Models Monday: Race and Forgiveness

My relationship with my father was a hard thing for me to describe to people who only knew me as being estranged from him; so I usually didn’t talk about it. It was hard to explain how I knew that my father adored me, that he loved me as much as he was capable; I never, ever doubted his love. Ever. As I thought about it over the years, what I understood was that I could see and embrace my father’s love throughout my life because even before I had language to describe it, I had accepted that receiving my father’s love required recognition and acceptance for his limitations in demonstrating it; he could only be who he was. Thus, my father loved me through his demons.

I think my father would have benefited from psychological therapy or counseling. It was years before I associated his drug distribution and abuse as being related to his psychological and emotional demons but I think that my father probably suffered from mental illness that led to him self-medicating. As a child, I would have described my father as violently moody and I knew that it was best to stay out of his way when he was “going through it,” which was rather easy for me to do because, thankfully, he and my mother never married so I didn’t live with my father and there was no formal custody agreement. Though I saw my father regularly, I was never forced to, so if I didn’t want to chance a bad spell, it wasn’t required.

I was definitely afraid of my father. I was afraid of his temper and I tried to always stay on the good side of it. He never hit me but I knew him to hit women; he saved his verbal abuse for everyone else, and here, I had been his victim. The final straw came for my accepting his cycle of attack and apology came after my first year of college. My father learned that I had given up my track scholarship and he was livid. Now, my decision to do so only involved my father emotionally because he hadn’t committed anything to me financially or otherwise. During my entire freshman year, he had never called or written, he had never sent money or care packages, and he never visited. My quitting would involve my mother more in funding my college education but not my father. I wasn’t surprised when he called to tell me his thoughts about my decision, but the vitriol he spewed was more than I could bear. After telling me how disappointed in me he was after I had said for years that I was going to the Olympics (something that most people think you want as a runner so you just go along), how could I go and do something like this. “Man, fuck you,” he said. “If I die, I don’t even want you to come to my funeral.” I didn’t say anything. Though I would tell a more heroic story to my friends about how I immediately responded, “Fine, I’ll make other plans,” what I really did was silently cry on the other end of the telephone. I didn’t find empowerment until shortly after I hung up. I had been managing my father’s abuse for years but I decided that this was the last straw. When he came over to get money from me every time he knew I would be attending a formal dance, I figured out that he would ask for half of the total amount that I gave him.  So when I knew he would come over high and needing a fix, I would give him a total amount whose half I wanted him to have versus the actual figure. “How much money you got,” he would ask. “Fifty,” I would say. “Give me twenty-five.” I would give him twenty-five and then really have seventy-five for myself because I might have actually had $100. I decided that this latest violence was something that I would have to handle on my own in much the same way and I decided that I didn’t want anything else to do with him. In order to make the break, I needed to get back the hardware-the trophies, medals, and plaques-that I had given him to keep. When I called him the next day, acting as though nothing happened, I asked him if he was going to be around so that I could collect these things. He confirmed that he would be and he also apologized for his crudeness the previous day. I accepted his apology and set-up a time to collect my things, did it, and never looked back.

I didn’t speak to my father again for another ten years or so. This seemed to be a decision that only people who had experienced abuse understood; everyone else was sentimental. People who had also suffered any form of abuse understood that when you acted to stop it, you were moving towards having peace in your life, and that that peace was worth more than living a cliche about relationships. I was never so angry as when people who had come into my life sideways, that is, through relationships that I had with mutual friends or acquaintances, and they would try to repair the breach in my relationship with my father. You know nothing of what I have had to endure and I don’t owe it to your fantasies to re-enter that relationship to take more abuse, I would think. Even as a much younger, vulnerable woman, I was never manipulated into repairing my relationship with my father for the sake of others. If my father was an unchanged man, then he was a threat to me and anyone in my life. I knew that and I wasn’t willing to deny it for anyone else’s sense of what I ought to do.

People who are estranged from others in their lives know that estrangement doesn’t necessarily involve bitterness. I was more at peace when I became estranged from my father than I had ever been in our relationship. Estrangement didn’t mean that I carried hatred, it meant that I had rejected violence; peace was what I carried in exchange, not bitterness. The experience of peace allowed me to forgive my father and to accept him into my life once I was convinced that he had changed in relevant ways. While my father still had significant flaws, he understood that his relationship with me was tenuous and he wanted to preserve it. We never discussed this tenuousness together, though he would talk about it, I only listened, I liked what I heard. My father had no authority in my life and I liked it that way. He couldn’t be trusted with authority in my life so I liked that the balance of power had shifted to me and I trusted how I would handle it.

In his discussions of our relationship and our past, my father spoke in terms of debt. “Do you know how much I owe her,” he told me he would say to people if or when they questioned some measure of generosity I’m sure he told them he was making towards me. I would have never exploited my father’s vulnerability in the way that he exploited mine, or any other way, but I certainly perceived his vulnerability to me as a result of his moral indebtedness. From my vantage point, my father really had done the best that he could or knew how to do. I saw him as a very broken man who tried to love through weakly held together pieces of himself. I could forgive my father because he couldn’t hurt me anymore. He was now safe to love up-close. I trusted that he wanted to be in relationship with me and was willing to forfeit any authority his status as my father granted him and follow my lead. Thus, I could forgive him because I trusted myself.

What I admired about the depth of my father’s understanding of the hurt that he had caused people was his willingness to stand and face the pain, endure possible rejection, and to keep apologizing for it as long as forever lasted. When my father would tell me of his experience in attempting to reconcile with his ex-wife and their two children, I noticed that he would get frustrated at times but he never became bitter or angry with them; he accepted the pain he caused. He didn’t ask them for anything.

I recently finished reading Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock, David Margolick’s very thorough account of the life behind Will Counts’s famous photograph of Elizabeth Eckford’s walk among a hate filled crowd as she makes her way to Little Rock Central High School (LRCHS) on September 4, 1957 and I thought about the lessons I learned from my father about forgiveness and reconciliation and I have wondered how they might apply to race. I certainly accepted that Hazel Bryan Massery, the white woman in the photograph whose contorted face came to figure the hatred of Southern whites towards integration, had changed in significant ways. Even though I don’t think that time makes change inevitable, I can accept that people who want to grow and change can do so. Massery had come to accept the limitations of the views about race that she had as a teenager and she had taken on alternative ideas about it. Had she stopped short of friendship and offered an apology to Eckford for her part in causing her pain, they might have been a model of what we might reasonably expect of racial healing from this traumatic time; instead, they offer a model for much of what goes wrong within the terms of racial understanding in the United States.

Will Counts photograph of Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan on September 4, 1957.

Ultimately, in wanting a friendship, Hazel wanted too much from forgiveness and thus Elizabeth. From Margolick’s account, nothing about Hazel suggested she wanted to capitalize financially from a relationship, as far as I was concerned, but in wanting friendship, she wanted something beyond absolution. Had friendship with Hazel been something that Elizabeth wanted and pursued and it matched Hazel’s desires, that would have been fine. Wanting Elizabeth to become a friend asked for too much because it sought to establish a relationship of mutual power and authority. Hazel had no right to ask Elizabeth to open her life to her authority. This was especially true in Elizabeth’s case because she was mentally and emotionally unstable. Doctors diagnosed Elizabeth with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder  and she had been mentally, emotionally, and financially unstable for years in the wake of her experiences at LRCHS. In most of her relationships, Elizabeth was the recipient of another’s special care; she took more than she gave. Those in her community accepted this because they saw Elizabeth as someone who had sacrificed enough for their sake through her role in integrating LRCHS. Friendship or neighborliness  was an everyday recognition of the meaningfulness of history. Given what she had suffered for their sake in the past, they owed it to Elizabeth to do what they could for her, but they decided that she had done enough for them.

Hazel Bryan Massery’s relationship to history was different. She wanted forgiveness to absolve her of her debts to history and for friendship to mark a future where she and Elizabeth were mutually obligated to one another; after all, weren’t friendships about mutual obligations? Being someone who suffered from PTSD meant that history claimed Elizabeth. There was no escaping the literal return of the past for Elizabeth through traumatic flashbacks or the terror she experienced from even seeing the photograph of her surrounded by that mob; her future was inextricably linked to the past. Hazel wanted more from her and this seemed like too much to ask. Too, it showed a profound ignorance of trauma. Margolick and Eckford described Massery’s views and understanding about race naive, I found them so limited as to be reckless. She seemed ignorant of the power of racism to cause traumatic wounds and so she trivialized them. Trivializing race meant that she didn’t know how to support or show concern for the dailiness of Eckford’s encounters with racial blows.

To Massery’s credit, she did not deny Eckford’s past experiences of racial assault; much unlike Ralph Brodie, former president of the student body at LRCHS. I found Brodie’s efforts to minimize the representations the Little Rock Nine offered of their horrific experiences at LRCHS reprehensible. His efforts to cast ninety-five percent of the student body at LRCHS as “good kids” and to place his version of events beyond the master narrative offered by the Little Rock Nine constitutes a racist act because he assumes that he has the authority to dictate what happened to those black students. In doing so, his effort suggests that they lack credibility. The credibility that they lack and the authority that he assumes in seeking to redeem the white students that he feels have historically been egregiously maligned reifies the kind of abuse the Little Rock Nine claim occurred during their time at LRCHS. I thought about Excaliber Gymnastics and the response from the CEO as well as a former gymnast that trained there when I read about Brodie. The CEO essentially called Gabrielle Douglas a liar and a former athlete at the gym thought he could better describe what happened to her in his own terms. Thus, according to Randy Stageburg, Douglas was “bullied” but she was not the victim of racism. The fact that Stageburg thinks that he has the authority to dictate what happened to Douglas presumes power that he does not have. The fact that Douglas did not report her victimization to him or others shows a lack of understanding regarding the humiliation and violence of racial terror and it presumes that those outside of Douglas determine the nature of reality but she can’t. Stageburg made Douglas responsible for naming something she may not have even been able to name at the time. Just like Brodie, Stageburg set himself up as a witness and judge who did not see and was not informed and yet feels that he gets to decide what happened. His ignorance regarding the mechanics of racial terror makes one wonder what kind of witness he could be when he’s blind to racial violence and hostility. In both cases, racism gets reified by the people disputing it.

I agreed with my father’s view of his responsibility to continue apologizing for the hurt that he caused for as long as forever lasted. I accepted my father’s final apology because he had become someone who would honor that by not continuing to commit violence against me. I didn’t owe my father anything beyond that and he seemed to agree. He never seemed to want me to make him completely innocent, he didn’t seem to think he was innocent, as though the past never happened. While Massery accepted the past, through pursuing friendship, she wanted her goodness recognized and she wanted a fresh start. Thus, she wanted a shot at innocence. Such an ambition fails to keep you aware of the ways that the hurt you caused may require forever.

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