Unless one is born into an interracial family, most of us can remember the first occasions when we mingled with others outside of our race. I had no significant experience with non-black people until my college years. Of course, there were casual exchanges during my childhood and teenage years with teachers, a few camp counselors, the occasional store clerks, banking staff and other professionals. But there were no ongoing relationships where we got to know each other, exchanged personal information, or swapped funny stories. My first real introduction to the cultural world of American whites happened via television programming.
I was a mere adolescent the first time I saw The Godfather — I’ve lost count of how many dozens of times I’ve seen it since — and to this day it remains one of my all time, favorite movies. Pictured is the scene where Michael, played by Al Pacino, says to his brother, I know it was you, Fredo. You broke my heart. You broke my heart! These uttered lines referenced Fredo’s betrayal because he had fingered Michael for an assassination attempt on Michael’s life by a competing mafia family. In other words, Fredo sold his brother out. Even as a twelve year old, I knew that was one of the most powerful and intense scenes in the whole movie.
Why was a youngster like me watching a movie as violent The Godfather? Well, I was what was known back then as a latchkey kid. Both parents worked so I wore a key on a string around my neck like a necklace, and as the oldest of three, I let us all into our apartment every day after school, taking care of snacks and warming up dinner pre-cooked by our mother the night before.
Television was our babysitter, not only during afterschool hours, but at night and on weekends too. Other than special occasions like birthdays and holidays or if one of us got into trouble at school, our parents weren’t the type to engage us in discussions. They didn’t know how to do that— having extended conversations with their children, asking about days at school, sharing parental wisdom during teachable moments or having conversations with us during dinner. Our family life wasn’t like that. Verbal abuse and violent beatings, these were the tools used to parent in our household.
Despite growing up in a somewhat ethnically mixed community, made up of Jewish, Italian and Latino families, the majority of my neighbors and schoolmates were black. Thanks to The Godfather, Italians were the first group of white people I ever fell in love with, although some Italians might bristle at the thought of such a movie being perceived as an accurate depiction of their culture. Nevertheless, I became enamored of Italians because of The Godfather. The movie oriented me to a fierce and loyal kind of family love which, in my adolescence, I knew nothing about. Ok, yes it also introduced me to violent underpinnings which grew an illegal empire in a fictitious mafia family, but given my orientation to the world at the hands of abusive parents, the lure of the movie made sense.
I thrilled at watching television outlaws shoot people, raining down their fury in bullet hails, trashing cars, trashing merchandise, even buildings and their contents, punching, kicking and beating the crap out of anyone who crossed them. And if my parents were among the numerous Americans who happen to be law-abiding,— an image they worked hard to project in their outer lives — all the more reason for a kid like me to love a movie like The Godfather.
Then the inevitable happened: I grew up. And by growing up I’m not talking about turning eighteen or turning twenty-one. I mean over time I began to notice happenings in the American culture which I had failed to notice as a young person coming of age in a fairly homogenous minority suburb. Racially charged incidents were often unfolding, appearing as news stories on television, although I had yet to know anyone in such circumstances. I saw the people in news stories as strangers unconnected to my life. Even as my social network grew wider, I was so busy drinking, I kept failing to notice the racial tensions and its potential ripple in my direction.
Sure, I encountered the occasional bigotry of random white strangers, but they were so far and few between, and my active alcoholism was still so soothing — crashing and burning hadn’t befell me yet — I tuned it out, I had problems closer to home to deal with. I was an alcoholic in a bad marriage raising two kids. For years I blithely ignored the pervasive and growing racial tensions across our country, even in my initial years of sobriety. Because by now, during the college years, I had already been introduced to the black struggle movement. I had eagerly embraced the knowledge, tried to keep up with the positions of a few radical friends. But once college was done, motherhood and family life quickly took it’s place. While I was busy botching those responsibilities, I lost touch with my brief attempts at fighting against the establishment.
In later adulthood, when I ultimately placed a healthy distance between the parents and myself — because eventually I would understand how dysfunctional our family life actually was and their refusal to change became too toxic to stay close — I became desperate for utopian friendships, especially the ones with non-black people. My initial orientation to black relationships began with angry parents who caused hurt. I wanted to prove those parents wrong about life. I wanted to show them that relationships didn’t have to be so hard, show them that relationships could actually be delightful and gratifying. After so many years of being babysat by television shows displaying countless smiling white people — even the violent ones appeared to get along well with the people they were depicted as loving — I thought more than any other cultural group, I could find a happy ending with them. I would be wrong on a few levels about that.
I was what we black folks affectionately — even if sarcastically — describe as a hot mess. I was so broken on the inside, my outside antennas were often too spastic to generate sensible decisions. Soaking my brain in alcohol for twenty-five years only made matters worse. As with most people who come from painful family experiences, friendships became the substitute for my fragmented family ties. The only problem with that was, having no examples of healthy relationships, I struggled. I was better at leaving friendships than I was at sticking around and sustaining them. That nugget of wisdom was gleaned in sobriety.
As if understanding my repeated failings were not enough, sobriety also took my new enlightenment to a deeper level. I have been friends with some truly beautiful people, black, white and other ethnicities. Many of my friends have been such amazing and loving people, I can only explain their presence in a life like mine as divine intervention: angels embodied or angels facilitating connections. Some friends disappeared from my life because I abandoned the relationship; others drifted through geographic change, new life seasons or we simply lost touch. Fortunately some of the angels are still in my life — I married the best one of them!
Here’s what I didn’t count on …..
Waking from an alcoholic slumber in middle-age to a country — its society existing 152 years post-slavery — that can’t seem to get its white supremacist terrorists under control. I thought my parents broke my heart? It seems that was only a warm up for living in place where blacks like me live day to day vulnerably exposed to the possibility of random, racially charged danger. America is known the world over as a super-power, possessing the strongest military power on the planet and is self-proclaimed as a land of opportunity. This industrious country also known for its exemplary democracy, its scientific and technological achievements, this same America doesn’t know how to curtail its own domestic terrorism and random “accidental” shootings by police? I don’t believe it.
It’s a heartbreak. It’s a heartbreak to realize the place you call home does not feel safe. And the deeper heartbreak for me is the new strain I feel in my friendships with white people. They didn’t stop being the beautiful people known to me. But when you’re in a friendship where one friend suffers via their ties to racial strife, whilst the other doesn’t, and the only way to sustain a pleasurable friendship is for said sufferer to suffer quietly so as not to disturb the life of the one unaffected by racial happenings (and pretentious living is dead to me forever) ….. it gets awkward.
In sobriety — a mere seven sober years — I have been connecting the dots of my American life to America’s history. I am becoming a woman who can no longer pretend by going along to get along. I still love America, she is my beautiful home, even with all her ugly parts.
Today I say this to her …
Hey America, you continue in breaking my heart on occasion, even while you also make this same heart sing happily with opportunities and bounty of which we all partake. Alas, I am becoming the type of woman who sticks around and is willing to fight to sustain her loving relationships. When I was still drinking, I would have wanted you and I to meet the same end as Fredo for betraying his brother. But sobriety inspires a new leaf in my thinking, so I want to help us figure things out. Like it or not, as a society, we’re going to have to talk and work through all of our private angst together. It’s already happening. We just need more of your participation. Capiche?
We can not solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.