We may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world
~ James Baldwin.
I came to Arizona in the late 1980s. Something of a cliché, considered part of the “brain drain,” I was a well-educated immigrant who had over-stayed her welcome in America and subsequently found a waitressing job. With my Northern Ireland accent and the right amount of naiveté about Arizona, I was the main source of amusement for many of the men who stopped by for a beer after their shift at a nearby manufacturing plant. Young and fearless, I charmed them with what they considered an Irish brogue, and the more alcohol I served them, the more they wanted to tell me all about their Irish roots.
In the mornings, the bar was quiet, with only a few customers coming in after clocking out of the graveyard shift. One of them was Cliff. He was tall and handsome with a million dollar smile, and he was black. Like the other regulars, he teased me about my accent, asking endless questions about Ireland, if it was really that green over there or if I ate Lucky charms for breakfast or used Irish Spring soap. But most of all, how could it be that a nice girl like me with a college education was working in a dump like this?
One morning, Cliff showed up while the bartender was providing a hasty tutorial on how to make cocktails. She had decided it was high time I graduated from serving beer in colored cans to making mixed drinks, and by 10 o’clock that morning, I had a long row of dubious cocktails waiting for anyone willing to try them. By the time Cliff arrived, I was deep in a learning curve, familiarizing myself with popular highball cocktails that every bartender should know as well as the lowball cocktails favored by some of the locals, like the Mudslide which Bobby ordered for everyone in the bar on a Friday night. There were never enough shot-glasses.
Rather than serving up his regular bourbon, I thought Cliff might like to try one of my creations. “What’s your pleasure, this morning?” I asked. “Maybe a Tequila Sunrise? What about a Salty Dog or a Long Island Iced Tea to sort you out for the rest of the day?” I don’t remember what he chose, but he thought it was very funny that I had written down all the recipes and that I was planning to learn them “by heart,” the way you would a catechism. While he drank one of my concoctions, pretending to like it, we chatted about nothing important – how hot it was already that summer morning and our respective plans for the weekend.
The jukebox was silent that morning – the only sounds were those of a dropped fork in the kitchen or a “Godammit” when the owner realized he was missing some ingredient vital to the daily lunch special or that the cook had spiked her coffee with J & B scotch. Again. The bartender was counting money in the office, out of earshot, and at the other end of the bar were two men staring ahead and smoking as they shared a pitcher of Budweiser.
Chopping limes and slicing lemons, I chatted to Cliff, until during a pause in our conversation, I heard one of those men call out to the owner who was still out of sight, “Hey Bud, since when do you allow the help to talk to niggers?”
Again. “I said since when do you allow the help to talk to niggers?”
And I froze.
I felt fear. It was the same kind of fear I had felt years before, when I turned the page of the Belfast Telegraph newspaper to see a black and white photo of a young Catholic woman who had been stripped and tied to a lamp-post, hot tar and feathers poured on her roughly shorn head, because she had committed the crime of falling in love with a British soldier. Standing behind a bar in Arizona, I was back in 1970s Northern Ireland.
In ”Punishment,” harrowing and haunting to read, Seamus Heaney evokes a young woman who has been shorn, stripped, and killed – a primitive, barbaric act which he juxtaposes with the ‘tarring and feathering’ in the Northern Ireland of his day. He speaks directly to the dead woman:
My poor scapegoat, I almost love you, but would have cast, I know the stones of silence.
I took a powerful lesson from Heaney’s poem, and I have since applied it to all manner of situations in my life, but I did not apply it that morning in the bar. I was young and foolish and frightened. I cast the stones of silence.
Naively, I had thought that there would be no racism in 1980s America. Why would I think such a thing? Pondering this question, I am catapulted back to my adolescence, to Sunday evenings in our Dublin Road living room, when my parents and I – along with everyone else we knew – gathered around a tiny television to watch ‘Roots.’ We were horrified when Kunta Kinte was sold into slavery in America and whipped within an inch of his life for trying to escape. Aghast, we watched, night by night, yet we held onto the notion that just as the entire country seemed to be galvanized by the story unfolding on Roots, surely an entire country would subsequently adopt a kinder, gentler attitude.
Of Alex Haley’s story, James Baldwin writes:
Roots” is a study of continuities, of consequences, of how a people perpetuate themselves, how each generation helps to doom, or helps to liberate, the coming one–the action of love, or the effect of the absence of love, in time. It suggests, with great power, how each of us, however unconsciously, can’t but be the vehicle of the history which has produced us. Well, we can perish in this vehicle, children, or we can move on up the road.
That morning in a dive bar in Phoenix, Arizona, I couldn’t have been further away from Gambia, West Africa in 1750, Kunta Kinte’s place of birth. I couldn’t have been further away from the right thing to do. I chose not to stand up. I said nothing to those two men. To Cliff, I said, “I’m sorry,” but I said it quietly, too quietly.
Cliff said nothing to me, and in his eyes, I saw not anger but resignation. So with a look that told me he was “used to it,” he picked up his hat, put it on his head, stood up, and walked out the door. He left a $20 tip.
I never saw him again.
I am so sorry.
I am sorry I said nothing. I am sorry I did nothing. Older now – and wiser – I know better, and as Maya Angelou’s words have reminded me repeatedly over the years, “when you know better, you do better.”
So how will I do better today, almost 30 years later, as I watch the President of these United States defend the white supremacists who marched in Charlottesville when it would be more presidential, more humane, to lead the nation in mourning the loss of young civil rights activist Heather Heyer, who died after a white nationalist used ISIS tactics to drive his car into the crowd? How will I do better as I listen to this President tell us that Robert E. Lee is basically the same as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson and that there were “fine people” among those chanting ignorance and anti-Semitic rhetoric on the streets of Charlottesville? How will I do better, knowing that the President’s unscripted remarks have inspired praise from David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan? How will I do better as our President blames ‘many sides’ for what occurred this past weekend when I know that only one side – one side – represents the same evil that led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in World War II as they fought to protect the freedoms of a country that would permit its people to parade around a Virginian city, chanting “blood and soil,” dressed like the Nazis it once fought to destroy.
How will I do better in 2017?
How will we do better in order to move on up the road?