It will come as no surprise to you that we're top-notch when it comes to denouncing barbarism -- as long as it's theirs. So the responses here to the horrific burning to death of a Jordanian pilot by the Islamic State -- the definition of an act of barbarism -- were suitably indignant and horrified. Unfortunately, when it comes to our own barbarism, we turn out to be a tad weaker, whether you're talking about torture, horrific abuses, the killing of prisoners and of innocents, or the deaths of children by drone ("collateral damage") across the Greater Middle East.
So I have to admit with some embarrassment that, when I heard of the fate of that Jordanian pilot, my mind ran first to Medieval Europe, to the burning of Joan of Arc, as our president's thoughts evidently ran to barbaric acts involved in the Crusades. He made mention of this at a recent National Prayer Breakfast, for which he was savaged by his critics. As Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal put it, "We will be happy to keep an eye out for runaway Christians, but it would be nice if he would face the reality of the situation today. The Medieval Christian threat is under control, Mr. President. Please deal with the radical Islamic threat today."
Let's admit that Jindal has a point about such ancient history. When it comes to a commitment to death-by-fire, the Islamic State is hardly alone and you don't have to reach back to medieval Europe for examples. After all, we live in the country that, in World War II, developed and first used napalm, an incendiary whose special "anti-personnel" advantage is that it sticks to human skin while burning. But that, too, is ancient history. (So Korea, so Vietnam!) In Iraq, the U.S. military used far more powerful bombs that were meant to burn up enemy troops en masse, not to speak of the incendiary capabilities of white phosphorus shells sent into urban areas where civilians were still living. In Pakistan and Yemen, we might well be discussing the inflammatory properties of the aptly named Hellfire missile that the CIA's drones often use in their assassination campaigns.
Once White in America
Raising Black Sons in a White Country
By Jane Lazarre
It was 1969 and 1973, both times in early fall, when I first saw your small bodies, rose and tan, and fell in love for the second and third time with a black body , as it is named, for my first love was for your father. Always a word lover, I loved his words, trustworthy, often not expansive, sometimes even sparse, but always reliable and clear. How I -- a first-generation Russian-Jewish girl -- loved clarity! Reliable words -- true words, measured words, filled with fascinating new life stories, drawing me down and in. The second and third times I fell in love with black bodies I became a black body, not Black, but black in a way I'd say without shame and some humor, for mine is dark tan called white. But I am the carrier, I am the body who carried them, released on a river of blood.
Am I black in a cop's hands when he is pushing, pressing hard for dope or a gun or a rope or a knife or a fist? I am not a black body, yet my body is somehow, somewhere, theirs -- Trayvon's, Emmett's, thousands more at the end of a rope's tight murderous swing, black as a night stick splits my head, shatters my chest , black as a boy not yet a man walking toward a man with a gun, suddenly shot dead, a just-become man walking down the stairs toward a gun , black as a tall man, a big man, looking strong but pleading for his breath, killed by choking arms and bodies piled on top of his head.
On Writing/Being White
Once I wrote a story -- a black man named Samuel, enslaved in Maryland's western shore, 1863 -- I drew him in words. His death was terrible and vicious, his body dismembered by the man who called him property, the crime -- impregnating the man's daughter -- a woman I called Louisa. I named her in part for a strong friend I wanted to conjure by my side as I wrote, but she was based on a real-life young woman who lived in actual history, a woman named Jane, the same name as my own.
Samuel's death was so brutal I had trouble reading my own words out loud, or even to myself at times, though I had written them: a slow dismemberment, piece by precious human piece, this nearly unspeakable violence also taken from reality, a horrific reality I had read about in books on torture during slavery, an image that refused to leave my mind, especially in the dark or when I closed my eyes.
I want to reverse the meanings of the song I heard sung last month, after hundreds of listenings to old records, then CDs, this time by Audra McDonald who sounded so like Billie whose songs she was singing, whose gardenia she played with, on and off, on and off her thick black hair, whose drink she drank, put down, sipped again, whose graceful walk she walked, but sometimes wobbled, nearly falling, whose pain and anger she spoke in shouts and whispers about nightclubs and shameful insults, haunting memories and whites-only bathrooms when you very badly need to pee, of desertions and abandonments of many kinds, Audra singing such perfect Billie you could swear you were in the club hearing Billie Holiday's tones, soft and low to contrast with the terrible words echoing through time, from mind to body to mind.
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth...
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.
Their newborn silken flesh, the deep sea eyes, the graceful mouth; the first time I saw their faces, rose and tan, wide-staring eyes, one, then a few years later the other, hearing their father's sigh of relief and cry of joy, the long, hard labors over, once, then twice, and me smiling and alive.
I captured and preserved these words in another story:
I mean, you know, what color am I? Really? Am I black like you?
Yes, son, you are Black, like me.
Black men, body and mind, in this white, white country I write and rewrite.
It was Mississippi, he was just my age and I was scared, and angry...
It is Staten Island, New York...
It is Ferguson, Missouri...
No one indicted, no one held to blame.
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We chanted loud, Women in Black, United Nations Plaza, 1999, calling out slowly the times Amadou Diallo was shot for pulling out his wallet. His mother's voice in the vestibule where he was murdered, crying out his name -- Amadou, Amadou -- again and again and again.
Jane Lazarre is a prize-winning writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her most recent novel is Inheritance. Other novels include Some Place Quite Unknown, The Powers of Charlotte , and Worlds Beyond My Control . Her memoirs include The Mother Knot, On Loving Men , Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons, Wet Earth , and Dreams: A Narrative of Grief and Recovery . She is currently working on a memoir about her father, The Communist and the Communist's Daughter . For more, go to JaneLazarre.com.
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Copyright 2015 Jane Lazarre