1. Man in the Mirror
We need more light about each other. Light creates understanding, understanding creates love, love creates patience, and patience creates unity.
—Malcolm X, married to Betty Shabazz for seven years, until his assassination
The simple yet profound act of holding a mirror up to yourself can truly be a frightening experience. It's as if you're seeing yourself through new eyes. While most parts may seem familiar, you begin to notice new things about yourself that are unrecognizable—utterly foreign—that make you feel as though you're staring at a complete stranger.
That is what I wound up contending with earlier this year as I caught a glimpse of myself in my car's rearview mirror. I was in Washington, D.C., on a rainy night, driving back to my hotel after attending a party that had left me feeling somewhat confused and despondent about my life—more specifically, about the fact that I'm still single. I was making a mental list of explanations and excuses for why I have failed to maintain any sort of long-term relationship over these past twenty years of so-called adult life. Those reasons went from the petty to the profoundly inane, from "I honestly don't have the time to devote to a relationship" to "All the amazing women are already married." After each one I'd nod and hear myself saying, "Yeah, that's right," as if I was trying to convince myself that it was fact, that the solution had to be out of my control because, after all, I wasn't to blame; I was a victim of circumstance.
I was stopped at a streetlight when I came to that brilliant conclusion. As the light changed from red to green I glanced in the rearview mirror, as I had done at least a dozen times already that night on my journey back to the hotel. For the first time since I don't even know when, I saw myself. I held my own gaze long enough for me to see past the deception, past all those clever excuses and disguises; I saw me. "Who do you think you're fooling?" I asked aloud. "Of course you're part of the problem."
Then the driver behind me blew his horn, snapping me out of my honesty, forcing me to focus on the road again.
I start with this moment because for me it symbolizes both a beginning and an end. Seeing myself, my truer self, I didn't want to go back to that old vision—that old version—of me. It's like those optical illusions: Once your eyes settle on a shape in an image—the bird in flight, the clock with its hands at three p.m, the profile of a woman's face—you'll never again see that picture as a random series of dots. You can't un-see what you've seen and return it to the way it used to be. You can only move forward and search for whatever else exists in the picture. But first, I have to explain what happened before. I have to tell you how I found myself driving down that street evaluating the state of my love life—or lack thereof.
Earlier that day, I delivered a keynote speech at a conference in Washington, D.C. My friend Don Watkins stopped by afterward. The two of us go way back; we've been buddies since high school. Though over the years we'd usually done a good job of staying in touch, Don and I hadn't really talked or seen each other in about three years. He'd heard that I was going to be in town and decided to show up and be that familiar face in the crowd for me. After my speech, we sat in a coffee shop talking smack, trying to catch up on each other's lives. The time flew by. We'd been talking for what felt like two minutes—it was really two hours—when Don realized he was late for a prior engagement. He and his wife, Robin, were attending a small dinner celebration for her parents' fiftieth wedding anniversary.
"Hill, why don't you just come along?" he asked. I hesitated for a second, but then said yes. I wasn't home; I didn't have any other plans, and besides, I couldn't very well say no without looking and feeling like a complete jerk.
Don and Robin got married right out of college. They'd met during freshman year, started dating, and fell senselessly in love. I remember when Don decided to ask Robin to marry him. I was home on Christmas break and a bunch of us guys were hanging out. When he broke the news, the whole room fell silent. Then everybody suddenly busted out laughing. We thought for sure Don had lost his mind. Marriage?! We were barely in our twenties.There was still so much more time. There were still so many more women. He hadn't even really dated anybody else—not since high school, and not for any impressive length of time. Now he was going to take a vow. He was going to promise to be with Robin forever.
"You do realize that forever is an unimaginable length of time?" I overheard Robin's father, Mr. Blake, asking as I walked into his wife, Hattie's, living room. There were fewer than two dozen people there, some of them standing by the bar fixing drinks. Most of them were seated near the fireplace on sofas and ottomans, engaged in what seemed to be a lively conversation.
I walked over to Robin's parents, Foster and Hattie Blake, greeted them, and gave them my gift, a bottle of champagne. Don brought me a drink, and Robin introduced me to the entire room.
There were six couples: one was young, thirtysomething, and the other three were the Blakes' contemporaries, septuagenarians who'd been married for longer than I'd been alive. Scattered among all that wedded bliss were five unpartnered people—four women and one man, me.
"Have a seat, son," Mr. Blake said to me, holding his hand out in the direction of a vacant ottoman. I liked the way he called me son. Between the familial warmth of that address and the literal warmth generated by the fireplace, I immediately felt at home. "We were in the middle of talking about history, about how some of us here have learned that you should never say never."
"But you have to admit it was an unimaginable event," insisted Doc Mayweather setting his plate of food down on the coffee table. "I never would've even dared to dream it." His wife, Miss Brenda, who was sitting next to him, nodded. "Mmmhmmm," she added. "Who'd have thought we could ever achieve something like that?" It took me a minute to figure out that they were talking about politics, not relationships. The older folks had been talking about how they still couldn't believe that our country had elected a Black man as president. None of them had thought it would happen in their lifetime.
"And that wife of his." Miss Brenda smiled. "She is quite a woman."
"Says a lot about him that he knew not to just pass her by," said a distinguished-looking man whose name I hadn't caught. He and his wife looked so much like Ruby Dee and the late Ossie Davis, I kept doing double takes.
"Uh-huh," his wife agreed. "Says a lot about her that she's not afraid to stand behind her man."
"That's 'cause she's confident in her own intelligence and education," Miss Brenda added. "She knows it doesn't take anything away from her."
"You can say that again," Mr. Blake said, reaching for Mrs. Blake's hand. "That's the problem with you young brothers and sisters today. It's always me, me, me, me, me; always about the individual and so rarely about the community. No wonder the Black family is just falling apart."
"Can't see the worth in it enough to sacrifice for it." Doc Mayweather frowned. Whereas before, they were just having a general conversation, now they seemed to be talking directly to us, at us, the single ones in the group.
"I sure hope," Doc Mayweather continued, "you young people . . ."
Just then, the woman who was seated on the ottoman next to mine leaned over and asked if I wanted to go with her to the dining room to fix myself a plate of food. I said yes, happy for the chance to escape the lecture that was clearly on its way.
Her name was Nichole, and she was drop-dead gorgeous. I followed her in a slow circle as we filled our plates with food from the several platters that had been set buffet style on the table. We chatted as we scooped. Once we'd each answered the obligatory "So, how do you know the Blakes?" question, we moved on to more personal topics. Nichole had majored in math at Howard and now taught calculus in the D.C. public schools.
"Calculus?" I asked in disbelief. It'd been ages since I'd thought of integers, derivatives, and L'Hospital's rule. They were high on the list of things I was glad to forget once I'd graduated high school. Nichole just smiled. She was used to that response. She went and leaned against the wall where the dining room ended and the living room began. I followed and stood beside her, and we continued our conversation. Soon we had turned toward each other as we talked.
The energy between us was palpable. I don't know whether it was because we'd been sitting in that room full of all those couples, but we gravitated toward each other in a way that was almost effortless.
There wasn't any strained laughter or shyness, and there weren't any awkward moments, not even when she told me that she had an adolescent daughter. The conversation simply flowed.
"She's with her father this weekend." Nichole voluntarily explained that she and her daughter's father had never been married and that their coparenting relationship was difficult and contentious at times. "Do you have any kids?" she asked.
"Not yet," I replied. Before she could respond, Mr. Blake called out to me:
"Son, would you mind bringing me a few of those wings? The ones with the hot sauce . . . not the wimpy ones the Mayweathers brought."
Nichole followed me back into the living room when I brought Mr. Blake the plate I'd fixed for him. The group was still talking about the state of the Black family. Nichole and I sat down and listened, stealing a glance or a smile at each other every now and then. I looked around the room at all the couples and how connected they were, literally. There were clasped hands, or hands resting on thighs, just above the bended knee, or gently rubbing backs and shoulders. I was filled with both an inexplicable joy and an immeasurable sadness. Both emotions led me to my grandparents, all four of whom would have fit in perfectly with this group. A group I admired but felt strangely at odds with.
"I should get going," I blurted out. "I've got an early day tomorrow."
"See what I mean?" Doc Mayweather chuckled. "These young'uns today. They're always running around, going here and there, doing this and that. How're you supposed to settle down into a life when you can't even sit still for a night?" Everyone laughed at that, even me.
Don walked with me outside. By the time we got to my rental car, the inexplicable joy I was feeling a few minutes earlier had all but disappeared, leaving only sadness and confusion. As I approached the car door, about to drive away from all that love and laughter, I think I felt lonelier than I had at any other time in my life. "Where is my partner? Where is my true love?" are the questions that were swimming around in my head.
"All right, then, tomorrow," Don said, referring to the plans we'd just made to finish our catch-up session. When I pulled the car key out of my pocket, a little slip of paper flew out with it. I shoved it back into my pocket, got into the car, and started to drive. I thought about the neat, cursive writing on the paper, and about the numbers and hyphens, all so perfectly aligned, as if they were a part of an equation.
"Will you call?" Nichole had asked when she'd handed me the paper. The vulnerability in her voice was endearing. It made me feel protective of her. I told her I would, and that was the truth.
I'd probably wait until I was back at home, in Los Angeles, to give her a call. By then, we'd both be questioning whatever it was that had passed between us, whether it was real or imagined. Even if we decided that it was real, we'd be too far away from it for that to mean anything, or make any difference.
Nichole was the kind of woman that men dream of meeting. She was beautiful, inside and out, smart, witty, direct, and self possessed, but still vulnerable underneath it all. She was going to make some man very happy—but deep down I knew that man wasn't going to be me. What I didn't understand was: Why not?
At that very moment, alone in my rental car, for reasons I can't explain, my mind flashed to nine years earlier. The memory was me sitting in the hospital, at the side of my father's bed as he battled cancer. I remembered him telling me, with tears in his eyes, that his biggest regret his entire life was that he didn't make it work with my mother. "We should have stayed partnered," he said sadly. Twelve hours later I cried, prayed, and held his hand as my brother and I helplessly watched him die. Staying partnered in my family has seemingly ended with his parents.
My grandparents anchored our family. They reminded us of who we were, where we came from, and showed us where we might go. Both sets of my grandparents were married more than fifty years. They were truly partners and invited the family into their circle. As a boy, I remember attending family reunions each year for both sides of my family, the Hills and the Harpers, in South Carolina and Iowa, respectively. Each reunion was commemorated by a T-shirt bearing a photograph of the family, with the day and year of the event printed below it. My grandparents hosted almost every family reunion.
Much like that evening at the Blakes', those reunions drew us together. I loved them, mainly because it made me feel like I was a part of something larger, a network of people. There were the cousins, some of whom were so far removed that it would take pen and paper to figure out exactly where and how our bloodlines crossed. And then, of course, there were the "cousins" who we knew were not related to us by blood, but were still kin. A lot of us grew up attending family reunions like those. They allowed us to connect, to know one another and experience why family is so valuable.
The Hill and Harper families no longer hold yearly reunions. Last year, through a family-wide e-mail, we were all informed that the final Iowa Harper family reunion would take place in Fort Madison, next to my grandfather's farm. As a child, I spent almost every summer at that farm. Even now I can close my eyes and recall every inch and acre of that land and the memories that they hold. When my grandparents passed, the farm was sold, making it virtually impossible to hold any more family reunions on that property.
A couple of years ago, I bought thirty-seven acres of land in Colorado, along the Roaring Fork River. I thought, in my own deluded way, that I was trying to address the problem. I envisioned myself building a house on that land, a place where my own family reunions could take place. I wanted to emulate, if not duplicate, for my future children and grandchildren, what my grandparents had given me. But the truth of the matter is that love is not about places; it's about people. If I can't get it together to create a family, there will be no family to reunite. Deep down, I knew that. My grandparents were such a powerful force in our family because of the love they shared with us and with each other. It was sustaining. I feel blessed that I was able to witness and share in the stability of their love and way of life because, in my family at least, it seemed to end with their generation. My parents divorced when I was six years old, and much to my fear and frustration, the older I get the more and more elusive marriage seems to become.
The elders at the Blakes' party weren't wrong when they talked about the demise of the Black family. Since the first slave ships docked in Jamestown, Virginia, Blacks have understood the connection between the past, the present, and the future. Without our history there's no path forward. Seemingly only the most recent generations have forgotten that you can't write your future without revering your past. There had never been a time when we did not realize that the basic foundation of the Black family was under attack. From the raping of women and the lynching of men, to Jim Crow and the Tuskegee experiments, through the passage of the "man-in-the-house rule," which denied welfare and social services to families that had adult men in the household—a law that basically encouraged fathers to be absent—Black men and Black women stayed connected. But sometime during the past forty years those connections have frayed. Maybe we've decided that life would be less burdensome if we weren't tethered to one another. Some people say that it was because of integration. That once we were able to move away from the neighborhood, the physical community, we turned our backs on one another and on all the emotional commitments and responsibilities we had to our communities. What a
painful idea to consider.
For so many of us, Barack and Michelle Obama are calming and hope-inspiring representatives of our future partly because they are reminders of our past, of the Black family's ability to survive, succeed, and ultimately triumph. They provide hope that marriage of the sort that our grandparents and their grandparents had is not only within reach but can be free of the acrimony, abuse, neglect, dishonesty, competition, and professional jealousy we've grown accustomed to encountering in our modern relationships.
Whatever their romantic struggles, neither of the Obamas set their eyes on the White House when they first envisioned themselves in a happy and healthy committed relationship. By buying that property in Colorado, I was putting the cart before the horse. I was thinking I could buy a property to house my memories and build a family before I had even done the work of creating relationships and experiences worthy of remembering.
I think we all know much more about ourselves than we care to admit. If we were honest, we would be forced to acknowledge we are not making the most of our present; or the best choices for our future. Most of us are addicted to our patterns. I know I am: relationships, food, friends, shopping, spirituality, credit cards, family, and on and on. We get habitual. I justify my patterned behavior by saying "Well, that's just who I am." Really? Talk about not looking in the mirror.
That's why that moment in the car was so significant. In it's rearview mirror I saw myself. I saw my patterns. I saw my fears that keep me in those patterns. I knew that if I didn't want my relationships to keep going the way they had been, I would have to change. If I want just a little bit of what my grandparents had I would have to make different choices. The images of my father, my grandparents, the Blakes, Nichole, and Don and Robin kept swimming in my head.
There was a part of me that wanted to turn around, drive back to the Blakes', and see whether Nichole was still there. I have no idea what I would have said to her but that's not as important as the fact that I didn't go back. As quickly as my newfound resolve came, my same old habit-filled excuses returned—in this case quicker than usual: "Come on, Hill, you're too tired to go anywhere except back to the hotel room." I had thought and felt myself right into exhaustion. I needed time to process it all, to figure out what it all meant and how to proceed. Only then would I be able to take what I knew would be the next step.
I'm ready now.
From The Conversation by Hill Harper. Copyright 2009 by Hill Harper. All rights reserved.