Merton encounters the realities of racism in Harlem . . .
It was a hot day, a rainy day, in the middle of August when I came out of the subway into the heat of Harlem. There were not many people on the streets that afternoon. I walked along the street until I came to the middle of the block, and saw one or two stores marked “Friendship House” and “Bl. Martin de Porres Center” or some such title in big blue letters. There did not seem to be anyone around.
The biggest of the stores was the library, and there I found half a dozen young Negroes, boys and girls, high school students, sitting at a table. Some of them wore glasses, and it seemed they were having some kind of an organized intellectual discussion, because when I came in they got a little embarrassed about it. I asked them if the Baroness was there, and they said no, she had gone downtown because it was her birthday, and I asked who I should see, so they told me Maryjerdo. She was around somewhere. If I waited she would probably show up in a few minutes.
So I stood there, and took down off the shelf Father Bruno’s Life of St. John of the Cross and looked at the pictures.
The young Negroes tried to pick up their discussion where they had left off: but they did not succeed. The stranger made them nervous. One of the girls opened her mouth and pronounced three or four abstract words, and then broke off into a giggle. Then another one opened her mouth and said: “Yes, but don’t you think...?” And this solemn question also collapsed in embarrassed tittering. One of the young men got off a whole paragraph or so, full of big words, and everybody roared with laughter. So I turned around and started to laugh too, and immediately the whole thing became a game.
They began saying big words just because it was funny. They uttered the most profoundly dull and ponderous statements, and laughed at them, and at the fact that such strange things had come out of their mouths. But soon they calmed down, and then Maryjerdo came along, and showed me the different departments of Friendship House, and explained what they were.
The embarrassment of those young Negroes was something that gave me a picture of Harlem: the details of the picture were to be filled in later, but the essentials were already there.
Here in this huge, dark, steaming slum, hundreds of thousands of Negroes are herded together like cattle, most of them with nothing to eat and nothing to do. All the senses and imagination and sensibilities and emotions and sorrows and desires and hopes and ideas of a race with vivid feelings and deep emotional reactions are forced in upon themselves, bound inward by an iron ring of frustration: the prejudice that hems them in with its four insurmountable walls. In this huge cauldron, inestimable natural gifts, wisdom, love, music, science, poetry are stamped down and left to boil with the dregs of an elementally corrupted nature, and thousands upon thousands of souls are destroyed by vice and misery and degradation, obliterated, wiped out, washed from the register of the living, dehumanized.
Things haven't changed all that much since Merton's visit to Harlem in this section. African Americans are still struggling against institutional racism. Sadly, the years of Trump really highlighted how much the United States still suffers from this blight. Of course, Trump supporters didn't discriminate against discrimination. They embraced it all--racism, homophobia, xenophobia, Islamophobia, misogyny. Once the pandemic hit, they even embraced the hatred of pure science. The result? Hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths. People refusing life-saving vaccines and opting for horse medication instead.
And now, a new variant is raging across the country. In my little corner of the Upper Peninsula, hospitals are overrun, understaffed, and woefully ill-prepared. I've heard horror stories of people contracting the virus while waiting for treatment in emergency rooms. Relatively young people dying because of the politicization of medicine.
If I sound a little angry, I am. My family has been very careful throughout this pandemic. Yet, last December, COVID struck our household. And, today, COVID struck again. My wife thought she had a bad cold. She woke up with a runny nose and scratchy throat. She wasn't going to get tested. However, because of our plans to get together with my sisters for New Years, I talked her into getting a rapid test, to be on the safe side. You see, my sister, Rose, who has Downs syndrome, is severely immunocompromised. Asthma. Alzheimer's.
My wife's test came back positive.
So, my son and I got rapid tests, as well. Both of our tests came back negative. So, we end 2021 the same way we began it--in quarantine. As I sit on the couch typing this post, my wife is coughing in our bedroom. I'm watching Rudolph's Shiny New Year and contemplating how shitty the last 365 days have really been. Facemasks. Social distancing. Viral surges. The death of my mother.
Like everybody else, I am COVID weary. Ready for things to return to "normal." However, I think the normal we used to know is a thing of the past. Facemasks are the new normal. Variants and isolation. We all need to accept that this is how we will define "normal" from now on.
So, tomorrow night, I will not be celebrating New Year's Eve with my family. It will be my son, my wife, and myself. My daughter is at her boyfriend's house, isolating from us to avoid possible infection. I will make crescent weenies. A parmesan artichoke bomb. We have a fruit tray. A huge meat-and-cheese tray. Two pounds of M&Ms. The three of us will ring in 2022 with games and movies and lots of junk food.
And I will be monitoring myself for signs of illness. We've all been vaccinated. My wife and I have had our boosters. We've done it all. Followed the science. That's why we're still alive. That's why my wife is still sleeping in our bed instead of in an ICU on a ventilator. We are lucky. This year could have been so much worse.
Yet, Saint Marty will be glad when 2021 is in his rearview mirror.
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