In May my wife and I left New York—our home of many years, where we had weathered the pandemic from which the city had just begun to emerge—to spend a week in New Orleans. Like most of our vacations, this one was my wife’s idea, and as with many of her good ideas, I hadn’t realized how badly I needed this trip. We stayed in a place on Dauphine Street, near the French Quarter and a two-block walk from the Royal Frenchmen Hotel and Bar, which became our hangout. We took our five-dollar happy hour cocktails to the hotel’s courtyard, where, every evening, in the pleasant springtime air, a different band played jazz, soul, or both. I rarely dance these days if I can avoid it, but I danced with my wife in New Orleans—that was how much the joyful atmosphere, the buoyant music, the break from work, the emergence from lockdown, and, yes, those happy hour drinks lightened my spirit. At one point, between tunes, shouting to be heard over the applause, I said to my wife that I’d just had an idea for an essay (the one you’re reading), which would be about forgiveness. Right there in the courtyard, I wrote the idea in my hip-pocket notebook.
Often, ideas jotted down under such circumstances seem considerably less compelling the next morning. But I held onto this one, perhaps because, even before we went to New Orleans, it had already been brewing in a corner of my mind. It had begun to surface back in New York, during a conversation with a graduate student. I teach creative nonfiction; like me, my student is Black, and we were discussing an essay of hers in which she revealed that for a long time she had hated her dark skin and kinky hair. That led us to talk about a Zadie Smith essay our class had read, one that mentions Barack Obama’s book, Dreams from My Father—specifically, the passage in which Obama criticizes a composite character, Joyce, who always emphasized her multi-racial identity but never seemed to care particularly for other Black people. My student, too, expressed annoyance over the way some Blacks she had met never let anyone forget they were biracial, the implication being that they were proud not to be just Black. Coming to those people’s defense, and expressing sympathy for my student’s past hatred of her looks, I said something like, “Racism is a system designed to mess with your head”—I may not have used the word “mess”—“and I think Black people need to forgive ourselves and one another for the different ways we respond to it.”
It was one of those moments when your own words get you thinking. I began to think that one of the Black people for whom I urged forgiveness was myself, though “forgiveness” is not the right word. “Understanding,” maybe. I never hated the way I look, unless you count my lament over the thinning of my hair during the past four years or so; like most Black Americans, I have whites here and there in my family tree, but I am not most people’s idea of biracial. But I’ve got some other things going on.
In late 2019 my book What It Is: Race, Family, and One Thinking Black Man’s Blues was published. In the book I describe my efforts to square my lifelong belief in treating everyone as an individual, and therefore in not being prejudiced against whites, with the results of the 2016 election, in which the majority of white Americans chose as their president a man who had run an all but openly racist campaign. I was interviewed on National Public Radio about the book, and as a result I received an invitation to be a guest on another radio program, this one a Black-themed call-in show. I happily accepted, after which one of two things occurred (and I go back and forth about which possibility is worse). One is that the program’s host did not understand the book; the other is that he understood it, but chose to misrepresent it to excite his listeners. Either way, I soon regretted my decision to be a guest on this show. This was not to be the intellectual exchange I had looked forward to. The host, either failing to understand or ignoring the conflict at the center of my book, talked as if I were unequivocally condemning any negative feelings toward whites on the part of Blacks; he also made a point of mentioning, twice, that my wife is white—which I didn’t understand until I realized, much later than I should have, that I was in a fight. Well, not a fight, exactly. That would suggest fairness. The first mention of my wife’s skin color was meant to signal to listeners what kind of person (i.e. what a sorry excuse for a Black man) they were listening to; the second mention was to announce to any latecomers what our talk was really about. As I paced back and forth in my kitchen, phone to my ear, the host sniped at my book, and me, in every way he could think of. I should say here that I am particularly bad at sparring verbally on the spot—my greatest contribution to society may be that I didn’t become a defense attorney—and my attempts to explain what I was actually trying to say in my book were feeble and came much too late. Soon there were questions from listeners, of which this was representative: “If there was a race war, would you fight on the side of Black people or your wife?” (My answer was something along the lines of, “I would fight alongside people who opposed racism.” I am under no illusion that this impressed anyone.) At one point the host called my ideas “nonsense.” When the “interview” came to its merciful end, after roughly eighty minutes that seemed like five years, I felt as if I had been publicly flogged. Because I had.