Thursday, February 24, 2011
I also realized that a certain strength came from the bottom; for to be on top is a mixed and partial blessing. As a white man nothing stands between you and success in the world but your own naked ambition. All that prevents your entry into material Valhalla is your ability to manipulate a system designed for your success and inculcated with your values.
If you are white and push a broom in Pierpont Morgan’s Library, and the Morgan himself ponderously strides past your small pile of gathering dust --- the only thing that separates him from you is the chasm of your own ineptitude. For Sex and Class can be concealed beneath the gentle facade of manners and subtle courtesies, but race stares you unforgivingly in the face. You can hide your mulatto children on tobacco road, but you can never pretend that you ushered them into the world with the same boons you bestowed onto your plantation wife’s offspring.
I often wonder what would have happened to me if our family had remained Negroes? Would two glaring eyes be peering out of a dark maze? Would limbs continue to grow unchecked?
A particular: this is all correct, in a certain sense. But I could never escape the spatial urge when crafting my creations, the apt metaphor of building a house. I can never resist the impulse to build those areas most heavily trafficked with the most elegant of structures and furnishings, even if, from the restricted realm of truth, they are not the most important. The load-bearing zone may reside in some unused attic or some musty basement. I could easily usher you past my formal sitting room and show you the misshapen gnome that I hide away in the garret room above the stairs, but wouldn’t you be more comfortable in the Empire chair I’ve fashioned for you near the roaring hearth? We can ignore the traffic on Fifth Avenue, bleating outside our window and concentrate on what really matters, what is fundamentally important? For there is a great deal that needs to be ignored. A selective and editing eye will be our fussy host. For natural selection works not only in nature but in memory. For just as the white moth that recently lived in a forest of pale birches, whose trees suddenly and unfortunately are transformed to black from some natural catastrophe, so it is with human memory: what survives survives because of its usefulness: (and narrative is memory’s triage!)
The grand scope, the overarching vision, has no place in a family reunion. In families things must, narrow and close-cropped. Not every stone should be overturned. All that is necessary is focus and blur… focus and then blur…
Focus in: my family, take them for all in all, had their racial smudge, this genetic stammer. Personally, I always thought we could have considered it a feather in our cap, but no one in the family shared my views about our African ancestry, or at least never verbalized it to me. Instead, they sat serenely in stuffy parlors making fancy embroidery, or trotted over to Columbia or went up to Harvard to study law or medicine, and somehow forgot how dangerous it is to try and stand firmly on an uneven foundation. For nothing aggravates a case of historical vertigo quite so much as inadequate amnesia, or the erroneous notion that one’s head is as sound as a bell when you can see the crack, when you can hear the faulty resonance in cast bronze
And then there were all those portraits of father’s family that seemingly illustrated that we were white, that we were an old Dutch family from the Hudson River valley (Were we? Were we!?). But one need only do what I did when I came of age and my faculties became sufficiently acute: sidle up to them and think white and they are white; then, after a period of latency, sidle up again and think black and they become black. I realized, many years before I read Twain’s Puddin’Head Wilson that race is a Rorschach test. That at the margins and creeping toward the center it is as malleable as silly-puddy.
Blurring out, panning beyond, grasping at a universal, what could I do, having this questionable ancestral load to carry, but move on and pretend that none of it ever happened? That was the Vandemark philosophy. We had distilled this liquid until it was a fine jelly eager for consumption. We sported a stiff upper lip stoicism that was pure hollow poise. It was perfect rot. For behind the facade was a Poe like decay, a disillusionment that precipitated a slide to nothingness.
My family would sometimes whisper its secrets, but so much was contradictory and mutually exclusive. No one told anyone anything except in groups of two --- a wise policy, since it prevents factions, always a danger in a family with dark skeletons in their closets. For me it added impetus to enterprise when investigating for some sort of cohesion, some way to pick up the pieces and find the Ariadne thread out of the maze. My family never had the firm grounding that I wanted it to possess. I wanted it to cough up its secrets while I held its neck at the choke point.
…I thought, one fateful late November day that I had the clue, that I had found the secret ember that could, in a sense, light the fuse and explode the safe door, and reveal, to my eager eyes moist with tears of frustration, its hidden content….
But the War stopped my investigations.
One may as well begin here:
When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor I leaped from the porch of our Harlem brownstone and sprinted to the recruiting station. I was too old to enlist in the regular Army, so I left in frustration. But a day later I used certain family connections to pull strings and get on the fast track to a commission. Some chits were called in, some promises were made on late night telephones to smoky offices, chewing the fat and calling in old debts to corpulent family friends. In a week I was down in cradle Dixie for my inadequate training.
By early the next year I was on a ship creeping snailwise across the North Atlantic for England. We were taking a northerly route not to save time, but because of the ice floes (unusually strong that year) and the constant threat of U Boats (who were getting their cross hairs trained for the anticipated west-east transfer of Warehouse America to Airstrip England) we were at sea for weeks. The boat rolled and pitched on black, unforgiving waves, and I sat, nestled in my cabin berth, piling up crates of rations against the row of unusually wide port holes, for they gave me a continual view of the broken black landscape of pitching waves, and caused, for the first time in my relatively serene and optimistic life, to doubt that Order existed in the Cosmos, and to entertain that perhaps Disorder ruled the weary day.
And I got, on that crossing, an oddly prescient view of what would happen after the war, of what would occur when America would no longer be a Crusading Nation. It would be forced to turn back into herself and realize, quite to her dismay, that her house was not in order. For what was worse than a nation that had to turn back greedily into herself: no more Indians to defeat, frontiers to conquer, Dixie to reconstruct, Japs to subdue. What would we do with a nation that was complete?
It is easy to be derailed on this front: the pain of being complete is a far worse a penalty than the curse of incompleteness. Promise is better than fulfillment and the race more exciting than the trophy loving cup. With nothing to do, where would we put our hands as we stand around the water cooler?
I worried for myself as well. A certain self-serving element existed in my nail biting woes. My ‘taint’ could easily be discovered by some Puddin’head Wilsonian character and then where would I be in the New World Order? I knew, or at least I surmised, that strict taxonomy would be demanded, a new purity, a new drive toward distinction, would mark that bright future day.
By the time our gray little ship came in sight of England, the storm serge had lost its height. The sea was a placid steel gray, so I slunk out onto the deck.
Britannica hung low over the horizon: a series of blue black hills with a ring of dingy mist hovering overhead. I gripped the cold rusted steel of the railing and looked down at the sparkling reflections of my golden-cuff links. Then, as my eyes moved into hyper focus, I imagined myself inhabiting a small, self-contained world within those cuffs --- complete, crystalline in its brightness, glimmering in purity --- and I wondered, as those blue gray hills began to show more details (a candy cane red and white colored light house on a black rock, a clutter of square shaped houses lining the harbor, laid out like haphazardly arranged packing crates) why open spaces gave me the atavistic urge to burrow into the earth. Not from anything so banal as agoraphobia (for despite local Harlem lore, I am not eccentric or insane, but a man who has laid each cognitive brick that composes the structure of his life with great care --- with careful self-consciousness) but from a simple metaphysical stance: unity is a better, more solid state than disunity; singularity a more primal, more fixed point of reference than multiplicity.
And the world produces multiplicity from its multifarious parts with the singular insistence of a flower spewing millions of uncountable grains of pollen in the spring tide air. Simply put, proliferation is king in our world! Spawning and living, dying and decaying, and time, that ceaseless metronome, making us keep pace, and all the loss… the loss…
We disembarked at the English port of Swansea. In 1942 Channel ports were still too dangerous for weakly armored ships like ours, so I had to endure a grueling twelve hour train ride from Swansea to Cardiff, and then a ferry to Bristol, a transfer to a cattle car at Reading, and finally, a slow conveyance to London.
England was a bewildering tangle; the civilian and the military were separated by the thinnest of lines, so trains, cars, boats, planes were constantly appropriated at the last minute. Often a gaggle of gray, listless people were left stranded on a rural station platform in the rain. A peace-time four hour ride was stretched like taffy by the Gods of War into a twelve hour daymare of transfers both missed and abandoned, accidents, unforeseen and in retrospect avoidable.