something beyond words.
I don’t know how old I was when my mom told me about the neighborhood posse of housewives who appeared at our front door wielding a clipboard. A “negro” family had moved in down the street and they were collecting signatures to drive them out.
“Have you met the family?” my mother asked. “Have you spoken to them? Are they nice people?”
The ladies looked at my mother like she was crazy, and then one said, “That wouldn’t be prudent.”
“Why not?” my mother asked.
“Don’t you realize the danger?” another blurted, her eyes filled with fear.
“What does the man of the house do for a living?” my mother asked.
“He’s a chiropractor. Can you imagine! A colored person and a quack. We cannot allow this in our neighborhood! We need to protect our children.”
My mom was thirty-six, the mother of three daughters ages twelve, seven, and five. I don’t know what she said to those ladies, but she did not sign their petition. The family stayed, and my mom credits Joe Knott—that was the chiropractor’s name (no kidding)—with healing her back pain. Joe turned out to be a wonderful healer and a trusted friend.
Even so, my mom, a fabulous cook and hostess, never had the Knotts over for dinner, and years later, when a white girl at my high school fell in love with a black boy, my liberal parents took the side of the girl’s folks who forbade her from seeing him.
I poured out these and other long-forgotten stories in my journal. And then I closed it, walked away, and kept my distance. I didn’t want to share any of it. It felt scary. What if I say the wrong thing? What if my words cause harm? What if everything I think and write is irrelevant, ignorant, and insensitive?
A week later, while talking to a colleague and friend, she told me she hadn’t been writing because she figured it was time to listen—and to raise the voices of people who haven’t been heard. She also expressed concern that she lived in a “spiritual bubble.”
Listening is important, yes, absolutely, and as a writer I related to this one hundred percent. But as a writing teacher and coach I couldn’t help wonder if she was doing what I realized I’d been doing: censoring myself out of fear. Self-censorship is tricky. It says things like: It’s not my time or place to speak. Or, If I speak I’ll be dismissing others. Or, I may say the wrong thing. Or, Who cares what I think?
But how can we heal if we don’t communicate honestly with each other? How can we change and transform if we don’t know what’s hidden in our own hearts and minds? It takes courage to speak truth. When you realize that the root “cor” is Latin for heart, you begin to see that writing with the intention to understand, to learn, and to heal is an act of generosity of spirit and a way to be of service to yourself and others. Authentic communication heals. We are all in this together. Deep down we are all George Floyd, the cop that killed him, and the looters. These aspects (hatred, fear, desperation, and more) live within us all. We have to face these parts of ourselves in order to move forward.
My colleague’s mention of her “spiritual bubble” got me thinking: in a way, we all live in a bubble. We have a lens through which we view the world and this lens colors what we see and how we see it. But a bubble is fragile. It can be easily burst with the prick of a pin, or even a breath. The interesting thing about a bubble—I’m thinking of that seventies John Travolta movie, The Boy in the Plastic Bubble—is that nothing comes in and nothing goes out. It’s meant to protect, but it creates a barrier. Thoughtful reflection, authentic communication, and love help remove it.
Remember that the urge to write is your soul speaking. Trust that. Listen. Learn. And share.
Post Script: I just learned from my eldest sister that I got my facts wrong. I was five and she was twelve when we moved out of that house, and listening to her, I realized she was right. The chiropractor, Dr. Knott, was white. Our black neighbor’s name was Dr. Boston. He was a medical doctor who worked in NYC because he couldn’t find work in the burbs. Dr. Boston was married to a white woman. She and my mother were friends. My sister played with their son, Harry. But I don’t think they ever came to dinner, and the neighborhood ladies tried to drive them—an interracial family—out.
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