You could put everything I know in a thimble.
What we're taught to be don't resemble
The kings and queens who for thousands of years
Ruled magnificent cities washed away by tears.
-- "African Homeland," The Color Purple*
My friend, in tears "by the fourth second," remembered these words in particular, words of a young woman discovering who she is. Denied self-knowledge in the land of her birth, Nettie locates her self on the terrain of Africa. Seeing her own people as kings and queens, she remembers what she never knew. This is her stage, a room of her own, where limbs can extend and the soul unfold, and where her kingliness has place.
My friend wept at these words. Is she African? No, Asian. She comes here from a different place, and Nettie takes her to a place she has not been. People have come from China to America at different times, in different circumstances and with different hopes, and they inhabit many social locations. Some of their stories are as soaked in American cruelty as the worst stories of the South. I do not know her particular heritage, the things her specific America has concealed; but wherever she goes she will keep learning to be both Chinese and American, and some phrase of this song harmonizes with Nettie's. All of us have to grow up into ourselves, find the place where we can remember what we never knew. It's the roman à clef that we never finish. It's the lark's ascending into her proper, better story.
So I can feel Nettie's coming into her own. Yes. Me too. I can. Who knows? in my present water-logged mode, perhaps I would have been weeping too. How is this possible? For it is possible. If it were not possible we could never talk about justice.
I will never understand The Black Experience as a person of color does. I will never know a woman's life as the woman does. I will never know what it is like to be gay as my gay friends do. What right have I to understand them? How dare I, the whitest and straightest of men, appropriate the experience of these Others to colorize my own novella? The possibility of such empathy is much denied, and much condemned.
But I can, and I must, reach out of my story into yours, if we ever hope to meet. There will be mystery, not only between man and woman but between man and man, woman and woman. There is enigma between and among those of color and the colorless. There is incomprehension between parent and child. There is no perfect knowledge between me and the forty-eight year companion of my life. We do not live together, persons or peoples, by logic. It's poetry that saves us. Across the gaps we fling our similes at each other. We say "This that I have lived through is, I think, in some part like what you have lived through; can you feel the likeness?"
And sometimes we can feel it. It's never perfect. How could it be perfect? what would that mean? But it's what we do.
Though I am straight, I respond emotionally to the pain of gay people. This does not make me a liberator or a hero; just a person who has felt something like another's oppression. The brutality of children marked me with the word "queer," and with the loathing that accrued to that name. A lumbering youth with coke-bottle glasses, who did not know where his hands and feet were, who could not catch a ball or score a basket, who spoke in tones of the literature where he found his true friends, who lacked the ensigns of American boyhood, would be bullied as something other than a boy. In the idiot culture of those days, a "homo" was a failed heterosexual, the boy last picked when choosing sides, someone so hideous that he could only pair off with another reject. It took many years to learn that I am straight, though sometimes unhappy, and still no athlete; but there lingers in me that heartbreak of a boy denied his place. This is not exactly like being gay and having to come out, but it has some connection with it: my gay friend and I both were shamed as defective in our manhoods. I too have wondered where my country is, the place where my soul could unfold. I'm still learning that I am not hideous.
When I was in showbiz I had to make many pictures of myself, and learned that I clean up pretty good. Not hideous.
But there's a part of me that think's it's a trick.
So don't try to take a candid of me. I'll hate it. I promise you.
*Musical based on The Color Purple by Alice Walker, music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray, book by Marsha Norman.