Season’s greetings from Purgatory

December 26th, 2010

On this day that marks the completion of the annual retail event which is the rock upon which modern America hath builded its church, I had planned to offer you some finely honed observations about This Special Season.  But I find that they’re not finely honed enough, and anyway today my thoughts are running in another direction.  I’m recalling an evening in my senior year at Middlebury College, when I was given the nicest compliment that anyone has ever paid me.

A southern writer had come to campus to give a talk, and afterward he and the American literature professor who was his host and a gaggle of us students repaired to the professor’s teeny apartment downtown in the Battell Block.  The visiting writer’s subject was race relations.  The room was warm.  Beverages flowed freely, and soon so did the conversation.

It came to a head when my classmate Calvin went around the room, pointing to each and every occupant and describing with devastating accuracy and directness that person’s racial attitudes, spoken or unspoken.  It added to the impact that Calvin was a very large black man of somewhat fierce demeanor.  It added further that he was one of only two or three black people in a very crowded room.  He nailed us, one by one, all of us, never flinching.  “Guilty liberal” is the epithet I remember most clearly, probably because he used it most often.  In his mouth it was not a term of approbation.  I don’t recall exactly what he called the several people whom he identified as racist, but suffice it to say he was blunt.  Middlebury is a small community, everyone in that room knew everyone else (except of course the southern writer, who was very quiet during this phase of the evening), and the inarguable justice of Calvin’s judgments was apparent.  It was both thrilling and exquisitely uncomfortable, and an act of extraordinary bravery.  When he got to me, Calvin paused for a moment.  He said, “You?  I don’t have any idea where you’re coming from.”  Then he moved on.

I am of course very proud of this moment, having been called out as someone with no identifiable racial attitudes, but I’m not bringing it up just to tell you how wonderful I am.  What’s interesting is that nobody – ever – followed up on it.  You’d think, in a group of people sincerely and passionately committed to diagnosing and moving beyond racism, even if only for that moment, somebody would pause to consider the case presented before them of a person who seemingly had leaped off the continuum of this particular psycho-socio-pathology.  I’m kind of glad they didn’t.  I would not have enjoyed being subjected to that kind of attention, and I’m pretty sure that, in my then stage of development, I probably would not have been able to say anything very enlightening, and I am afraid that, having heard whatever it was I might have said, Calvin would have been tempted to revise his evaluation.  Still, how fascinating that even this highly intelligent, sensitive, and motivated group of people could not see an opportunity to move out of the ruts of ordinary discourse, even when that opportunity was sitting there among them and pointed out to them as such by the alpha male present.  They – well, I should say “we,” really, because I missed the opportunity as much as anyone – spent the rest of the evening returning to comfort by scratching known itches, instead of striking off into an exploration of the unknown, even though the unknown – that is, a world without racism – was precisely where, if you had asked, any of us would have said we wanted to go.

Christmas, it seems to me, is supremely a festival of scratching known itches.  (Wow, so that’s my subject after all!)  May we all be alert in the coming year to the examples life will present us, face to face, of other, better ways to live it.  May we examine them for what they may teach us, but not so closely as to do them damage.  Namaste.

This entry was posted on Sunday, December 26th, 2010 at 7:39 pm and is filed under society. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

Leave a Reply