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Tuesday, May 18, 1999
By Paul Ford
Writing on writing about writing. Kill me.
I've sat down trying to write an Ftrain for an hour now. I rarely have writer's block, but I do tonight. It's 12:40AM.
When I get rolling, when I have an idea, I write 1000-1500 words an hour. All I see is the screen and the letters.
The average Ftrain entry takes 30-40 minutes to write, edit, and post. I've been sitting here for 40 minutes with about 100 words to show. I have 15,000 words sitting in a folder with half-completed entries, but none of them inspire me right now. I have another folder with the beginning notes for a SciFi novel. There's another with a collection of half-written pornographic short stories. I'm not sure what to do with them, but they're fun to write, and they help me manage my sex angst and fear.
Ftrain is explicitly about quantity, not quality, but even quantity is past me.
The topic I'm considering most is prejudice. Between women and men, between ethnicities, between classes.
A few weeks ago, I began to write an essay about race relations in America. I didn't get too far with it, but it's been smoldering in my head for a while, a collection of memories and senses and issues.
Sooner or later I'll write what I'm thinking down in a proper, reasoned form. Now I'm trying to sort through impressions.
I think constantly about race; I was raised to do so. My mother, who was a puppeteer by trade, fought for civil rights in my home town, and my childhood was a blur of protest signs, court battles, Freedom Riders who'd returned home to fight the local fight, and puppet shows where we performed African folk tales.
West Chester, PA, where I lived until I was 15, was Bayard Rustin's home town, and the park a few blocks from my house, where I went to play, once Walnut St. Park, is now Bayard Rustin Park. When you consider that Rustin was Black, homosexual (I think, but I'm going on word-of-mouth), and a communist, West Chester did pretty well by its conservative mores to name something after him. My mother knew Mr. Rustin, and apparently I met him in 1976, when I was two.
I still remember the names and faces of the dozen or so older Black men and women who had dedicated their lives, all of their time, to fighting for the cause. Norman Bond, Charles Melton, Dr. William Johnson, Eva Rice. When I was eight, nine, ten, I went to the incredibly boring NAACP dinners at the West Chester Community Center where they were honored with dinners and plaques. My mother was honored once, two, the first white woman to receive an award from that chapter. (There were copies of Crisis magazine all through my house growing up). The men all died young, in their 50's and 60's, stress and cancer and heart disease eating away their bodies.
(Bayard Rustin taught Martin Luther King about nonviolence and organized the March on Washington in the 1960's.)
I read Black Like Me when I was 13, and by then I knew the details of slavery, not just the salt-pork and Huck-and-Jim oppression but the torture, rape, and system of cruelty and deprivation. I knew who founded the Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) and who the Tuskegee Airmen were, as well as about the Tuskegee Syphilis study, and I'd read Up From Slavery. I can still recite "The People Could Fly," or the Anansi Spider stories, or tell you about W. E. B. Dubois or Markus Garvey or Booker T. Washington or Frederick Douglass or Sojourner Truth or Harriet Tubman or George Washington Carver or Ralph Ellison, and I could sing "No More Auction Block For Me" (we used to spin an Odetta record over and over on the Radio Shack turntable) and "All God's People Got Shoes."
When I was four my mother brought me along to the Community Center; she needed to talk with one of the directors about some action or court case or event or fund-raiser. I was given a quarter to buy a soda (that's how much it cost then). I went out to the hallway and put in my money, and hit the button for Fanta Orange. When I turned around with the aluminum can in my hand, a Black girl, maybe 7 or 8, wearing a dress, slapped me hard across the face, and said, "you're a stupid little white honkey boy." I began to cry and went to my mother and repeated what had been said, and I wanted them to go get the girl and punish her, but my mother just shook her head about it.
There was a stop on the underground railroad across the street from my grandparents', a house owned by generations of Quakers, a space in the basement where people could sleep on the way to Canada.
I've had some good friends who've been badly treated because of their skin, who dealt with prejudice in their earliest memories. Black, Jewish, Latino, Asian.
For an odd stretch in my life, around 4 years ago, I was down. I could speak in the particular urban American dialect associated with Black people, and I did it unthinkingly, switching in and out as easily as my friends, with darker skin than my own, could switch from speaking Black to speaking White.
Note that all this history does not make me "culturally valid," or cooler, or better, or even eliminate my racism. It's just experience. I have plenty of prejudices, plenty of stupid racist thoughts. I overhear a dumb conversation between two teens with cornrows on the Ftrain, or see a Black mother whaling at her kids with an open palm, and because my mind is good at sorting, and since the racial characteristic is a convenient tab in my inner index file, it's easy to put that kind of behavior inside the "Black people" folder, rather than the "People living in uneducated poverty, regardless of skin color" folder, which is where it belongs. It's a fight to not let stereotypes override my thinking; after all, they seem accurate, some of the time.
I don't know how to manage these thoughts except to take them out of their social context and analyze them as objectively as possible. Why do I think this? Why do I judge this in this manner? What aesthetic and moral criteria am I using here, and am I using a double standard? It's never a final, resolving, satisfying answer. Racism is part of my culture, and it will always come back, in small and large ways, and it's always harder to get rid of it than give in.
I have another prejudice, or if not a prejudice a cultural fetish, which is similar. I think that darker skin is richer and more beautiful than my skin. If you put me next to an African-American, or a native African, or someone from the Indian subcontinent or the Middle East or Latin or South America, I just want to look at their hands and face. I wonder what it's like to absorb all that light, to have a color that expressive and warm all over your body. I have pink European flesh, skin that turns blue in fluorescent light and burns the color of an apple if left in sunlight. When I get old I'll be craggy and red-nosed, but age doesn't seem to do the same to non-Europeans; they don't get hit the same way. Nelson Mandela is about nine thousand years old, and he's still looking good. So is Odetta.
I think a lot about the national apology for slavery, too. My voice is inconsequential, but I'm for it. I won't justify my position here; I should probably shut my mouth and think for a while before writing, to make a reasoned argument against the standard rhetoric, but I think America should admit we did wrong, that actions have consequences, and that slavery was the economic backbone of our country for hundreds of years, and that was unconscionable. Too late is better than not at all. I know all the standard rhetoric against it, but I think it would be the right and moral thing to say "America fucked up super bad, for 100s of terrible years, and the effects are still being felt." Then we could talk about the price to put on the apology. Everyone is always rushing to the money part.
And while I'm pompously suggesting sweeping American social change, I think they should bring back the WPA. I know we're not in a depression, but the WPA was good for the soul. I would like to be a WPA playwrite, crafting sone-act dramas about the dangers of venereal disease and the triumph of reforestation.
I had a 100 other topics to discuss, from a new magazine I want to see published, to the combined database of cliches and prejudices which I want to compile online. But I'm sure I've pissed off all manner of folks of all colors with tonight's meandering entry, so I'll simply go to bed. Ftrain news time is 3:11 AM, and writer's block is a bastard.
(My middle name is Edmund, ala Lear, and he was a bastard, too.)