The only thing that should surprise me, really, was how surprised I was at the displays of racism I encountered yesterday in small-town Vermont. But I was surprised. It shook me out of my little progressive bubble that is my accidental hiding place from the rest of the world. I don’t mean to hide, and believe me I see reports all the time of terrible goings-on in this country, but the reports I get are all expressions of outrage and disbelief. I had almost gotten to the point where I thought that certainly all people were on the same page as I was. My head was in the sand, as I looked up at the desert through my online periscope.
My Facebook feed is almost literally a Bernie Sanders campaign ad. My city can’t get through a weekend without a march or a parade or a fundraiser dedicated to something progressive. To me, this is normal. The people I see every day tend to view things the way I view them. They are worried about climate change. They want to house Syrian refugees. They support the Iran deal and they oppose war. They know that all lives matter, but right now it is the black ones that are in danger. These are the people that I came to believe populated the American landscape, working diligently to create a better country for all people, but especially minorities, and the poor and downtrodden. The bubble is a lie.
My new opera has been touring the state of Vermont, and we made a stop yesterday afternoon in what was most assuredly “the sticks.” I was carpooling in with several cast members, because we like to save gas, and because it is more fun that way. One of us happened to be an African American fellow, and a friend of mine. As we pulled into the center of town, we got…looks. Or rather, he did. One women nearly twisted her head off, as she gaped openly at my friend, sitting in the front seat of the car. As her head followed us down the block, we all had a good chuckle about it. This wasn’t really “racism,” but more curiosity and disbelief at seeing something out of the ordinary, right? After all, our show specifically deals with racism in small-town Vermont, but in the 1970s. It’s not like that anymore. Right?
Well, we got to the tiny theater and had started looking for dressing rooms (there weren’t any), when my friend received a phone call from another cast member who had gotten lost and needed help finding the place. He walked outside and I followed him, wandering down the one street in town. While he was chatting on the phone, a woman stuck her head out of the top floor window of a run down house across the street and shouted nastily “I’m gonna close this window, so you don’t hear any racist comments!” She slammed the window closed and then continued to glare at him from the upper room. How thoughtful of her.
I was shocked. I was scared. I was in complete disbelief. My Facebook feed had not prepared me for this. How could this exist here today, in 2015, in Vermont of all places! If they hate black men, they might hate gay men too. I am not gay, but I have been attacked for being gay before, simply by virtue of my being a musician and performer, and hate doesn’t often stop to get the facts. I didn’t feel safe. I felt worried for my friend. I suddenly didn’t want to be there anymore. The woman stared us down for another minute or two, and then got a big blanket and hung it up, blocking the window since there were no curtains. Even after the blanket was up, I could still see her peeking around the side of it, her eyes fixed on my friend. And he was on the phone the whole time and missed almost all of it.
I told him what had happened, and he kind of shrugged it off. He seemed almost used to it. Was this sort of thing something he had to deal with all the time? Why?! Did he feel scared like I felt, all the time? How?! How had I missed this? How had I had the temerity to believe that things were getting better, and this sort of thing was relegated to the past? How had I had the audacity, and the head-up-ass-edness to stop fighting for true justice and equality? When I can go an hour from my house and experience the kind of hate and disdain that would cause someone to yell insults out the window at a stranger, then we have a lot of work left to do. I have a lot of work left to do.
My character in the opera defends my friend’s character in the opera from racist insults and misguided bigotry, and sends an important message that I hope I have the courage to share when I’m off the stage as well. We have three performances left, and I’m going to sing them as though lives are depending on it. Because somewhere, somehow, they are.
Photo Credit: Jim Lowe