Essay by Geraldine DeLuca
I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand
Black love is Black wealth and they’ll
probably talk about my hard childhood
and never understand that
all the while I was quite happy
~~ Nikki Giovanni, from “Nikki-Rosa”
Nikki Giovanni reminds me that I don’t know how it feels to be in another person’s skin, and that despite whatever distorted view white people like me may have, despite our systematic mistreatment of black people, our bad faith, we have not undermined their ability to love one another and to find happiness. This is not to say that I can go home happy. I have so much work to do! But they, some of them, are strong despite me.
I have been meeting with seven members of our Valley Insight sangha for the past seventeen months to talk about race. For twelve of those months, we were part of Buddhist teacher and therapist Ruth King’s first year-long, national cohort, “Mindful of Race.” We met once a month via Zoom and followed her agenda, which asked us to recall our life’s experiences and gradually expand our notion of how we think about race. At the end of the year, we wrote “racial memoirs.”
We learn in our group with Ruth that black people are sick of having to teach white people about racism. Investigate it yourself, they say. So we do. On the other hand, we are not authorities. At any point, a black person can say, “Don’t speak for us. What do you know? That’s not the way it was at all.” And both reactions are reasonable. When you’ve been so wrong for so long, it is hard to find anything that resembles right understanding.
I discover, as I start to write my racial memoir, that I don’t just identify as white. My parents came from Italian immigrant families. In the early twentieth century, there were many racial classifications, and Italians, especially southern Italians—the poor people who immigrated to America—were viewed as being different from white. Members of my father’s family were regarded as suspicious looking with their dark curly hair and olive skin. And we were associated with the Mafia, assassins who had their hands in everyone’s till. Southern Italians spoke dialects and hung on hard to old traditions: they were loathe to give up their native language, and the old women were always in mourning, always wearing black, barely learning English. Is that just another stereotype? It certainly aligned with what I knew. My father felt that the northern European teachers looked down on him. They looked down on his tiny grandmother, in her black dress, who picked him up from school. But habits change with generations. Hardly anyone I know wears mourning clothing anymore. We find other ways to announce our sorrow.
My mother too was one of seven children of immigrant parents. As a child, she put cardboard in her shoes to cover the holes. “We were poor, but we were happy,” she said wistfully. Like Nikki Giovanni, maybe? Or maybe not.
In my neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, we weren’t primarily white and black. We were southern Italian, Jewish, and Irish. Negroes lived in different neighborhoods, and in the worldview of the immigrant, Negroes were the ones we imagined we were better than. They were darker than us, and they might take our jobs—just as we immigrants, and just as today’s immigrants, might take the jobs of those who came here earlier. I grew up during the civil rights movement, so I learned early to hate racism. But, in fact, I knew very few black people. I lived in a white world.
I have a colleague, a gifted teacher and philosopher, who is writing a book in which he envisions that the Anthropocene Era, which has been dominated by capitalism and the patriarchy, is about to give way to the Symbiocene Era, which will be guided by love. When I express doubt, he says that the next generation will be smarter. He offers the work of James Moffett, The Universal Schoolhouse, as the foundational text. In the Universal Schoolhouse there will be a mix of races, ethnicities, origins. Everyone will recognize that we are all part of the human race. We will be tender and loving. And if we are to be integrated, then we will live in integrated neighborhoods. Jonathan Rose’s astonishing and hopeful book The Well-Tempered City imagines neighborhoods that are part of green cities, where resources like water will routinely be recycled. And there will be many gardens, and the buildings will have green roofs, and there will be efficient mass transit. This is the way we must go, he says. The great sprawl of the suburbs and rural areas where you can’t buy a quart of milk without a car, is wasteful.
And where do I live? At the top of a hill in Vermont. “Saturday Night Live” does a skit in which a group of men talk about where they will set up their collective: their arsenal, their dogs, their freedom from vaccines. Where can they go to make America great again? They discover the perfect place: everybody has a dog; all the dogs wear red neckerchiefs; everybody hunts. Vermont. People like to refer to Vermont as “the People’s Republic of Vermont,” as opposed to New Hampshire, where you Live Free or Die. But you have to look hard to find a black person in either of these two states.
It seems clear that our racism and our ecology are intertwined. And that the issue is about class: who gets to be financially secure, to live in beautiful houses surrounded by trees and mountains or high-rises with glittering views of the skyline. It’s about poor whites and well as poor blacks, about food deserts and inadequate healthcare, and homes built next to industrial sites. My daughter and her family live in a middle class neighborhood in Philadelphia which is, if not totally integrated, at least diverse. Her children go to a thriving integrated public school. I sometimes live there too. I admire my Philadelphia community, and I want to see it as the future: a community where blacks, whites, people of all colors have the same economic opportunities and live together in peace.
I feel sorely weighted down these days by the pandemic, and I am implicated in all the ills of the world. The suffering is not just about my burdens, but about what I witness and do nothing to change. So how do I find my power to change things? How do I reach those who feel threatened by black power? When do we all recognize that we can be in this human predicament together? Do we ever recognize that?
When I was a young English teacher in the 1970s, there was an essay that showed up in Freshman Rhetoric called “How to Say Nothing in 500 words.” It mocked the way freshmen learn to create thesis sentences about issues of the day and fill the paragraphs with obvious examples. I feel, as I wake up in the middle of the night, that I am trying to say everything in 1500 words: and to be cheerful about it. We can do this, gang.
I’m holding balloons in a great wind. They are blowing away, losing air, and I’m saying, “Keep a glad heart.”
We have made progress. Younger generations are flexible and embracing in ways that my generation never imagined one could be. In my children’s world, black and white friends marry, have children. But the change comes so slowly, and we are running out of time. How many Covid tests will make us feel at ease? Why isn’t there any snow in Philadelphia?
Jonathan Rose ends his book with the observation (from architectural theorist Christopher Alexander) that “making wholeness heals the maker…. A Humane Architecture does not only have the power to heal us. The very act of making it is itself a healing act for all of us.” How extraordinary it would be to let go of our fears and open our hearts to integrated communities built on the best technology we have. There is no getting around the deep sadness that is part of being alive in this time. Not that any other time was better. But what we’ve got feels apocalyptic.
In World as Lover, World as Self, Joanna Macy grieves for our hatreds, murders, and the degradation of our planet:
You live inside us, beings of the future.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
You reveal courage within us we had not suspected,
love we had not owned.
O you who come after, help us remember: we are your ancestors.
Fill us with gladness for the work that must be done.
Are we courageous? Can we do this work? Does my rhetoric make a difference? I don’t know. I hope so. I’m not getting any younger.
~ ~ ~
Geri DeLuca taught English at Brooklyn College for many years. She found meditation and yoga at the Omega Institute, and, with a colleague in psychology, she eventually established a program in Contemplative Ways of Teaching at Brooklyn College. She writes that “around the same time, I started spending summers at Lake Fairlee Camp—lake of my dreams—and in 2011 I moved to Vermont. Soon afterward, I discovered Valley Insight: I walked into a Monday night sit and there was Doreen, graceful, powerful, sitting cross-legged on the floor, and I was home.” In 2018 Geri published a book called Teaching Toward Freedom: Voices and Silence in the English Classroom (Routledge, 2018), which is about honoring black voices and bringing meditation into the classroom. Visit Geri’s website: geraldinedeluca.com