Thursday, February 02, 2012


Back in the day, when a Meadville/Lombard student enrolled simultaneously at the University of Chicago and earned an MA from the latter within the MDiv from the former, which meant that the student had to pass a test on reading French, I signed up for the seminary cluster’s course with a special tutor meant to get us prepped and passing. It was taught by a French African man preparing for the priesthood. He looked like a gorilla. Really.

He had a strong French accent, which I thought was probably an advantage, but the other students -- high grade white boys shooting for the Ph.D. and with no interest in the ministry -- were absolutely turned off and complained that he was unintelligible. They were powerful enough that the priest lost his job. I’m sure he needed it. When he told us he had been replaced, he turned in the doorway, looked around the room and said softly, “Bon chance.” I’m sure he meant it ironically.

You may remember that I’m watching “Homicide” from end-to-end and that before that I watched “The Wire” from end-to-end. By the time I’d run out of episodes of “The Wire,” the black people (who greatly outnumbered the white characters) were the ones who looked normal and the whites looked geeky. It was a little like being on the train to Minneapolis after teaching on the rez for a few years. The blonde kids running up and down the aisles looked to me as though they’d been living in the dark for the past year. I told this story to Darrell Kipp and he asked me, “How would you feel if you moved to Scotland and everyone there looked just like you?” But how do I know? I never look at myself. When I see my reflection in a shop window, I never recognize me. I think I look the way I looked in 1966.

One of the “Homicide” episodes had a story about Yaphet Kotto, who took a romantic interest in a woman who was a light-colored black with nearly Caucasian features. He asked her out, but she would have nothing to do with him. He has a wide nose, fat lips, hair like a carpet. He was frank about it, talked about how he was constantly being shut out because, as one witness put it, “You have a REEEEALLY scary face!” Yet the man himself is elegantly built, speaks like a Shakespearean actor, and on the show purports to be culturally Italian. He plays with the whole thing, but it’s a sorrow to him in character and out. Yet the truth is that the more you look at him, the more he begins to look normal, attractive, appealing, familiar. (Familia!) It’s just that if you don’t live where there are many blacks, you’ll never have a chance for their faces to register in your brain.

A friend of mine tells about being at the United Nations to testify. The elevator opens. It’s occupied by very tall, very black Africans who might not like what he has to say. But he doesn’t pretend he forgot something and back off. He gets in, makes conversation, makes eye contact, looks at faces. I’m betting they smiled. I’m betting it changed something.

It’s a problem on the rez. To tourists, who think that all Indians look like Victor Mature, today’s round-faced, very large guys are scary. In fact, those guys themselves don’t like the way they look -- THEY want to look like buffalo Indians from the old days who spent every day out in the sun and wind, getting exercise by risking their lives on the war trail.

After I’d been off the rez and in Portland in the Seventies where people wore jeans and sneakers, I came back to teach on the rez. The kids were irritated with me until one of them finally leveled. “You’re a white woman, a TEACHER. You’re supposed to dress professional! And look at your hair!!” Appearances. Wear a suit, shine your shoes, and everyone around here will figure you’re either a Mormon missionary or the FBI.

I have yet to spot a Native American on either “Homicide” or “The Wire.” These shows are in Baltimore. There are Indians in Baltimore. I would bet five bucks there were Indians in the cast -- they just weren’t playing Indians. Probably some of those with Indian blood were black. Certainly almost every Hispanic/Latino had to have Indio blood. The screenwriters for these shows say that they were constantly brain-storming to figure out what they hadn’t done yet, and still they had no story line with an American Indian in it. I’m a little relieved, because it would be bound to have something corny about heritage and buffalo and feathers. Because these writers were urban, educated, and convinced that all Indians live west of the Mississippi.

It’s true enough though, that the Canadian crime shows -- a lot of which are shot in Vancouver, always have a LOT of Indians in them. It’s the Canadians who gave us Tantoo Cardinal and Graham Greene. (The Blackfeet on the US side supply horses and stunt riders.) So I shouldn’t be too hard on a show with a tap root deep in Baltimore for showing a Baltimore-type population.

When I was at Northwestern (class of ’61) back at the dawn of integration, one of my roommates was the daughter of a Chicago cop. She and her dad were convinced that black was the color of evil. The only black people on the campus in those days (most people were Jewish) were on the football team. For some reason this roommate was in a situation where she was talking to one of these guys and got into a pretty intense conversation. She came back to the room that night marveling, “I was talking to him and I forgot he was black! FORGOT !!”

Sometimes it’s good to remember and sometimes it’s good to forget, but the best is if the “mirror cells” behind your forehead pick up the “mirror cells” behind the other guy’s forehead and you both get on the same wavelength. The faces become transparent. I suppose it’s way too romantic to say you see into hearts.

Once, when NE Alberta street was still very black and dominated by gangs, I came back to Portland on a visit and innocently walked up the sidewalk past a barber shop. Luckily the guy in the chair was not getting a shave, because the barber was VERY surprised to see me go by. I waved and both of them, both black, waved back with HUGE grins. It was a contact ambush. Always get on the elevator.

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