W INTER CAME AND THE city turned monochrome-black trees against gray sky above white earth. Night now fell in midafternoon, especially when the snowstorms rolled in, boundless prairie storms that set the sky close to the ground, the city lights reflected against the clouds.
The work was tougher in such weather. Mounds of fine white powder blew through the cracks of my car, down my collar and into the openings in my coat. On rounds of interviews, I never spent enough time in one place to thaw properly, and parking spaces became scarce on the snow-narrowed streets-everyone, it seemed, had a cautionary tale about fights breaking out over parking spaces after a heavy snow, the resulting brawl or shooting. Attendance at evening meetings became more sporadic; people called at the last minute to say they had the flu or their car wouldn’t start; those who did come looked damp and resentful. At times, driving home from such evenings, with the northern gusts off the lake shaking my car across the lane dividers, I would momentarily forget where I was, my thoughts a numbed reflection of the silence.
Marty suggested that I take more time off, build a life for myself away from the job. His concerns were professional, he explained: Without some personal support outside the work, an organizer lost perspective and could quickly burn out. There was something to what he said, for it was true that the people I met on the job were generally much older than me, with a set of concerns and demands that created barriers to friendship. When I wasn’t working, the weekends would usually find me alone in an empty apartment, making do with the company of books.
I didn’t heed Marty’s advice, though, perhaps because, as the bonds between myself and the leadership grew stronger, I found them offering more than simple friendship. After meetings, I might go with one of the men to a local tavern to watch the news or listen to oldies-the Temptations, the O’Jays-thump from a dinged-up corner jukebox. On Sunday, I’d visit the various church services and let the women tease me over my confusion with communion and prayer. At a Christmas party in the Gardens, I danced with Angela, Mona, and Shirley under a globe that sent sparkling beads across the room; I swapped sports stories over stale cheese puffs and meatballs with husbands who had been reluctantly dragged to the affair; I counseled sons or daughters on their college applications, and played with grandchildren who sat on my knee.
It was during such times, when familiarity or weariness dissolved the lines between organizer and leader, that I began to understand what Marty had meant when he insisted that I move toward the centers of people’s lives. I remember, for instance, sitting in Mrs. Crenshaw’s kitchen one afternoon, gulping down the burned cookies she liked to force on me every time I stopped by. It was getting late, the purpose of my visit had begun to blur in my head, and almost as an afterthought I decided to ask her why she still participated in the PTA so long after her own children had grown. Scooting her chair up closer to mine, she started to tell me about growing up in Tennessee, how she’d been forced to stop her own education because her family could afford to send only one child to college, a brother who would later die in World War II. Both she and her husband had spent years working in a factory, she said, just to see to it that their own son never had to stop his education-a son who had gone on to get a law degree from Yale.
A simple enough story to understand, I thought: the generational sacrifice, the vindication of a family’s faith. Only, when I asked Mrs. Crenshaw what her son was doing these days, she went on to tell me that he had been diagnosed with schizophrenia a few years earlier and that he now spent his days reading newspapers in his room, afraid to leave the house. As she spoke, her voice never wavered; it was the voice of someone who has forced a larger meaning out of tragedy.
Or there was the time that I found myself sitting in the St. Helena’s basement with Mrs. Stevens waiting for a meeting to start. I didn’t know Mrs. Stevens well, knew only that she was interested in renovating the local hospital. By way of small talk I asked her why she was so concerned with improving health care in the area; her family seemed healthy enough. And she told me how, in her twenties, she had almost lost her sight from cataracts. She had been working as a secretary at the time, and although her condition grew so bad her doctor declared her legally blind, she had kept her ailment from her boss for fear of being fired. Day after day, she had snuck off to the bathroom to read her boss’s memos with a magnifying glass, memorizing each line before she went back to type, staying at the office long after the others had left to finish the reports that needed to be ready the following morning. In this way she had maintained her secret for close to a year, until she finally saved enough money for an operation.
Or there was Mr. Marshall, a single man in his early thirties who worked as a bus driver for the Transit Authority. He was not typical of the leadership-he had no children, lived in an apartment-and so I wondered why he was so interested in doing something about drug use among teenagers. When I offered to give him a ride one day to pick up a car he had left in the shop, I asked him the question. And he told me about his father’s dreams of wealth in a nowhere town in Arkansas; how the various business ventures had gone sour and how other men had cheated him; how his father had turned to gambling and drink, lost his home and family; how his father was finally pulled out of a ditch somewhere, suffocated in his own vomit.
That’s what the leadership was teaching me, day by day: that the self-interest I was supposed to be looking for extended well beyond the immediacy of issues, that beneath the small talk and sketchy biographies and received opinions people carried within them some central explanation of themselves. Stories full of terror and wonder, studded with events that still haunted or inspired them. Sacred stories.
And it was this realization, I think, that finally allowed me to share more of myself with the people I was working with, to break out of the larger isolation that I had carried with me to Chicago. I was tentative at first, afraid that my prior life would be too foreign for South Side sensibilities; that I might somehow disturb people’s expectations of me. Instead, as people listened to my stories of Toot or Lolo or my mother and father, of flying kites in Djakarta or going to school dances at Punahou, they would nod their heads or shrug or laugh, wondering how someone with my background had ended up, as Mona put it, so “country-fied,” or, most puzzling to them, why anyone would willingly choose to spend a winter in Chicago when he could be sunning himself on Waikiki Beach. Then they’d offer a story to match or confound mine, a knot to bind our experiences together-a lost father, an adolescent brush with crime, a wandering heart, a moment of simple grace. As time passed, I found that these stories, taken together, had helped me bind my world together, that they gave me the sense of place and purpose I’d been looking for. Marty was right: There was always a community there if you dug deep enough. He was wrong, though, in characterizing the work. There was poetry as well-a luminous world always present beneath the surface, a world that people might offer up as a gift to me, if I only remembered to ask.
Not to say that everything I learned from the leaders cheered my heart. If they often revealed a strength of spirit that I hadn’t imagined, they also forced me to acknowledge the unspoken forces that retarded our efforts, secrets that we kept from each other as well as from ourselves.
That’s how it was with Ruby, for example. After our aborted meeting with the police commander, I had worried that she might back away from organizing. Instead, she had thrown herself headlong into the project, working hard to build a network of neighbors that could be regularly delivered to our events, coming up with ideas for registering voters or working with school parents. She was what every organizer dreamed about-someone with untapped talent, smart, steady, excited by the idea of a public life, eager to learn. And I liked her son, Kyle Jr. He had just turned fourteen, and in all of his awkwardness-one moment frisky and bumping into me while we shot baskets together in the neighborhood park, the next instant bored and sullen-I could see all the contours of my own youthful struggles. Sometimes Ruby would question me about him, exasperated with a mediocre report card or a cut on his chin, baffled by a young man’s unruly mind. “Last week he said he was going to be a rap artist,” she would report. “Today he tells me he’s going to the Air Force Academy to be a fighter pilot. When I ask him why, he just says ‘So I can fly.’ Like I was stupid. I swear, Barack, sometimes I don’t know whether to hug him or beat his skinny behind.” “Try both,” I would tell her.
One day just before Christmas, I asked Ruby to stop by my office so I could give her a present for Kyle. I was on the phone when she walked in, and out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw something different about her, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. Only after I had hung up and she turned toward me did I realize that her eyes, normally a warm, dark brown that matched the color of her skin, had turned an opaque shade of blue, as if someone had glued plastic buttons over her irises. She asked me if something was wrong.
“What did you do to your eyes?”
“Oh, these.” Ruby shook her head and laughed. “They’re just contacts, Barack. The company I work for makes cosmetic lenses, and I get them at a discount. You like them?”
“Your eyes looked just fine the way they were.”
“It’s just for fun,” she said, looking down. “Something different, you know.”
I stood there, not knowing what to say. Finally I remembered Kyle’s gift and handed it to her. “For
Kyle,” I said. “A book on airplanes…I thought he might like it.”
Ruby nodded and put the book inside her purse. “That’s nice of you, Barack. I’m sure he will.” Then, abruptly, she stood up and straightened her skirt. “Well, I better get going,” she said, and hurried out the door.
For the rest of the day and into the next, I thought about Ruby’s eyes. I had handled the moment badly, I told myself, made her feel ashamed for a small vanity in a life that could afford few vanities. I realized that a part of me expected her and the other leaders to possess some sort of immunity from the onslaught of images that feed every American’s insecurities-the slender models in the fashion magazines, the squarejawed men in fast cars-images to which I myself was vulnerable and from which I had sought protection.
When I mentioned the incident to a black woman friend of mine, she stated the issue more bluntly.
“What are you surprised about?” my friend said impatiently. “That black people still hate themselves?”No, I told her, it wasn’t exactly surprise that I was feeling. Since my first frightening discovery of bleaching creams in Life magazine, I’d become familiar with the lexicon of color consciousness within the black community-good hair, bad hair; thick lips or thin; if you’re light, you’re all right, if you’re black, get back. In college, the politics of black fashion, and the questions of self-esteem that fashion signified, had been a frequent, if delicate, topic of conversation for black students, especially among the women, who would smile bitterly at the sight of the militant brother who always seemed to be dating light-skinned girlsand tongue-lash any black man who was foolish enough to make a remark about black women’s hairstyles.