Swimming Against the Current
Last night, I had a dream about Howard Street.
When I was growing up in Chicago's East Rogers Park, Howard Street was the edge of the known universe. That was where the neighborhood changed and white people didn't venture. The Chicago of my youth was a segregated city, as divided as the deep south. Some neighborhoods were black, some were white, and some were "other." Very few were racially mixed.
In my dream, I was walking along the beach near Howard Street alone late at night. I wanted to hurry because it seemed dangerous. But the more quickly I tried to walk, the heavier I felt. My feet sunk deeper and deeper into the sand. At last I came across a group of brightly painted children's playhouses with shovels resting beside them. I picked up a shovel and tried to use it as a walking stick, but when the blade sunk into the sand, a hole opened up in the ground beneath my feet. I fell through it, landing in my own body which was lying asleep on my bed.
I woke up.
I was dreaming about the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, a spiritual wounding that splinters a part of the soul from the body, leaving it stranded in the past. I was returning to Howard Street, the place where the black people lived, to retrieve a part of my soul that I lost when I was eight.
Two weeks ago, I was elected Vice Chair of my local Democratic Party. I knew my life would change, if only because of the increased responsibility and workload. In Rio Arriba, the Republican party consists of a handful of volunteer fire chiefs. A few Greens are scattered here and there. The Democratic Party determines the shape and direction of local government: our school boards, our county commission and our city council. I felt trepidation at the workload and the challenge. But I didn't realize the spiritual changes it would bring about.
I left Chicago when I was eighteen. I wanted to get as far away from the land of black people and white people as I possibly could. I disembarked in northern New Mexico, where we have Hispanos, Indios and Anglos. The world is brown, not black and white.
When I was eight, I lived alone with my single, schizophrenic mother. I was a latch-key child, dressing myself after she left for work, and setting out for school. One day, when I was still at home, a man broke into my house and assaulted me. He happened to be a black man. My life after that was filled with police cars, bullying, and visits to Cook County Hospital. My mother swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills. More police and more trips to Cook County. More isolation and loneliness.
Here in Rio Arriba, I busied myself organizing Moms who had lost their children to murder, overdose or DWI, to build playgrounds. We graduated to treatment centers, trying to divert people from our local jail. I find it hard to this day to visit inmates because it brings back to me, so clearly, my mother's incarceration in the state hospital and the role I imagined I played in it.
Oddly, the most spiritually dislocating change in my life right now is not the effect of race. I am aware, as I always am, that I am the only Anglo in the room. I am aware that no Anglo has ever been asked before to be a chair or vice chair of our local party. I imagine that women of color can more readily empathize with this experience than can most of my Anglo sisters. What is most disorienting to me though is the change in status I am experiencing with regard to men in my life.
In the generation before me, a few women in Rio Arriba rose to leadership. Generally, they were hard as nails. They had armor, fangs and claws, and nobody dared cross them. I am generally not very scary. My eyes mist up at the drop of a hat. Learning not to cry has been a challenge. I have always been much better at fighting for Rio Arriba County than I have for myself.
Forty-five years ago, I had all my power as a human being stripped away from me. I have struggled over the decades to win it back. Part of that struggle has involved attempting, with varying degrees of success, to stand my ground with the men around me. It is incredibly disorienting to have them band together and hand me back my power with interest.
I'm accustomed to struggling with individuals. I'm not accustomed to accepting status spontaneously and collectively given.