Continued (Part 1 is here)
Giggly girls speaking in tongues and I can no longer write coherently.
So I move to a different table up near the two – count ‘em, TWO sets of overstuffed chairs that give me comfort just to see. I don’t usually sit in them anymore; I just like to see them there. Because they are comfy, I am comforted – something like that.
A white woman and a black woman are sitting in one set of the comfy chairs discussing Don Imus. If I were a reporter or a journalist, this might look like a newsworthy trinket wrapped up and bow-tied. But instead, I look at my own usage of the terms “white” and “black” and I’m irritated I have to use those terms at all.
What could be more perpetually polarizing than using opposite terms of color to describe ourselves – or more pointedly, to describe others? I’m not white, and my friend Johnny is not black. While he is a very dark-skinned person, he is not black. If he were black, that would be a very curious thing. Even someone designated as an “albino” is not white, in any literal or even empirical sense. I want to use what a young boy named Brendan taught me to use if designation of racial, ethnic, or cultural distinction is necessary – “light-skinned” or “dark-skinned”. Or usually I prefer the designation of Caucasian (for myself), Asian, or … Here’s another problem, though: are African Americans really such if they are not directly from Africa? It seems not, in a literal sense, and yet I realize we cannot go back to the 19th century term Negroid, and Caucasoid. The Oxford Dictionary cautions against using those designations, so that’s out. If “African American” is a valid term, then I would be a European American, but we don’t use that designation, do we? The dark-skinned people with ancestral origins in Africa that I know prefer the term “black,” so I’m afraid we may be stuck with these very inadequate and divisive terms. Please, within these considerations, what do we do about this?
Now, here’s something – the white woman is rabid about the Don Imus thing. She has apparently accosted the black woman, a stranger, by claiming that, “You’re African American, so let me ask you…” Her voice rises, and I notice Gilbert the barista keeping an eye on her. The white woman is cussing up a storm, F—- this and S— to that. She wears black-rimmed glasses and carries with her a stack of magazines and writings and looks as though she’s used to claiming space here at this Starbucks. Could she be the DC here? I try not to make eye contact with her for fear of her latching onto me in one-sided conversation like many DC’s seem to do, but my fascination with the black woman and her reaction to the rabid woman keeps my eyes climbing over my laptop screen.
NOTE: Later the black woman explains to me that she told the white woman that she was NOT African American and that she is Black, and doesn’t allow others to call her African American when she is not. END NOTE.
Here’s, essentially, what the black woman says to the white woman’s rage against Imus and those she lumps with him – she says, “I have life to live, I’ve got work to do. I don’t have time to spend on insignificant stuff like that.” I’m pleasantly floored. She notices my eyes pop and smiles at me, and I smile back. I like her.
As I’m writing all this up, their discussion goes back and forth between the rabid woman’s incredulity with the black woman not agreeing with her. But the black woman is unfazed; is actually enjoying the debate, I think, and I like her even more. Plus, she has a nice voice.
Finally, the black woman has had enough and gets up to go, first coming over to me to talk, because I’m smiling at her. We share a compatriot’s grin, and she explains that she’s from Tennessee. She tells me about her mother and how, when she came home in tears one day after her first encounter with cruel prejudice in someone calling her a Nigg–, her mother’s response was to ask her if she was one. She replied ‘No‘ and so her mother simply said to get on with her life.
“Jesse and Al aren’t always going to be there when there’s an offense because they aren’t accessible to your average person. And your character is built by how you respond when there is no Jesse or Al”, she says to me.
I tell her about all of my summers spent in Memphis and my experience around my relatives which are on the opposite side of her experience. More blog entries…
Then, something happens that gives me a real chuckle and a lift. Three people enter the coffeehouse that the black woman recognizes. The man is Spanish-speaking, and he is with his wife and her friend. They all say their hellos and the two women go to order. The man and the black woman begin mentioning old times. It’s apparent they have not seen each other in a long time. In an affectionately moving gesture, the man opens his coat and rubs his protruding belly. The black woman responds by taking her hat off to elicit his surprise at her very close-cropped hair, as testament to the time and changes that have passed through their lives. As I sit here, I am thankful for this joyful and truthful honesty.
Ava is her name, as I finally find out after the man goes to order. She is a singer and composer. She writes children’s music. How nice! She uses music to insert English lessons in songs for young students. Her friend is in the same business, apparently, but produces his work in Spanish. Ava says that the man also translates Ava’s songs into Spanish for her. Ava is very outgoing and friendly. She explains that out of nine brothers and sisters, all but one have advanced degrees. She believes in living through example and being a testament to one’s ideologies, rather than spouting them off. And here I am, spouting off …
She asks me what column I’m writing for and I tell her, playing as though this blog is established, credited, something of substance. Well, I’m thinking in future tense, here, okay? Ava has a column in an LA jazz magazine, and she hands me her card. I have one of my freshly minted, Avery-perforated CoffeeHouseBlog cards and I hand it to her before she leaves to go sit with her friends. Would one of you reading this remind me to keep in touch with Ava? I know how leaky my mind is.
It’s interesting (at least to me!). Writing this, I’m witnessing first hand how a journalist must work around remembrance of details of conversations and observations. I am naturally embellishing and sometimes creating certain aspects of what I’m writing about. Is that ethical? I don’t know, but that’s how it’s working for me as I try to keep up with the input, lagging behind and having to fill in the blanks of my perceptions, hearing, and memory. I hope Ava forgives me for my inadequate retelling of the encounter. For that matter, I hope the rabid woman forgives me, too. More on that…
It’s a lively night, this night without power. The rabid woman now turns her attention toward me…
I AM the CoffeeHouse Blogger. Hear me type!
Continued in Part 3:
The Rabid Woman; Coffeehouse discussions in the ancient Assyrian language; Gilbert answers a very personal question.
About This CoffeeHouse at the end of Part 4