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ON WHITENESS

Storm Clouds
It’s beginning to snow. All the complexity of the trees from my window is beginning to weaken its hold on reality. Branches broken, black or brown, leafless, coiled one around another, leaves on the ground, the iron-gray sky looming behind it all. And in the foreground, the flakes of snow falling in agitated patterns, all of them slanted by a south-blowing wind pushing the huge storm up into the middle of Vermont.

It’s Thanksgiving eve, a day of final preparations for the big dinner. My wife is out picking up a cheesecake she ordered from the bakery, to be taken to our friends’ house tomorrow for dessert. Stores are open for last-minute shoppers who forgot some important ingredient for the stuffing, or didn’t think about cranberries or lemon zest that a recipe now called for. The church pantries are open with their grocery bags stuffed with Thanksgiving food, a big frozen turkey, canned vegetables, some fresh broccoli, a bunch of carrots tossed in for good measure. Even a box with a frozen apple pie. Women in heavy coats are lined up to get them at the church side door. The kids look around absent-mindedly, not quite aware of the meaning of this event. The hour feels sluggish, as if it can’t quite find its rhythm in all this anticipation, boredom, flurry of final errands, aimless traffic, darkened front windows, kitchens still idle with counters piled high with things to be cooked. My furnace groans to life and begins to send up heat through the baseboard pipes.

There is no whiteness on the ground, not yet. The earth is cold enough to keep the snow from melting, but the snow has a way of fading before it hits the ground. It will be an hour before the land will begin to submerge under a kind of amnesia, a forgetting as gradual as the ravages of Alzheimer’s. Nothing at once, everything by degree, in erratic patterns of subtraction. The big trees will remain because they are indestructible to any assault upon consciousness. Only the little things will perish, easing away like the soap bubbles in a draining basin. A branch or two, the smaller ones, now hold what looks like bits of cotton on their finger-like ends.

It’s already two whole days since the prosecutor for St. Louis County, Bob McCullough, took to the microphones to announce that the grand jury issued no bills on the five-count indictment against Darren Wilson. He was self-assured, even smiling at one point, confident that he had helped to resolve a crisis, no matter how violent its foreground had been and would become again within minutes of his final word. The night would explode in fire and breaking glass, and the harsh, rasping voice of Michael Brown’s stepfather shouting, “Burn this fucking place down.” The bricks flew, the spectral figures of black men and women milling around on the edges of the flood lights, the shattered windows of stores along West Florissant Avenue filling with the movements of looters rushing in and out of focus.

The wound was opening again, showing the raw blood and torn flesh of a country that has never fully dealt with its profound fear and loathing of otherness. It doesn’t matter that there is no such thing as a pure African strain among black people, or that whites can no longer claim to be “white”; we are a mixed nation, as Time magazine showed when it made the composite of the future American woman on its cover in May, 2004;. Black and white are words filled with politically toxic content. Ossie Davis showed half a century ago that every word referring to blackness was tinged with evil connotations, moral condemnation, contemptuous associations of dirt, foulness, sin, corruption, malfeasance, and that white stood for purity, the angel, an unstained moral character, the goodness of virginity and saints. His essay, “The English Language Is My Enemy,” left a black man defenseless against the roots or Anglo-Saxon belief. Nothing could countermand or supplant the fear of the dark that rooted itself in the English heart, the heart that beats in every part of the power and privilege of America now. “As pure as the driven snow,” as they say. And the snow is falling heavily now, beginning to drain the meadow below my house of any of its contrasts of earth, leaves, stones. They are all merging under a thin gauze of snow flakes.

When John Howard Griffin decided that his own faith in man should be challenged at its core, he underwent the chemical ordeal of changing the color of his skin, hoisted a shoe shine kit and headed for the Deep South, where he would discover in his first hour, recorded in his journal, Black Like Me (1961), that he had no real understanding of the life of a black person. There were no bathrooms for black men in New Orleans; one had to just “let it go” in one’s trousers, because no restaurant or store or hotel would allow a black man to use the toilet. And if he went down an alley to pee, he might be assailed by whites or arrested for indecent exposure by a cop. The dehumanization of a white man posing as a black began at once; even he couldn’t quite identity himself in the mirror, staring at what he beheld as the black face he had been taught to fear and distrust. When the book was published, his effigy was hung from a street lamp in Mansfield, Texas, where he lived, and finally burned. For many weeks cars roamed around the farm where he lived, blaring horns late at night. He had stirred the bedrock hatred of the white community, and made many people afraid, even terrified of his effort to show empathy.

Everywhere I look I see the massive trunks of trees traced with white bands of snow; the tops of branches are now touched by an icing knife, and the ground is going white, though the surface is jumbled and chaotic with eruptions of black patches. But the black will not disappear. This is not the polar ice cap, but a rural part of New England, and the snow will smooth away the jagged edges of reality until drifts pile up and momentarily give the illusion that blackness no longer exists. But a black bird or two will land in the whitened trees and the prints of dogs and the occasional fox will allow blackness to show through. What America doesn’t wish to admit is that black Americans are inescapably part of that reality that has become so distorted and twisted out of recognition that hardly anyone can say they are not without some residue of racial misgiving in the presence of the other. Black or white.

Two whole days of unrelenting white hatred have spewed from commentators on Fox News, and the blandishments and evasions of American reality purveyed by network anchors and the persistent, unending rattle of voices on CNN. A sick nation filled with rancor and resentment is coaxed into believing that the justice system works, that the police do an honest job of “protecting the public,” that politics is not in the service of the racist status quo. But it takes constant maintenance to keep up the illusion that we are a fair and honest society, while the statistics of black male assassination by the police keep mounting, and the exonerations and acquittals of rogue cops go on unchallenged. When O.J. Simpson was acquitted of the murder of his wife Nicole and her friend, Ron Goldman, white rage poured out of the country; when Darren Wilson was acquitted by a grand jury, the vast majority of whites believed justice had been served. Hardly anyone in the black population believed justice could do otherwise than excuse the murders of the white-majority police.

The meadow is now almost wholly white, but for weed stalks, fence posts, the larger stones that someone has heaped up over the years to keep the meadow clear for a plow. The white flakes fall down like words, self-justifications, excuses, generalities, lies, deceptions, official pronouncements, bromides, panaceas, snake oil, state laws, night patrols, stop-and-frisk policies, traffic stops, warrants, racial profiling, fear mongering, gun shows, NRA assaults upon gun-control, Republican gerrymandering, voter suppression, Superpacs, dark money, the crumbling base of democracy of a vast country that will not tear itself loose from a mythology of race that inspires terror and oppression.

It will be a long day and the snow will fall until early tomorrow morning, according to the weather reports.

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