Sunday, July 14, 2013

Of Mockingbirds and Phoebes


I suppose you’ve heard the news? What’s his name, the man who killed Trayvon Martin, has been acquitted. Predictably, certain people are calling foul. Maybe it’s just that I haven’t been following the courtroom drama minutia, but I suspect their outrage has less to do with Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence individually, and more to do with the fact that, had he been found guilty, it would have proven that a white man could be convicted of killing a black boy for racist reasons. Since he has been acquitted, the jury must remain out on society at large.

Obviously, I’m white. I’m also politically naïve; I was raised by white liberals, among the children of other white liberals, and we were educated by white liberals (I was about to specify my childhood education, because I’m talking about my formative experiences, but I just realized I’ve only ever had two non-white teachers, a black woman and a Chinese-American woman, both in high school. At both levels, all my college professors were white). I was taught to abhor racism, but I was not taught to notice it. I knew very few black people. About the only think I know about racial politics and the American black experience of it is that I know nothing. Therefore, while I don’t tend to seek the subject out, when something written by a black person on race passes my gaze I stop and pay attention.

For this reason, I read an article in The Sun this past week, written by a man named Ross Gay who is apparently a college professor, a hobbyist bee keeper and gardener, and a black man. He writes movingly about being stopped by police for some debatably legitimate and thoroughly minor reason (his license plate light was out) and treated like a suspected criminal. He was asked whether he had drugs or guns in the car, whether he had been drinking, etc. Later, his friends told him he was lucky the cop hadn’t searched the car, “tossed” it and left him to clean up the mess. He writes of being embarrassed by how minor the intrusion really was, in comparison to what happens regularly to other black men, embarrassed by the fear that took hold of his body and later spasmed his muscles, physically immobilizing him as he bent to harvest garlic in his garden the following day.

This man is a teacher. I have a bit of a thing about teachers, as you may have noticed; I have always believed them to be people inherently worthy of a great deal of respect. They were my allies when I was small, when I was a little geek of a girl who didn’t fit in anywhere. If a teacher is to be treated as a criminal, there’d better be a damn good reason, and turning up with a license plate out does not qualify. I think that’s what angers me the most about Ross Gay’s story—not simply that the cop ignored Gay’s humanity in favor of his race but that even the elevated social status the man had earned did not prevent him from being treated like a second-class citizen, like no citizen at all.

But, of course, as Gay points out in his article, there is no way to prove that the intimidation attempt, for that’s what it was (just asking “do you have drugs?” is a nonsensical way to screen for criminal activity) was racially motivated.

Just as the cop didn’t say, “Since you appear to be of some African extraction,
I would like to ask if you have any drugs or weapons in the car.” He just asked
I had any drugs or weapons in the car.

Gay was writing about his experiences as a black man in order to write about mercy, in order to expose some societal hurt, to lay hands upon it, to be honest and brave and kind. I really like his article, and I suggest you read it—there is an awesome passage about bees near the end, too. The magazine is for sale at the Co-Op, if you want to check it out. It’s the July issue. But however much I really like that article, today I’m not interested in writing about mercy. I’m interested in writing about guilt.

Because there was no way to prove that Trayvon Martin’s death was racially motivated, either. Zimmerman apparently used no racial epithets in describing Trayvon, either when speaking to the dispatcher that night or in his subsequent testimony. He never said “I’m scared of this boy because he is black, so I’m going to shoot him.” He just shot him. Whether the bar on the definition of self-defense might be too low, whether Florida has somehow reached a point where people can be legally shot because other people are simply frightened, is another, equally worthy, topic, but the debate apparently centered, not on whether Trayvon was shot because he was dangerous, but whether he was shot for being black. And there is no way to know, unless someone has a legally admissible recording of Zimmerman saying so, which apparently nobody does.

And it is true that sometimes white people find other white people unaccountably scary. It is even true that sometimes teenagers, of any race, are in fact genuinely threatening. Maybe Trayvon would have died even if he had been white. Maybe Zimmerman actually did shoot in legitimate self-defense. It’s worth pointing out that it’s hard to imagine that shooting an unarmed teenager could have prevented a crime worse than the actual tragedy that took place. But there is no way to prove, in isolation, whether Zimmerman did anything unfair.

Because this sort of thing only really shows up in the aggregate. As Gay points out, eighty percent of the people stopped in New York’s stop-and-frisk program are black or Latino. New York’s population as a whole is only fifty percent black or Latino. Is this disparity more than what we would expect by chance? Can we reject the null hypothesis that New York’s finest are fair? I don’t know, you tell me. But I do remember that’s the right question to ask. And I have a definite hunch as to the answer.

But statistics can’t say whether any individual police or vigilante action is unfair. Flip a coin nineteen times and get nineteen heads and you might begin to suspect the coin is rigged, but flip it a twentieth time and you can’t say the resulting head couldn’t have happened anyway because the chance of any individual coin toss coming up heads is still always fifty-fifty.

And what if statistics aren’t even available? What if Gay had been white, and part of no other definable, disenfranchised group, and had still been treated like a criminal? Would that have meant the situation was fair? No, because sometimes even white guys are treated badly. Maybe he’d had an argument with the cop earlier that day. Maybe he’d gotten involved in some kind of unrelated political issue.  Maybe someone he’d inadvertently pissed off along the way had bad-mouthed him and the cop had heard, believed it, and acted legitimately based on an accusation that was itself illegitimate? All these things are possible. And yet, you confront the cop with your questions and the cop would say “I don’t know what you’re talking about. The man had a busted license-plate light. I ask everybody I stop about possible illegal activity. What’s your problem?”

Claiming the rhetorical high ground, defining the situation before the other guy can, may be the only recourse. If there is no way to prove what you know, that the boy in the hoody with the Skiddles, that the college professor heading home to tend his bees, is innocent and got a rather bad deal, then maybe the only recourse is to act on what you know and cannot prove. This is, in fact, what Trayvon’s supporters have been doing. It is how they got Zimmerman to trial in the first place, whether or not the trial itself was fair. A generation or two ago, even that would not have happened.

This tactic carries a risk, the risk of its own kind of unfairness. As some people have pointed out, Zimmerman might not have been tried at all had he, too, been black. That may be true, I don’t know. I am, as I said, naïve. I’m hesitant to speak up even this far, for fear I’ll say something accidentally stupid or offensive. As regards the politics of this topic, I really don’t know what I’m doing. But I do understand fairness as a general principle, and I say that as a general principle the burden of proof should always be laid at the feet of whoever it is had the gun.

Because Trayvon Martin is dead. His friends and family will never see him again, and any good that he could have spent his time doing while he was here will not now be done. Rightly or wrongly, that is what  Zimmerman did. He should have to account for himself. If there were a way to somehow make Trayvon not dead, that would be ideal, but, failing that, there should be a way to make sure this doesn’t happen again—even if there is no way to be sure that “this” happened this time to begin with. And maybe the best way to do that is to make sure that any time anyone with power acts against someone of lesser power, even when the other had his own resources and might possibly have offered some kind of genuine threat, that other people ask “why.”

And do not stop asking “why.”

The phoebes on the porch have hatched; three or four little fuzzy heads, three or four raspy little voices. They don’t know or care about any of this.

-best, C.

Friday, July 5, 2013


Hi, again,

It’s been awhile since I’ve written, obviously, but it was good to run into you the other day, to speak briefly. I think I know what you meant, but I’m not sure if you understood me. Still, it was good to see you.

Let’s see, what is new. There’s a bird nest under the roof of the porch at the camp store—a phoebe, I think. I only see one adult, a female, I assume. She sits on the nest sometimes, so she must have eggs. She’ll fly to the nest only as long as nobody is looking. I hope she doesn’t abandon her nest with all the celebrations this week—the campground is having a big to do, and there will be a lot of people on the porch. It’s a good location, apart from the people, and so I hope she learns to ignore us utterly; the only thing she has to fear is fear itself. I’ve noticed that the last few times I’ve found a nest on an occupied dwelling it’s been a phoebe, or what I think it a phoebe, anyway. Do they like our buildings particularly? I’ve been meaning to ask you.

Prairie Home Companion broadcast from Tanglewood this past week, a place I’ve just learned you have a connection with, though it’s an utterly different connection from mine. Tanglewood is only two or three miles from the campus of my old boarding school. We used to walk there sometimes for exercise—usually we didn’t go on the grounds themselves, we just used the entrance as a turn-around point for the walk. I also saw three performances there, and sometimes from campus we could hear music from Tanglewood, faintly. B.B. King played there once and I heard him, muffled, in the distance.

One of the performances I attended was some Bugle Brass Band I had no interest in whatever, but at least we got off campus to the pretty Tanglewood grounds for a while. They are green and full of rows and spinneys of trees, as you know. Another time we went to see Arlo Guthrie and Pete Seeger, two performers I admire greatly, but I happened to find their performance kind of boring that day, for whatever reason. Arlo Guthrie also went to boarding school in Stockbridge, did you know that? Same campus but different school, years and years ago. That’s why the events of Alice’s Restaurant occurred in Stockbridge; he was there visiting friends from school.

Ah, but the best concert I went to at Tanglewood was Peter, Paul, and Mary. I grew up listening to them, I knew most of the songs they sang, and singing along it felt very much like I was singing with them—it wasn’t like at a rock concert, where if you sing along it feels very much like singing along to a recording. There was very little sense of separation between performer and audience, it was like we were all just sitting around a campfire singing together, except that the fire circle must have been huge because there were thousands of people, and mostly I couldn’t even see the three who happened to have the microphone—Peter, Paul, and Mary themselves. We had lawn seats, of course.

That was the summer I turned sixteen, but I hadn’t turned sixteen yet because it was the Fourth of July—twenty years ago yesterday. Twenty years ago yesterday, I sang with Peter, Paul, and Mary at Tanglewood and then watched fireworks explode over the Stockbridge Bowl. I was high as a kite on life and nothing else, the memory of the familiar music still in my ears as a kind of balm against the chronic, low-grade hurt of being away from my family among people whom I did not really understand.

Tanglewood’s presence in my life was so mundane, then. It was the famous neighbor most of us had never heard of, and which most of us ignored, no different in stature from the other landmarks around us: the high ridge behind the school that colored up like Fruity Pebbles in the fall; the Stockbridge Bowl, that lake that froze in winter so you could walk on it, an odd thing for a kid from Delaware to see; or the Kripalu Yoga Center, a kind of unacknowledged sister institution to ours, given that both were vaguely cultish at the time. They were all just there, like furniture in the mind.  I can see that ridge of trees even now, if I close my eyes.

And way led on to way from there until, eight years ago, I was sitting alone on a lawn in Maine, my earphones tuned in to Garrison Keilor, and suddenly out of the dark of radio bloomed Tanglewood.  My sweet old someone, as he sings. It’s Saturday, the band is playing, and for the first time in years a person speaks along Rt. 183 and I, through the medium of live radio, can hear.

It was not, of course, Tanglewood itself that had me feeling nostalgic, but its proximity to that old school, that place where I never did fit in, and which finally asked me to leave, but which nevertheless registers emotionally as a kind of home.

Yes, they asked me to leave. I admit that I was probably difficult to deal with, but I did nothing either fun enough or nefarious enough to warrant being kicked out. While I was ultimately glad to get out of there and get on with my life, I still sometimes wonder why it happened the way it did.
Sometimes I think that Michael, the headmaster, asked me to leave because he knew I needed to go, that I would learn more by leaving than by staying, which was certainly true. Other times I think my being escorted to the gate had a lot more to do with the fact that I was on full scholarship—that I had become too expensive to remain as a square peg in a round hole any longer.

But whether my being asked to go was an act of faith or an act of faithlessness on Michael’s part, either way I was expelled just as if I had done something horrible—marched to the gate and barred from further contact with current students, lest I sow dissention in the ranks. Because there was only one procedure for asking someone to leave, and, as incredible as it sounds, the little school that prided itself on creatively meeting everybody’s individual needs couldn’t figure out how to ask me to leave without treating me like a virtual criminal.

All this was many years ago and far away. I don’t think about it much anymore, except when something, like a voice on the radio, reminds me. The school, as I said, is gone.

But the campus is there, in Stockbridge, right where it always was. I don’t know what is being done with the property now, maybe nothing. Maybe, the next time you go to Tanglewood, you could take a walk up the road and go to campus, and if nobody is there, there will be nobody to stop you. You’ll see a steep, squared off embankment, maybe ten feet high at the corner, visible from the road but maybe a few hundred feet in. It was grassy when I knew it, but it’s probably overgrown with brambles and tree seedlings by now, if nobody’s been cutting it. And, if nobody has been cutting it or digging in to it, you might find, at the base of this embankment, among the other growth, dark, flat leaves, like grass but thicker. 

If you find these leaves, please tell me. Tell me the daffodils I planted still grow.

-best, C.