"Did your stroke change the way you think about race?"
The moon shaped face was beautiful, of color, hair covered by a brightly colored head scarf. Eyes inquisitive, mouth in a smile. Kindness and curiosity radiating.
I had just spoken for 30 minutes about my experience of stroke and recovery to Katherine Seto's SFSU graduate students in Speech and Language Pathology. Some of the class had seen my show, some had not. Had been answering their insightful, probing questions for over 50 minutes.
Race. Race and stroke? The question stopped me in my tracks. I had all sorts of associations with stroke, risk factors, symptoms, treatment, experience, but RACE???
Race? Her face was open, expectant. Was she American born? What was her context? Her experience? But before I could think more, a kaleidoscope of images burst:
The child at my sons' Montessori preschool school who told them I couldn't possibly be their mother, "She's so much whiter than you two."
The fellow Stanford Faculty member who, after I returned from a trip in Jamaica, remarked on my tan, then asked to see my palms. "That's one thing I'll never get. I noticed it first with our maid. No matter how black you are, you people's palms are always white. But I guess that's true of chimpanzies, too."
My Yale medical school advisor who said, "Well, if you were a white boy, I could tell you where to apply for internships. But with you, I have no idea."
The woman whose ad for a cozy cottage at Stanford's housing office I answered . At her front door: "Where are you from?" "New York." "Yes, but where are your parents from?" "Philadelphia." "But what are you?" and drilled down until I answered, "Black." "Oh," she said, shaking her head and backing away. "You didn't have to tell me that. You could have said anything else. I can't rent to you." As she closed the door, she said with an accusing eye roll, "You really didn't need to tell me that." (Jump to 2018 logical question, no, I didn't report her, and the listing remained up, no doubt filled by a more suitable applicant).
Stanford freshman me, meeting 2 knock out, drop dead, gorgeous brothers (yes, they were all that!) in the Stanford cafeteria. The more stunning of the two say, "Whoa! You're new! Where you from?" Whoa! I'm thinking, this is my lucky day -remember, I went to an all girl's high schoo! "New York City," I say, with my best come hither. His eyes widen! "You from Harlem?" "Nigga," says the other, grabbing his buddy's elbow, "You ever heard a nigga from Harlem say "New York City"? Give it up, man. She ain't interested in you. Lez go." (And no, neither ever spoke to me again.)
5 year old me, dressed as Casper the Ghost for Halloween. Ring the doorbell of a favorite teacher, who occupies one of the 120 appartments in our co-op, hold out my bucket, "Trick or Treat." "Oh, we have a ghost!! But you can only be one of the Barneses!"
And that's a fraction of the cinescope. (Amazing isn't it, how fast the mind can deliver images!) Race!
Trying to articulate and make sense of what had gone through my mind, I answer with examples of how I've been confronted over the years with expectations, remonstrations, insults, put downs, macro and microaggressions. Then, I say this, "All my life, other people have been trying to define me. My stroke gave me the freedom to be me."
And that is true.
But the longer I have sat with the question, the more profound I came to realize it was.
Because, although I had never thought about it, the answer is an unequivocal YES! Yes, it did! It totally did!
And though I am not really political, I have become more vocal and active on the social justice scene since.
Let me explain.
For a time, my stroke reduced me to a seeing, hearing, feeling, smelling, tasting, sensing creature. No identity. No ego. No race. No sex. No tribe. An in the moment, adrift, reactive soul. Of course, that state wasn't long lived. As I began to recover, slowly, the intellectual and social constructs reappeared. But that's the point. For a while, I was keenly aware of being part of the universe, and part of every every other creature. And gradually, I saw the separations, the "identities", including gender and race. But as they reappeared, I saw them for what they truly are: social and political constructs.
The whole concept of race is subjective: in Nigeria, I'm an oyninbo, or White person/Caucasian/Non-Black African because I am not 100% African in appearance. At the same time, in the US I am black, and in many other countries, some category of mixed. It was a combination of Jim Crow and maintaining white control of inherited wealth that lead to the "one drop" rule- that anyone with one drop of black blood was black, and thereby disenfranchised. The recent National Geographic article describes the 19th century pseudoscience of race developed to assert white supremacy, as well as recent DNA studies revealing no genetic basis of "race".
And yet, we live in America.
An award winning writer friend of mine, Sarah Lapido Manyika, author of Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream the Sun, and mother of a teen-aged son describes the dilemma in her recent blog post, "Coming of Age in the Time of the Hoodie":
Twenty years of living in America has cured me of any whimsical notions I once held about the fluidity of racial categorization, and race now presents me with the following dilemma. When talking about race there is always a part of me that feels as though I am perpetuating and legitimizing it, giving it the fixed status that it should never have. But then not to talk about race, or to try to ignore it, is not only impractical but also irresponsible. I therefore try to follow what I feel James Baldwin so wisely advocates in many of his essays: to remain committed to the struggle against racism while trying to keep my heart free of hatred and despair. But with every passing year this has proven more difficult, even for someone who, by virtue of my gender, fair skin, and privileged socio-economic status is frequently cocooned from the nastier manifestations of racial discrimination. It has become increasingly hard to keep my heart free of despair while noticing the effects of discrimination, especially as it pertains to young black men in America.
Several weeks ago, Logan asked, "Do you believe I'm about to turn 27?"
"Yes, I know," I answer. "Past the age 13-26 window where African American males are 5 times more likely to be killed by police." I feel immediate shame! He is celebrating his maturity, I am sharing a fear. But that statistic stuck with me, like the other numbers. At 25, his auto insurance rate dropped. At 26, my health care dropped him. But 27 marked the moment his risk of being killed by police would drop. Shameful. Painful. And a reality.
So, yes, I do think differently about race. I have come to believe it will take something like a mass spiritual awakening for us to learn to see each other as people first. But I believe it is possible.
Imagine no possessions I wonder if you can No need for greed or hunger A brotherhood of man Imagine all the people sharing all the world, you
You may say I'm a dreamer But I'm not the only one I hope some day you'll join us And the world will be as one