By Glenda | April 23, 2013

While quietly weeding my garden today, I had time to reflect on the variety of comments I have heard this week in reference to the two men who caused such tragic destruction in Boston last week.

On the one hand, there were students and friends and neighbors of the bombers, people who knew them and called them “ordinary American boys” who, these people said, “I would never have believed could have done these terrible things.” On the other hand, there were many commentators and individuals who referred to the two young men as “monsters.”

Truly they were murderers who did monstrous things, but we miss an important opportunity to prevent such events in the future if we fail to see how complex these young men were, how complex we all are. To dismiss them as monsters is dangerous to our future well-being.

Surely it is more complicated than that, and we do well to discover and consider carefully how these young men were shaped by circumstances, so that we can help, perhaps, in some way, to see that other children are not shaped in similar ways and commit atrocities in the future.

Instead of wringing our hands and saying “How could this happen?” perhaps we can instead consider what we, each of us, can do to see that it does not happen again.  To do this we must take the time to study the complexity of history and to consider the effects of all our actions.

All of this made me think of something I wrote years ago when I was trying to come to terms with my own complexity, the dark and light of my own upbringing. I offer it below as a reminder that neither terror nor complexity are new, and as a sort of prayer for all of us, victims, villains, commentators all, that we remember the wide sweep of history as we consider Boston and other such events.

I ask you to be aware that the circumstances of my childhood that I describe below occurred some seventy years ago, and in my writing about this time, in order to be authentic and true to my experience, I write with words that are today considered offensive (and indeed were offensive then), but were in common usage.

Not to use those words would be to belie the everyday ugliness some of us grew up with. Much has changed since then, of course, but there is perhaps a need to remember, because the tendencies to make absolute judgments one way or another, and the ability of all of us to suffer, has not changed. The urgency for empathy is always with us, and we must look ugliness in the face if we are to change it.

Here is my journal entry written nearly forty years ago:

Little Black Boy

little black boy,
shiny as a round, wet marble…

…was your name Henry?
I seem to think it was,
Henry, wasn’t it…
what ever happened to you?…

my first playmate, age two
or three. strange my mother
let me play with you,
white, southern that we were,
full of dark fears…

…”big black man
under her bed, had a knife,
too, wonder he hadn’t…”

perhaps it was only that you and I were so small,
obviously innocent.    we played hide and seek
in the tall weeds in the back yard
of the rented clapboard house
we lived in…

…that house, I remember, had
pale white venetian blinds;
I lived in that house, my daddy
already dead, with mama and all
those lively relatives, during
the war, when everybody worked
in the shipyard, and talked
about Germans…

one day, I remember, clear as clear,
I sat in my little wooden rocking chair,
there in a clearing in the tall weeds,
and you, Henry, danced, round and round me,
as I laughed and clapped my hands.

I remember the sunlight, as you danced,
shimmering everywhere, following you,
glints of radiant sunsheen
dancing, too, it seemed,
with you…

and then you had a turn rocking, I think;
you liked the little wooden chair,
red as a polished apple,
hand-made by an old white-haired man,
Mr. Page, who also laughed, deep in this throat…

…my children sit in the rocker
now; Mr. Page is long dead.
what ever happened to you, Henry?…

thinking of you, though, besides the sunlight,
there is, like a sliver of broken glass,
memory of the night of race riot.

you lived in nigger town
and I lived a few blocks down.

during the riot, my white folks and I sat
for days and nights and watched through slits
like narrowed eyes in those
pale venetian blinds…

…lights out, doors locked,
listening to sirens and the radio,
full of static and the National Guard,
curfews, and the red glow of huge
fires raging in nigger town…

a crowd of male relatives I hardly knew,
come to town special, carrying long guns,
to protect us, they said, from niggers
gone mad, made jokes
about all the gruesome ways
niggers were being found, dead…

and I, small as I was, trembled
in fear, for myself and mine, true,
even as I wept secretly into my sleeve,
thinking of you…

…were you dead?
was that your house burning?
(suddenly I realized
I’d never seen your house)
was your father spread-eagled
in the woods, guts spilled,
eyes put out, manhood severed?

I was only two or three years old,
you were my friend, perhaps my only friend.
did I ever see you again?
I can’t remember…

there’s only the sunlight shimmering
the day you danced, fused with that
firelight that was a lethal burn, burn…

…what ever happened to you?
Henry? was it Henry, your name?

because of you, little loved black boy,
shiny as a marble, sunsheen on you,
and that night of horror,
something seared through and through me–

the knowing that love, like honor, is color blind,
and that dark and light are two sides
of one mystical, mysterious whole,
inseparable, and that ideas

like right and wrong, and
beautiful and ugly,
and innocence and guilt
dance together, until
they melt down one another.

later I would walk with your Dr. King, and sing
freedom songs, and bring up my own children
to understand.   but who can understand…

…how dark it was,
how full of fear,
long guns everywhere,
glinting in the dark,
guns I’d never seen before,
protecting us “from some nigger”
(from you? Henry?)…

from some (black) who, perhaps, (no doubt,
I now know, driven mindless by indignant rage)
might empty a stolen shotgun, they said,
right there through our (bleak, grey) walls,
(hardly better than their own)…

as the red lights from fires reflected
through our pale venetian blinds
and the heavy smell of smoke that might be
flesh, your flesh,

took away my breath, and hot tears,
hidden in the dark, were searing fears
that left an indelible mark

of black and white, and dark and light,
so that I was, prematurely,
stamped with complex truths

I cannot now live without

of  “yes, that” and “not that,” different and the same.

…what ever happened to you,
little black boy?
Henry, wasn’t it?
wasn’t your name Henry?
wasn’t it? wasn’t it Henry?…

One comment | Add One

  1. Jim Landers - 04/25/2013 at 3:46 pm

    I can personally relate to your story from my early years. Thank goodness I have moved toward complexity and scattered confusion rather than the illusion of safety in those distorted polarities brought on by fear. I really appreciate your courage to be open and speak to our hearts.


    Jim Landers

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