Wednesday, October 20, 2010

I stayed up all night reading Octavia Butler's "Kindred"

And I’m not even tired. Holy shit, that’s a good book.

It was very good at making me think about - well, not so much the reality of slavery, because I’m sure no mere book would be enough to convey the experience of what chattel slavery is like - but the reality that my ancestors were slaves.

I got a similar feeling when I went to DC for the Obama inauguration - that the buildings all around me had been built by black slaves, and now a black man was being elected president. I was seriously on the verge of tears almost the whole time. (Not so much out of happiness at the election, although back then I was much more on team hopey-changey stuff than I am now, but out of horror of the past).

I grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in a neighborhood where the oldest buildings dated to maybe the 1950s. Black chattel slavery is distant here.

To have my stepmom (who is from there, and who is biracial just like me) point out buildings and say “That’s an old slave auction house,” or “That tunnel is where they brought slaves in from the docks,” and whatnot was completely upsetting to me.

"You're very sensitive," she said to me, not unkindly.

My family is from Cuba, so the likelihood that any ancestor of mine walked through those tunnels or stood on those particular auction blocks is probably low. But they walked through tunnels, they stood on auction blocks. And there were similar ones, right in front of me. Meanwhile, a black man was getting ready to be President.

It was the same feeling I got when a white friend of mine explained to me that her grandmother, who I had spent the previous afternoon chatting pleasantly with, was actually a horrible racist and said mean things about my daughter. Betrayal, shame, embarrassment, anger, fury. Pride that I wasn't what her grandmother thought I was.

That feeling - that's what it's like to be black in America.

Thinking back about my week in DC two years ago, I remember a conversation I had about the whole thing with a man who was a friend of my stepmom’s family. “I don’t think white people understand,” he said.

I agreed.

Also, I’m pissed at myself that I haven’t been reading Octavia Butler this entire time. Next up - Fledgling.

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