(published today in LA Progressive)
When the review copy of Harbors by African American expatriate Donald Quist came in the mail, I’d been looking forward to it ever since one of the essays in the collection appeared a year ago on the Awst Press website. In it, we find Quist mouthing platitudes on behalf of a South Carolina town during a racially inflammatory police dragnet even as he himself is profiled by cops and only let go when one recognizes “the boy who writes for the mayor.” I kept telling people You’ve got to read this and I certainly wanted more from this man and his hard won perspective.
But when the book arrived, I was engrossed in the TV production of The People v. OJ Simpson and I was struck by something that hadn’t registered in the past: A Black man suspected of a brutal double homicide evades police. They know he’s armed with a (presumably loaded) handgun. The pursuit brings police out in force. No shots are fired. There are phone conversations and negotiations till Simpson ends up in custody. The OJ television series shows me it isn’t merely that celebrities are treated differently. It’s that when the orders are clear–the suspect is not to be shot, injured, or killed–the police are able to do their jobs while showing restraint.
As we know, this is not what usually happens. I hadn’t lived in LA very long when a Black man with whom I was collaborating on a project was shot and killed in what the police almost immediately acknowledged was a tragic mistake. And now? I’ve been struggling with this essay-review as each time I sit down to write another Black man is killed, more officers are ambushed. It’s easier to watch TV–and be reminded that the OJ case also opened the window on racism and police misconduct in the LAPD. When Simpson was acquitted, those who believed in his guilt–mostly white Americans–should have recognized how their interests, too, were harmed by racist policing. There was nothing simple about the case, its context, its outcome. It was complicated. And as I watched the series, I became weary of how our necessary discussions of race, class, and violence rarely acknowledge what’s complicated or take us past familiar easy categories.
Damn it, we know better. The media has (albeit briefly) told us that the son of Dallas Police Chief David Brown was a cop-killer and was himself then shot dead by the police. I support the Black Lives Matter movement and also rode for months as a civilian observer in the backseat of NYPD patrol cars and some (note I say some) of the officers I rode with were truly there to serve the community and are among the finest people I’ve known. We live in a country where many people have life experience that should make it impossible to see issues and events from only one side.
When Donald Trump says he’ll make America safe, safety means something very different to many people I know. My African friend who fled his country and came here to save his life now sits nervously in the back of the mosque, keeping an eye on the door, wondering if each man who enters is the one who will take out a weapon and kill all the Muslims present. My Honduran immigrant friend didn’t feel safe when stopped by police on the false claim that his car registration was expired. Taken from his vehicle, he was pinned face down on the ground with police officers on top of him. He wasn’t resisting, he explains, but yes, he moved his body, trying to push them back and lift his head because he couldn’t breathe. (Until you’ve felt, literally, the full weight of the law, you are not going to understand why people don’t simply “cooperate” and lie still.)
So I find myself longing for complexifiers, not simplifiers, and then catch myself, somewhat shamefaced, because that’s what Daniel Patrick Moynihan said we needed as, from his elite position, he studied the Black family and then saw his work used to stigmatize and harm. Was that what he intended? Maybe not, but perhaps that’s the inevitable consequence when white people with influence address themselves on the subject of people of color to white people with power.
Now along comes Donald Quist.
I finally open his slim volume and find the author in all his complex experience and identity. The bullied child who shuttles between his father in low-income housing and the world of his professional, middle class mother–and finally explodes. He’s the eccentric, beret-sporting Francophile communist vampire in middle school intent on becoming a writer who becomes the spokesperson for a smalltown Southern mayor who becomes a restaurateur with a short fuse. He’s the “dirty little secret” of his white girlfriends, then the beloved husband of an immigrant from Thailand with whom he chooses to start a new life in her homeland where he becomes a teacher and graciously answers the sort of questions that would be offensive back here. And he’s got questions: How to make sense of the kindness of people responsible for reprehensible acts, how to recognize virtue and vice. And why is it that in Thailand he at last feels free?–though the country is under the kind of military control that made his father leave Ghana years ago to settle in the US.
But I’m just listing information. This is a literary project: Quist teases out elusive truth by assembling fragments, memories, conversations in which his own words and thoughts shift and run into the words and imagined thoughts of his wife. In one essay I wasn’t always sure who was speaking or what was real as the form of the text itself communicated uncertainty. In Quist’s writing, boundaries get blurred to reveal people in all their complexity and contradictions as well as the shifting lines of privilege and oppression.
Some of these essays have nothing to do with race. The more I read, the more I’m reminded of how little we know of a person when what we see first is the obvious visual: color. And I remember standing before a college class, a sea of white faces, citing works by people of color and speaking up for more inclusion of minority faculty and minority voices and not only is this welcomed by the group, but I slowly learn how many of these white students have a partner, a child, a half-brother or sister, a stepparent of a different race. When you look at people, Black or white, how dare anyone presume to know their life stories or which “side” they are on?
And yet … for all this individual diversity of experience, African Americans–I dare say without exception–share much that puts this nation to shame. Here, Donald Quist speaks for himself, posting on social media during a visit to the US after his book had already gone to press:
1. Every time I return to the States I’m reluctant to drive, because I’m scared of being pulled over by police. 2. Every time I come back to the USA I try to limit the amount of time I spend out in public. When I am outside, I walk fast and try to stay mindful to keep my hands out of my pockets even if I’m cold. I try not to gather outside with friends, unless the majority of the group is white. 3. Every time I come back here, it takes weeks to pack a suitcase. I mull over every shirt and garment to try to ensure my appearance is “nonthreatening.” 4. Every time I return to this nation I’m reminded of the endless concessions I make in order to survive here. I bend and bow and remember to smile even when my blood is boiling, because I’m selfish, because I want to make it to my next flight. 5. Every minute I’m in America I am always afraid–of being made into a hashtag. #AltonSterling #PhilandoCastile,
The hashtag #DonaldQuist should refer us instead to this complex, talented author.
If I learn nothing else from these essays, may I always remember how Quist concludes his visit to Bangkok’s Erawan Shrine: “Press your palms together in respect for what you don’t know.”
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Donald Quist is co-host of the Poet in Bangkok podcast.
Harbors in paperback can be pre-ordered from Awst Press; free shipping if purchased through 8/9/16. awst-press.com/. It will be on sale through the usual online booksellers and independent bookstores starting 9/22/16. An e-book will follow in December or January and readers placing pre-orders for the paperback by 8/1 will also receive a free copy of the e-book once available.