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The Sorrowful Violence of Racism

Heather King - published on 07/29/14

Fear and loathing haunt the deserted streets of a Southern city.

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Several years ago, in the throes of existential crisis, I packed up my ’96 Celica, left L.A., and embarked on a cross-country road trip. I stayed at Motel 6’es and Super 8’s and, in one mid-sized Southern city, at a joint where, from the lobby, I had to drive around the block to the back, lug my bags through the parking lot, let myself in through the locked side door to a grotty elevator, and drag my belongings the length of about a 100-yard hall. The room was supposedly non-smoking but reeked of smoke down to the torn dust ruffle and flimsy sheets, which smelled like they’d served as filtering rags in a Marlboro factory.

I’d stayed in worse places—I’d lived in worse places—and the room itself was clean. Besides, according to the gal who’d checked me in, coffeehouses and bookstores were but a short walk away. I would scout out the environs on foot, I decided; scout out a secluded bench on which to ponder and pray. Down on the street, however, nothing much good seemed to be happening around the hotel: people making out over the hoods of their cars; a gal screaming obscenities into her phone. And no sooner did I embark on my stroll than the hulking black man who’d been hanging out up the street began hissing at me: Ssss-t, ssss-t.

I am far from one of those women who think every guy is on the make, but I draw the line at hissing. I ignored him and strode purposefully on, but he kept at it: this large, youngish black guy in work clothes, hissing in the rudest, most insistent imaginable manner. Thinking to lose him I took a right at the corner. Instead, he not only followed, but hissed again! Finally I stopped, whirled around, and said, “WHAAAAAAAT??!!”

“How’s it goin’.’” Calm. Measured.

“Fine,” I replied, and kept walking.

He didn’t hiss any more. But after I’d walked a few more blocks, and realized he was still following me, a strange sensation crept up my spine. I have walked all over creation—countryside, cities, drunk, sober, often at night, almost always alone—and I can’t say I’d ever felt really afraid: but I was afraid now. It was dark, in this historic Southern town, with old barbershops and soda fountains and lamplights, and the streets, it suddenly came to me, were utterly deserted, with any number of dark, deserted alleys cutting in from both sides.

At one point I stopped, and re-traced my steps to look into the window of a dress shop, and there he was, standing at the end of the street: the only other person on the block, just standing there, in a circle of lamplight, looking at me.

Not to break into a run took everything I had, and for some reason, I thought, go to the church. I knew where the church was; I’d ordered my trip with daily Mass, and had driven by let’s call it Immaculate Heart Cathedral, first thing upon arriving so I’d know how to get to Mass in the morning. On the way several cars slowed, and the drivers muttered dark comments, and every block or so, I began to see another guy, sitting in the dark on a wall or a bench.

On the main drag, right near the church, two more came toward me, two black men talking to each other whose eyes hardened as they drew near. I looked into their faces, and began to smile in greeting, but they brushed past me, not looking at me, not making room. “Spin on this,” one said in a low voice—viciously, off-handedly—the way one might flick a flea off one’s sleeve, and resumed talking to his friend.

I was slow to absorb what had happened. I’d never felt such implacable, impersonal, bone-deep, rage; never felt the dark, hot heart of what I realized wonderingly was racism. In the city, racial hatred is more sublimated, impersonal; I’d naïvely never understood that racism was still so alive in the South. I looked up at the top of the church, but the cross was silent. I placed my palm against the stone wall, still warm from the dying sun, but the stones gave no comfort. When I got really still, my heart ached with every beat, a physical hurt, as if everything that was tenderest and most vulnerable in me were being beaten with a cudgel. What are you trying to do? I thought. Are you running toward or away from? What do you think you’re going to find on this trip?

I made my way back to the hotel and, up in my room, crawled slowly, numbly into bed with a newspaper I’d picked up weeks before at the Catholic Worker house in L.A. One article was about Ben Salmon, an American CO who’d been imprisoned, and for all intents and purposes tortured, during WWI. In a 1917 letter to his local draft board, Salmon had written:

“Let those that believe in wholesale violation of the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” make a profession of their faith by joining the army of war… . I am in the army of Peace, and in this army I intend to live and die. …”

“The army of Peace.”… I couldn’t stop thinking of that black guy who’d followed me. Not that I wanted to stupidly put myself in harm’s way, but now I sort of wished I’d been able to turn around and say, Can I help you, my friend? Now I wished I could have said, I’m just out for a walk, do you want to walk with me? If I’d been more evolved, maybe I could have, but I’d been afraid of someone who was wandering around on a Sunday night so hungry for whatever he was hungry for.

I hadn’t been afraid of his blackness; I’d been afraid of his insistence, his desperation, his loneliness. I was lonely, too, and maybe it’s only because we know how desperate our own loneliness makes us that we’re afraid of another’s. We’re hard on each other in this world; we’re afraid of each other and the fear makes us hard and cruel and wary.  

Now I sort of wished we could have sat down together, this stranger and me.

I turned off the light and, as the searchlight beamed through the chintzy drapes, thought of Psalm 39:

Lord, turn your ear to my cry.
Do not be deaf to my tears.
In your house I am a passing guest,
a pilgrim, like all my fathers.
Look away that I may breathe again
before I depart to be no more.

Heather Kingis a Catholic convert, sober alcoholic, and writer whose most recent book is STRIPPED: Cancer, Culture and The Cloud of Unknowing. She speaks nationwide and blogs at Heather King: Mystery, Smarts, Laughs. For more, see her new About page.

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