Monday, April 25, 2011
1:21 PM | Posted by Wide Lawns | | Edit Post
"It's so easy to laugh. It's so easy to hate. It takes strength to be gentle and kind."
My mother would have beat my ass if I ever said it. There were words I could have gotten away with, but not that one, not a cuss word directed at a person, a whole group of people. I played a game with myself as I pedaled my bike. I'd whisper words that rhymed with cuss words under my breath because it felt good, like I was cussing without cussing and like I was getting away with something. Pit bread. Sock Trucker. Grass Bowl. I never tried it with that word though it lent itself so well to rhyme: bigger, chigger, jigger, rigger, snigger, trigger.
I heard it plenty growing up, though never from my parents. My grandparents said it. Often. But I knew it was wrong and even when I was little, I'd cringe whenever I heard them say it. As I got older, I grew bold and prided myself on speaking out against injustice. Each time my grandparents complained that they were taking over, having too many babies, sucking off of welfare, ruining another neighborhood or giving them bad service in some low paying job, I'd stand up and tell them that word was evil and that they couldn't hate a whole group of people. I wouldn't put up with it. As a little kid, I played with everyone. In high school I never segregated my friends. I grew up desperately wanting to be a Huxtable and praying for Nelson Mandela while he sat in prison, sacrificing his life for justice and freedom. I wanted to fight for justice and freedom too.
I lived in Atlanta for almost a decade and once I went to see Maya Angelou speak. She agreed with my mother it turned out. No one should ever use that terrible word. I had never said it and I never would, I thought.
I didn't know why my fiance locked me out of the house, leaving me homeless and stranded in my parents' guest room. I didn't understand why he'd been distant and cold for months before, but when my neighbor called and told me that as soon as I was gone, another girl had moved right in, I wasn't surprised. It all made sense when I finally sat down and added it up.
"What does she look like?" I asked.
Was she prettier than me? Skinnier? Glamorous? Who was she?
"She's a black girl," my former neighbor said, "Tall, thin, dark-skinned, cropped hair."
A black girl.
No answer wouldn't have made me angry. Had she been blonde, short, Hawaiian, full figured or plain, I would have hated this girl who took over where I was forced to leave off. I would have hated her no matter what, but I focused on the easiest target when I called my ex-fiance to tell him I knew.
"I can't believe you left me for a low down, dirty, whore -"
I said that word I had spent my whole life hating and standing up against.
The word was a water moccasin waiting in the swamp of my lungs until my rage and jealousy let it out and the water moccasin hissed from between my teeth, set free in the world to pierce and poison. I couldn't capture it and force it back down my throat.
Hate is easy. I had no idea how easy. In your best moments you can love anyone. Only a monster wouldn't well up at "I Have a Dream" and our most reviled villains are those few who aren't moved by the history of the Middle Passage, the Underground Railroad and later Jim Crow. We all know right and wrong in theory. The true test of who we are comes at our worst times, when we're hurt, angry and in pain. What choices do we make in those moments when kindness and compassion require an effort? The decision to be good is always the more arduous. I made the easier choice and I did it with stunning facility.
I never knew who I really was; never knew my mouth was a sinkhole leading to a cavernous heart, inside lightless, jagged and slippery.
This piece was my response to this week's Indie Ink Writing Challenge, where Kat challenged me to write about one of the easiest decisions I've ever made. I challenged Jen O. to write about a color. For the full list of challenge responses visit Indieink.org on Friday. The epigraph at the beginning of this piece is lyrics from the Smith's song, "I Know It's Over."
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