The following is from a series of musings on trauma, memory, community, and place. The introduction to the series and beginning essay [link] explains the purpose of this month of entries.
I remember during Christmas growing up Santa Claus would make the rounds on a truck from the volunteer fire department.
I appreciate now how central such organizations were to local community.
Before they were privatized.
There were ten in my township alone.
I have extended family that staffed them.
I have immediate family that celebrated marriage in their halls.
I fondly remember the idea that Santa showed up not on a sleigh, but with sirens wailing.
I recall one year we missed the arrival of Santa on his red ladder truck.
We were inconsolable.
My father piled us into the station wagon to hunt down a mall version.
Or a vague facsimile who would act as a valid Santa stand-in.
Although it was late and the malls were rather far away.
At the very edges of our town was a Hess gas station.
More or less on the wrong side of the tracks.
After the outlying strip malls had killed our main street.
My father spied a rather shabby Santa in the office there.
For us this was going to have to do.
My brothers and sister were oblivious.
But I was enthralled beyond belief.
Santa Claus was a black man.
I was speechless with awe.
We entered quietly.
We greeted Santa.
Wide-eyed, and very shyly.
Then I saw Him.
On the clock, eyes cast heavenward:
A Black Jesus.
It was as if time stood stock-still.
We got our candy canes, recounted our wishes, and were back home soon enough, quite unaware of the connection of this trip to the toy Hess trucks that we would receive as presents later that week.
My father once told me that Jesus (blessings upon Him) was likely more my color given His place of birth.
The idea of multiple Jesuses of various hues was impossible to process.
Especially given the pinkish crayon in the Crayola box definitively labeled: “flesh”.
I should point out that the question my father was asked by relatives upon informing them of my adoption was: “What color is he?”
The first question I was asked by a classmate in first grade was: “Why are you brown?”
Up until this point I had no sense of myself in these terms.
In my Catholic high school the lone black girl ended up committing suicide.
There was a convocation in her memory but otherwise we didn’t discuss it.
This haunts me to this day.
In my Catholic high school we had a “Roots” day.
I wore red, white, and green to school, and pinned a piece of cedar to my tie.
I made an absolute fool of myself, in other words.
In my public high school we voted for “Most All-American” in the senior-year poll.
Those were the days of being “preppy”.
Which one could be by following the “handbook”.
As if it were this easy.
So offensive, and on so many levels.
In the English language there are no pejorative terms to describe the dominant racial identification.
None that truly carries any weight, that is.
In this regard black Santa and black Jesus were intensely eye-opening.
A reclaiming of place in no negligible terms.
In retrospect, the concept of attempting to fit in to the dominant mode in such an obviously incorrect way pains me immensely.
And yet the skinny man in red suit and white beard was no less welcoming.
I give my father credit in this regard.
For the anti-Irish racism he grew up with, as well as the racialized city he grew up in, he managed to keep most of that well under wraps.
This made for much in the way of what we now refer to as “colorblindness”.
But on some level I find this appreciably more palatable than over-attention to the subject.
When such over-attention becomes, in and of itself, racist in form and manner.
What passes for multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism today are basically the musings of those of a particular and self-similar class celebrating their arrival on top.
Looking down on and forgetting all those beneath them.
Who are ghettoized into History Months, iconically miniaturized onto Postage Stamps, as well as catalogued and collected for extermination in ethnic studies departments.
How do the wretched, the damned, the condemned, manage to survive?
I ask this as I manage to come close–based on those around me on any given day in Beirut–to at the very least imagine what might have been my life here.
All things considered, I’m hard-pressed to find anything “better” about my adopted life.
I state this as an emotionless fact, and considering the qualitative over the quantitative.
Which is given too much emphasis in this kind of horrid comparison.
It is quite essential for the survival of humankind that we put to rest the hideous idea of a “better life”.
It is absolutely necessary after 500 long years of such thinking that we set aside loathsome concepts of “salvation”.
For those most in need of “saving” are those who see themselves as Saviors.
Woefully removed from reality.
Trauma, when collectively dealt with, allows us to live.
Trauma, when individually dealt with, confines us to a living Hell.
This is the price we pay for our so-called bourgeois freedoms.
If we buy into this state of affairs, we really can’t complain about anything.
To give up such “freedoms” is in fact to find a truer liberty.
Every aspect of collective society within such cultures are targeted for annihilation.
From the Amish to Unions and back again.
This is not an opinion, but a statement of historical fact.
This has become ingrained in the culture.
Which is now found guilty of aiding and abetting such attempted exterminations.
This goes far to explain the visceral and hateful reaction that condemns adoptees for their “self-hawking” online.
You know, placing posts on those Facebook sites with pictures of themselves holding signs that explain minute details of their lives that might join them to another’s recollection of their very existence.
In the hopes of finding reunion with mothers and family, with community and place.
A returning “Home With Honor”.
In and of itself, this is an amazing political reclamation of the Orphan Train block, the Slavery advertisement, and the re-homing notice.
Relying instead on a community of the like-minded.
Searching for a place that claims back.
Communal efforts such as this will always be condemned.
Destructive individualizing efforts, on the other hand, will always be condoned.
This further explains the allowance and over-mediation of the sad spectacle of individuals assembled to publicly emote at nationalized tragedies.
When day-to-day violences and tragedies go unnoticed.
It should be exactly the other way around.
Until such a time that society itself takes on the collective burden of trauma, there can be no hope.
This will not be accomplished by asking kindly.
This will not be accomplished by cajoling, or speaking correctly.
This will not be accomplished by kowtowing, compradoring, Uncle-Tomming; colonizing our minds or our selves.
And so I want no part in any such efforts.
The critical mass to enforce change on such societies obviously has not been reached yet.
We will need much patience in the face of such adversity.
A steadfastness that goes above and beyond the call to duty.
In the meantime, we can temper the roaring fires of our anger.
That risk to consume us wholesale.
Mistakenly seen as self-obsessed.
But in fact a wrath in the face of injustice.
Which includes narcissistic projections upon us.
We can filter the offenses that stoke such a conflagration.
We can acknowledge them and silently fluoresce as red-hot ember.
Glowing softly, burning slowly with evident warning.
Growing hotter in the face of attempts to extinguish us.
Confident in the bursting flame that awaits such efforts.
And resting secure in this knowledge.
Our Extinctor Indēfatīgābilis is hereby put on notice.
Image: Art workshop with Juan Fuentes | Date: March, 2010 | Place: Bourj Al-Barajneh Palestinian camp, Beirut | Camera: Digital | Credit: Amany Al-Sayeed | Caption: The activist/artist Juan Fuentes visited us in Beirut, and we held a workshop in the camp while he was here. We would learn later that our intermediary NGO was reviled in the camp for their misappropriation of funds; beyond our control the visit was mediated in a way we wished to avoid. The distrust of the young people in the camp was palpable; so many wishing to “help” come stampeding through the camps for their media ops or street cred or college credit. It was when Juan started to speak of his life experience that things changed. He spoke of his grandparents who were Mexicans until the Mexican-American war made them Texans. He described a life lived in migrant labor camps. He told us of his father who died prematurely because of the pesticide spraying from planes above that he endured in the fields. He evoked the wall now being built across the now-border. As these words–“war”, “camp”, “planes”, “wall”–were translated into Arabic, the faces of the young people changed, and tensions dissipated. They sensed they were not alone. And that their issues were shared globally. This is our only exit as adoptees from our situation: a sharing of our burden; a seeking of common cause.