My mother and I drive through upstate New York. Towns largely comprised of buildings FOR LEASE and raised porches bowing groundward. Peppered between houses are blue and gold signs denoting historical importance. They are everywhere. Some stuck in front of open fields.
The only town not half-abandoned is Auburn – its state prison giving work to locals.
We drive over an hour to go to a restaurant in Aurora, home to Wells College. It is a beautiful afternoon, and our young waiter is so delicate when setting down our cutlery I nearly kiss his hand.
We eat. I note how much a college can do for a town – Aurora is pretty, manicured. My mother launches into the story of Pleasant Rowland, the creator of the American Girl dolls franchise. An alumna of Wells, Rowland returned to Aurora with the intent of restoring historic sites. She created a foundation and partnered up with Wells. She was here to live out her days.
Locals created coalitions and eventually brought down the project. They cursed at Rowland when they saw her on the street. She left.
It’s a piece of shit, but it’s our piece of shit, my mother explains.
After lunch we make our way to Cayuga Lake, its protected stone ruin – an old mill. The lake brings up Lake Champlain, where my mother and her sister took all us cousins when we were kids every summer for nearly a decade, finding giant summer houses to hold us. We swept the dead bugs off the table each morning before breakfast.
I hear the crunchy pecks in the dustpan.
One rainy day a few of us found a long piece of wood and decided to paint it. Bird-shaped, so we made it a pelican, signing our names on its grey back – creating an artifact. Saying we would come back and find it one day with our own kids, before walking through the rain and setting it deep in the woods.
It must be rotting somewhere. Paint lifted by weather and time, settled in the soil around it. Looking like any other piece of wood. Bugs carving through it.
Objects endure outside of your line of vision or thought, or are destroyed, but can still “be” in time-space, somewhere. Like the philosopher who talked of the color red – how you can destroy a red thing but still Red exists.
My boyfriend is Pakistani-American and, at times, when I eye him with a streak of lust, thoughts bubble up, mingle. When I find any man of color attractive, this happens.
The main feeling, and it comes quick, is the trouble. The white heterosexual women who exoticize men of color. Or the early stages of the Feminist and Civil Rights Movements, when white feminists were trying to fuck away their white guilt with black men.
This isn’t as troubled as conscious white hetero men must feel about dating and partnering with women of color. There exoticism often reigns. White men have traveled the world and raped, stolen, enslaved women of color for millennia. Produced more servants and slaves through rape.
Or not traveled. I have a friend whose grandfather walked onto a reservation and bought a 14-year-old Dakota wife.
What a woman slave means, as property, to a white “master” is a special horror. That consistent brutality is a different ghost than mine. There master / servant / slave dynamics haunt.
Homeward, my mom and I stop at a blue and gold sign: HARRIET TUBMAN’S HOME FOR AGED AND INDIGENT NEGROES. Despite its being Harriet Tubman’s lifelong dream, it doesn’t look much better than the other houses around here. I stand on the stoop, my foot where Harriet Tubman’s foot once was. I take a photo of the house, the sign. Why am I sad?
I go to a reading and hear a poem about a slave named Fortune. After his death, Fortune’s bones hung in his “master’s” office, Fortune’s wife Dinah having to dust the bones, remembering them with flesh, gesture, affection. And I know everyone in that room thinks of their own beloved. Having to see their bones, remaining a servant in a home where your beloved hangs. Your “master” boiling the limbs. Yet I am the only one who is crying. Overwhelmed by the thought. Who thinks of dusting my beloved’s bones and weeps.
Or not. Likely others there know this more deeply, maybe have such a story in familial past. I can claim nothing of their minds’ pain. My pain in response to oppression other than my own doesn’t matter. It matters that I feel it, that I consider experiences outside myself and feel something, but my pain does not. Their pain does. Hold the eye-mind there. Don’t give a fuck about my tears in response—they are the appropriate sympathetic response. They are not special. A white woman’s tears don’t matter much. At least not here.
In a place where lightness is prized.
[S]he is not the subject of the haunting, she is a witness (Brenda Coultas).
When working at an auction house that sold Civil War ephemera, I read letters home, to wives, brothers, transcribing difficult script for hours. One white Northern soldier’s ardent affection for his wife struck me. How he missed her. Talking of unraveling her knitting to bother her for fun. How she must look smart when he comes home.
I do the research on the soldier to write up the item for the catalog. He reenlisted three months after the letter, and died of dysentery three months after that. How I cried in bed that night, mourning her loss.
My boyfriend held me, said, Maybe you need a new job.
I was often unable to think of external things as having external existence, and I communed with all that I saw as something not apart from, but inherent in, my own immaterial nature (Wordsworth).
In woman, personal history blends together with the history of all women, as well as national and world history (Cixous).
Is my pain here more apt? White tears, for whites? None of my people were here that early.
I do not know the answers to these questions.
Our excessive emotions are so patently painful and harmful to us as a species that I can hardly believe that they have evolved (Annie Dillard).
But I will not block feeling.
For within living structures defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive (Audre Lorde).
Diana Arterian is the author of Playing Monster :: Seiche (1913 Press, forthcoming), the chapbooks With Lightness & Darkness and Other Brief Pieces (Essay Press), Death Centos (Ugly Duckling Presse), and co-editor of Among Margins: Critical & Lyrical Writing on Aesthetics (Ricochet). She is also a Poetry Editor at Noemi Press and a Managing Editor at Ricochet. Her work has been recognized with fellowships from the Banff Centre, Caldera, Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo, and her poetry, essays, and translations have appeared in Asymptote, BOMB, Boston Review, Denver Quarterly, and Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. Born and raised in Arizona, she currently resides in Los Angeles where she is a doctoral candidate in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Southern California.
This originally appeared on September 13, 2017