It was those sorts of issues, I realize now, less tangible than school transcripts or medical services,
that became the focus of her lessons with me. “If you want to grow into a human being,” she would say to
me, “you’re going to need some values.”
Honesty-Lolo should not have hidden the refrigerator in the storage room when the tax officials came,
even if everyone else, including the tax officials, expected such things. Fairness-the parents of wealthier
students should not give television sets to the teachers during Ramadan, and their children could take no
pride in the higher marks they might have received. Straight talk-if you didn’t like the shirt I bought you for
your birthday, you should have just said so instead of keeping it wadded up at the bottom of your closet.
Independent judgment-just because the other children tease the poor boy about his haircut doesn’t mean
you have to do it too.
It was as if, by traveling halfway around the globe, away from the smugness and hypocrisy that
familiarity had disclosed, my mother could give voice to the virtues of her midwestern past and offer them
up in distilled form. The problem was that she had few reinforcements; whenever she took me aside for
such commentary, I would dutifully nod my assent, but she must have known that many of her ideas
seemed rather impractical. Lolo had merely explained the poverty, the corruption, the constant scramble for
security; he hadn’t created it. It remained all around me and bred a relentless skepticism. My mother’s
confidence in needlepoint virtues depended on a faith I didn’t possess, a faith that she would refuse to
describe as religious; that, in fact, her experience told her was sacrilegious: a faith that rational, thoughtful
people could shape their own destiny. In a land where fatalism remained a necessary tool for enduring
hardship, where ultimate truths were kept separate from day-to-day realities, she was a lonely witness for
secular humanism, a soldier for New Deal, Peace Corps, position-paper liberalism.
She had only one ally in all this, and that was the distant authority of my father. Increasingly, she would
remind me of his story, how he had grown up poor, in a poor country, in a poor continent; how his life had
been hard, as hard as anything that Lolo might have known. He hadn’t cut corners, though, or played all the
angles. He was diligent and honest, no matter what it cost him. He had led his life according to principles
that demanded a different kind of toughness, principles that promised a higher form of power. I would follow
his example, my mother decided. I had no choice. It was in the genes.
“You have me to thank for your eyebrows…your father has these little wispy eyebrows that don’t
amount to much. But your brains, your character, you got from him.”
Her message came to embrace black people generally. She would come home with books on the civil
rights movement, the recordings of Mahalia Jackson, the speeches of Dr. King. When she told me stories of
schoolchildren in the South who were forced to read books handed down from wealthier white schools but
who went on to become doctors and lawyers and scientists, I felt chastened by my reluctance to wake up
and study in the mornings. If I told her about the goose-stepping demonstrations my Indonesian Boy Scout
troop performed in front of the president, she might mention a different kind of march, a march of children
no older than me, a march for freedom. Every black man was Thurgood Marshall or Sidney Poitier; every
black woman Fannie Lou Hamer or Lena Horne. To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great
inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.
Burdens we were to carry with style. More than once, my mother would point out: “Harry Belafonte is
the best-looking man on the planet.”
It was in this context that I came across the picture in Life magazine of the black man who had tried to
peel off his skin. I imagine other black children, then and now, undergoing similar moments of revelation.
Perhaps it comes sooner for most-the parent’s warning not to cross the boundaries of a particular
neighborhood, or the frustration of not having hair like Barbie no matter how long you tease and comb, or
the tale of a father’s or grandfather’s humiliation at the hands of an employer or a cop, overheard while
you’re supposed to be asleep. Maybe it’s easier for a child to receive the bad news in small doses, allowing
for a system of defenses to build up-although I suspect I was one of the luckier ones, having been given a
stretch of childhood free from self-doubt.
I know that seeing that article was violent for me, an ambush attack. My mother had warned me about
bigots-they were ignorant, uneducated people one should avoid. If I could not yet consider my own
mortality, Lolo had helped me understand the potential of disease to cripple, of accidents to maim, of
fortunes to decline. I could correctly identify common greed or cruelty in others, and sometimes even in
myself. But that one photograph had told me something else: that there was a hidden enemy out there, one
that could reach me without anyone’s knowledge, not even my own. When I got home that night from the