People get tagged with these labels…

from By Definition: Poems of Feelings, Boyds Mills Press 2004

The story behind the poem:

In 1991 I was hired by the local housing authority (CMHA) as their public information officer. My job was to be a white face to face off with a white media, a fact made clear in my interview. It was my first opportunity to work in place where I was a racial minority.

In those days, the administrative staff shared a secretary who dutifully answered our hysterical phones, took messages, and served as ballast for an office often careening between storms. A wise woman of advanced years (probably younger than I am now), she once took a call from a reporter proclaiming indignantly that he had spotted our CFO’s car outside of a gay bar. “Everybody sleeps with somebody,” she snapped, “Long as they ain’t doing it in the school yard, what do you care?” And promptly hung up. I fell in love with her instantly. The feeling was not mutual.

We struggled to find our balance as co-workers. She did not like answering my phone calls and was even more reticent to give me messages. In fact, she would barely make eye contact with me. Now, I don’t know what this woman’s life experience was. I had no idea what transgressions had been laid on her by white folks. All I knew was, she couldn’t see past my skin color. I say this not to try and invoke undeserved sympathy, it’s just the way it was. I wasn’t even angry, more confused (see above re: first opportunity).

I write when I’m confused. Try to figure things out on my own, out of the spotlight. After a tense exchange with her one day, I lay in bed late into the night writing this poem. At the next staff meeting, I asked if I could open the meeting with a poem.

I’d love to say it opened a wonderful conversation and we all fell into hugs, but no. The poem received a few nods, but mostly silence and then we moved on to the day’s agenda. She didn’t look up from her notepad.

Here comes the however, the soft fragrance that lingers after sharing a poem: Sometime over the next few weeks, she pointed to a picture of her family posted on the wall by her desk, taking time to explain everyone’s name and relation to her. We discovered that we both had relatives who were postal workers. One of her relatives drove large earth moving vehicles. I shared with her that my grandfather had built tires for these vehicles at Goodyear. Smiles were exchanged.

We never had a casual lunch together or shared a joke that I remember. But after I read that poem aloud, phone messages on little pink “while you were away” slips of paper started to appear in the slot with my name on it. A door had been opened.

Poems, picture books, personal stories (written or selected) do open doors. Sometimes just a crack. But think of the amount of light a cracked door lets into a darkened room. Often enough for us to find our ways.

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