I saw Lincoln last night. Here’s my review: everyone should see it. For lots of reasons, not the least of which is the eerie way Daniel Day Lewis disappears into the character and actually seems to become the man.
There’s a scene where President Lincoln tells his wife’s servant, “I don’t know you or any of your people. But I expect I’ll get used to you.” He is saying, with elliptical compassion, that racism is learned. But it can also be unlearned, if we let ourselves take the lesson.
There was much to admire about the movie but that line stuck in my head, maybe because it was so easy to see how it applied to my own upbringing. My home town was once featured on 60 Minutes in a segment titled “The Most Racist Town in America”. Of course residents found the coverage unfair, and maybe it even was — I don’t really remember the details of the show, and all of that was many years ago. Over the years, the complexion of the town changed -literally, and as the complexion changed, so did attitudes. Lincoln was right.
My town lived cheek-to-jowl with East St.Louis, but despite the proximity of a town that was 80% African American, I encountered very few black people growing up. It was a rare enough occurrence that I can remember them all: I once saw a black girl about my age at a park – we would have been about eleven. At my large-ish high school of about ~800 students there was one black student. His name was Keith.
But the first time, this time, I am small. I am with my dad, one Saturday in December, and it’s remarkable how clear the memory is.
Dad is taking a quick trip to the office, and invites me to come with him. It’s a given that I’ll say yes – there is nothing I liked more than riding somewhere with my dad, wearing his blue baseball hat its old sweat band and “Belleville Electric” in a square patch on the front. On this trip it is winter-cold so I do not wear the baseball hat. It is just past my birthday so I wear my new red hat – a scratchy knit beanie with a giant pom pom and matching red mittens. My dad shows his approval by tweaking my nose.
It is the era before car seats, and I sit tall in the front passenger seat in mom’s usual place. I push the dashboard buttons until the radio obligingly changes from talk to music. That’s nice, dad says of the woman singing a Christmas song. He tells me the singer’s name is Miss Peggy Lee, and I am warmed by this, as my own middle name is Lee. It does not feel like a coincidence though I know it is – I am old enough to know that I have been named for my dad’s older brother, Uncle LeRoy. Still, dad likes Miss Peggy Lee, and my name is Lee, and this fact is like a strand of tinsel stretching between us, a strand to be decorated with ornaments and stars.
The office is not fun – a bunch of tall tables my father says are drafting tables. I try to picture what drafting must be, how my father who is small and dark, and his boss, who is big and pale as a vanilla pudding, would use these tables during the day. I am sure that drafting involves standing on these tall tables, but though my imagination places them up there, tall and small, fat and not, they don’t do anything but stand. At seven, my imagination only takes me so far
Back at the car, dad opens the trunk. I stand there waiting ; it is cold but not too cold. I can feel my nose slowly turning red. A man walks up and opens the trunk of the car next to us. It is a bigger car and a bigger trunk and I peer around my father to see.
My father says my name in a low voice. There is a command in that voice, but I do not understand it, for he says nothing else. I move closer to the other car, to the broad back of the man standing there. He is tall, taller than my father, and broader through the shoulders too. His coat is long, reaching to his knees, of some soft-looking material that is black. I notice this because my father’s coats only go to his waist, and are all shades of tan or khaki or brown or olive green. It is my mother who wears the darker coats that reach to her knees.
The man turns, and I take a step back and bump into my father. I am surprised, because the man is black. I did not know that a man could be black – I have never seen a black man. I am seven. The man smiles and his teeth are white. I take a step toward him. I am very interested.
Dad, that man! I say, not softly.
Hi Duane, the man says. His voice is just regular. He winks at me.
My dad says hello, and says the man’s name. I notice he does not look at the man when he says hello. Instead, he looks at me. He also closes the trunk, though I am pretty sure he is not finished with what he was doing.
I turn back to stare some more at the man, who is still black. I am amazed. I am smiling. I want to get him to talk again but I can feel dad’s hand on my shoulder, warning me not to. I am warm and happy. I did not suspect this. It is like seeing a six foot sparrow, or a potato as big as a car. It is like seeing a baby with a beard, or a boat with wings. I know at once that this new thing is not a new thing in the world, just in my life – that it is newer to me than to my father, and though somewhat new to him it is not unexpected. I am amazed that my father knew about this thing in the world – this ordinariness of men who are black, who say hello to us and wink at me. It makes him seem wise.
The man is getting into his car. I continue to stare, my nose running freely now. I wipe it with my mittens The man unrolls his window and I take a step forward.
Sandy, dad says again, with the same warning tone, and now of course I realize what the warning is about, though I do not know what it is for.
I like your hat, honey, the man says. His smile is so big that I take a step back.
My father does not tell me to say thank you to the man. I stand there red hatted, staring as the man’s car, which is very long, pulls away from ours and drives away.
That man was black! I say to my dad.
Yes, he is, my dad says.
But why is he black, I ask.
Some people are black, dad says. They are born that way.
But where are they? I ask, and here my memory breaks down. My father either does not answer me, or the answer drifts away in one of the white vapor balloons our conversation is making between us.
On the way home we listen to more Christmas songs on the radio, dad tapping the steering wheel, me with my red knit hat in my lap, batting the big pom pom back and forth between my palms. I stare out the window and entertain myself by looking for a glimpse of the black man’s car, or for other people who are black.
I often think about this time, how vivid this memory is, riding next to my dad, the radio playing, contemplating this new thing about the world that I’d just learned. How the fact that there are remarkable unknown things can be so unremarkable to a child, how freely I said the word ‘black’ without having to think about it, how the man smiled. How my dad piloted the car, through streets just starting to turn icy in a time before car seats, my breath fogging the window, dad next to me singing along with the Christmas Song under his breath.