All I Know About Race
All I know about race in America could fit in a tiny-size gelato from
That’s where I just took a dozen kids with two other volunteers as
part of a
field trip for children who lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina and
now live with their families in an extended-stay hotel in Austin. For
of them the journey began about a month ago in their New Orleans homes
rain that made the lights go out.
All of them are African-American. The girls wear their hair in complex
braids. The boys, except the ones still dressed by their mothers, wear
with crotches hanging low. Many of their names are hard for me to
some are hard to even sort out into letters of the alphabet. Shalonda,
Shameeka, Roshaan, or rarely, William. If someone were to ask them, they
would think riding in a white lady’s car is about as strange as
But maybe they’re getting used to all the white ladies (and men) who
with their parents at computers in the resource room or bring them toys
take them out for pizza on a rainy day.
The wind and water have mixed things up. What used to be separate is
some places, mixed.
How else would I find myself in the hotel room of Jermaine, a nineteen-year-old
African-American boy from New Orleans? A blanket emblazoned with Porche
huge letters, apparently a donation he found for himself at one of the
shelters along the way, is neatly arranged over the hotel bedspread. I
in a nearby chair to interview him. I am there to confirm a story one of
aunts told me. She says he waded in chest-high water to find a boat and
saved his entire family and then came back to save complete strangers.
skin is dark, so dark that in the dusky light of a single lamp when he
forward into the shadows his features blend into silhouette. Built like
off-season football player, Jermaine has a fringe of dreadlocks framing
round face. His smile is huge and comes easily. Except when I press
him—about why he dropped out of school in 10th grade, for instance. He
down at the carpet as if it has answers. He shakes his braids and says
made choices and his voice drifts off. He says he had to get a job to
support his mother and siblings. When I ask if his neighborhood had
and violence and whether that had anything to do with his not getting a
diploma. He laughs. I mean, he really laughs. I’m sitting on a chair
from him and he’s on the edge of his bed still laughing. When he looks
finally tells me the punch line: “Lady, there is drugs and violence in
poor black neighborhood!” He has three wishes: to see his baby niece
to get his GED, and to live in a house with all thirty members of his family
that made it to this single place in Austin. Of these, we can grant him
one—he’s in his second week of a program that gives him a job and
him to earn his diploma. As I leave I tell him he’s a hero—he
press again, telling him not everyone would do what he did. This time
he looks up from the carpet his eyes are wet. I shake his big hand and
walks me to the door.
This hurricane had a strange power—not only to level brick buildings
uproot ancient trees—but also to remove the barriers behind which
and race hide.
In many ways we are not alike. I live in a land where people drive cars,
work a usually 9-5ish job, have one or two kids after the age of 30,
credit cards, cell phones, health insurance, go on vacation, practice a
sport or somehow try to stay fit, and worry about things like insurance,
401k’s and who’s dating Brad Pitt.
In the world Jermaine left, no one had a car, they just used the bus. Mom
at the nursing home and Dad did warehouse work. Or maybe Mom was gone or
and Grandma took their place. The houses were falling down and crowded.
Girls had children early and finishing high school was optional. And
there’s hair products.
For a day or so after the hurricane, reporters used the word "refugees."
someone protested, explaining the definition: people taking refuge from
foreign country in turmoil. But refugee may be the best word.
For many people I’ve met Katrina, is
defining event—not just the disaster that stripped them of their homes
belongings and friends, but a sort of exodus. Take Shalanda, a
twenty-something woman who has fought drug addiction for six years.
been in and out of rehab and when clean always fought the desire to
to using. But she said Katrina changed that. For the first time her life
purpose. She believes she was brought to Texas for a reason. She just
a dining room table and a couch at Salvation Army.
Two weeks after the hurricane, after working with evacuees a lot, I
all night of a long line of black families streaming by. A few days
realized I’d never dreamed of so many blacks before.
I think race is what sex was before the pill, meaning I think it’s the
thing that has not been fully examined and owned in our society.
Today, before the ice cream field trip, I attended a barbeque and
celebration for the hurricane families (the shorthand name we use which
outside political correctness because it’s so easy to understand)
the Art of Living Foundation. This international group of volunteers
meditation to disaster survivors around the world. They’ve been
breathing and relaxation techniques to people at the hotel in the
and many have said it helps them sleep. The group’s leader, an Indian
with flowing hair and a gentle smile—a dead ringer for Jesus
the crowd who had been wooed with New Orleans jazz and barbeque. He said
that Katrina had taken their homes but they couldn’t let it take their
smiles. One boy, about ten-years-old, wandered around with a drawing pad
sketching a portrait of the wise man. Then the guru met with the
oldest resident, a 103-year-old man who had been a bishop in his gospel
church. The two stood in the doorway with the afternoon light streaming
around them—the old man seated in a wheel chair and the foreigner in diaphanous
white robes. I wanted to take a picture but the strong back
was too bright. Instead I watched them, two figures bleached of all
standing in white light. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to see when
When the kids get too loud, as a dozen kids will, we take them outside
finish their ice cream. A little girl offers forth her tiny white spoon
me to taste. Watermelon sorbet. She is full of glee that it tastes
like the fruit. I open my mouth and take in her offering. I hate
But somehow this cold spot melting on my tongue tastes like a sweet
leaf. No one wonders why three white women are bringing a dozen
into a gelato bar. For now, the barriers that keep us separate have been
breached. For now, there is no color except watermelon pink.
Robin Bradford, an award-winning
short story writer and essayist, has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer
Train, and many other places. You can find her in two new
anthologies -- Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood and Three-Ring-Circus:
How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work and Family. Bradford works
as a communications and development director for a nonprofit affordable
housing provider in Austin. She lives with her husband and son, three
cats and a dog in a tiny fifties house. Being the mother—of a child
over the age of three!—is the best thing that ever happened to her.
Contact her at motherload @ austinmama.com And visit her site at www.robinbradford.net