Shortly After 9/11: A Reflection on Why Things Are So Tough Right Now
It was shortly after 9/11, and my brother and I were making our way to our father’s house. After my parents separated, I was fortunate enough to stay in the town I grew up in living a few blocks away from my childhood home where my dad lived. It was a walkable distance from our new place, and the tree lined suburban streets captured the light of the autumn day, and I looked down watching the leaves dancing beneath me. But that day I couldn’t find the strength to put my head up, there was a heaviness that began that morning. From the frantic phone call of my dad asking my brother and I to come over, to the panicked rush to get our clothes on. My brother and I barely spoke as we walked out the door, we couldn’t even look at each other as we made our way down the familiar routes of the town we grew up in.
The driveway to my house was a steep hill that was excellent for sledding in the winter or building forts but terrible when you had to shovel snow. At the top of the driveway was a gate that lead to the backyard of patchy green and yellow grass that my dad never seemed to be able to get right. But this time the grass wasn’t as noticeable with our dad standing with a hose futilely washing the side of our house trying to erase the spray painted words: “Go Home You Sandnigger.” The three of us stood there in silence. There was no sadness to my father, no anger, just a reticent gaze that seemed to ask, what’s next. You see, when you live in America you are never shocked that these things happen, they are not surprising, they are just the price to be paid for wanting to give your children a better life than you had.
The police came, took photos and asked us questions like “Do you have any idea who could have done this?” As if somehow the whole town wasn’t suspect. There were no newspaper articles, no protests, no rallies of support about the incident. I went to school the next day and it was as mundane as always. In a way, this was more truthful than any other reaction, racism requires that we pretend that nothing is happening and it is guaranteed by my silence.
A few weeks later they were able to catch the kids who did it. They both went to my school and I would see them in the hallways laughing with their friends. They wouldn’t acknowledge me, wouldn’t even look in my direction. I wondered if it was out of guilt or was it because they actually didn’t see me. That the only way I could be visible to them was through an abstraction of house on top of hill that wasn’t lived in but occupied by people who didn’t really belong there.
The only time we were together in one room was in a courthouse. My brother and I sat with our dad while the kids and their families sat across from us. It astounded me how put together they were, dressed in their best Sunday church outfits appearing solemn and respectable. My dad was in the same beige color pallet he always wore, with oversized khaki pants and a beat up brown sweater I remember him wearing for years. He was the type of person who rarely combed his hair nor did he ever think it was necessary. I look back at the moment as if it were a picture, curious to know if people be able to choose who the real criminals were.
The judged entered the courtroom, and took his seat at the head of the table. He read the charges with very little reaction, only glancing up to look at the other families. He said that the crime for vandalism would be waived, and then looked at my father, he added that since this was a targeted attack, he would be treating it as a hate crime which meant a mandatory felony conviction and time in a juvenile home. Still looking at my father he asked him, if he wanted to press charges. My father stayed silent for a bit, his years as a heavy smoker made his breathing deep and his soft inhale and exhale were the only sounds that could be heard in the courtroom.
When he spoke it was the first time in my memory I saw tears in his eyes, “I could ruin your lives he said, but I want you to remember, that I forgave you.” I don’t remember how the families reacted, in retrospect I guess I thought it didn’t really matter in the end. That despite everything that happened my father made a statement that would supersede any teary eyed thank you or heartless apology. It was a final checkmate, to say that he would not deny them a humanity they could not see in him.
We walked out of the courthouse and were greeted by a sunless autumn day. The wind was blowing the ropes against the flag pole making the sound of wind chimes and the three of us stood there staring at the cars passing by. The drive home felt long and was filled in the kind of silence that permeates the relationships between men where your thoughts build dams in your throat. Pulling up the hill into the driveway my brother turned off the car and we all got out. Our neighbor’s porch light turned on and shined on the side of our house where we could see the white streaks of paint where the words used to be, it stood out like rough scar tissue on skin. The type of scars that never really go away, forgotten until they are touched, and then you remember, why it’s so tough here.