But I did grow up in a white suburb. Of the roughly 1500 students at my high school, two were black, and perhaps a half-dozen were Asian. I grew up with liberal values and with no interactions with people of other races.
I remember that when I was about four years old, I noticed dark-skinned people for the first time. I was sitting in the back seat of the car as my mother drove us to San Francisco. In those days there was no freeway from the Bay Bridge to Walnut Creek. We traveled through each town along the way, all of them connected by a two-lane highway that became “Main Street” in each little town. In Oakland it became Broadway, which we took to MacArthur Boulevard, where we turned right and headed for the bridge. Just as we made that turn, I noticed how dark the people on the sidewalk were. I called them “chocolate people” when I asked my mother about them later.
While the word “chocolate” held nothing but positive connotations for my childish mind, I was nevertheless told not to use that term or to regard those people as different from us or from anyone else. I had little occasion to have any kind of reaction to people of different races, however, as from then through my adolescence, I simply never encountered any at closer range than seeing them out the window, as I had on that drive through Oakland.
In my late thirties, I owned a penthouse apartment on the shore of Lake Merritt in downtown Oakland. I had beautiful views of the lake and of the hills beyond. I walked along the shore going to and from work each day and again on the three or four times I walked my dogs. I often sat on my deck enjoying the sights: the changing sunlight throughout the day and the watery reflections of the city lights at night; the water ebbing and flowing with the tides; the myriad birds (Lake Merritt was the first wildlife refuge in the world); and, of course, les gens qui passe.
Of the latter, it was especially in the afternoons, when men who had been working out at one of the near-by gyms, or a troop of athletes from Laney Community College, which sat a block from the lake, or even a dozen or so firemen training by running the circuit of the lake, would pass my building while I gazed down from my deck, that I, ensconced in a chair or the hammock, found observation of the human wildlife most rewarding.
Some fifteen or twenty years earlier, I sat at my carrel in the library at The Johns Hopkins University, where I was a graduate student in English, reading diligently for anywhere from four to seven hours a day. I order to keep my attention fresh and my mind sharply focused without taking frequent breaks, I would switch from reading one text, say “The Cantos of Ezra Pound,” to another, such as Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair.” Two little walls along the sides of my desk space, and a blank wall in front of me, blinded me to distractions. And since my carrel was in the middle of a long row of bookshelves, people were not walking to and fro behind me all the time.
Once in a while, however, someone would come searching the stacks for some book or other along that row. On day I sat studying, so engrossed in what I was reading that I was not even aware of the fact that, my breathing being partially obstructed by the dryness of a nostril, my hand had lifted a finger to pick at the obstruction. I was not bothered by picking my nose in so quiet and private a place, not even fully aware that I was doing so, until all at once I was aware that someone searching through the stacks behind me was watching me.
I quickly withdrew my hand from my face. My face, in turn, became hot. The tiniest capillaries under my skin had suddenly dilated, and, filling with blood, turned my face, as I knew without a mirror, red and hot. My heartbeat sped up dramatically. I was ashamed, and felt both physically and -- shall we say morally? -- uncomfortable.
I did not turn my head to see the person watching me. I do not even know how it was that I became aware of his or her presence. I only know that the mere presence of another person caused profound changes in my body over which my conscious mind had no control.
Not only that, but the action of picking my nose was shameful only because it is defined as such by the society in which I live. I fully expect that somewhere on earth, at some time, there have been societies which passed no judgment on nose-picking. Indeed, I have seen men pause while walking along the sidewalk, lean forward, place a finger on one nostril to close it, and exhale sharply through the other, discharging some obstruction from their nose onto the sidewalk, and then straighten up to walk calmly on. Internally I denounce them, feeling offended by their behavior, but I am fairly sure that they think nothing of it at all.
I have said elsewhere (see “Inappropriate Behavior, Part One”) that shame is the glue that holds society together. Shame reveals something so profound about our nature that, I believe, it calls most of the assumptions we have about the individuality of our consciousness into question.
Not only are our bodies not separate from our own minds, but our bodies are not separate from the minds of others. And if our bodies are not separate from the minds of others, is it not likely that our minds are also not separate from the minds of the people around us?
One afternoon, as I was walking alongside Lake Merritt, I saw a man approach, running at a rapid pace, his powerful legs reaching forward with each stride and grabbing the earth, propelling him forward, with the magnificent musculature of his torso, trapezius and deltoids and latissimus dorsi tapering to his impossibly narrow waist, matched in their perfection by his biceps and forearms, abdominals, and even his neck, shining with sweat under the hot sun. I watched him pass, and as I did, I became aware of the depth of my racism.
His beauty was, to me, entirely aesthetic. I appreciated his body as I appreciate sculpture. And I knew that if his skin had been white, even a swarthy, Mediterranean version of white skin, I would not only have found him beautiful, but I would have found him erotic as well. To put it bluntly, if he had been white, I would have gotten a hard-on, but because he was black, I did not.
Again, as in the library at Johns Hopkins, my body was teaching me not only the limits of my will (that pathetic sensation of intentionality that we deify and grow self-righteous about), but about the way in which the society of which I am part defines my sexuality as well as my morality. I could no more control my sexual reaction to his body than I could control my blush when seen picking my nose. I cannot decide to desire black men any more than I can decide to desire women -- or decide to feel no shame at picking my nose in front of others. The social medium in which I swim controls my body and my mind in ways that more profound than any control exercised by my "will."
Our minds are not our own.
As a student, I thought of the literary strategy called ‘stream of consciousness” as a kind of internal monologue continuing by a process something like free-association. I thought it was the rendering on the page of the ongoing thought-processes of an individual character.
When my mother died, I decided to read a passage from “To the Lighthouse,” by Virginia Woolf, at the memorial service for her. In this passage, Lilly Briscoe has set up her easel to begin work on a painting she had begun some twenty years earlier. Mr. Carmichael, the opium-befuddled poet, reclines in a lawn-chair nearby.
The painting shows the Ramsey’s summer house, in the window of which Mrs. Ramsey had been sitting when Lilly began work on the painting those many years ago. Now, however, Mrs. Ramsey has died, and in returning to the painting Lilly is made painfully aware of the absence of
Mrs. Ramsey. Indeed, she has an overpowering realization of our mortality, and she comes to understand that the dead are not absent in the sense of being negated entirely, but rather that the absence of the dead is a powerful presence in itself. Lilly feels in that moment the anguish and the beauty of our frailty and of the love between us that survives even death.
I knew the passage well from my undergraduate days at Berkeley, but in the course of memorizing it for recitation at the service, I discovered something astounding. Throughout the passage, you cannot tell which of the characters, Lilly or Mr. Carmichael, is thinking the thoughts that Woolf recounts. Indeed, you begin to realize that these thoughts, that all thoughts, are not the product of any one mind and perceived by that mind only, but that we live and think as beings submerged, as it were, in a stream of consciousness. Thought surrounds and penetrates us as does the air.
Our minds are not our own.