We wrote poems about marginality and moonsickness. —The Demon Room by J.E. Reich
Waiting at the DMV yesterday, I watched a middle-aged man who I guessed to be a Native American, a middle-aged American white woman of indeterminate ethnic extraction, and a middle-aged American black man who looked to be a veteran, bonding over their love of chocolate. The American Indian man’s face split wide with laughter as they all shared their struggles with the same weight-loss program. Apparently, it limited their chocolate intake. The conversation began when the American black man spun around in his plastic shell of a chair and interrupted the American white woman and Native American man.
He asked, “Can I assume you’re talking about what I think you’re talking about?”
Slightly leery, at first, the Native American man asked him what he thought they were talking about. It turns out his assumption was correct. The American black veteran used the coded language of some unnamed diet program and explained how he identified with their struggle. They all launched into laughter as they took turns expressing their frustration with the limitations of their diet. I loved watching them chat as I eavesdropped. Their conversation was a perfect example of the way I think the world should always be — strangers coming together to laugh about something important. Like chocolate.
Second only to waiting rooms for heaven and hell, a DMV in Los Angeles typically houses people from all walks of life, every inhabited continent, and most every religion, persuasion or tribe. They’re the great and colorful Vegas buffets of humanity. And yesterday, it got me thinking (because let’s face it, I had the time). Looking around at all the individuals waiting with me, I felt as I often do when tested by life: these are my people. Not because we were all bonded by the bureaucracies of indifferent government, but rather, because I firmly believe everybody’s my people. I don’t care who you are.
This hasn’t always been the case. I used to be a defiant loner. It took decades of marginalization before I could find solace in being my more open-minded self. As the quote at the head of this essay so eloquently captures, I’ve known moonsickness and marginality well enough to express my pain, frustration and longing in verse. I could write epic poems about my “otherness.” But rather than standing on the sidelines of life, pushed off to the edges of society by the power and primacy of all the many proud well-defined groups (since I seemed to have no group I might call my own, other than my family), I decided I would find brotherhood in the eyes of every stranger I met. I would embrace the whole human family as my people. Everyone. It doesn’t matter who they are and if we speak to each other or not. If I were born to have no group, well, I’d just have to live borderless. That way, everyone was in my group. Selah.
Most folks see me as an American black man. This is not really an accurate description. Yes, my father is black. But he is also Native American. And my mother, she’s a mix of European nations too numerous to list. This mélange means my blood flows from family lines of three continents. I’ve never felt comfortable with the idea that I am best described as a black man. To me, this rejects the struggles of my many ancestors, whom, without their efforts, I wouldn’t be here. And I like to honor all those steely survivors.
Make no mistake. I don’t distance myself from my blackness, or from black people. For instance, the other day, walking past a young black man, we met eyes, nodded, and rather casually, he said, “Right on.” I wish more people felt that instantaneous sense of brotherhood. It’s something black men often offer each other when we meet as strangers in public. It’s a way to say, “Keep your head up.” Yet, I feel we all could benefit from that; everyone needs that same sense of shared identification and positive support.
And that’s why I don’t think of myself as just a black man, but rather as multiracial, even though I know that, to most of the world, I am merely just another black guy. Fine. They can have their opinion and I can have mine. Rather than just offer head nods to black men based on our shared blackness, I’ll give a nod to anyone who meets eyes with me and for a brief moment, we’ll see each other and affirm our common dignity. “Keep you head up.” “Right on.”
You may think I sound naïve, like some throwback ‘60s political radical, or perhaps I resemble some flower-sniffing hippie who asks, like Rodney King once did, “Can’t we all just get along?” And yeah, I get why you might imagine me carrying around a basket of wishful thinking. But I came to this view of life not from innocence, but through decades of pain and suffering for my “otherness.”
I played football in high school. After a game against a team from a mostly black school, my teammates and I were changing out of our uniforms. One of the offensive linemen, a broad and dense farm-boy, wanted me to know how proud he was of me. Not for my play on the field, but instead, because I wasn’t a nigger. He said the team we’d just played and beat was full of them. They disgusted him. He had no respect for them or how they talked shit the whole game. He practically spit his appraisal in my face. He was visibly angry. He told me, “There are black folks and then there are fucking niggers. And that’s why we all like you, Zaron. You’re not a fucking nigger like them. You’re a black person.”
The fact I wasn’t a nigger seemed to erase or minimize some of his vitriol. He saw it as the greatest compliment to give me. “Geez, I’m not a fucking nigger? Winner, winner, chicken dinner! Check out who’s doing something right with their life.”
That’s what I sarcastically thought. Humor is my first defense. And of course, that’s not what I said. Standing in the visitor’s locker room, naked, about to go shower, I didn’t know what to say to my teammate. I’d never heard such a clear distinction drawn about me. My blood grew hot, while my naked black skin felt cold. I wanted to hit him. I wanted to cuss him out. But what would be the point of that? Instead of a pointless confrontation, I hit the showers and stood under the streaming hot water. I let it rinse away the mud, the blood and the dirt from the game; I also used the shower to hide the tears I felt welling up in the corners of my eyes.
He was my teammate. I felt like a coward for not saying anything. This offensive lineman, who’d spent the game protecting me and picked me up from the mud after any play that brought me crashing to the earth, had just hurt me more than all the tackles and body blows I’d suffered during the game. But he was still my teammate.
This wasn’t the only time my identity on my football team caused me pain. There were other players who regularly called me a faggot because I knew about fashion and could talk somewhat knowledgeably with women about things that only seemed to matter to them, like feminism and Sylvia Plath; and because I took classes like drama and creative writing, which were classes that were predominantly taken by girls. Football made me tougher not because of the broken bones, the deep bruises, and the bodily collisions that required me to play through pain. It made me tougher because of how my teammates treated me. But rather than reject them and everyone else who hurt me over the years, one day I decided I would go the other way. And like a dysfunctional family coming together for Thanksgiving, sometimes people say horrendous things that hurt me — but I still know they’re all my family.
This is why when people speak of privilege, or when they argue that racial, religious, gender-identification, economic, cultural, or what-have-you divisions are more important than the commonalities we share, I will disagree and defend the offenders. Not because I think cultural identity isn’t important, or that bigots should spew venomous ideas into our culture, but because I think when we raise our voices in calls to activism we tend to forget that every one of us has emotional needs, that every one of us is hurting, especially the meanest among us. To battle them only guarantees that our divides harden and calcify into walls, our boundaries become defended lands, thus making all travel more difficult.
I don’t deny that privilege is a real and powerful thing. It is. But to me it’s the beginning of the discussion, not the end. It’s something to be addressed, but not something to fight for as a cause. It reinforces the divides rather than erasing them.
A disabled, poor, blind, ninety-eight-year-old black Jewish lesbian trans woman Indian chief… she wins everything right? Her intersectionality, her lack of privilege, her diminished access and social power, her paucity of economic freedom, her history of abuse and discrimination, that pretty much trumps everyone else in the conversation over privilege, right? She would win, right?
Well, if that woman existed, I think she’d agree with me. I think she and I would both say she doesn’t need defense or allies, because she’s not in a fight. She doesn’t win anything, unless she has friends and neighbors that help her live a fulfilling life. I think her experiences would’ve taught her what is truly valuable and worthwhile during our brief time on this space-traveling rock covered with a murderous garden, this watery globe we call Earth. She knows love is the only thing worth fighting for, and it is an internal fight to love one’s neighbors as themselves. Our commonalities trump our individuality.
Everyone from children to the marginalized yet kind-hearted elderly to fools like me … we just want to enjoy our limited time here rather than capitalize on it, monetize it, criticize it, exploit others, reject life in favor of towers of study, barricade ourselves in caves where no one can hurt us, or amuse ourselves with acts of depravity or gluttony. We just want to live, laugh and play, as simple as that sounds. And I’ve found despite all the pain and marginalization I’ve experienced, I try to transcend the hurt and forgive small-mindedness because I’ve seen how my example has helped others do the same. I’ve never had a tribe to call my own, and as I was reminded again at the DMV, we’re all in this together. That’s why everybody’s my people.