Hamartia: The Failure to Recognize

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

What does it mean, to see someone and not see that person at the same time?

I’m sitting on my porch: the messiest one on the block, a ruckus of flowers and rusty bike spokes. Near the railing there’s a surprise cantaloupe, sprouted from compost soil. A few weeks ago I pulled a sock over it—for secrecy, and for protection. My flowers are the sorts I can manage—marigolds, bland impatiens, stringy morning glory vines. All of them in dented pots, watered occasionally.

This July evening feels like a low flame. I’ve just gotten home from a pool party out in the suburbs; the dry chlorine’s all itchy on my face. We’d been celebrating the birth of a baby named Vernon who slept and slept while everyone got rowdy and excited around him. All the adults drank Coronas and passed baby Vernon around. His damp russet hair rested on our various sweaty chests; passed as he was, he paid us no mind. Vernon’s granddad complimented his old-timey name. Vernon Barnes Briggs: formal and scrappy all at once, syllables sidling and bristling against one another.

This isn’t a story about that baby, though. That baby isn’t what I’m talking about here.

So that was my night: lilting and generally okay. Until someone passed by. Until that someone was my neighbor, who has a name, whose name I didn’t recognize though I could name all kinds of other things, like “marigolds” and “Vernon” and “cantaloupe in sock.”

When I failed to recognize my neighbor—when I misrecognized her, unrecognized her —everything shifted a little. How it went was: I was noticing eddies of dried candle wax, spilled and stuck to my porch table. I was thinking maybe I should grab a butter knife, pare that pale membrane off. What I saw was: a bike shooting up from the street, onto the pavement. The rider a black woman separating her body from the bike, feet easing down from pedals, torso in its sundress straightening, shoulders opening their posture.

The rider of the bike a black woman, and me thinking black woman, thinking bike. Black knees and flip-flops held in place by black feet. Black hands against chrome handlebars; those handlebars shining in the dusk. And then the opaque phrase black woman dissolved into the specifics of my neighbor—the rich aspect of her locks, the way she habitually gives fifty cents to the guy begging outside the beer distributor, the great ferns on her porch, which is much cleaner than mine. But by that time it was too late. I saw something different, and I saw it for long enough that I couldn’t help but notice myself, seeing.  I speak with this neighbor quite often; she brings home potent kale for her smoothies, she likes a Latin American author whom I also like. She’s in a Ph.D. program, writing a dissertation about the colonial gaze in tourist narratives. This neighbor most often says hello to me before I say hello to her. I could have reasons for that, so many reasons that have nothing to do with race. I see that a lot, in myself and in others: how easy it is to find reasons that aren’t about race.

This is what I know. I looked right in her face, and I saw nothing that I recognized. I looked in her face, and her face looked like everything else in the neighborhood—the sycamores that keep on peeling back bark, revealing bone-white trunks, and the yards that are full of roses and the yards that rattle with trash. Her face was a piece of the scene; it registered in a way that was no different from stop signs and disinterested house windows and cars thrumming through the intersection. Then after an instant there was recognition. But sometimes after an instant is too late. And it’s just now that I realize: this isn’t the first time this nonrecognition—my nonrecognition—has gone on. So I watch her front door, hoping I can call across the porches, across the iron bristle of alleyway fences. Please come back, I think. I need you to come back. I need you. I need you to talk to me. I need you to recognize me so I can go inside and drink a glass of water and sigh into bed and know that I’m not like that. I need you—but in that sentence, I’m still the one taking the action and you’re still the object, the object that is sometimes recognized and sometimes not.

As a white girl who grew up in a black neighborhood, I have often started sentences with the phrase As a white girl who grew up in a black neighborhood. Now, I realize: I am a white girl who grew up with a backdrop of black bodies. It comes to me, just now, on this porch that’s messy and salted with street dust, in this neighborhood that could also be called a black neighborhood. Growing up, I was proud of it, never once thinking about the words we live in a black neighborhood. A black neighborhood, as if that were the reason for the lives of all these people: to provide a modifier, a descriptor for my neighborhood. To be what happened around me.

Growing up, there were the neighbors (white, fewer, seen more), and then there was the neighborhood (black, multiple, barely noticed). There was an ill-augured, poison-green yew tree by my house. There were yellow bricks in the streets, and there was a cul-de-sac where I got on my bike, fell off my bike, got teased, and decided I’d never ride my bike again. There were damp purple crocus petals and carpenter bees fatly bobbing around the front porch. And there were the bodies that were black, driving cars, or trimming hedges just as my parents trimmed our hedge. I never had any curiosity about them. I had too much curiosity about them. Both of those misrecognitions happened in counterpoint with one another. The kids—the neighborhood kids—had front-door keys and held plastic jump-rope handles, as I did, but they never came over for peanut butter and Nutella sandwiches. What could I know about them? Maybe they had tablecloths like ours, and maybe they had remotes for their TVs, which we didn’t have because our TV had knobs. Maybe they hated their math teachers as I did. How could I know any of these things if I didn’t even know their names?

Once I referred to someone as The Black Lady, and my grandmother who lived here told me not to say The Black Lady, just The Lady. If you don’t know her name, my grandmother said. When my grandfather who didn’t live here came to visit, he’d mention how blacks parked cars (double parking, not following rules), and how blacks talked (loud, wrong), and how blacks ate (messy, no manners), and how blacks shopped (always trying to get a bargain). These “blacks” didn’t have names, either, and right now I wonder how different grandma really was from grandpa—despite grandma being more polite, despite grandma going for politeness the way she went for rainbow afghan blankets and little wooden figurines with oversized cloth bonnets instead of faces.

When I was growing up, black bodies meant “home” and “neighborhood” and “outside” and, on occasion, don’t go there. Mostly, these black bodies shifted around me, and sometimes they were bad black bodies—the guys on the railroad bridge, boys in large groups, anyone with a boom box—and sometimes they just occupied space. Sometimes they were an obstacle to get around, like when my mom had said, Don’t ever talk to anyone while you’re walking home from the bus, and then that one kid kept saying, What, you don’t want to talk? and I needed to be home in a space that didn’t include him, so I kept thinking, Just past this, just past this, just past this. He had a scar the color of bubble gum on his chin. He wasn’t entirely a stranger. We’d gone to vacation Bible school together one summer, standing in shin-itching weeds, wishing we could be watching cartoons instead. But that day, on the street—during the school year, with me going to private school and him going to the public school, Pickett, which looked as ugly as its name—I didn’t recognize him. I didn’t want to recognize him. Instead, I recognized the scene: his What, you don’t want to talk? and his friends laughing on the porch. Also I recognized the alleyways between houses that seemed, just then, like places where bad things happened. And so this guy—this kid, with his incomprehensible sneakers and nervous looks back at his friends—became the kid that would fit in that scene. He was no longer the kid who’d avoided the VBS fruit punch in its miniature, dentist-sized cups because he swore bugs were in it. Now he was something to get past. He was another marker—like scraggle-tree, like the place where the sidewalk gaped—between the bus stop and home.

And here—now—I am an adult and a woman who has a house in her own name, in a neighborhood much like the one where I came up. I’ve failed to recognize my neighbor, who like me has a house in her name and like me really likes that Jamaican bakery around the corner, down on 52nd Street.

I sit on my porch—the porch that’s mine through bond and season-change and metal hasp—and I’m thinking about my failure to recognize, the way I looked right at someone and thought they were a moving thing among other moving things. I guess that sometimes, in some places, this has been called white guilt. I don’t know what people mean when they say that—white guilt. Because what I’m thinking right now is kind of a protracted Oh . . . right. It’s something that requires my sitting still within it for a minute or two—sitting with purpose, and then sitting a little longer. The sky is in its last blue, and really it doesn’t hurt me to remain with this for right now instead of going inside and doing the dishes or watching Netflix. I do feel like I’m not a very good person, sure, but there’s a lot more to it than that. I’m the girl who willfully misrecognized a boy from vacation Bible school because of the way his hat shaded his eyes. And I’m the woman who accidentally misrecognized my neighbor because for a moment she was the neighborhood and not my neighbor.

There’s this Greek word, hamartia, and kids are taught in school that it means the tragic flaw, something easy like envy or stubbornness, balled up and throbbing inside a person, ready to make everything awful. And so they talk about Hamlet’s hamartia being indecisiveness or John Proctor’s being lust. But the Greeks saw hamartia as something else: a failure of recognition, a damning and immutable eyeful of blindness. Hamartia was something you did, not something you were. But the thing was: you did it over and over again, until it finally settled heavy upon you—maybe on an evening in July, maybe sitting in a wooden rocker on your very own porch. This evening, I get what the Greeks meant when they talked about the kind of blindness that burns low but burns up your whole life, the kind of failure to recognize that embers for ages, down at your eyeballs’ roots. And here it is: that hamartia making its heft known, sitting right here with me, in the midst of my somewhat sorry garden, in the concrete and leaf I’ve always called home.

I have failed to recognize my neighbor. I have often, always, failed to recognize my neighbors. And I’ve wrongly recognized myself all these years, saying I grew up in a black neighborhood so blithely, with so much authority. Growing up, my street and its backdrop of black bodies felt impermeable: dense with not-me, difficult to differentiate from stoops and streetlights. But now I think of all the lives that were being lived, inside others’ houses, in their moving of chairs around the dinner table, in their winter parkas and their summer-yard laughter. I think of the lives that were being lived—being learned about—in their bodies, which only wanted to thrive as every sort of body only wants to thrive.

I look now at this street I’ve chosen as an adult, this street I call home but have maybe never really seen. Sunset light seems to lift all the grime; on the trees, leaves flash like mirrors. The street is empty except for a little boy who wears only shorts and stands solemn in his black body. He takes up the middle of the pavement and he stays there, face quiet in the midst of concrete curbs and locked car doors. I can sense, looking at him, the translucent column of his personhood there, patient inside his chest. He is holding a cup, and in that cup there’s water, spilling out—despite his concentration, despite everything he’s trying to spare. I don’t know his name, but I see him there, and he seems to be able to save anything that’s worth saving. But the truth is, he has better things to do than be seen by me. He is putting everything he can into a plastic cup of water that trembles as he walks. I keep wondering one phrase, keep asking one question: How can I inhabit your humanity? And, moreover, how I can I even ask that question without making myself the subject of the sentence? Still, for a moment, I think I can see it, right there, in the way his shoulder blades cleave out into the evening.

And maybe this is a story about my friends’ baby, about Vernon Barnes Briggs, after all. Vernon doesn’t recognize anything yet. His blue eyes look out on nebulae and shifting sunspots, onto a granular cloud cover or an indistinct drift of touch and movement. And, okay, this is where it would be easy to talk about how uncorrupted Vernon is, how small and clear of any racist taint. Or maybe here I could do the hope thing, the future thing, especially since Vernon has some black family and some white family, and so maybe he could symbolize a time, a time in the future, when everyone will be recognized aright because—with his red hair and blue eyes, being held tight on the street by his daddy who is not white—Vernon won’t be recognized as being only this or that.

But Vernon is a baby, a human, not a symbol. And even though he seems so foreign now, so unknown as he sleeps under his tear-splayed eyelashes, I can imagine his inner life taking its form, how he will know himself and will name with certainty everything he sees. He will call by name his dog, Pickles, and hug her high-up, barrel chest, and he will name spaghetti and book, and then name certain specific types of books, and he will lean against his mommy in the evening, asking always, relentless but gleeful, what’s that? what’s that? what’s that? I wonder, now, how it was that I grew into the word white: someone read to me about Narnia, and someone else read to me about Prince Arthur, and someone read a story that maybe was never written down, or maybe it was written down a hundred times, and that story, read before my bedtime, had as its moral that I was white. Vernon Barnes Briggs will grow up learning words like hyacinth and calico, learning words like subway and cul-de-sac. But maybe one day he will come home from school speaking the word white, and his parents will say, That’s just made up, and Vernon will say, Okay. I realize, now: the word white was my first lesson in learning the words black, black neighborhood, neighborhood kid. I misrecognized my neighbor, just now, sitting here in the small wind of city dusk; I misrecognized my neighbor, but first and all along I have misrecognized myself.

I love Vernon’s name, which is old-timey and also brave. I love the way he will see for the first time, drawing the outlines that say you, that say hello. He will learn how to set names alongside faces, and each face will break into his memory, like stone breaking sharp and lovely when it’s chiseled. I myself am here on this Sunday—under yawn and contrition, under drifting pastel skies—longing, after all these years, asking for that sort of sight.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017