Today’s “Life in the Time of Coronavirus” is brought to you by Mary Raymond. She’s not opposed to social distancing from time to time.
I hope you won’t think I’m bragging when I say I was way ahead of the curve on social distancing. Much like Amelia Earhart with her jaunty scarf and Lady Gaga in her meat dress, I’ve brought a real pioneering spirit to staying at home in my cozy clothes as we all figure out our new normal. I don’t want to imply that I am a complete hermit, but I will say I am shockingly susceptible to advertisements that contain the magic words without ever leaving your couch.
While courageous extroverts learn about the world by braving new experiences like Tough Mudders or shopping at Costco in the middle of a global pandemic, I attempt to get up to speed without engaging in extreme sports. Reading helps!
I picked up R. Eric Thomas’s book of essays Here For It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America after reading Mary Laura Philpott’s tiny letter recommendation. I didn’t know much about the book but quickly learned that Thomas is a gay African American who grew up in Baltimore and eventually attended Columbia University before pursuing a writing career. Since his life experience could not be more different than my own, I was eager to learn anything he had to teach me.
Here is what I learned, roughly translated from Thomas himself: Honey, I cannot help the well-intentioned straight white lady understand who I am because I am still figuring that out myself! Thomas depicts his journey of self-discovery in beautiful and hilarious essays. The through line is that for most of his life he felt like he was on the outside looking in. His parents worked multiple jobs to give him and his brothers the opportunity to attend an elite private school. The juxtaposed polarities of his life at home and at school made him feel like he didn’t particularly fit in either place. A child of deep faith, he wrestled with Christianity as he grew older and absorbed the message that God’s love and compassion did not extend to a gay man like himself.
Of course all of this makes sense. It takes time for any of us to get to know ourselves, but certainly the challenge is greater for any member of a marginalized group. W.E.B. DuBois wrote about the “double consciousness” experienced by African Americans in his autobiography, The Souls of Black Folk. For the first time readers were able to understand the psychic toll on African Americans who struggled to develop a sense of self-worth in a country that had enslaved and terrorized them. How do you believe in your own dignity, character, and intelligence in a society entrenched with the message that you are devoid of all these things? How do you find the strength to reject that legacy and figure out who you really are with no positive representation to guide you?
The world has changed in the hundred years since The Souls of Black Folk was published, but I felt in reading Here For It that Thomas’s task was much the same as DuBois’. The gift of reading his book wasn’t that Thomas handed me the answers to what his life was like in a neatly wrapped up narrative. It was that he invited me along as he wrestled with his own questions of identity. Thomas closes his book with a celebration of one of his idols, Whitney Houston, singing the national anthem:
Anything good in this country has had to be wrestled free. Some say that’s the beauty of the nation; that’s the American dream, as if we are all Jacob pummeling the biblical angel for a new name. But the tribulations that tinge every victory in pursuit of simply being American – and all that supposedly entails – are the worst of us. They are a national shackle, a dark mark across the soil. And so it is a shock when the crisp, bright, free voice of a black woman elevates our national anthem from the dirgelike bottom of rote recitation to something otherworldly, something spiritual, something that dares to hope. The fact that it’s possible is a miracle. It lifts me up; it transforms the song; it builds the country from ash.
Reading Thomas’s essays was a joy, a delight, and a wonder. He is at once riotously funny and achingly vulnerable. I wanted to learn from him because I assumed that we were so different, but he drew me in and held me close and showed me how much we are the same. If you need some good news, deep laughter, and a hand stretched across the void in solidarity, read this book. It is the vaccine we didn’t know we were waiting for.
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