Spontaneous Eruptions

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)

Pam Smith

          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. …

 Pam and Ann

Pam and Ann

 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

 WASTELAND

(an ode to Entangled Lives)

Pam Smith

          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

          a friendship.

          Why must any part of this feel good?

 

          “Reconcile”

          beckon the voices from my past

          “Untangle.”

          “Advance.”

          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

Ann Neel

               So…

          It seems

          I’m blind and deaf.

          A wasteland of

          (Un)consciousness.

          It’s genetic.

 

          Unfortunately,

          This Is It.  My only me.

          My only chance.

          And ours.

 

          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.

          Ambivalent

          Gutless wonder.

 

          And it’s NOT funny.

 

 

And while Ann was writing this, Pam was writing:

 

 

          Vashon, Washington, May 15, 1997

 

WASTELAND II

Pam Smith

          I lied.

          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)

 HARD CORE

Ann Neel

 

          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…

          No way.

 

          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.

          Now what?

 

          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.”

          And smiles.

          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

          Excruciatingly present.

          No exit.

 

          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.

          Otherwise

          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)

                                                  Pam Smith

          …

 

Mount Kilimanjaro

                         Mount Kilimanjaro

          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.

 

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Connecting Across Families, Contemporary (1970- present), Discovery & Personal Reactions, Intimacy & Family Life, Linked Descendants, North America, Racism
4 comments on “Spontaneous Eruptions
  1. Kay Strickland says:

    “I brought history like cookies.” THIS. I have not looked into the eyes of descendants of those whom my ancestors enslaved. But when I write up the research and press publish, my blog posts feel flat, like something is missing. And Ann said it right there. As a white genealogist coming to terms with my family’s history of enslavement, and the legacies of privilege I live out, I am still in the valley. This piece is a powerful nudge to keep me climbing further into the foothills. Thank you for sharing.

  2. Prinny Anderson says:

    Oh Pam and Ann – I am moved to tears each time I read your story. I’m blown away with your courage and tenacity, and the deep, uncompromising love that comes through. You stand as teachers for my way forward. With love and profound respect – Prinny

  3. Ann Reeves says:

    I am so grateful to you, Pam and Ann, for this profound teaching. I have much to learn about getting out of my own way so I can even climb onto the hillock below the foothills. I can’t say more, as I am utterly humbled.

  4. Ann Reeves says:

    A little over two years ago I met Susan at our gathering at EMU. We had several short conversations and then one much longer one, and my memories of her is less what we spoke about than the inner light that shone so brightly. I have a visceral memory of how she made me feel as she radiated pure love. Her death is an incredible loss and her legacy will continue to birth courage and hope to all who seek truth and reconciliation. Thank you Prinny, for this dedication and this opportunity to celebrate Susan’s memory.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Our Readers
Archives
%d bloggers like this: