BOB: All right. It's definitely my pleasure to introduce to you this afternoon Ken McClane, who probably does not need much introduction for most of you, who know that Ken is WEB Du Bois Professor of Literature and Stephen Weiss Presidential Fellow here at Cornell University. He received his Bachelor's, Master's, and Master of Fine Arts degrees from Cornell University, where he was also inducted into Phi Beta Kappa. He's taught at Colby College; City University of New York; Williams College, where he was Luce Visiting Professor of English; Wayne State University, where he was Martin Luther King, Jr. Visiting scholar.
He's won a number of awards for his teaching and for his writing. "Walls," one of his works, was selected for inclusion in the Best American Essays College Edition 1995. The Antioch Review gave him the Distinguished Prose Award in 2002. He's won the Clark Distinguished Teaching Award at Cornell, as well as the Robert and Donna Paul Award for Academic Advising. From 1986 to 1990, he served as Director of the Creative Writing program here at Cornell.
He's published 10 volumes of poetry and prose. And one of his essays, "A Death in the Family," has been reprinted in a number of anthologies. And as I was reviewing his work, I went back and read that essay, and was really struck by this particular observation.
Here Ken is talking, "A Death in the Family" is about his brother, who died of alcoholism. And here he is talking about his brother. He says, "Many of his friends would later become doctors, a few entertainers, all of them by the most incomprehensible and torturous of routes. The black middle class, if it can really be termed that, is a class made up of those who are either just too doggedly persistent or too stupid to realize that, like Fitzgerald's America, their long sought after future remains forever beckoning and endlessly retreating."
And I was just struck by that sentence and reflected on it. And thought about Ken writing lovingly about his brother and also about how individuals from the same families can really take different paths. If you read John Edgar Wideman and his discussion about his brother, or Michael Eric Dyson and his conversation about his brother, there's something-- how do we predict tragedy? How do we predict success?
But let me not steal Ken's thunder. Ken has recently published a book, Color-- Essays on Race, Family, and History. And I assume, although he can do anything he wants to do, that he's going to share some of this work with us this afternoon. Please welcome Ken McClane.
KENNETH MCCLANE: Thanks, Bob. First of all, thank you so much for coming. I know there are a million things you could do. And let me say something else.
I want to say that it is always a delight, a particular delight, a profound delight for me to be at Africana. I was a student in Africana as a freshman. I was here when Walter Rodney was here. I was here when George Lyman was here. Dr. Turner schooled me. I hope I don't embarrass him and others.
But I want to say that, for me, this has always felt like home. And I don't care how many places I go or don't go, I always feel invited and welcomed here. So it's just good to be back.
Let me just say that I didn't intend, interestingly enough, to write essays. I had published eight books of poems before my brother died. And after that, I literally stopped writing poems. I just started to write essays.
I've always felt that poetry was, in effect, the highest of the arts, but that it should never be didactic. And the stuff that I had to talk about, I could only talk about in prose. Someday I hope that I'll get back to poetry, but maybe not. I've had a good run with essays.
Interestingly enough, the essay is a magnificent form because anything you learned in poetry, you can use in an essay, right? And when I say that meaning that I write, I would say, very poetic essays. They work largely in the ways that my poems did. There are a lot of sort of repeating tropes. And if things work, they do.
Let me just say very quickly that Walls took at its center or its hub, my brother. The new book, interestingly enough, Color, really has my parents at its center. I had a really sort of interesting childhood.
I didn't realize how rarified my childhood was. And when I say rarefied, I grew up in Adam Clayton Powell's house. Which meant that I knew-- but I was very young then, OK?
So it meant that I knew-- I saw Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Paul Robeson, Dr. Martin Luther King, when I was really young, five, six, seven, eight, OK? The tragedy, and I think that those of you are historians would well understand this, is that it was largely lost on me. Because all I cared about as a kid was whether they were nice to me, right?
Duke Ellington was incredible. He used to love to just walk me around, right? And then he would sit down on the piano, and let me just put my hands on it. And that's what I remember.
Anyway, Color has 10 essays, all of which were published elsewhere. The first essay, I'm not going to get through all of them, but the first essay starts off with probably the most incredible experience I had, at least initially, in my childhood. And that's when I went with my father-- my father was a physician, right, worked in Harlem by desire. My father never made more than $12,000 his whole life. He was a socialist, but he would never use that term, which I sort of fault him for, right?
I mean, this guy, I remember, interestingly enough, I didn't know. I thought we were wealthy. Because my parents were really incredible. We never saved any money. But they spent every dime they had on us, on we, as kids, OK?
And when I would go around Harlem, people would come up to us, right, and they would just talk about my parents as the sort of saints in a kind of rather complicated way. Because my father, right, you know, my father had brought all kinds of kids into the world. And the way they were paid, interestingly enough, was literally by spare tickets. Because a lot of-- well, we lived in Harlem, right?
A lot of people were artists and stuff. So we'd go to all-- I saw every show on Broadway, literally. I ate every kind of pie. I've probably had every possible, right, confection, in terms of food, right? And more importantly, I probably have been hugged by more wonderful and wondrous people than you can imagine. All right.
My father is going down with me to Macy's to buy a radio for my mom. And as we're going down the elevator, all of a sudden this white woman just slaps my father, literally, in the face. My father looks right at her, turns around and says, lady, I'm not going to be slapped for something I didn't do, and slaps her right back.
Now for me, this is extraordinary, as you can well understand. It's also extraordinary, because remember, when you're five or six, you have, as everyone does, these beliefs. First of all, you don't hit women, blah, blah, blah, that stuff.
But there's also something else. Remember, in 1957, there are almost no black people in the tonier stores in those days. Now you see them, right, in Macy's. But then, we were a rarity. And I remember those white guys. Their initial response was, I'm going to do something about this, right? Right?
And my father then looked at them, and he said, listen. I did not do anything to this woman, and I am not going to be chastised or have something like this happen for something I did not do. But if you feel that you've got to make this the OK Corral, then let's begin. But let's only make it a fair fight. Who's first?
I've always thought about that, you know. So what I'm trying to say is, my father had graduated first in this class from Boston University in three years. Was not-- in 1937, where they were not taking black people in the medical schools in Boston. My father was a-- my grandfather's a minister. He didn't have any money.
So my father's just trying to stay there, pretty much. And he couldn't get in. I mean, they wouldn't accept him. Finally, he got in, but a very elaborate way, and graduated in three years, right, first in his class from med school. OK?
So I mean, my mother's the same thing, extraordinary people that way. And in some ways, I think, in that whole business with that woman, all that stuff comes to bear. You know, the old Baldwin thing about we all have that bigger in the back of our head? OK. With your permission, I'm going to read the title essay in this, Color.
This is from my mother. My mother was-- I'll show you-- oh, yes. If you don't-- if nothing else, the picture in this is worth the price of the book.
KENNETH MCCLANE: I mean, everything that's happened to me has been downhill since then.
Color, for my mother. In 1977, when my mother was in her early 60s, she needed to produce her birth certificate to apply for Medicaid, a rite of passage fraught with enormous trepidation, especially for someone of my mother's near ecumenical disengagement. She simply would not entertain any act of bureaucracy or officialdom. Irreproachably the artist she was, my mother kept her mind uncluttered with those things she deemed immaterial.
She would pay the paper lady because everyone needed money and she admired the woman's truculence. Yet she would never pay the water bill or the real estate taxes. And it was not simply that my father handled those things. Things were never that simple. It was that these commitments were beyond her compass, as cut off from her world as marzipan and a mongoose.
And as you might expect, in her cooking, too, there was a discreet inattention. When she remembered to include all the ingredients, she would make a splendid spaghetti. At other times, there would be a wonderfully restrained sauce, spaghetti imaginara, I used to call it, which would involve a slight tossing of cloves and peppers, and a faint sprit of tomato. Sometimes, in all honesty, these creations were quite marvelous, the loss of one staple overshadowed by the pungency of another. And sometimes, with my mother's fullest approbation, it was good that we lived in close proximity to two Chinese takeouts.
Surprisingly my mother had never been asked for her birth certificate in 62 years, and its whereabouts were, to put it kindly, obscure. Finally, after a flurry of scurrying every possible inch of our Harlem home, even descending in our favorite hideaway, the not to be touched window seat box with its tangles of papers, my mother conceded that it had been lost. So, with little fanfare, she dutifully sent off a request for a duplicate to Boston, Massachusetts, where she had been born. And it came in the mail, in a few days. My mother, as was her wont, didn't open the letter for a week. It sat out on a library table with the unread Crisis magazine, the AARP bulletin, and a few announcements.
But one day, after my father had come home early from the office, my mother opened the letter. And I overheard her tell him, with much force, there must be a mistake! We have to do something! We'll take a trip.
My mother was being characteristically theatrical, since she used to do summer repertory. But this was not her intention. She was merely reverting to a past life where the world had made sense to her, a time in which she had acted with Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson, thrilling the summer residents of Martha's Vineyard with weighty theatrical fare.
Including Five Takeaway Two and The Little Foxes, a play that caused its author, Lillian Hellman, who lived on the island and attended the opening night performance, to upbraid my parents brutally for changing the word nigger to Negro, in my first encounter with the intricacies of authorial intent versus the wishes of a custodial community. Miss Hellman, though formidable, lost the argument. She threatened to sue to stop the play.
But Dashiell Hammett, her paramour, like a prominent voice from offstage pronounced, Lillian! This play is about language. This is the world, these people. Mr. Hammett was speaking about my mother, and the others, most of whom, though mediocre actors, were heroic participants in the civil rights struggle then overtaking the country.
There was Dr. David Spain, the clinical pathologist, who performed the autopsy on the slain civil rights workers Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney-- President of the-- I'm sorry-- in Mississippi at great personal peril. Kivie Kaplan, National President of the NAACP, would give everyone a Keep Smiling card two decades before the button praise, at a time when the world seemed bereft of anything humorous, with a seemingly omnipresent litany of dead civil rights workers, the endless legal battles, the country mired in obfuscation, nullification, and perfidy. And Bill Preston, who, in a foolhardy attempt to dramatize how the cattle prod could be used by segregationist police to immobilize a part of the body, stuck the small cylinder-shaped generator into his arms and watched his fingers turn a sickly mauve, his arm as hapless as ice cubes in Saudi Arabia. These were the true actors, Hammett reminded Hellman. Get off your high horse, Lillian, he said, winking at her.
Suddenly, my mother used the word damn with a sense of vitriol unknown to me. Her hand clutching the open letter, the birth certificate. Although my mother could make a look an omen, she never used profanity.
This day, my father was quiet. His entire bearing as quiescent as slag water. He had patients to see and hospital rounds to make. From his tepid response, I could tell that my mother's angst could not concern him, at least not in a physical way.
And I could tell just as powerfully that my mother was not to be deterred. I was home from college. I heard my mother offer. I'd take a few days off. We'd settle this thing.
My mother had rightfully perceived that my father, though compassionate, was sliding off center. Like an underpowered tractor, he meant to take the crest of the hill, but it would not happen in this world or the next. For my part, I hadn't yet learned how to dodge my mother's gargantuan enthusiasms. I hadn't, in all honor, ever wanted to.
Still, I had never seen my mother so discombobulated. As was the case with many people, my mother, nee Genevieve Dora Green, had been born at home in 1913 in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. The physician who had come to her house helped in the delivery, identified her gender, and specified her race. As her mother, my mother was light-skinned, lemony, as some of the black community termed it. And the doctor, with dispatch, assumed she was white.
Although located in the North, Boston was hardly the cradle of egalitarianism its founders celebrated. The doctor, like my mother, lived in a world where color defined, and he followed its dictates. He presumed, and one could easily see why, that my mother had to be white.
And even if she were possibly not, the consequences of which he could barely imagine, wouldn't she prefer to cast her fate with the Cabots and the Lowells, those who had the fine mansions on Beacon Hill? For his part, the doctor didn't wish to trouble my grandmother, who was vexed enough after the long delivery. And why would he dare to question her heritage and pedigree, for she certainly looked white in a town and nation where race was the harbinger of all that life offered.
No, it was clearly better to be white, the doctor reasoned. And so my mother was white, plain and simple. And in truth, my mother could easily be seen as Caucasian if one did not know that black people were often olive skinned, and many of us in the country, however we may try to hide it, have been blessed by the Nile and the Thames.
For black people of my generation, it's a private joke, albeit a grisly one, to infer who might, in fact, be black. Some people are clearly passing. And they often suggest to you, almost subliminally, that you shouldn't turn them in. Others through their various low intrigues and circumlocations of fate have never been made to confront the resonant sting of the star bush, which, though no less problematic, still incurs my awe and sympathy.
In questions of race, one can get both angry and saddened at the same time. It is not pleasant to confront someone who sees your racial life as trivial or immaterial, even should that disregard be based on guilelessness or ineptitude. Still no one wishes to see a person of color, however misguided, hurt.
I must state here, as my wife reminds me, that I'm dangerously limited by my own experience. Race for me is a Rosetta Stone. It informs everything, and it is the landscape, if you will, by which all my determinations are made. Those younger than I, those in the after "I have a dream" generation, see their lives differently. They believe, or at least some of them maintain, that race is simply one of the ingredients in your self-orchestrated bouillabaisse identity.
For me, if I can carry the metaphor a bit farther, the pioneering chef is far less the determinant. I'm not sanguine about my ability as an epicure, nor has the world, at least in my experience, proved otherwise. Though I do know that the world has changed, that the terrors that challenged my parents were of vastly different order than those I now confront, I also know that I have been called nigger, that people have questioned my right to prevent certain establishments, and that I still remain a problem for many of my countrymen, as the omnipresent affirmative action debate ever affirms. Although I'm less in danger of being bludgeoned by pipes and burned by cattle prods, I have encountered, and far too often, the overlong [INAUDIBLE] glance under the thinness of pretext which confirms me as a probable thief or rapist and hurls me out of the sanctuary.
And yet, to be honest, much of my race consciousness stems from my parents' lives, where race was the essential calculus. When I was young, everyone mentioned the race of those with whom they met. When we talked about black people, one's race was usually invoked simply as an indication that the person was not white. But when we talked about white people, the mention of race implied something far, mysterious, unruly, and in need of definition. Whiteness, since it was so much a force in our life, and often a negative one, had to be delimited as if we were talking about a natural phenomenon which, like the wind, could be a slight winnowing or a mighty hurricane.
I will recall the proverbial Bill Preston, you know, the white guy who helped with fundraising for the NAACP? He really brought in a great deal of money. Or Millie Cowen, the pretty white woman who took in the Freedom Riders, she was fearsome for being so short. This articulation of race here was meant to suggest difference positively, to place this person in context, and against all other inferences.
In my parents' generation, most white people, sadly, were not Bill Prestons or Millie Cohens. They were not pioneers or revolutionaries. They were simply human beings, enspirited by fears, exhortations, the tentative joy of a baby's first step and the often far too powerful sufferings of this world. This next line I have to laugh at. And those of you who are black will know where it comes from.
And yet, there were good white people. When my father was set to graduate from medical school in 1939, the first black to earn a degree from a Boston medical school in 30 years, he initially could not attend his graduation banquet, since the Boston Hotel it was to be held in was segregated and blacks and Jews were not welcomed. But when my father's best friend, the only Jewish student in the class, told his parents that my father and he were barred from the festivities, his parents bought the hotel in a flurry of entrepreneurial aplomb hard to imagine.
KENNETH MCCLANE: On the night of the banquet, the hotel proudly proclaimed, congratulations to the Class of 1939. We are under new management. Everyone is welcome, everyone!
KENNETH MCCLANE: And I well recall, when my parents wanted to buy a house on Martha's Vineyard in 1941, when the island was a lovely unknown atoll. My father had discovered the island in the most unusual manner. At age 14, escaping his minister father and a difficult mother, my father had slipped out on an ongoing tug with nary a word to his family and plied the coast from New York Harbor to Nova Scotia, working as a steward. In very rough seas off the Elizabethan Islands, his tug foundered, and he and his crew spent 10 days in the Vineyard during the inquest.
In later years, my father would always refer to Martha's Vineyard as, quote, "God's lifeboat." Although as he became older, and the Calvinisms leached out of him, the religious implication of this utterance impelled him simply to turn the island magical. Initially, no one could sell my parents a home in other than the small black community on the island. Like Boston, Martha's Vineyard was teeming with prejudice. The homes sold by realtors to blacks were small, shack-like and dreary.
My parents wanted a house with a view, a large porch, and some land, and they had the money. Finally, after seeing a covey of less than helpful realtors, my parents came upon the office of one Homer T. Bodfish, which is not a contrived name. They got names in Massachusetts. There was another guy named Ernest Stepwhistle. I mean, it's wild stuff.
Mr. Bodfish was a thin, wiry man, whose only physical movements were ones of great consequence, as if his very physiology was anchored to the Earth's axis. When our parents knocked on his door, he initially waved them off, saying, I've made enough money today. Go away. But my parents would not be deterred.
Finally, Mr. bodfish let them in. And My father told him about my family's desire to purchase property on the Vineyard, good property, property that Mr. Bodfish himself might like to own. Saying nothing, Mr. Bodfish looked them over, and then pointed to a massive stack of newspapers balanced like an adroit seal. They were Father Divine missives, full of the prophet's tract on religion, one's responsibility towards others, and racial harmony. Father Divine had created large, interracial congregations across the country, full of people who would do anything for the prophet. At some eating places run by the faithful, a chair remained always at the ready for Father, should he arrive.
Mr. Bodfish asked my parents if they knew of Father Divine, and my parents disclosed how much they valued Father's service. Father Divine's minions often acted as hospice workers for my father's patients. For a mere dollar a day, they were nurse a bedridden patient, dawn till dusk.
My parents must have said the right thing, because Mr. Bodfish volunteered, I'll show you one house. If you don't want it, that's it. One house, come tomorrow. And then he rose dismissively, his body moving as if it were one lean piston.
My parents bought that defiant house. It was designed by Thomas Goethals, the architect of the Panama Canal, and it was truly gorgeous. With a 300 foot porch, a palatial sunroom, and a view of Oak Bluffs Harbor, which is one of the loveliest vistas on the island. Interestingly, the neighbors took a long time to warm to my parents, and I use the word warm as you will soon understand, with a slight snicker.
Incredibly, one family literally moved their house away. Three weeks before my parents were set to move in, they were confronted with a massive gash in the countryside. The house, like the omnipresent vineyard fog, had mysteriously scampered off. That's original.
The other Yankee neighbors simply kept their stony distance. And one understood why, as a friend admonished me, they could burn witches here. In truth, rarely, if ever, did anyone ever speak to anyone in my family, with the exception of my sister who was, to put it mildly, irrepressible. With her boundless wanderlust and her uncontainable gaiety, even the stoic New Englanders could ill contain themselves.
But with my parents and me, the neighbors continued to act as if we were an infestation of locusts. If they waited long enough, we would surely disappear. Then, early one July morning, a young woman knocked on the door, and in the finest of New England accents offered, excuse me! Excuse me! Your house is on fire.
And indeed it was. As a result of its ancient electric wiring, the back of the house was completely aflame, blazing as if it were a husk of dry wheat. My father, since he, too, was a New Englander, offered a hearty thank you with that laconic passivity that must be genetically encoded.
Although we lost a tool shed, a few trees, and a ratty bathroom, no one was injured. The fire was, in actuality, more smoke than ash. Irrefutably, after that episode, which must have impressed everyone with its utter absurdity, it seemed as if we had wheeled ourself into the community. Suddenly the voices opened, and the houses became welcome way stations for palaver on the slow walk downtown.
Incredibly, we'd never known so many people lived beside us. Still of course, there was the omnipresent litany of racial denials, denigrations, and humiliations that continued to confront my parents. In 1942, during the Second World War, my father offered to enlist in the Army as a physician to aid in the war effort. He knew that men were dying in Europe, and he wanted to help.
But because the Army Medical Corps was all white, they did not need his services. At the time, he received a very curt note thanking him for his interest, but telling him that the hour was inauspicious. Then, a year later, after the number of maimed and dying doughboys had skyrocketed, two officers came to my father's office to beseech him to join the military.
My father declined. As he told them, if I wasn't good enough for you 12 months ago, I'm not interested now. The Army, now desperate for doctors, threatened to prosecute. My father remained adamant. During the war, he did treat patients sent statewide. He was a patriot, but he wouldn't enter the Army.
They'd have to threaten my children for me to go, he said. Many years later, I was a doctor then. I'm a doctor now. Screw them. Ken-- I love my father. He was--
Ken, we've got to travel to Boston and get this thing corrected, my mother said. So we began our mother-son sojourn, and so we left Harlem, drove across the 155th Street Bridge, crossed beyond Yankee Stadium and the projects located on the old Ebbets Field, where I'd seen Willie Mays hit towering home runs, and traveled up the Sawmill Parkway, that lyrical road that snakes along the Hudson, much as it did when it was a 19th century carriage path, gamboling through the low fields and omnipresent willow trees. This fruit had always been my father's favorite. Although slow and tortuous, it was beautiful. And it honored my parents' love for the elegiac.
As I recall, my mother was dressed cunningly. She was very beautiful, with a complexion like Dorothy Dandridge. And one could see the marriage of the Indian, the Portuguese, and the African in her high cheekbones.
Her hair was now white. Years before, it had been long, often pulled back. But this day, she reminded me of Janie in Zora Neale Hurston's magnificent novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. There was tremendous authority in her presentation. And yet she maintained, and how gloriously, the aura of the child with no hint of the stony ingenue.
The Boston Bureau of Statistics is located near the Boston Commons. And it was sobering to pass the graves of those who had fought in the Revolution, to see the statue of Crispus Attucks, a black man, the first person to die in the American Revolution. And then, as we see the white dead so neatly packed together, as if they were, in some inadvertent way, mimicking the slave ships with their horrific holds. That there was hardly room between decks for half the sweltering, stowed spoon-fashion there, and some went mad and tore their flesh, writes Robert Haydon in his poem, Middle Passage.
Still Boston remains an irrefutably [INAUDIBLE] place for me to visit. My parents were born there and lived there until they came to New York and they had me, which affirms, obviously, that before I was born, they had a life awash in mystery. And it is always incredible to think of the world before you were present, to think of your parents as somehow free as individuals, As having a history unencumbered by the history you represent.
And yet I've never spent more than a few days in Beantown. Often regaled as a center for America's ethical values, the city seems the most garish of absurdities to me, given my past. Whatever the attraction to Boston, the US Constitution, Bunker Hill, Faneuil Hall, and Paul Revere's workshop, my family's life there was brutally circumscribed by race. My father was always fighting.
In high school, he was told that he shouldn't think of college, the unskilled trades were for him. When he took geometry, since he was going to college, the teacher, who happened to be Irish, failed him, even though he had done brilliant work. The teacher didn't even grade his exam. He simply put down a big F.
When my father was forced to retake geometry in summer school, he never opened the book in preparation. When he sat for the exam, he scored a perfect 100. Amazingly, when a number of his white classmates failed to pass that summer, he was asked by the examiner to take a lower grade, thereby altering the curve and allowing the others to inch by, something which my father magnanimously did.
When my father decided to become a physician in 1935, he applied to the three Boston medical schools, Harvard, Boston University, and Tufts. And all of them denied him entrance, even though he graduated from Boston University College of Liberal Arts, second in his class in three years with a major in chemistry. In those years, none of the Boston medical schools would accept black students.
Incredibly, my father was told in an interview that, should he be accepted to Harvard, he would have to transfer after two years and graduate from a different medical school, one more fitting for my father's talents. The Harvard dean of admissions, an unreformed Southerner, was not going to permit a black Harvard doctor, not on his watch. Still the inveterate hardhead, my father persisted applying to the three schools, knowing that his chances were dim.
In April, when others learned about their medical school prospects, my father received no official response from any of the institutions. There was no thin or fat envelope chilling or animating his enthusiasm. Neither declined, accepted, or waitlisted, my father's application was simply mired in eternal stasis, resting, he imagined, on some functionary's desk until America ceased to be a republic.
Finally, after a wave of letters and the ultimate rejection, my father accepted the incontrovertible. He was not going to medical school in Boston, at least that year. Luckily, after a year of teaching English in Pennsylvania, my father applied to Boston University and was finally admitted, where he graduated among the top three students in his medical school class.
As a prerequisite of his admission, however, he was told that, should any white patient object to being assigned to a black physician, he was willingly to let the patient be transferred. And though my father understandably bristled at the suggestion, he wanted to be a doctor. Still, there was some humorous moments in his medical school career, albeit bitter ones.
My father heartily laughs when he recollects the time he confronted a white mental patient on the ward. The patient, who was clearly manic, took one look at my father, stuck out his tongue, rolled his eyes, and hollered, oh, a nigger! My father's ambivalent delight here, I suspect, hails from his incredible sense of displacement. As the mad man understood, my father was the outrigger, the outcast, the lowest of the low. This pitiable fool, like all his literary forebears, spoke all too discerningly, embodying in his abject certitude the absolute bone-numbing desperation of my father's predicament.
At home in Boston, things were a little better for my father's family. When my grandfather, the minister, walked daily to his Episcopal parish, passing through South Boston, he was often racially taunted and spat upon by the neighborhood hooligans. After a particularly galling spitting spate that [INAUDIBLE] for weeks, my grandfather came home and told his four sons that God, in his eternal goodness, had finally provided, since no one had spat on him in five days.
Walter, the oldest of my grandfather's boys, quickly reaffirmed his father's belief that God was wonderful, neglecting to tell his father that his son, as God's emissary, had punched numerous white boys in the mouth that spitless week. Sometimes God needs help.
And Walter, too, had his contretemps. Since Walter was very light-skinned with a mild resemblance to Charles Lindbergh he was often mistaken for white. When one of his white girls in his class took a fancy to him, Walter was told in no uncertain terms by a teacher, that he was not to take this girl out.
That Walter did what he desired in matters of love and lust, I have a new book. Walter, these brothers of my father, are even more bizarre than you can-- it's much more-- I'll go on and on, but anyway. He wanted to do what he desired in matters of love and lust. And suddenly, his grades started to slip. Once his race became a matter of contention, his intelligence, lo and behold, began to falter.
How can I help you, the registrar boldly asked my mother and me. He was in his mid-fifties, wearing a blue suit and a conservative tie, and approached us with a warm, albeit reserved, manner. Sir, we have a problem. Hopefully, not a big one, my mother replied.
I watched as my mother calculated how much time she had, what the nature of her audience was, and how her presentation might work to best effect. Well, sir, I recently had need of my birth certificate, and found out to my dismay that it contained an error concerning my race, which was listed as white. Now I know this may seem like a small matter to you, but it's essential to me, sir.
I've been black all my 62 years, and I'm proud of that. I've grown three children, helped my husband attend medical school, and faced many things, all as a black person. She waited, allowing it to sink in. Sir, can the race be changed to black?
I don't know how many times this happens. But I would like to think it happened every day, but it doesn't. I watched the registrar, as he tried to remain imperturbable, his face congealing as if nothing had ever roiled beneath its surface. I could sense that he was hoping that the registry procedures, if he could simply recall them, my proffer some guidance to handle this wild woman with her strange request.
My mother, too, had seen his remote apprehension. She knew it was time to employ all her skills before he closed the door. This was the moment she had always relished in her acting career. The zero hour when a good performance, if it were to be, must sally forth. If he wasn't moved by my mother's confession, his veins were filled with quicksilver, and nothing could make the dead bones live.
My children have always been told to be proud of their race. It is important to me and to my husband that they be fair to others, but that they also know who they were and whence they came, she said. I'm black. My parents were born black. I've been black as far back as I can trace. Can you change what is clearly an injustice?
The word seemed to hang in the air like the airship Hindenburg before it crashed to the ground. I felt that my mother knew what she had done. How she had unleashed, like the grandest confection, something which returned us to the original, the preconceived, the preordained. It was if we hadn't read Freud or known about Abraham Lincoln or Dr. Martin Luther King. The word injustice simply sat there molting, as if we were present at the creation of the firmament.
The registrar sensed his newfound station, even if he didn't know how to shoulder it, and I felt innately sorry for him. He was a good man, but he was not a visionary one. The job he held was ideally suited for him. Its contours met his enthusiasms. And he, like most of us, had become limited by its small buffetings, abandonings, and silencings.
After a while, the registrar simply said, almost inaudibly, Mrs. McClane, this is a legal document. I understand you are concerned. But I can't do anything. It's a legal document of record.
My mother thanked him, seemingly convinced of her failure. But after we left the building, she told me, we'll come back tomorrow. There'll be another registrar. I'll convince him or her.
The next day my mother was ebullient. Amazingly, my mother had not discussed the previous day's denial. At dinner, we talked about my cousins. After dinner, we talked about Cape Cod and our hope for a quiet, uneventful summer.
In fact, it seemed as if my mother had completely relegated the day's comings and goings to some place beyond her interest. Wherever it was, it held no sway now. Yet I was completely caught in the present in my imaginings.
In the best instance, we would go to the registry, my mother would work her magic, and a black Mrs. McClane would prevail. In the worst scenario, we would undergo 1,000 small notion bureaucrats, and I would never leave Boston. This, too, seemed a distinct possibility.
The next morning, the bright day seemed to match my mother's high spirits. And I almost found myself believing that the world would hear us. But there had been other bright days. My brother had died of alcoholism on a crisp blue morning. And so I was, to be truthful, as directed and as directionless, as a butterfly.
The new registrar was young with the faintest trace of stubble. His skin as tight as a new stretched drum. When he walked over to us, I sensed that he was still learning how to be, dare I say it, officious.
His walk was transitional. That is, one could see the beginnings of the man in the orchestrations of the man child. He wasn't yet fluid. Somehow, both stages equally claimed him. And thus he was, in a word, improvisational.
And yet, he himself couldn't term it that way, meant that he, unlike an artist, did not know how to use his inchoateness, that there was, that is, much mystery and little mastery. If he was not an artist, my mother was, and she welcomed the opportunity like a raptor. The young registrar walked over, and my mother began her speech.
Young man, you don't know what it means to live a lie. You're young. But I'm near 70. I won't be here much longer, and it's important to me and my family to be who I am.
The doctor listed me incorrectly as white on my birth certificate. But I'm black, and proudly so. You, young man, there must be things you believe, things you would never betray.
The young man looked sheepish, and I realized that this was taking all he'd learned at Harvard or Washington University or Holy Cross and spinning it like a dervish. I watched the young boy's face, my mother's. He made a connection, and my mother saw it, too.
Young man, can you change the document? Can you rectify a great wrong? The registrar begin to say something about the document, but he stopped himself. Then, as if in a dream, he offered, oh, lady, let me have your certificate.
The young registrar briskly walked away, as if he had found his new legs, and disappeared behind a large screen. In about five minutes, he returned with a new birth certificate with the race boldly listed as black and presented it to my mother. My mother was ecstatic. She wanted to kiss the boy.
But she also perceived his newly assumed agency and didn't wish to embarrass him. The registrar smiled broadly, evidencing his great pleasure. My mother and he had moved continents. It was true.
I don't know whether that young registrar changed my mother's color in the official state registry. I doubt if he did, although it is possible. For my mother, the truth had won out. For myself, it was another odd moment in a litany of racial episodes, all of which make sense.
But only if you are an American and believe that an ounce of melatonin, real or imagined, beseeks something pivotal, foundational, and incontestable. Only that is, if you believe, like the doctor and my mother, in the American way which sadly separates each of us from the other in cemetery and housing project, love and industry, life and death. It means something be black, my mother would probably attest. And her life, indeed, proves as much, as does my life and those that preceded it.
And it means something to be white, which, too, is full of celebrations, disappointments, and incoherencies. And at bottom, it means something to be American, which is the embodiment of all this deformation, the white and black, the black and white. This experiment which, many years ago, presented a white person and a black person with eyes that might have intuited anything. But instead, found solace in imagining how they differed and created a legion of codes and prevarications so fantastic they approach the pathological. Thank you.
KENNETH MCCLANE: I'd love to take questions. Yes?
AUDIENCE: I actually had the pleasure of meeting [INAUDIBLE]. One of the things I did, I shared the essay that you gave us, with your parents having Alzheimer's.
KENNETH MCCLANE: Yes.
AUDIENCE: And with my writing teacher, [INAUDIBLE]. And she surprised me, because when we came back to talk about the essay, she started talking about the words you used and the fact that she had to have a dictionary next to her in order to really fully grasp. And that actually surprised me. I didn't know quite how to take it. And then, when I reread the essay, actually, I appreciated your essay even more so. So I just wanted to share [INAUDIBLE] also just to get your feeling on the power of words that you use in your writing or in your essay there.
KENNETH MCCLANE: Yeah. Yeah, that's interesting. The last essay in this book is one about-- both of my parents had Alzheimer's. They died of Alzheimer's.
I'll tell you, if I look at my life in one way, it's really bleak. But the fact is all, my parents loved me, you know? And it isn't bleak at all. I mean, I really-- I had the most charmed existence, even though terrible things happened. Because I knew, right, at the bottom. I'll tell you very quickly and then I'll answer your question. I want to say something, something really strange.
You know, when I came to Cornell, I'm going to say one thing about my parents because I can, because I'm here. You know, when I first came to Cornell, I was thinking about this. You know how one thing sort of engenders another thing? I hadn't thought about this, but my parents, I don't think my father believed in psychology.
A lot of doctors at that point didn't, you know? They said they did, but they didn't. But he had an uncanny ability to know some things. I don't know where he got it from. But when I came to Cornell in '69, he did something which I'll never forget.
He went-- I didn't know what was going on. I came up here, you know, as all of you were freshmen, probably, once. Some of you may be a freshman now. I came up here from Harlem. I must admit, I didn't know what the hell to do in Ithaca. I mean, I couldn't figure it then. I mean, at that point, there were, like, two movie theaters, right?
But I remember, my father did something incredible. He got the phone book, right? Went downtown. I didn't know what he was doing.
Came back to my room. Suddenly puts an envelope on the bulletin board. And it says emergency. And he says-- my nickname was Chip. He said, Chip, take a look at this.
So I open it up. And it's a bus ticket. And he said, think about this. He said, if there is ever a moment where you doubt yourself, you feel inessential, you feel that people don't care about you, you take this thing, no questions asked, and you come home to those people who will always love you.
I'll never forget that. Do you know what I'm saying? That essential corroboration is so powerful. There's nothing white folks can do to me or anybody else, right, after that, you know? So all I'm saying to you very quickly. Gosh, I'm in this high point years, love your kids, huh?
But back to your question about all these words. I don't know. You know, the funny thing is I came to writing, I came to writing because of the music. I mean, if I write essays at all, and I hope they're lyrical, are they? They need to be. I mean, I wrote poems because of music.
I think almost every writer I know, Ralph Ellison says this, too, wish that he or she was a composer. You know? You might paint some. But you really wanted to be a musician. You just weren't good enough. Yeah?
AUDIENCE: Yeah, I have so many questions [INAUDIBLE]. I think one thing is very clear. I've thought about this a lot. What everyone do in life-- what can be reflect on, remember [INAUDIBLE]. I'd like for you to have it interweaving [INAUDIBLE].
KENNETH MCCLANE: Yeah.
AUDIENCE: Some people are not fortunate enough to have--
KENNETH MCCLANE: Absolutely.
KENNETH MCCLANE: Right.
AUDIENCE: But the way in which [INAUDIBLE] each of us has a life story, [INAUDIBLE] that we may not think it is that important.
KENNETH MCCLANE: Right.
KENNETH MCCLANE: But it could be very important [INAUDIBLE] including [INAUDIBLE]. What impact did it have on you beyond your [INAUDIBLE] memories? You put them together, you reflect on you, the person, and the impact this story had on you.
KENNETH MCCLANE: Well, you know, it's funny. There's an essay here, for example, about Dr. King's staying at our house, staying with us, that's a really powerful sort of essay for me. And it was very incredible. Because when he was at our house, this was-- I was, I think, eight.
Anyway, this was right after he'd been stabbed. And there was a woman who came into this, we had a Volkswagen bus. And he had done 350 speeches that year to bring in money.
And nobody knew where he was for safety reasons. So he just happened to be with us in the Vineyard. And I was very lucky. And I was a kid. And I remember this woman comes on the bus right, and she has this incredible hat, and comes up to Dr. King.
And everybody, once they saw Dr. King, right, everybody queued up. Everybody knew who he was. And everybody would talk to him. And the amazing thing about Dr. King was that Dr. King had this ability almost immediately and I think this is what, really, charisma is.
We always think of charisma as being the person being self-infested. I don't think it is. I think it's actually the other. What happens is the person actually that you talk to very often sees themselves in you and sees themself, in some sense, transmogrified into something larger.
And the thing about Dr. King was, when he was talking to those people for those 10 minutes, right, they were the most important person in the world. In fact, the brilliance of Dr. King, I think, was that actually very few truly great leaders can both lead and follow. He could actually take strength from people.
I remember, it was a very famous moment, Wilbur talks about this in an essay, where he saw Dr. King one time when Dr. King was in a church, right? And Roy Wilkins was there. And everybody was there.
And this was when the White Citizens Council was all around us. It was the thing with Birmingham. And all of a sudden, Dr. King is calling the Justice Department, right?
And Roy Wilkins says to him, Roy Wilkins says to him, Martin, aren't you scared? Aren't you scared? Right? Understandably.
And Dr. King looks at the audience, and he says, do you see these people here, many of whom will be arrested for five or six months when we get out, right? The Justice Department won't know about them, he said. They're not scared. It's not permissible for us to be scared.
Do you see what I'm saying? That ability, interestingly enough, to feed off that is really quite gorgeous. I guess what I tried to do, and I've always felt that all experience for me is a parable, right? The gift of anything that I've learned I'm only returning it back. It's almost as I'm just a vessel.
And I really think, I mean, in some sense I've been lucky. I mean, it just seemed to me that everything was there when I needed it. When I was about to falter, somebody came, you know, and stood up. I mean, I've been very, very lucky. I mean, I did it exactly the way I wanted to, right? Through no fault of my own, not through genius, I actually muddled through.
But I muddled through with a certain level of grace. And the grace didn't come from me. It came from people around me. You know? I have just been enormously loved by my parents, by people in this room, which is why I always want to return that.
I mean, just be a mirror. That's all you have to do. It's like a sunflower. You ever notice that they call it a sunflower because the sun comes out of it? You know? It looks like a sunflower, right? Just give it back?
So I think the hard thing, though, about the kind of writing that I'm interested in doing is it seems easier than it is. Because you have to figure out some way to both say something-- I mean, it's really-- I mean, all of us have experiences and stuff and we should. The hard thing, though, is not to want to do two things.
One thing is you have to figure out some way, interestingly enough, to make it hopefully not self-indulgent. I'm doing a piece right now. I'm doing a piece right now. And I'm thinking about it because I've been really-- my parents and I in 1956, and I'll shut up-- in 1956 went to Washington, DC. And some of you probably know, we were there doing the stuff you do.
And we were staying with Frank Snowden? Wrote Blacks in Antiquity, OK. And I'll tell you this because it has something to do with the story. While we were there, we did the stuff. We were going to go around. Again, we're Northerners, and we're really dumb Northerners. I mean, we don't know anything about much.
And so we took the bus tour, right, we took a bus tour going to see all the landmarks. And so the bus goes, we go to Mt. Vernon. And I remember this succinctly because two things happened I'll never forget. One was my brother.
My brother-- I think-- the reason I think my brother is dead, in all honesty, is that I in some sense had a certain level of looking at the world, a certain level of absurdity, we can call it a sense of humor. We can call it whatever, sort of distancing. My mother didn't.
My brother, actually, if my brother saw something it was like as if he were just-- it was like if he was a giant tuning fork. Everything just sort of went through him, and he could never, in some sense, throw it off. And you'd see immediately what was bothering him.
I remember-- right now if you go to Mount Vernon there's a very elaborate slave quarters. They didn't have that then. But when we went there, I remember there was this area where the slaves had been. It was very, pretty rough.
And I remember my brother doing something very strange. My brother all of a sudden just sort of hunkered down, right? He was all of about three. And I realized that it was almost as if at that moment he became a sort of sack of stones in the hole or the enormity of that stuff just claimed him. Right? And I would actually argue at that moment, in some sense, I knew something about my brother which I wish I had known, I really wish I had known all the ramifications of that.
So that happened. I was conscious of that. All of a sudden, it was really bizarre. We go, right, on the bus tour, and the bus tour stops, as bus tours do that are whole days, to get lunch. So we go to this place, have lunch. Only thing that I remember is that we go to lunch. You know, my father's real happy, smothered chicken, blah, blah, blah, right?
I do remember that the cooking staff was black, and I noticed that all of them came out, and they looked at us with a very odd look, which is an look that I know. Right? And that's all I remember. Remember, we finished, went home. Came back, Dr. Snowden had a party from my parents, right?
He says, where did you all eat? We said McNichols. He said, no, you didn't. So my father says, yes, we did. And then Dr. Snowden said, no, you didn't.
And my father said, you know, it started to be. And I started to realize it got really testy. What had happened was that we actually integrated that place. We were the first blacks to ever be fed there. Civil rights avatar without even realizing it.
But what was happening there, of course, two things. It's very possible, the possible readings of this, and let me say why I like to do the kind of writing. There are couple possible readings of this. One is, those of you who know about history know that my parents-- my father looked-- you know, I have a kind of generic third world face. Which gets me in a lot of trouble when I go out of the country. I'm always, like, whatever they don't like, I'm always in trouble.
But what I think may have happened with my-- remember in the South at points, if my father was Indian, he was served, right? If he was African, not Afro-American, he was served. This is real.
So I think that's one possible reading. The other possible reading, and this is also-- this might be that the waitress thought this stuff was stupid and just did it. Right? Or there's also a possibility that there's weird moment of what-- you know something? So much of all of our rituals in this country are people in some sense paying attention to them. It's very hard, right? Remember the whole thing about [CLAPPING] wrote the book about nigger songs something, something your mother-- the comedian!
AUDIENCE: Dick Gregory?
KENNETH MCCLANE: Dick Gregory! Remember the whole thing about we don't serve niggers. I don't eat them, either. Right? That idea, though, that there are ways in which you can kind of get into something, almost in the way that Ralph Ellison talks about it. Where you can kind of you can get to-- you can get a kind of interesting things and weird things can happen.
I don't know what's happening there. But I wanted to talk about it, because it struck me as being the kind of stuff that really does interest me about life. You know? And it seems to me our job-- all of you have incredible experiences.
I also would tell you as a writer that you need to write. You need to write, because erasure is very, very real. There are real historians in here. I'm not a historian. I'm a sad excuse for anything. But I can write a sentence, you know?
You know. So I guess what I'm saying is that I think you need to find ways in which you can both substantiate yourself, corroborate yourself, and I think through that process, if you do it well, corroborate others. Anybody else? Yes.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] come back tomorrow.
KENNETH MCCLANE: Mhm, yeah.
AUDIENCE: [INAUDIBLE] How did it shape you in terms of your confidence [INAUDIBLE] I graduated second [INAUDIBLE] so how did it shape you [INAUDIBLE] your brother also, that when you're fighting [INAUDIBLE] injustice, regardless of your background you must find a way-- I don't know how to say it. But [INAUDIBLE] shape you but you have consequence that it was shaping you in terms of your attitude toward life.
KENNETH MCCLANE: Yeah, I mean. There was a lot of things. First of all, there was a real sense, some of that came from just being-- there was also that New England sense that you sort of articulate stuff. I will say, though, there was a another thing that was slightly-- there was a slightly negative taint to that, too.
I was the first black in the oldest school in America, which is also in the book. What I'm trying to say, though, is not that I'm-- I just felt-- I was afflicted by my own experience in some weird way. But that meant-- and my parents, of course, we went to the school because their idea was you went to the best school you could go to. The problem was, for me, personally, and for my brother, too, we both went there. It was really complicated going to this school that was founded in 1616, graduated 13 presidents, you know?
And when I say it has nothing do with me, I actually, in my case, I think it's because I am by nature sort of, I was just sort of artistic. I mean, it might be autistic. But my problem was that I couldn't-- I really didn't, that sense of what they took as being important, right, the idea of being first in your class, always being competitive and stuff, that strikes me as deadly. I just don't buy it, right?
So in some ways, I think that my parents' sense was you always do this stuff and stuff. I really understand it. I respect it. I certainly respect it in them.
I think there's some drawbacks. And I mean, in the school I was at, I mean, it was bizarre. I mean, to be in the school where I remember I'm in the third grade, I put up my hands, and the teacher would say stuff like, would the colored kid in the red coat answer the question? You know? And it would go on like that, for year after year after year.
It was also complicated-- it was an all-male school, which, I think, are by nature corrosive, anyway. You know? I mean, like men need to be told that they have privilege? Do you know what I mean? So anyways, it was complicated.
I'm not-- by the way, the thing that is good about going to places like that is that I can always criticize them, you know what I mean, you know? I mean, I know exactly what they do and know what they don't do. Just like those of you who have been here, know what places like this do, and what places like this don't do, hopefully. Yep? Yes?
BOB: You see to suggest that your [INAUDIBLE] your brother took a different approach, though.
KENNETH MCCLANE: Yeah.
BOB: Because I remember the section in the essay where you talk about your brother. I can sort of envision him basically giving people fingers [INAUDIBLE].
KENNETH MCCLANE: Yep.
KENNETH MCCLANE: That's right. That's right. That's right. He was a tough guy. That's right.
KENNETH MCCLANE: Yeah. That's all true.
BOB: There's no sense of this of, I'll come back tomorrow. [INAUDIBLE]
KENNETH MCCLANE: Yeah.
BOB: If he was dealing with that registrar, he probably would have cursed the registrar out.
KENNETH MCCLANE: My brother was astonishing. My brother that way-- I mean, I was always worried he was going to get killed. Because-- you know, my brother now this is the weird thing with my brother. When my brother was three, three or two, I remember he packed all of his stuff up. Now kids do this.
But I remember my brother, he packed all his stuff up. And he decided, we were at 147th. He had decided. He had packed all his stuff up. And I watch him. He's going out the door. And so I'm looking at him saying, Paul, where are you going? And he says, nothing place or something like that.
And it's something, he was, like, two. But the weird thing about it was that I always felt in some way, it was almost like the stork went to the wrong house, right? I mean, it was really tough for him. I mean, we were all morning people. My brother stayed up all night.
And he was also, by the way, he was an incredible jazz musician. My brother used to play drums with Carmen MacRae. I mean, he was a serious jazz musician. But he just didn't do it. I mean, you know it didn't make him.
And then, my brother had the exact same IQ to me, to the point. So yeah, it shows you-- Yeah?
AUDIENCE: Is the pathology of your last paragraph permanent?
KENNETH MCCLANE: The pathology--
AUDIENCE: You mentioned pathology.
KENNETH MCCLANE: Oh, OK.
AUDIENCE: Your last paragraph. Is that permanent?
KENNETH MCCLANE: Let me see if I can-- well, I mean, I guess what I'm saying is, what I was trying to say in that last paragraph is that what's always been complicated for me was that, at least in this country, it always seems like having clarity-- we always put a premium on clarity. But clarity as it's often read in this country defines you away from things that are really clarifying for you. Do you know what I'm saying? That in other words, to talk about the kind of all those intersections that were going on in my family, right, to pay attention, have real fidelity of that stuff, it seems to me isn't using the kind of binary ways we look at stuff doesn't help me help me a whole lot, if that makes sense, right?
I think we're a really interesting transitional moment. We're always in a transitional moment here, right? But we're always, it seems to me we're always at a crossroads.
We're being told every day, you know, that we're post-race, post race? I mean, it's worse now than it was five years ago. I mean, come on! What are we doing? Right?
Yeah! Yeah! No, I don't think so. I think as long as we other, as long as we other, it's never going to end, right?
We just see people. As long as you see somebody-- if we could just see somebody, wouldn't it be nice if I could just see somebody who just happened to be there, and not-- and just say, gee, that person, you know, has a different shade. And do no more with it than just note it. But we don't do that. We haven't learned learn how to do that, have we?
We should go. You should, you gotta get something to drink or something. I've spoken far too long, overlong. Have fun!
KENNETH MCCLANE: Please.
AUDIENCE: Professor McClane, thank you so much for such an engaging and wonderful reading. What you said about the compulsive uses of the adjectives black and white to position people reminds me a lot of the kind of verbal shorthand [INAUDIBLE] where people seem to put folks in one category or another. And automatically it does [INAUDIBLE] it let's you know the back story, so to speak, so you can attach [INAUDIBLE] characteristics to a certain group that then automatically knows kind of what is going to happen or anticipate the story. So I found that fascinating.
My question relates to the essay in your book about the experience of having taught at the alternative school? Because it seems to have in some ways been a counterintuitive decision. And I wonder about its impact on you [INAUDIBLE] trajectory, how you feel that particular experience with this thing has shaped your life.
KENNETH MCCLANE: You're talking about the essay about working with the profoundly handicapped kids? Yes. Well, you know, I think the thing is, actually, it isn't so different. Because remember, my sister didn't breathe. It was really-- my sister, I have a sister who actually calls me every day. And I speak to her for exactly one minute a day every day, and she's 70. And my sister lives in a sheltered workshop.
But my sister, when she was born, didn't breathe for seven minutes. But she's incredibly high-functioning, given that. But you know, so I guess in some sense, it was actually-- it's sort of like, you know, I do prison stuff, because I always think about my brother who was often there for five or six minutes, you know what I'm saying? And I think in some sense, in a way, it was sort of having a kind of fidelity with my sister.
But you're right. I mean, you know that essay was, again, one of those things that really fell right in my lap. I mean, I'd never seen-- if it worked. It seemed to me that it was almost as if these people were metaphors for me. I mean, I was supposed to learn, right? She's talking about a really--
I had this job where I was working with the profound handicapped. I'm talking about people that had IQs of 15. These are people that, if you can teach them to use a knife and a fork, it might take a year. Right And there were two students-- I actually worked with five students. But there were two students who were just astonishing.
One student I call the love machine. He really was. This kid, he was astonishing. If anything moved, if you came into the room, he would try to hug you. And more importantly, he would just, he'd vocalize. And he would just go mm. And he was really trying to kiss everything.
But the problem was he would try to do that to anything, even a car. So he would get killed. I mean, the institution was the first time I'd ever seen an institution that actually was healthy. Because that institution made certain he lived.
He could not live. I mean, forgetting even some of his own of sort of his cognitive stuff. It was also that this guy was-- he was going to grab a car and get killed.
Then there was another kid. These were actually-- this is the first day I'm there. Then there's another guy, right?
He was a kind of cherubic looking kid, but he's a really strange looking kid. And I'm told by the teacher, who was actually Oliver Sacks, kind of very famous guy, saying, you know, you need to read the folder on this kid. And I don't like reading folders.
You know, those of you are teaching probably know. You know, I was afraid that if I read the thing I'm going to have all this stuff. Guy kept saying, read his folder. Read his folder.
Aw, hell, finally, I said, you know, because I'm left-handed, I'm a little afraid of reading-- you know, they say left-handed people conflicted. I didn't want to deal with that. But anyway, so I finally read the thing.
And it says, this kid's says homicidal. It says homicidal with masochistic tendencies. I'm saying what? I'm saying IQ 15. What does that mean? Right?
Well, I'm told to take this kid and put this kid on a bus, right? That's my job, taking him to the bus. So I take the kid up, put him on the bus, belt him in.
The young man extends his arm. I take his arm. He grabs my hand, sticks it in his mouth, bites into it, and the blood is coming out of my knuckles, right?
And you know, it hurts like the dickens. And you know, I really want to hit the kid. You can't do that, right? So I yell stop it, right, because it really hurts.
The kid breaks out in the most incredible smile. And then I said, oh, my word. All right. That happens in one minute. And about three minutes later, right, I'm supposed to go and get another young lady, put her on the bus.
So I'm going to get her. All of a sudden, I look. The same young man jumps. He gets out of the thing, runs, right? Grabs a young girl and throws her in front of an oncoming car. The car just luckily misses a complement of children and doesn't hit them. And then the kid breaks out in the same smile. So I've got this love machine on the left, and I've got absolute evil on the right, you know? So I have Martin Luther King and Dick Cheney.
AUDIENCE: There you go.
KENNETH MCCLANE: Right? And you know, I said to myself, this is it! I mean, it seems to me, can anything preach better than that? I mean, just seemed to me I had the whole world right there.
BOB: Well, I think we should stop at this point.
KENNETH MCCLANE: Anytime. Thank you. Thanks so much.
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Ken McClane, Cornell's W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Literature, reads from his book, "Color: Essays on Race, Family, and History," in which he chronicles racial progress as witnessed by his family during the 1950s, '60s, and '70s.
McClane teaches creative writing and African American literature at Cornell.