This is my grandmother Edith, my father’s mother, my refuge, anchor in life I still miss daily seventeen years after her death. And an, um, friend. Edith called this picture “Two Mules.” She was six when it was taken and always hated it. You can see – or at least I can – that she never really had a child’s face, though it is charming to see her nose before she broke it playing football with her brothers. As the middle of seven children and the oldest girl in an immigrant Sicilian family, she always carried more responsibility than she should have had to bear.
I like the detail of the shoes, and that this picture was taken, if I recall correctly, in New Brunswick, where no one ever sees a mule just in passing anymore, though if one did, one would not expect this mule’s jaunty joie de vivre.
We are a long way from a post-racial society, at least in part because the issue of race makes us stupid. We say stupid things. We act against our best interests because we stupidly can’t see what they are. I can’t claim to be smarter than the next idiot but I can tell you this: anything that creates or prolongs suffering adds to the Stupid, and whatever works for the Common Good speaks for itself. Perhaps that is why I love this picture, below, so much. It’s nothing, it’s just a young man and his grandparents. They could be anyone and I would still feel the same way about it.
Very few of us are simply, genetically, one thing. There are remote places where people have not intermingled much with the world, but you should expect to find few teeth and supernumerary digits. Further, history is full of raping, pillaging, slavery and diaspora, so no matter how you slice it, a picture of your family tree will inevitably come up short a few branches – or maybe you’re missing from someone else’s.
I take the election season’s racial dogwhistling very seriously. It’s not hard to predict the outcome. When the Towers came down and Americans waved flags, I said, “Brown people are now going to die, as they do every time jingoism is the zeitgeist.” And now I say we are about to revisit that part of our comparatively recent history where white people act on their basest, most vile impulses and truly believe they are acting in the interest of White Pride or White Heritage or …whatever. But Americans really ought to know in 2008 that there is not now nor was there ever any such thing.
There is, however, you and your grandchildren. You and your grandparents. You and your cousins. You and your people, who may not be who you think they are. You and your own people are our people, and now is the time to ask yourself who they might be, because we cannot truly, absolutely know. You can’t know.