Recently I went to southern, rural, God’s country Delaware to celebrate the 80th birthday of Spirit Mother. This is my name for her because her senses, her emotions, her spirit are at the forefront of her life.
Spirit Mother’s birthday party was held at the magnificent great house built by her brother in lower Delaware for his extended family. Corn fields to one side. His farmhouse of a domicile on the other. In front a small swimming pool near a glass house and his garden, fragrant in spring and summer.
Spirit Mother invited people from her bracingly full life. 80 people? Yellow roses everywhere. Spirit Mother herself was dressed in pale lemon yellow.
Food, of course. Speeches also. The reindeer looked on calmly from their Elysian perch above.
Spirit Mother kissed me four times in the course of the two hours I was there. Exuberance her second name.
I was the only black person there. There was a young Asian-American woman. Everyone else was white.
As soon as I entered the building began the swallow formation.
Winter Branches #5, 1954, ink on paper; Norman Lewis, 1909-1979, American. Collection of Darrell and Lisa Walker.
One person initiated a conversation with me. I spoke to a number of people: it was I who addressed them first. The millennials went out of their way to shake my hand. No word out of their mouths, just a smile of welcome.
Wherever I went I was followed by people who hovered near me but did not address me. Room to room. Downstairs, upstairs, round the great table upstairs covered with dishes of food, to the upstairs balcony. Downstairs again to the icecream room. Out to the area around the swimming pool. Many people watched me as I circumambulated. A pathway opened up in front of me wherever I moved.
For two hours one sunny afternoon.
Before I left, Spirit Mother’s brother cut and gave me a flower from one of his gardenia bushes.
This was a micro-aggression said a young African-American, a woman with a masters in theatrical arts, when I described this afternoon to her. A white American neighbor listened and I almost regretted telling her: she was thrown in a brief second into an unexpected hole for her: the imagined discomfort and supposed outrage of a black person.
I was neither uncomfortable nor outraged. I am not young and, in any case, my childhood in far distant countries shored me up against some irrational nonsenses.
I have experienced this swallow formation enough times in the United States to know that this need not be taken as an aggression or hostility or people watching that I did not steal the silver. Need not. Not a great rustler of even the surface of my life.
But not exactly nothing either. Especially when Jonathan Franzen, said, at 59, to be among the foremost North American novelists alive, said that he does not know any African Americans. Does not see them? Does not talk to them when he sees them? Does not even participate in this momentary swallow formation of a pale but peaceable human interaction? Has mastered the description of the North American human condition without ever knowing a single one of his black compatriots?
And is now foremost in North America?
Sometimes, of course, it should be taken as an aggression. Depending. And then it’s all hell to pay as we have all seen.
This was the failure of people to connect because they are wary.
Wary of the trouble that arises like a flash between the races.
Spirit Mother, of course, is not wary of flashes.
She was on the phone at 7 the next morning: come to breakfast, she said. You can’t leave the state without coming to breakfast, she said. At breakfast, of course, Spirit Mother’s neighbours were there. They don’t believe in flashes either when they are in her house.
They believe in Spirit Mother’s way of being: spirit against or for whatever the reality is. Depending. With dozens and dozens of yellow roses.
May she live forever!
Countless Upward, 1959; water, ink and crayon on paper. Norman Lewis, 1909-1979, American. Private Collection, Columbus, Ohio
The featured image is Birds, 1950, oil on canvas painted by Norman Lewis, 1909-1979, American. Collection of Karen and Wayne Fingerman.