Sunday Sit-Down #12: The Floodgates Open

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Given that April is also poetry month, I’m also stacking that challenge right on top. As I often say when beginning anything tricky or ambitious, “We’ll see what happens.”

Pump primed, slate cleaned
My education could begin:

My first introduction was
CHIEF
That proud symbol of school pride
And heritage
That everyone has to have
On the sweatshirts we buy
And maybe this is weird while I’m asking
But if he’s so dignified
What’s with the war paint
And whooping and hollering

And the Boy Scout Manual dance
And tomahawk chops
And the clapping along to
“This is the Indian’s song?”

Eh. I could take him or leave him.

On campus I learned the other-ness of being a Jew:
I quickly developed a sixth sense for detecting
evangelical swagger.
The “I-care-about-you’s”
and the “Jesus-will-save-you’s”
and the “Do-you-do-any-reading-of-the-Word’s”
all had a certain look to them
(just as they recognized
the curly hair,
the Semitic complexion,
the tell-tale nose).
It’s why Hillel became my place,
where Yiddish was a form of currency,
Jewish geography threading a familiar, comfortable cloth.
I was among people who GOT me
without introduction or explanation or apology.

But just as I needed the like-me,
I needed the not-like-me
Anyone who would allow me to join:

The Zeta house, where my sisters
Were Christian
And Jewish
And Muslim
And Buddhist
And every color
And our national organization called us
“The United Nations Chapter”
except, I think, they didn’t mean it so kindly,
which is partly why I don’t donate to them now,
but I digress

The Asian-American Association
At the house on campus
And their meetings,
Vibrant and inspired and contentious
And wow are there layers
Upon layers

Salongo
At the res hall,
Spades tourneys and movie nights and step shows
And t-shirts emblazoned
“It’s a Black thing, you wouldn’t understand”
but I saw a shirt that read you MUST understand – shouldn’t we say that?
There are things you must understand. And…there are things you can’t.
Let it not stop you from learning or doing.

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2 Responses to “Sunday Sit-Down #12: The Floodgates Open”

  1. Tim Gels Says:

    Lainie, your poem this Sunday brings to mind a belief that I hold: most people use themselves as a benchmark for the behaviors/beliefs/practices/attributes/etc of others. “If you ____ more than me, that’s too much. If you _____ less than me, that’s too little.” When I read your line, “I was among people who GOT me,” I heard you saying something similar, but from the other perspective. We all have “differences” (for lack of a better word), but some people experience the difficulty of that (I apologize for the understatement) more than others. I appreciate your willingness to share these experiences, and hope you accept my attempts to respond from a vastly-different background.

    • Lainie Levin Says:

      Thanks, Tim! As for the vastly different backgrounds, that’s the part of this that I love and welcome. And I think you’re right about people holding themselves as a benchmark – I mean, we’re human and naturally narcissistic, no matter how much we try and claim to the contrary…

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