At the party that night, Regina came up to me and offered her congratulations. I asked what for. “For that wonderful speech you gave.”
I popped open a beer. “It was short, anyway.”
Regina ignored my sarcasm. “That’s what made it so effective,” she said. “You spoke from the heart,
Barack. It made people want to hear more. When they pulled you away, it was as if-”
“Listen, Regina,” I said, cutting her off, “you are a very sweet lady. And I’m happy you enjoyed my little performance today. But that’s the last time you will ever hear another speech out of me. I’m going to leave the preaching to you. And to Marcus. Me, I’ve decided I’ve got no business speaking for black folks.”
“And why is that?”
I sipped on my beer, my eyes wandering over the dancers in front of us. “Because I’ve got nothing to say, Regina. I don’t believe we made any difference by what we did today. I don’t believe that what happens to a kid in Soweto makes much difference to the people we were talking to. Pretty words don’t make it so. So why do I pretend otherwise? I’ll tell you why. Because it makes me feel important. Because I like the applause. It gives me a nice, cheap thrill. That’s all.”
“You don’t really believe that.”
“That’s what I believe.”
She stared at me, puzzled, trying to figure out whether I was pulling her leg. “Well, you could have fooled me,” she said finally, trying to match my tone. “Seemed to me like I heard a man speak who believed in something. A black man who cared. But hey, I guess I’m stupid.”
I took another swig of beer and waved at someone coming through the door. “Not stupid, Regina.
She took a step back, her hands on her hips. “Naive? You’re calling me naive? Uh-uh. I don’t think so. If anybody’s naive, it’s you. You’re the one who seems to think he can run away from himself. You’re the one who thinks he can avoid what he feels.” She stuck a finger in my chest. “You wanna know what your real problem is? You always think everything’s about you. You’re just like Reggie and Marcus and Steve and all the other brothers out here. The rally is about you. The speech is about you. The hurt is always your hurt. Well, let me tell you something, Mr. Obama. It’s not just about you. It’s never just about you. It’s about people who need your help. Children who are depending on you. They’re not interested in your irony or your sophistication or your ego getting bruised. And neither am I.”
Just as she was finishing, Reggie wandered out of the kitchen, drunker than I was. He came over and threw his arm around my shoulder. “Obama! Great party, man!” He threw Regina a sloppy grin. “Let me tell you, Regina, Obama and me go way back. Should have seen our parties last year, back at the dorms. Man, you remember that time we stayed up the whole weekend? Forty hours, no sleep. Started Saturday morning and didn’t stop till Monday.”
I tried to change the subject, but Reggie was on a roll. “I’m telling you, Regina, it was wild. When the maids show up Monday morning, we were all still sitting in the hallway, looking like zombies. Bottles everywhere. Cigarette butts. Newspapers. That spot where Jimmy threw up…” Reggie turned to me and started to laugh, spilling more beer on the rug. “You remember, don’t you, man? Shit was so bad, those little old Mexican ladies started to cry. ‘Dios Mio,’ one of ’em says, and the other one starts patting her on the back. Oh shit, we were crazy….”
I smiled weakly, feeling Regina stare me down like the bum that I was. When she finally spoke it was as if Reggie weren’t there.
“You think that’s funny?” she said to me. Her voice was shaking, barely a whisper. “Is that what’s real to you, Barack-making a mess for somebody else to clean up? That could have been my grandmother, you know. She had to clean up behind people for most of her life. I’ll bet the people she worked for thought it was funny, too.”
She grabbed her purse off the coffee table and headed for the door. I thought about running after her, but I noticed a few people staring at me and I didn’t want a scene. Reggie pulled on my arm, looking hurt and confused, like a lost child.
“What’s her problem?” he said.
“Nothing,” I said. I took the beer out of Reggie’s hand and set it on top of the bookshelf. “She just believes in things that aren’t really there.”
I rose from the couch and opened my front door, the pent-up smoke trailing me out of the room like a spirit. Up above, the moon had slipped out of sight, only its glow still visible along the rim of high clouds.
The sky had begun to lighten; the air tasted of dew.
Look at yourself before you pass judgment. Don’t make someone else clean up your mess. It’s not about you. They were such simple points, homilies I had heard a thousand times before, in all their variations, from TV sitcoms and philosophy books, from my grandparents and from my mother. I had stopped listening at a certain point, I now realized, so wrapped up had I been in my own perceived injuries, so eager was I to escape the imagined traps that white authority had set for me. To that white world, I had been willing to cede the values of my childhood, as if those values were somehow irreversibly soiled by the endless falsehoods that white spoke about black.
Except now I was hearing the same thing from black people I respected, people with more excuses for bitterness than I might ever claim for myself. Who told you that being honest was a white thing? they asked me. Who sold you this bill of goods, that your situation exempted you from being thoughtful or diligent or kind, or that morality had a color? You’ve lost your way, brother. Your ideas about yourself-about who you are and who you might become-have grown stunted and narrow and small.
I sat down on the doorstep and rubbed the knot in the back of my neck. How had that happened? I started to ask myself, but before the question had even formed in my mind, I already knew the answer. Fear. The same fear that had caused me to push Coretta away back in grammar school. The same fear that had caused me to ridicule Tim in front of Marcus and Reggie. The constant, crippling fear that I didn’t belong somehow, that unless I dodged and hid and pretended to be something I wasn’t I would forever remain an outsider, with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment.
So Regina was right; it had been just about me. My fear. My needs. And now? I imagined Regina’s grandmother somewhere, her back bent, the flesh of her arms shaking as she scrubbed an endless floor. Slowly, the old woman lifted her head to look straight at me, and in her sagging face I saw that what bound us together went beyond anger or despair or pity.
What was she asking of me, then? Determination, mostly. The determination to push against whatever power kept her stooped instead of standing straight. The determination to resist the easy or the expedient. You might be locked into a world not of your own making, her eyes said, but you still have a claim on how it is shaped. You still have responsibilities.
The old woman’s face dissolved from my mind, only to be replaced by a series of others. The copperskinned face of the Mexican maid, straining as she carries out the garbage. The face of Lolo’s mother drawn with grief as she watches the Dutch burn down her house. The tight-lipped, chalk-colored face of Toot as she boards the six-thirty A.M. bus that will take her to work. Only a lack of imagination, a failure of nerve, had made me think that I had to choose between them. They all asked the same thing of me, these grandmothers of mine.
My identity might begin with the fact of my race, but it didn’t, couldn’t, end there.
At least that’s what I would choose to believe.
For a few minutes more I sat still in my doorway, watching the sun glide into place, thinking about the call to Regina I’d be making that day. Behind me, Billie was on her last song. I picked up the refrain, humming a few bars. Her voice sounded different to me now. Beneath the layers of hurt, beneath the ragged laughter, I heard a willingness to endure. Endure-and make music that wasn’t there before.
I SPENT MY FIRST NIGHT in Manhattan curled up in an alleyway. It wasn’t intentional; while still in L.A., I had heard that a friend of a friend would be vacating her apartment in Spanish Harlem, near Columbia, and that given New York’s real estate market I’d better grab it while I could. An agreement was reached; I wired ahead with the date of my August arrival; and after dragging my luggage through the airport, the subways, Times Square, and across 109th from Broadway to Amsterdam, I finally stood at the door, a few minutes past ten P.M.
I pressed the buzzer repeatedly, but no one answered. The street was empty, the buildings on either side boarded up, a bulk of rectangular shadows. Eventually, a young Puerto Rican woman emerged from the building, throwing a nervous look my way before heading down the street. I rushed to catch the door before it slammed shut, and, pulling my luggage behind me, proceeded upstairs to knock, and then bang, on the apartment door. Again, no answer, just a sound down the hall of a deadbolt thrown into place.
New York. Just like I pictured it. I checked my wallet-not enough money for a motel. I knew one person in New York, a guy named Sadik whom I’d met in L.A., but he’d told me that he worked all night at a bar somewhere. With nothing to do but wait, I carried my luggage back downstairs and sat on the stoop. After a while, I reached into my back pocket, pulling out the letter I’d been carrying since leaving L.A.
It was such a pleasant surprise to hear from you after so long. I am fine and doing all those things which you know are expected of me in this country. I just came back from London where I was attending to Government business, negotiating finances, etc. In fact it is because of too much travel that I rarely write to you. In any case, I think I shall do better from now on.
You will be pleased to know that all your brothers and sisters here are fine, and send their greetings. Like me, they approve of your decision to come home after graduation. When you come, we shall, together, decide on how long you may wish to stay. Barry, even if it is only for a few days, the important thing is that you know your people, and also that you know where you belong.
Please look after yourself, and say hallo to your mum, Tutu, and Stanley. I hope to hear from you soon. Love,
I folded the letter along its seams and stuffed it back into my pocket. It hadn’t been easy to write him; our correspondence had all but died over the past four years. In fact, I had gone through several drafts, crossing out lines, struggling for the appropriate tone, resisting the impulse to explain too much. “Dear Father.” “Dear Dad.” “Dear Dr. Obama.” And now he had answered me, cheerful and calm. Know where you belong, he advised. He made it sound simple, like calling directory assistance.
“Information-what city, please?”
“Uh…I’m not sure. I was hoping you could tell me. The name’s Obama. Where do I belong?”
Maybe it really was that simple for him. I imagined my father sitting at his desk in Nairobi, a big man in government, with clerks and secretaries bringing him papers to sign, a minister calling him for advice, a loving wife and children waiting at home, his own father’s village only a day’s drive away. The image made me vaguely angry, and I tried to set it aside, concentrating instead on the sound of salsa coming from an open window somewhere down the block. The same thoughts kept returning to me, though, as persistent as the beat of my heart.
Where did I belong? My conversation with Regina that night after the rally might have triggered a change in me, left me warm with good intentions. But I was like a drunk coming out of a long, painful binge, and I had soon felt my newfound resolve slipping away, without object or direction. Two years from graduation, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life, or even where I would live. Hawaii lay behind me like a childhood dream; I could no longer imagine settling there. Whatever my father might say, I knew it was too late to ever truly claim Africa as my home. And if I had come to understand myself as a black American, and was understood as such, that understanding remained unanchored to place. What I needed was a community, I realized, a community that cut deeper than the common despair that black friends and I shared when reading the latest crime statistics, or the high fives I might exchange on a basketball court. A place where I could put down stakes and test my commitments.
And so, when I heard about a transfer program that Occidental had arranged with Columbia University, I’d been quick to apply. I figured that if there weren’t any more black students at Columbia than there were at Oxy, I’d at least be in the heart of a true city, with black neighborhoods in close proximity. As it was, there wasn’t much in L.A. to hold me back. Most of my friends were graduating that year: Hasan off to work with his family in London, Regina on her way to Andalusia to study Spanish Gypsies.
And Marcus? I wasn’t sure what had happened to Marcus. He should have had one more year left, but something had gotten to him midway through his junior year, something that I recognized, even if I couldn’t quite name it. I thought back to one evening, sitting with him in the library, before he’d decided to drop out of school. An Iranian student, an older balding man with a glass eye, was sitting across the table from us, and he had noticed Marcus reading a book on the economics of slavery. Although the drift of his eye gave the Iranian a menacing look, he was a friendly and curious man, and eventually he leaned over the table and asked Marcus a question about the book.
“Tell me, please,” the man said. “How do you think such a thing as slavery was permitted to last for so many years?”
“White people don’t see us as human beings,” Marcus said. “Simple as that. Most of ’em still don’t.”
“Yes, I see. But what I mean to ask is, why didn’t black people fight?”
“They did fight. Nat Turner, Denmark Vescey-”
“Slave rebellions,” the Iranian interrupted. “Yes, I have read something about them. These were very brave men. But they were so few, you see. Had I been a slave, watching these people do what they did to my wife, my children…well, I would have preferred death. This is what I don’t understand-why so many men did not fight at all. Until death, you see?”
I looked at Marcus, waiting for him to answer. But he remained silent, his face not angry as much as withdrawn, eyes fastened to a spot on the table. His lack of response confused me, but after a pause I took up the attack, asking the Iranian if he knew the names of the untold thousands who had leaped into sharkinfested waters before their prison ships had ever reached American ports; asking if, once the ships had landed, he would have still preferred death had he known that revolt might only visit more suffering on women and children. Was the collaboration of some slaves any different than the silence of some Iranians who stood by and did nothing as Savak thugs murdered and tortured opponents of the Shah? How could we judge other men until we had stood in their shoes?
This last remark seemed to catch the man off guard, and Marcus finally rejoined the conversation, repeating one of Malcolm X’s old saws about the difference between house Negroes and field Negroes. But he spoke as if he weren’t convinced of his own words, and after a few minutes he abruptly stood up and walked toward the door.
We never did talk about that conversation, Marcus and I. Maybe it didn’t explain anything; there were more than enough reasons for someone like Marcus to feel restless in a place like Occidental. I know that in the months that followed, I began to notice changes in him, as if he were haunted by specters that had seeped through the cracks of our safe, sunny world. Initially, he became more demonstrative in his racial pride: He took to wearing African prints to class and started lobbying the administration for an all-black dormitory. Later, he grew uncommunicative. He began to skip classes, hitting the reefer more heavily. He let his beard grow out, let his hair work its way into dreadlocks.Finally he told me that he was going to take a leave from school for a while. “Need a break from this shit,” he said. We were walking through a park in Compton, hanging out at an all-day festival there. It was a beautiful afternoon, everybody in shorts, children screeching as they ran through the grass, but Marcus seemed distracted and barely spoke. Only when we passed a group of bongo players did he seem to come to life. We sat beside them under a tree, transfixed by the sound, watching the dark, barely cupped hands dance low off the hide. After a while I started to get bored and wandered off to talk to a pretty young woman selling meat pies. When I returned, Marcus was still there, except he was playing now, his long legs crossed, borrowed bongos nestling in his lap. Through the haze of smoke that surrounded him, his face was expressionless; his eyes were narrow, as if he were trying to shut out the sun. For almost an hour I watched him play without rhythm or nuance, just pounding the hell out of those drums, beating back untold memories. And right then I realized that Marcus needed my help as much as I needed his, that I wasn’t the only one searching for answers