Yesterday, a stellar volunteer in my program at work asked if I wanted his extra ticket to hear James McBride speak downtown due to his wife being sick. I had read McBride's book The Color of Water several years ago and given away two copies of it since then. As a white mother raising two black children, the book meant a lot to me, and I've carried its lessons with me for years.
The older I've gotten, the less it bothers me to go to events alone, so for two Thursday nights in a row, I drove our little VW bug downtown to go to a solo event. I found parking a thousand blocks away and rushed to get to the packed venue right in time. In the dark theater, I found one of the last available seats in the upper balcony, next to another solo female. Besides the dozens of high school students who had been given free tickets, I think my neighbor and I were the youngest people there. Portland is a very literary city, so it makes sense that events like this sell out. In fact, the MC gave a ten minute introduction, not of James McBride, but of the history of the Literary Arts & Lectures itself. There was a lot of self-congratulatory applause among the very white crowd, not that I'm criticizing.
The first thing McBride said upon reaching the podium was, "It's so nice to be here in such a white...I mean, nice crowd." I guffawed louder than I thought possible. He never prepares what he's going to say prior to a talk, so his lecture was pretty meandering, but I knew I was going to dig it when he started off by poking fun of Garrison Keilor.
As the lecture went on, I began taking a few notes. Here are some things I want to remember:
"Cynicism is toxic to your dreams."
He spoke about Frederick Douglas having a black wife and white mistress living in his house at the same time.
He read a lot of William Saroyan as a child, an author I was introduced to while teaching credit-ESL classes to a largely Armenian population of students in Southern California. It was a good reminder to pull out his short stories for my own kids.
Lastly, and probably most importantly for me, he circled back around to the importance of forgiveness. He told a story about being in a meeting of black students at an ivy league university in which the president had made prior racist remarks. The meeting was to come to a resolution. The president apologized and in the tense conversation, a black man in blue-collar uniform stood up to say that he forgave the president. He was booed. McBride spoke about how disheartened he was by this reaction.
He went on to say, "If you lose your innocence, you lose your power" in regards to the danger of becoming cynical. He explained that artists who become cynical lose their wonder and thus their power. Cynicism is something I struggle with, so it's no wonder I wrote this down.
As I walked out of the auditorium, I listened to the comments of the crowd and felt relieved that I didn't have to talk to anyone. I walked through the well-lit art museum grounds to my car parked those thousand blocks away.