by Dante Zappala
I was late for work. I rounded City Hall as the radio program approached the 10 o’clock hour. The host on WDAS offered a closing prayer in the aftermath of the shooting of the Dallas police officers. He prayed for the safety of black men, wherever they were.
He didn’t say so explicitly, but I believe his prayer was based on an anxiety that in the aftermath of this tragedy, black men may be even more susceptible to being shot in confrontations with police. The fear he tapped into is an old one, going back to the days of lynching and terror.
The song he then played to close out the set was “Jesus is Love” by the Commodores. It was already 85 degrees and humid, but I shut down the A/C and lowered the windows as the opening lyrics played: “Father, help your children and don’t let them fall by the side of the road. And teach them to love one another, that Heaven might find a place in their hearts.”
The warm breeze, the sunshine and the scenes of the city blended with the sadness of Baton Rouge, Falcon Heights, and Dallas. As the tune carried out the window, I approached something close to understanding.
Fittingly, Lionel Richie had been in my head recently. I had been listening to WXPN the week prior when they played “Just to Be Close to You.” I’ve memorized every lyric, spoken word and inflection of the song and I shamelessly followed along out loud, again with the windows wide open.
But what stuck was what the XPN radio hosts said after the song played. They made a cheap joke about the sappiness of the 70’s. What remains to me a powerful love song is nothing more than an opportunity for sarcasm to some; a chance to tease the era of flashy jumpsuits and big hair. I couldn’t imagine such condescension of the song had it been played on an R&B radio station.
I recognize that I am easily offended, and this certainly made the list. Still, the observation was significant to me. Before a week where racial issues were the lead of every newscast, I’d been thinking deeply about the comments of Jesse Williams at the BET Awards. The reaction to his words about oppression and appropriation had been visceral among some people.
I had the chance to allow those words the space they deserved. We vacationed around the 4th in a bit of nowhere that happens to be half-way between Philadelphia and Dubuque, Iowa, where good friends of ours moved a few years ago. We met in the middle for a few days of exploring the state parks and surrounding communities in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio.
I logged an hour of running every morning on the narrow roads that wind up and down the area. The hills were unavoidable and unmistakable in both their grade and length. The trails were desolate, muddy, and, in my imagination, roaming with rattlesnakes. I stuck to the asphalt. Still, I saw more wildlife than people. The swaying pace provided the headspace to consider more deeply what Mr. Williams was trying to say. It was a defiant and determined speech. It was a lecture. Ultimately, it was a call to both black and white artists to be conscious of how they interpret culture.
Where we come from matters; not just to ourselves but to the people who perceive that place and use it as a basis to form opinions about us. This is at the root of the heightened sense around both cultural appropriation and the instant decisions police officers must make in tense situations.
To that end, race matters precisely because it’s a deliberately constructed label to identify where we come from. Both historically and presently, race is the first identifying characteristic we’ve chosen to associate people with. We’ve established the foundation of our society upon the subsequent stereotypes and prejudices those labels produce.
That instant recognition of difference is certainly not confined to race. I drank a few beers with my brother at McMenamin’s the other night. The bartender spotted some people who he assumed to be from Chestnut Hill. “Campbell’s must be closed,” he joked. Was it the Under Armour polo shirt or just a vibe? Was it even true? That level of nuance in the distinction between 19119 and 19118 is a curiosity, it’s certainly interesting to think about, but it likely doesn’t matter much to the world at large.
The issue of race, however, is primary. Understanding it requires a mind that is patient and willing to absorb rather than expel. There’s an academic perspective that many people miss. Yet more so, the haste of emotion and the subsequent entitlement to speak to that emotion means that the intelligence of the aggrieved is generally underestimated and dismissed.
Diamond Reynolds showed us that intelligence in her live stream after her boyfriend was shot. Folks should listen to that encounter and say nothing, as one might when standing in front of a painting.
The threads we seek run continuously from their origins. But it requires a trained eye to spot them. They don’t contrast with the fabric they weave through. They’re disguised; more likely to be hidden in the refrain of a song than written in the headline of the paper.
I spotted those threads in the quiet countryside that rolled through one of the poorest counties in America. Yet I knew for certain that there were more out there, down on the trails I was afraid to run on, camouflaged by nature.