There has been a pattern to my life lately, a rhythm of books and papers. The rhythm has been so steady that it has started to feel like a weekly liturgy. The lectionary readings have not been spiritual per se, but they have been holy nonetheless. The Old Testament reading for the day comes from Malcolm, Huey, and Audre. The Psalms from Amiri, Margaret, and jazz. The New Testament from Lorraine and Maya, and turn now in your bulletins to the Gospel reading taken from the book of James.
This pattern has come about because I am taking a lit class, and it is a Writing Intensive, which means we read and write, read and write. Twice a week I am reading a piece of literature and then writing about it. We spend 5 weeks on a time period, with 10-12 readings that we think and write about. The writings are connected by chronology, but there are always deeper ties. How are they connected? What is the thread that ties them together, and what will I learn about myself when I spend weeks thinking about it?
I am also taking an astronomy class at the same time and often I find these two subjects playing off each other. I am learning about stars and galaxies, dark matter and black holes. Did you know the universe is connected? It is as if it were veins in the body, or a convoluted road map. You could actually travel from one galaxy to the next if you followed the starry connections. You could go all the way back to the beginning.
As I travel from star birth to galaxy formation, I am also travelling backwards to my own beginning. How was I formed? What dark matter resides in me? What black holes are lurking, occasionally spewing forth streams of energy? I am looking for these answers because the literature class is an African-American one, and I have come to understand that the particular shape of my life has been formed by blackness, and reactions to it, almost as much as by whiteness. I am reading things by people I have heard of, but have never read before. I quickly come to realize that I should have read much of this before, and why I haven’t is one spark I discover in understanding how I was formed.
Despite taking 4 years of English classes in high school, and being an avid reader, I graduated having read only 3 books by black authors, and by the time I was 30, it was only up to 4. (By the time I had turned 35 the number was much higher.) “After much analysis,” I wrote in one of my responses, “I am forced to conclude that the point, or, a point, of my education was to convince me that black life is uninteresting and unnecessary.” This point may be the hydrogen in my life; the most abundant element in my universe.
I had been prepared to take my survey of black literature under the assumption that it was ‘literature written not for me, but I can appreciate it.’ But there is a difference between appreciating, appropriating, and flat out ignoring. And even all of those are separate from learning from it, and being open to being changed by it. When I started, I did not know how the readings were going to crack open my shell and force me to turn my gaze inward, to see just what elements I contain in my core. In a class about black writers, I was not expecting to meet myself.
But there, in the first week of class, I watched as on page 72 of Black Boy, Richard Wright described a series of thoughts and actions that can only be considered dissociative behavior, arising from trauma. In an instant, I was reliving 15 years of my life, and no one else in my class would say that he was traumatized. They did not see the blatant abuse and the hypervigilance that I saw. Maybe, in the same way that I can only find 3 constellations in the sky, we only see the patterns we know to look for.
There is something that James Baldwin said in the last interview he ever gave: “But you can’t do anything with America unless you are willing to dissect it.” I know now that dissection is the rhythm I have been repeating. I am tearing apart the pieces that make me up, looking at them, examining up close where they come from, and deciding what I should throw out, what to keep, what to replace. My past collides with the present, and I am overwhelmed with the force and the brightness of it. If self-awareness could be plotted on a chart, what would its luminosity be? If the temperature gets hot enough, will the impurities burn away? What is that final push that causes a star to explode?
In the play, A Raisin in the Sun, by Lorraine Hansberry, there is a line about cockroaches in the apartment, and this, I realize, is another key to my whiteness. When I was a kid, we lived in a city that was poor and black, and in our house, we had roaches. Big ones. Shiny ones, gross and fast. But rather than accept them as a way of life, as the Youngers do in the play, we were ashamed of them. My parents hired an exterminator, who turned out to have an excellent way of staying in business – remember to shake out a few fresh bugs from your pockets before you leave the house. But next time, don’t let the homeowners see you. A line from the play says “There ain’t nothing but taking in this world, and he who takes most is smartest,” and in my essay, as I wrote about how we moved from that city, I said, “Well, they might be taking, but they aren’t going to take from us anymore. We were not the sort of people who lived with roaches. We might be poor, but by god we would not be shamed by what was beneath us.”
Then I realized that I had not just written about cockroaches, but about whiteness and supremacy. This is the sort of thing I had learned as a child, without even knowing I was in class.
One of the things I am learning is that literature and history cannot be divided into us and them; they cannot be segregated. The history of something like the Black Panthers and the FBI is not something that can be split down the middle, where black people get the bad half of the story and white people the good. They are like fusion, merged together, and the story of one is the story of both. When we learn to recognize the shape of the world, it becomes, like a galaxy or constellation, easier to recognize when we see it again.
Astronomers from around the world just spent several days pointing several telescopes towards the center of the Milky Way. They are hoping by combining their efforts, they will have a strong enough vision to see the so far unseeable black hole at the center of our galaxy. The results will take months to analyze. What would happen if white people turned that same sort of long gaze on our own center? What might we learn when we discover what gravitational forces we orbit around?
History tells us that patterns repeat, and both literature and science are teaching me that we see the patterns we have been trained to see. Astronomers use information they gather from stars close to us, to find stars far from us, by finding matching patterns. The universe has a logic, and so does the shape of our lives. I am underwhelmed when I look through a telescope, because I have not been trained in understanding the significance of what I am seeing. But if the rhythm of these past few months have taught me anything, it is that, like the astronomers who are constantly developing new techniques to improve their vision, so we too can create new ways to see ourselves.