All I Know About Race

All I know about race in America could fit in a tiny-size gelato from Teo’s.

That’s where I just took a dozen kids with two other volunteers as part of a field trip for children who lost their homes in Hurricane Katrina and who now live with their families in an extended-stay hotel in Austin. For most of them the journey began about a month ago in their New Orleans homes with rain that made the lights go out.

All of them are African-American. The girls wear their hair in complex braids. The boys, except the ones still dressed by their mothers, wear pants with crotches hanging low. Many of their names are hard for me to remember, some are hard to even sort out into letters of the alphabet. Shalonda, Shameeka, Roshaan, or rarely, William. If someone were to ask them, they would think riding in a white lady’s car is about as strange as anything. But maybe they’re getting used to all the white ladies (and men) who sit with their parents at computers in the resource room or bring them toys or take them out for pizza on a rainy day.

The wind and water have mixed things up. What used to be separate is now, in some places, mixed. How else would I find myself in the hotel room of Jermaine, a nineteen-year-old African-American boy from New Orleans? A blanket emblazoned with Porche in huge letters, apparently a donation he found for himself at one of the shelters along the way, is neatly arranged over the hotel bedspread. I sit in a nearby chair to interview him. I am there to confirm a story one of his aunts told me. She says he waded in chest-high water to find a boat and saved his entire family and then came back to save complete strangers. His skin is dark, so dark that in the dusky light of a single lamp when he bends forward into the shadows his features blend into silhouette. Built like an off-season football player, Jermaine has a fringe of dreadlocks framing his round face. His smile is huge and comes easily. Except when I press him—about why he dropped out of school in 10th grade, for instance. He looks down at the carpet as if it has answers. He shakes his braids and says he made choices and his voice drifts off. He says he had to get a job to help support his mother and siblings. When I ask if his neighborhood had drugs and violence and whether that had anything to do with his not getting a diploma. He laughs. I mean, he really laughs. I’m sitting on a chair across from him and he’s on the edge of his bed still laughing. When he looks up he finally tells me the punch line: “Lady, there is drugs and violence in every poor black neighborhood!” He has three wishes: to see his baby niece again, to get his GED, and to live in a house with all thirty members of his family that made it to this single place in Austin. Of these, we can grant him one—he’s in his second week of a program that gives him a job and enables him to earn his diploma. As I leave I tell him he’s a hero—he laughs. I press again, telling him not everyone would do what he did. This time when he looks up from the carpet his eyes are wet. I shake his big hand and he walks me to the door.

This hurricane had a strange power—not only to level brick buildings and uproot ancient trees—but also to remove the barriers behind which poverty and race hide. In many ways we are not alike. I live in a land where people drive cars, work a usually 9-5ish job, have one or two kids after the age of 30, have credit cards, cell phones, health insurance, go on vacation, practice a sport or somehow try to stay fit, and worry about things like insurance, 401k’s and who’s dating Brad Pitt.

In the world Jermaine left, no one had a car, they just used the bus. Mom worked at the nursing home and Dad did warehouse work. Or maybe Mom was gone or Dad and Grandma took their place. The houses were falling down and crowded. Girls had children early and finishing high school was optional. And then there’s hair products.

For a day or so after the hurricane, reporters used the word "refugees." Then someone protested, explaining the definition: people taking refuge from a foreign country in turmoil. But refugee may be the best word. 

For many people I’ve met Katrina, is a defining event—not just the disaster that stripped them of their homes and belongings and friends, but a sort of exodus. Take Shalanda, a twenty-something woman who has fought drug addiction for six years. She’s been in and out of rehab and when clean always fought the desire to return to using. But she said Katrina changed that. For the first time her life has purpose. She believes she was brought to Texas for a reason. She just bought a dining room table and a couch at Salvation Army.

Two weeks after the hurricane, after working with evacuees a lot, I dreamt all night of a long line of black families streaming by. A few days later I realized I’d never dreamed of so many blacks before.

I think race is what sex was before the pill, meaning I think it’s the last thing that has not been fully examined and owned in our society.

Today, before the ice cream field trip, I attended a barbeque and celebration for the hurricane families (the shorthand name we use which lies outside political correctness because it’s so easy to understand) given by the Art of Living Foundation. This international group of volunteers teaches meditation to disaster survivors around the world. They’ve been teaching breathing and relaxation techniques to people at the hotel in the evening and many have said it helps them sleep. The group’s leader, an Indian man with flowing hair and a gentle smile—a dead ringer for Jesus Christ—spoke to the crowd who had been wooed with New Orleans jazz and barbeque. He said that Katrina had taken their homes but they couldn’t let it take their smiles. One boy, about ten-years-old, wandered around with a drawing pad sketching a portrait of the wise man. Then the guru met with the hotel’s oldest resident, a 103-year-old man who had been a bishop in his gospel church. The two stood in the doorway with the afternoon light streaming in around them—the old man seated in a wheel chair and the foreigner in diaphanous white robes. I wanted to take a picture but the strong back light was too bright. Instead I watched them, two figures bleached of all details standing in white light. Isn’t that what you’re supposed to see when you die?

When the kids get too loud, as a dozen kids will, we take them outside to finish their ice cream. A little girl offers forth her tiny white spoon for me to taste. Watermelon sorbet. She is full of glee that it tastes exactly like the fruit. I open my mouth and take in her offering. I hate watermelon. But somehow this cold spot melting on my tongue tastes like a sweet green leaf.  No one wonders why three white women are bringing a dozen black kids into a gelato bar. For now, the barriers that keep us separate have been breached. For now, there is no color except watermelon pink.
Robin Bradford, an award-winning short story writer and essayist, has published in Brain, Child, Glimmer Train, and many other places. You can find her in two new anthologies -- Mother Knows: 24 Tales of Motherhood and Three-Ring-Circus: How Real Couples Balance Marriage, Work and Family. Bradford works as a communications and development director for a nonprofit affordable housing provider in Austin. She lives with her husband and son, three cats and a dog in a tiny fifties house. Being the mother—of a child over the age of three!—is the best thing that ever happened to her. Contact her at motherload @ austinmama.com  And visit her site at www.robinbradford.net