Dedicated to Susan Hutchison, Co-Founder, Coming to the Table
Written by Pam Smith and Ann Neel
Publication facilitated by Prinny Anderson
As all of us in CTTT know, honest communication between blacks and whites has historically been fraught with difficulty. We don’t share the same experiences so we don’t always speak the same language.
There are good reasons for sharing this series of poems written to each other over two decades ago by P(black) and A(white), as we were attempting to communicate honestly and fearlessly about the meaning of race in our entangled family histories. We think these poems are as relevant today as when they were written.
First, this last year’s presidential election process brought a great deal of fear, hatred, and polarization in our country to the surface, shocking many people into recognizing an urgent need to break down barriers of communication and talk across race and other lines of difference. Second, when some white women expressed how emotionally traumatized or angry or terrified they felt about what their children might have to face in their formative years under a Trump presidency, some black commentators called them out as being naïvely oblivious to the racist terror that black people, especially as parents, have been living with in this country for their whole lives. As Melissa Harris-Perry angrily affirmed “This is not some brand new thing!” She asked, “What have you been telling them”?
Using a mountain metaphor as a result of her experience climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro while living in Africa, Pam wrote the piece below about the challenges we faced in communicating across race lines.
SLOWLY, SLOWLY (first half)
When Ann and I first met we had no journey that was ours together. We encouraged the other’s individual pilgrimage into the past and developed a mutually beneficial friendship in the process. Our time, in this way, was genteel. You might say we were frolicking in the foothills, never knowing that the mammoth mountain before us would one day be ours to attempt.
Then we learned that one of Ann’s ancestors had owned one of mine. The discovery was surreal. Not because Ann never knew that her people had owned slaves. She had discovered that long ago. And not because I was surprised that my family members were enslaved. Of course I knew they were. The discovery was surreal because we were friends. Now what do you do with that?
For a while the friendship deadened the reality, allowing us to focus on constructive ways to use the connection. One day the historical reality fell with the force of an ax to a block of wood. …
We had created a public presentation called “Entangled Lives: A Conversation Between Descendants of Master and Enslaved,” based on our story. One spring Pam flew out to SeaTac from Chicago for us to do two of our presentations in the Puget Sound area. Taking advantage of the rare opportunity to be in the same place for a week, we focused intensely on our project. On one of those days, after we had been talking animatedly on the ferry, Ann noticed Pam beginning to become irritated and withdrawn. When we got back to Ann’s house on Vashon Island, Ann said, “I feel like you’re angry at me.” Pam didn’t respond and left to go up to her room; She later told Ann she felt something rising up inside of her. A few hours later, after some prodding about what she had been working on, Pam brought this poem to Ann.
Vashon Island, Washington, May 14, 1997
(an ode to Entangled Lives)
I am not amused by pain.
I want to ball you up
like a messed up piece of paper
and throw you out of my life
Can you believe that?
And can you be that –
a piece of garbage
your ancestors might have treated mine?
I didn’t think so.
Okay, I’m calm now
Like a good girl
I’ve buried my rage and disbelief six feet under
the same earth that my grandmother rests
— so far I can’t even find it
and like feathers from a chicken
in a breeze heading south
I’ve let go the rage.
But dear God,
please don’t make me suffer
Why must any part of this feel good?
beckon the voices from my past
How goes the soul
and its dignified plan?
To every person, their conscience.
For every moment,
an opportunity lush with hope.
Like Kilimanjaro on a rainy day
through the mud, over the danger zones,
on toward the summit…
Ann read this, read it again and asked herself, “How do I take this? I mean, of course on the one hand I can understand how Pam would feel this way, on the other I need to know – is it personal”? She asked Pam, “Are you writing this to me as a “White Person” or to me – Ann?” A wrangle ensued. Then Ann wrote the following:
Vashon Island, Washington, 15 May 97
ON BEING A WHITE USIAN #1
I’m blind and deaf.
A wasteland of
This Is It. My only me.
My only chance.
Perhaps I wandered
Into this wretched place
By accident and
Should flee for my life.
That’s a bad joke.
Is the place inside me or
Am I inside it?
Both it seems.
And it’s NOT funny.
And while Ann was writing this, Pam was writing:
Vashon, Washington, May 15, 1997
It IS personal
you are that piece of paper
and that, my dear friend Ann,
is the legacy of our connected past
— forever etched into my being
like a name on a tombstone
made of granite
I cannot reconcile it
We cannot change it
And the great revelation is –
I want to keep it.
I want to save a space for my ancestors
in a part of me that you can never go
Our friendship is as deep as the ocean blue
yet more delicate than a floating lily on a stormy day
My absolute best
is to live within the context
created by the past
and try to smooth it over time
like waves to the rocks they move
May our living be the teller of our tale.
The next day, after several unsuccessful attempts to talk about our conflict, Ann wrote:
Vashon, Washington, May 17, 1997 (High School Presentation Day)
Yesterday – trudging up the driveway –
Placing one fierce foot in front of the other.
Resolute, striding away, not running of course.
My aching gut a flat desolation.
I had thought we were friends,
Could be friends
In spite of the staggering, stinking burden of debt
My ancestors had left me.
I had thought, in spite of their sins,
I was responsibly keeping current,
Had Socially Redeeming Value,
More or less…
My stomach roils and heaves like
Hot, tormented sludge.
Reaching the road I pace
Around and around in circles.
Sending the caged panic out
Through my legs and feet
Stomping gravel to dust.
Hard core. This is hard core.
We’re trying to crack the bone hard core
Of an obscene, abominable past
And it’s worse than surgery.
The only anesthetic is denial
Which totally foils the operation!
Can I do this?
So we’re the ones. Why?
Let me speak for myself,
If that’s acceptable.
Okay I asked for this. I went looking.
But I didn’t want to do it.
“I didn’t wanna do it. You made me…”
I must have thought I already was
Really Doing Something!
Hot shit. Really teaching, really thinking.
Being real about race and not academic.
Mind you, FACING descendants.
I thought that was frightening itself,
Was quietly proud of my courage.
But I didn’t REALLY do it.
Did I? I met those descendants
Of slaves my ancestors had owned
And brought history like cookies.
Visited and went away
Without having to listen
To their rage and suffering and hatred.
But that’s another story.
So now Pam and I are peeling back
Layer after layer,
Relentlessly exposing the wounds.
And our feelings rise, boil-like
To the surface.
And must be lanced.
And a friend of mine
Says with such certainty
“This is just the beginning.
It will get worse, a lot worse.”
Is this wisdom or sadism?
So how can it get worse?
The fight after the poem was bad enough.
For me the dual message was
Now hear this Ann:
“It’s totally personal because
Everything about you –
Your personality, your conditioning,
Your attitudes, and your behavior,
Certainly your heritage is
WHITE, fundamentally, generically WHITE
With all its gross, obscene meanings.
You are a child of the enemy.
To really befriend you is
To betray my own brave,
Profoundly violated people.”
I was not shocked to hear this
As a statement of generic rage.
After all, I urge reluctant students
To face it and not be debilitated
By guilt. To do something
Worthwhile about it.
Instead I just fought –
In disbelief at first,
Then in argument and confusion,
That it was really piercingly about ME.
The sweet and safe promise
Of friendship and mutual understanding
Is a crucial piece of
This project of God knows what.
There would no pain.
Can I listen, hear her hatred?
Her rejection? Her honesty
Which is authentic and therefore
A kind of loving gift, tied up
In a tangle of what feels like misinterpretation?
Is it odd that I kick and scream?
If I had to answer for all my father’s sins
I would be in hell –
Precisely where this tunnel seems to lead.
Am I willing to stay this righteous path? ……… Yes.
SLOWLY, SLOWLY (second half)
Entangled Lives is about the arduous trek to the summit of racial understanding. Paint a picture, if you will, of a mountain. Not a hill, but a big, huge, intimidating mountain. For me, it is the slopes of Kilimanjaro on the crest of Moshi, Tanzania. Now picture yourself at the bottom, looking up, wondering how in God’s name you’re going to get up it because it seems so insurmountable. You’ve got a guide and your gear. But for all they’re worth, they can’t get you up that mountain. Only you can. What’s it going to take for you to get there? Strength? Maybe. Training? Possibly for some. Confidence? An unshakable belief you can do it? Maybe that’ll get you part of the way – until your lungs start exploding from the altitude. For me, what got me up that mountain was something only awesome challenge and intense desire can create. An almost spiritual passion to make it happen. That’s the only thing that got me up that mountain.
Entangled Lives is about choice and consequences – in the past and today. About an overwhelming passion for racial understanding, peaceful co-existence and even harmony. Why else would we choose the horrific climb over [staying with the] soft green grass beneath our feet?
Improving race relations is not an inevitable task, something we have to do, like going to work every day. It’s a choice – like choosing peace over war. Further, it’s an individual choice with each one asking, “What must I do?” Just as with the process of family history, we start with ourselves and move outward. What is my present position? What is my past? How were my attitudes formed? Who must I become?
Ann and I are nowhere near the mountain’s summit, but we are climbing – po-lee, po-lee as the Swahili term goes – slowly, slowly, one foot in front of the other. Most times helping each other along the way. Sometimes hoping the other will fall – giving us both a reason to relent. Hope is our lifeline. We hope we can make it. That’s as far as our expectations can go. We know that now.