NON-FICTION: The Onus by Elizabeth Wright

My boyfriend Eric and I are having breakfast at Good Day Café, and I hear a voice too loud to ignore.

“I don’t understand why the fake news is making such a big deal out of these monuments. They shouldn’t be taken down.”

These words hit me out of nowhere, a random assault, interrupting a warm sip of English breakfast. Charlottesville was less than two week ago. Tensions are high. But, I live in the SF Bay Area and am not used to hearing this kind of talk in real life.

I am sitting on the booth side of our table; Eric sits across from me. Eric is white. I am half-black, half-white, i.e. black. I’d rolled out of bed and straight to breakfast this morning, so my hair is an unkempt fro.

The speaker, whom I hadn’t noticed before, but now has my full attention, is at the table to the right of us, no more than five feet across. He is talking to a friend. He is white, middle-aged, with blondish wavy hair, and cargo shorts—his long legs shechting out, mindlessly taking up as much space as they please. They stretch out so far, I can see the curly, golden hairs on his shins.

True to its theme, Good Day Café is decidedly cheery—bright sunlight shines through the crystal-clear windows, highlighting the honey-yellow walls. The friendly wait staff, boisterous locals, and coffee mugs with tritely inspirational messages, like “Life is a journey, not a destination” and “The best is yet to be!” are specially crafted to make it a good day. But, my chances at a good day, at least this portion of it, are ruined.

The man’s words land directly on my shoulders. I slump under their heavy weight. Adrenaline rushes through me. My throat tightens like a noose, my heart beats hard and fast in my chest, my face is hot. For a moment, I become a ghost. I wonder if I am even there.

In 1959, my father was a young medic in the Korean war. He was based at Fort Sam, Texas. It was his first time outside of California, which he found to be nearly free compared to the South. My father once told me a story about the first and last time he joined a group of soldiers into town. They went out to eat. As soon as they piled into the restaurant, the waitress pointed to the “No Coloreds Allowed” sign, turning my father, the only black soldier among them, away. His fellow cadets had his back, but this was no consolation. My father said he’d never felt so small.

Back then, they looked you in the eye, called it what it was. Today, they simply pretend you don’t exist.

I look around the café, taking for granted that, being this is Vallejo, there are plenty of other black people. I wonder if I am the only one within earshot. I feel compelled to enlighten this man, to explain the obvious, but start to overthink. Won’t that just make the humiliation worse? That unbearable place of trying to convince a white person. It’s like interpreting plain daylight. But how else can I save face, assert that I am here? What would I even say? Where would I begin? Am I supposed to recount the whole bloody catalog? The moment is passing, pressure is mounting. Fight or flight. I panic, flirt with flight, tell Eric I want to move to another table.

“What’s wrong?” Eric asks. He hadn’t heard the guy.

“That man, I nod in the man’s direction, “said he doesn’t understand why people are making such a big deal over the Confederate monuments.”

Eric looks over at the guy with disgust, then back at me and frowns. The man doesn’t notice us. He is oblivious.

“So, you want to move?” Eric asks, concern on his face.

“I don’t know, I guess not,” I say.

Unlike the man at the table next to us, I am not confident. I don’t want to be that person, the one who huffs away, as if to say, Well I never! Somehow, I am the one in this scenario who is afraid of being judged. I don’t want to make a big deal out of what is a big deal. I am in a tight spot, a familiar place. It seems there’s no right answer.

The man changes topics but keeps blabbing to his friend in the same booming voice, with the same unflinching confidence. It’s as if he has a megaphone. The conversation has moved on to some woman who apparently talks too much. Ironically, the man does most of the talking while the friend nods.

Eric leans in close, “He’s a horrible human being,” like in general, beyond the monument comment, I take Eric ’s meaning to be. “He’s probably one of those yacht club motherfuckers,” Eric adds, referring to Vallejo’s yacht club.

Our orders arrive—Eric gets the special, an artichoke omelet. I get the pancakes with eggs and sausage. I eat absently; stealing intermittent glances at this brazen man who has rocked my world with one sentence.

Eric and I talk about other things, our camping trip at Sugarloaf the day before, the solar eclipse we’d missed because of the dense fog that blew through the campsite, the ill-advised weed brownie that knocked me on my ass. How I don’t even like weed. I drift in and out of conversation. Eric senses that I am preoccupied, asks if I am okay. I admit that I am distracted, my brow scrunched with agitation. Unlike my predecessors, I can eat at any restaurant I want, but not necessarily in peace, not without the cloud of history looming.

I remain fixated. Although part of me thinks I am not remotely on his radar, I imagine the man is secretly judging my decadent order. He strikes me as not your typical heartland conservative, maybe a libertarian. He looks healthy and slim. A kale smoothie drinking, Info Wars watching wing nut, the type that works in conspiracy theories.

Half way through the pancakes, I feel the statute of limitations running out. I still want to say something, but I don’t want to enter a losing battle. This man sits cross from me completely unfiltered as if me and my afro aren’t here, but if I respond, I will be the hysterical woman, even worse, the angry black woman, or the new one they’ve devised these days—the liberal snowflake who can’t handle free speech.

I find myself wondering lately, as a black person, where I fit into this liberal-snowflake paradigm. For starters, nothing is whiter than snow, and more to the point, the way I see it, being intolerant and too P.C. doesn’t apply in my case. It’s not a matter of merely being offended. I am responding to a direct attack, a threat to my existence.

But this man doesn’t see what the big deal is. He doesn’t have a personal stake, so he can be cool and cavalier, lounging in his chair. I know his type. They mistake their detachment for superiority, like to get a rise out of you while exercising their first amendment rights, which supersede all—your dignity, your very existence. They detest political correctness and so-called identity politics, never once considering that whiteness is just another identity. They don’t like to see your identity bumping up against theirs, limiting their freedoms, their inalienable rights. They’d prefer not to see you at all. For the most part, they don’t.

In the past, I’ve gotten into skirmishes with a few of these guys. And it’s gotten me nowhere. I get flushed and raise my voice; walk away in disgust. I am, in their eyes, irrational, too emotional, a silly little black girl, incapable of understanding these issues clearly like them. It’s an uneven playing field. I have a dog in the race. Why can’t they see? I’m so tired of trying to make them see.

Eric and I exchange a few comments under our breath. I speak boldly to Eric, say the things I won’t say to the man sitting across from us. Things like: “What is it exactly that you’re confused about? Maybe I can help you. What is it that you can’t wrap your fucking head around?

The man’s friend appears to notice our dissent, he says something to the man in a muffled voice.

“What?” the man says to his friend, brash as ever, throwing a grenade at his friend’s attempt at discretion. “You have to speak up. I can’t hear you.”

It’s as if he’s speaking to me. My heartbeat picks back up—fight or flight. Speak up or leave.

But why must the onus be on me? I shouldn’t have to explain to this random man, or anyone else, that talk of Confederate monuments having to with anything but slavery and white supremacy is itself an act of white supremacy.

Many of these statues and plaques were erected during the Reconstruction, Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras to reassert the supremacy of the white race. Today, people are fighting to preserve them for the same reason. It’s all so obvious. But they continue to confuse matters. This has always been the way.

To disregard people is to wield power over them. And I’d say, erecting statues honoring men who fought to secede from the Union because they wanted to continue enslaving your ancestors is also quite the power move.

Fine, sure, state’s rights had something to do with it—a state’s right to enslave black people. Sure, it had a lot to do with economics, economics inextricably linked to slavery. Turns out free labor can be very lucrative.

What kills me is that I am spelling out things that we all know. Or do we? Apparently not. Because that tired, old argument is still out there. I heard it for the first time, twenty years ago, in a college history class.

“The Civil War wasn’t really about slavery.”

That’s what the professor, a balding, white man in an ill-fitting suit, said as he stood in front of the class. I sat at my desk wide-eyed and tongue-tied, shouldering the same burden I was handed at Good Day Café.

It’s as if the professor knew something I didn’t, as if there are important matters that only men like the professor and the man at Good Day Café are privy to. Matters of the republic, with running these united states, the economy, and the like. To them, matters of consequence, the normal course of things, don’t involve us and our age-old story. We are a footnote.

It’s like the feeling I get while watching old black and white movies. You’d think we didn’t exist—aside from the occasional cameo, a fixture in the background. Hollywood had the creative license, to pretend, to ignore the inconvenience to this country’s narrative, that is the presence of the black American.

A friend of mine, who’s brown—Salvadorian-America—and went to junior high in Arkansas sometime in the nineties, told me that in history class, the Civil War was taught as though a hardship put upon the South. The big, bad federal government stripped the states of their rights, their freedoms, made them bend to its will. To say this in the face of a slavery backdrop is mind-bending. Backdrop is the key word here. Slavery, as a side note in the story of Confederate struggle. White entitlement really does know no bounds.

I would rather someone look at me directly, the way that waitress did when she refused to serve my father, and say they wished the Confederacy had won, that we were all slaves to this day, than claim that these monuments aren’t a big deal. In doing so they are at least corroborating my reality.

The same tactic, this peculiar ignoring of reality, is used with Black Lives Matter. “All lives matter,” they say, like a slap in the face. They want you to draw a map, even though deep down, they know the terrain. But there’s power in putting you in that position, standing there holding the bag, holding the burden of proof.

I’ve spent my life carrying this burden, fielding dumb questions. Like the guy who dared me to describe how my experience as a black woman was any different from his as a white man. His thesis was that there was no difference. This was around the same time I sat in that college history class and learned the Civil War wasn’t about slavery. This guy and I were sitting at The Colorado Bar, my favorite dive bar, back in Pasadena, my hometown. As usual, it was smoky and dark. The guy looked at me expectantly, like he was waiting for a PowerPoint or something. “I can’t explain it, that’s the whole point,” I said. I was barely twenty-one and unprepared for such challenges. Clearly, I still am today.

The man at Good Day Café was challenging me as well, whether indirectly or directly, I’m not sure. He sure did speak loud enough, though. He may as well have stood up, cleared his throat, hushed all the chattering diners, halting the clattering plates and silverware and made an announcement. I’ll never know for sure why that man would say what he said right in front of me. Maybe it’s because I’m light-skinned. Maybe he figured I was “safe black.” Maybe he was right. Maybe he just doesn’t give a fuck. I suspect it’s the latter.

In the end, I chose neither fight or flight, and reverted to the lesser known freeze. The man and his friend paid their check and walked out of the café, leaving me sitting there, deflated, holding the bag, feeling like I’d let down my father and his father before him.

Speaking up doesn’t always come naturally to me. I have to work at it. It happens sporadically, there’s no rhyme or reason. It’s like having an unhoned superpower, like I can shoot lighting out of my hands but can’t reliably summon it. If I’d been able to summon it that day at the cafe, maybe I would have stood up, leaned in close to that man’s face, pounded on his table and yelled “Hey, I’m right here!”

I don’t know. You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. They always find a way to put it back on you, leaving you with a helpless rage—to borrow a phrase James Baldwin used to describe his response to news of Martin Luther King’s assassination.

The onus is not on me to educate this man. This is how I rationalize my inaction. The next day, I go on about my life, go back to work, but this man has lodged himself at the back of my mind. And I realize, that by not causing a stir, you risk complicity, you are aiding and abetting the construction of the roos, the illusion that all is well. So, in some twisted way, this man’s ignorance is on me.

At the same time, it is a trap.

“The onus is always on us.” I text this to Eric. He’s my confidant, my ally. Eric texts that I should forget about the guy, that he’s “a twit.” I really wish I could, but it’s so much bigger than that guy. He’s just a symptom of a larger disease. There are so many more like him out there. Including the President, the man who tweeted that it was Sad to see the history and culture of our great country being ripped apart with the removal of our beautiful statues and monuments.

The history of which the President tweets belongs to me. It’s mine. And it’s a history that many of my fellow citizens tirelessly work to rob me of. Sure, it’s their history too, an undeniably shameful one. What does it say about them that they want to celebrate it? You can’t separate the Confederacy from slavery and white supremacy. You can’t have it both ways.

I have more respect for Nazis and the KKK, people who are honest with themselves and the rest of us about their racism, than the Confederacy enthusiasts who want to make it about their heritage. People the President calls “very fine people.”

Some would read this and wonder, why the anger? Thus, proving my point. They will never understand. They don’t want to understand. Like this family I saw interviewed in a news clip. A mom, dad and a couple of kids—a boy and a girl. American as apple pie. They stood outside the Phoenix convention center where they had just attended a Trump rally, a rally that took place less than two weeks after the horrible events in Charlottesville, and despite the mayor’s plea for Trump to stay away, reasoning that his divisive presence would “enflame emotions” in the wake of the ill-fated rally. Protesters were camped outside the convention center—a ubiquitous presence at such events these days.

“The Boiler family said the level of animosity surprised them,” the newscaster explained, referring to the protests. The Boiler family wore red and white Make America Great Again caps, even the kids.

“It’s a little scary,” said the mom, a chubby blonde with bright red lipstick. She spoke with a plastic smile and a doe-eyed innocence. “I’m not sure what the anger is all about,” she said, shaking her head.

“How can she not understand,” I asked Eric. This is a kind of an endless conversation we are having these days.

“She does,” Eric said. “She knows what she’s doing.” For some reason, this hadn’t occurred to me. I took her to be maddeningly oblivious, not diabolical.

Diabolical like the North Carolina man who petitioned a South Carolina court to return the confederate flag and pictures of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee to their courthouse. He was on the news the day the judge threw the case out, which was right around the same time as the Phoenix Trump rally. The man insisted he wasn’t racist, and that the monuments weren’t symbols of racism or slavery.

“That’s my personal view,” he said with a little smirk pasted on his fat, white face. And in the next breath, “Hey, I go down the street, I see Martin Luther Coon,” he said, halting with a nervous chuckle, relishing the power of just one word. “I shouldn’t have said that.” A coy backtrack. A sorry, not sorry. Then, the piece de resistance, these peoples’ go to move—the false equivalency. “Martin Luther King. I mean… should I rip the signs down or insist they take Martin Luther King Street down or the rest of that stuff? That’s a public thing, I don’t necessarily agree with it, but that’s just the way it is.”

It’s persistent phycological warfare. To have someone say they’re not doing what they’re doing while they’re doing it.

And your words continue to fall on deaf ears. You keep trying to get acknowledgement from the same source. You look up one day and it’s literally been hundreds of years. You’ve been doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. The definition of insanity. At what point do you cut your losses and choose another route? And what route would that be?

But this is nothing new. In his autobiography, Fredrick Douglas set out to convince people that slavery was bad. Large segments of the population, even in the North, weren’t buying it, weren’t sure it was so bad. The onus was on him.

The onus is on you to justify, expound, interpret, and then when you do, they ask why you won’t stop talking about it. It is an unsolvable riddle, an endless maze. And the poles keep moving further apart, recycling the same arguments in perpetuity—some kind of fucked-up figure 8.

As they say, there’s no reconciliation without truth. You can’t move on from a trauma that has never been fully acknowledged, from a trauma that is still being commemorated with monuments and statues. You are stuck in time. You are just stuck.

Eric tells me I should pay less attention to the news. He knows the toll it takes on me. But I can’t get away from it, I tell him, even when I ignore the news. Even when I’m minding my own business, just trying to have breakfast at Good Day Café.

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Elizabeth Wright

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Elizabeth Wright is a writer, small business owner and gardener who lives in Oakland, California. She completed her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Saint Mary’s College of California in 2015. Her work has appeared in Apogee Journal and Tikkun Magazine.

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