As I sat, one recent evening, counting Mississippis while running my hands over my boys’ smooth backs, I thought further. About things our boys don’t know yet.
A week ago Artie and I watched 12 Years a Slave.
I’ve never seen a back torn apart as it was in that movie. In its pivotal scene Patsey, a young slave woman played by Lupita Nyong’o who won an Oscar for her portrayal, is punished for procuring a small cake of soap to wash herself. The whipping she endures looks deadly. I couldn’t keep my eyes on it. Nor on her wounds as they were later tended.
All these frighteningly realistic special effects rendered a terrible part of the past frighteningly real. That’s the opposite of gratuitous violence. It’s violence to which to pay heed.
Rubbing my boys’ backs that night I felt so protective of their ignorance. Not even something exalted like innocence, but simple ignorance, not knowing. I don’t want them to acquire the knowledge that people were justified and endorsed by the law of their country, this country, to leave such scars on a man’s back.
It’s Sethe’s chokecherry tree from Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved.
It’s similar to the numbers tattooed onto the arms of people held and murdered in Nazi concentration camps, the atrocity of my birth country’s past.
It’s human madness imprinted upon human flesh.
And what’s frightening in these imprints is not what they say about our physical fragility – how easily we can be hurt – but what they say about our moral fragility – how easily we can hurt. As soon as we lose sight of the other’s being as human as we are.
Eventually, my boys’ ignorance will have to pass. Part of growing up is taking in this knowledge and without letting it brutalize us. Letting it teach us neither by example nor deterrence, but by making us aware of that Achilles’ heel we all share – our ability to hurt.
I looked at that mad master played by Michael Fassbender and wanted to pass him off as a monster. But really he was a human being whose moral compass was broken, and the equally broken system of slavery offered him endless opportunities to flaunt his disrepair and hurt others.
Those lashes of the whip were counted.
Maybe my caresses shouldn’t be.
I’m still going to give the intuitive uncounted minute another go.