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'Between the World and Me': Black in America


Allyson Johnson 

Imagine a dolphin swimming through the ocean depths and suddenly becoming aware of the water being salty – something so normal it had never been noticed in the environment surrounding the dolphin every day – so normal it had assumed salty water as a universal fact. Then imagine that dolphin struggling with the concept of fresh water. That would be something of the way I felt on reading “Between the World and Me,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’ award-winning exposition on what it is like to be “black” in America.

It had never quite gotten through to me, despite reading a fair number of books by African- and Afro-American writers, that the concept of “race” that so permeates our society is almost a uniquely American idea. Other societies also make distinctions by skin color, preferring light-colored skin to dark-colored skin in their ideal of beauty, but only America makes the abrupt unilateral distinction between “black” and “white” that places a segment of our citizens irrevocably on one side of a chasm that the rest of the citizens do their best to ignore.

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The intervention: Haugh About That?

By the stern look in her chocolate-colored eyes, I found myself on the defensive. It was the same look she and her three siblings gave whenever I royally messed up.

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The perfect gift: No Shoes, Please

Reflecting on my highlight reel for the year, I think of my two trips overseas: Japan in April, Europe in October/November. I am especially grateful that my husband and I spent our days in Paris a few weeks prior to the terrorist attacks, and it makes me sad to have to say that. It is heartbreaking to think of this unique, historic and breathtaking city as the target of such cold-hearted violence.

But at the time, I was blissfully unaware of any impending catastrophe, therefore had a ball. We also ventured to Switzerland and Spain, the latter being a highlight because my husband has relatives there, and many wonderful meals and memories were shared during that leg of the trip. If Spanish cuisine in general was exceptional, cochinillo (roast suckling pig) in particular was sublime. Even today, my husband recollects and loves that dish so much, it could have been one of his relatives – but for the fact it was slaughtered and cooked to perfection.

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Charlie Hustler: The Villaj Idiut

I don’t understand why Pete Rose so badly wants to be in the Hall of Fame.

Oh, I get the concept of why he wants to be in the Hall of Fame. But I don’t understand the reality of it.

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For this I pray: Haugh About That?

Staring at the Sears, Roebuck catalog, I flipped through the pages until my eyes became fixated on the bright display of Mattel toys. There, right in the center, sat Barbie, complete with blond ponytail, black zebra bathing suit and hoop earrings. Immediately, I folded my hands and prayed, “Dear God, please tell Santa to bring me her. I promise to be a good girl forever.”

Falling into a deep trance as my request absorbed my thoughts, I felt a willowy presence by my side. Sure it was an angel about to grant my wish, I peeked, only to find my mom staring at me.

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History of a plague: A Piece of My Mind

A quarter of a century ago, our world was threatened with a plague. We reacted as humans do – first with ignorance (that’s an African thing), then denial (it’s just a few cases, and they’re all homosexuals, so I’m safe), blaming the victims (that gay lifestyle, what do you expect? If they would just straighten out … ) and calls for social quarantine (gay men should be required to wear a badge!). Mainstream America wanted to feel safe, because AIDS was fatal. In 1990, if you contracted AIDS, there was no treatment, no cure.

At least three of my classmates died of AIDS. Homosexuality was still mostly kept secret. The obituaries tiptoed around the cause of death: “Complications of pneumonia.” “A long battle against disease.” If there were no wife at the bedside, if a “longtime companion” were mentioned, one could guess.

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Juvenile invention: The Villaj Idiut

I run a Farmers Insurance agency here in town, and I have to say, it always shocks me when clients call up and ask, “Why is it so expensive to insure my teenager?”

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