What Separates Us

"Roots" -- Natalie Martell

“Roots” — Natalie Martell

I didn’t want to touch him, I wanted his autograph. But the barricades were repositioned, and my front-and-center spot was snatched away as fans rushed forward to see Denzel Washington emerge from the Cort Theatre, where he had just finished a performance as Troy in Fences. My high school book club and our teacher Mr. Andrews had read the play, and our principal managed to get tickets for us to see it on Broadway. I had brought along my book, and Mr. Andrews said I could keep it if I got it signed, so here was my chance.

Mr. Washington sauntered out of the theatre doors, an appreciative smile on his face as the uproar of the predominantly female crowd welcomed his arrival. I half-expected him to simply wave and walk quickly towards his getaway car, but he took the time to stop and grab the hands that reached out to him.


“I love you, Denzel!”

“He touched me!”

My book and I were outmatched, masked behind all of the flailing arms and shrieks. Not gutsy enough to push and shove my way into his view, I watched in silent disappointment as Mr. Washington stepped into his car, giving a final wave goodbye before the door closed. All of the girls in the book club touched his hand except me. But I didn’t mind– it was autograph or nothing.

* * *

language, n. (and int.): the system of spoken or written communication used by a country, people, community, etc. [ . . . ] act or instance of speaking, that which is said, discourse, [ . . . ] inarticulate sounds by which animals communicate, [ . . . ] manner of expression, way of speaking.

OED Online (2015).

* * *

“Wont some jeeelly?” the McDonald’s cashier asked my mother, who had ordered her usual sausage biscuit. It was a simple question, but it left my mother and me nearly roaring in laughter when we left the restaurant. It was the accent, a deep Southern drawl that stretched the words into a nearly unrecognizable form. The accent was one of the many constant reminders that we were now in the south, and it was unlike any place I had lived before. But I too had been in moments of being the other, the outsider.

“What’s pop?” my friend Jose questioned me once during a stop at the corner store, with a look of genuine confusion as I grabbed a Sprite from the display refrigerator.

Had I said that? It was then explained that “pop” was not the term for soda in New York. I would need to learn the language of city slickers or risk sticking out like the Mid-Westerner I was.

* * *

We dissect nature along lines laid down by our native languages. The categories and types that we isolate from the world of phenomena we do not find there because they stare every observer in the face; on the contrary, the world is presented in a kaleidoscopic flux of impressions which has to be organized by our minds—and this means largely by the linguistic systems in our minds. We cut nature up, organize it into concepts, and ascribe significances as we do, largely because we are parties to an agreement to organize it in this way – an agreement that holds throughout our speech community and is codified in the patterns of our language. The agreement is, of course, an implicit and unstated one, BUT ITS TERMS ARE ABSOLUTELY OBLIGATORY; we cannot talk at all except by subscribing to the organization and classification of data which the agreement decrees.

—Benjamin Lee Whorf, “Science and Linguistics” (1940).

* * *

 She did not know how to say the number thirteen, so she traced a “1” and “3” on the table. I nodded my head in understanding. Her granddaughter was thirteen years old, she was telling me, as she proudly showed me a picture of her. We met during an event called Valentine’s Day of Compassion, which I volunteered for through my church. We went in small groups to different convalescent homes and rehabilitations centers, holding a service and afterwards speaking with the residents. An elderly woman from Lithuania, she spoke German and very little English, which at first was not a problem; her friend, who also spoke German, sat with us and translated to me. Soon, though, the friend got a phone call and had to leave, which left me with only non-verbal communication as an option.

I tugged at my shirt and pointed at her sweater to say that I liked it. I tried to explain what was in the gift bags we had brought for the residents. “Lotion,” I said, as I rubbed my hands together and moved them up my arms. Most of the time, we sat in silence. Soon, she held her face in her palm and looked around the room in defeat from being misunderstood. I tried to imagine what it was like to have only one person to talk to. She got up to leave, hugged me, and said, “Thank you.” There are some barricades we choose to stand behind, and there are barricades we long to cross but cannot.

* * *

The picture is black and white. There is a military truck in the background. On the far left, a young white woman stands with books in her hands. She has pin curls and wears a sleeveless shirt and a stiff circle skirt that stops just above her ankles. Two state troopers are near her, their guns resting on their shoulders as they stand stiff as the young woman’s skirt. She is looking away, her back turned against what is happening to the right of her. A state trooper is pointing ahead, giving some kind of directions to a young black woman. She too has curls, but she is wearing sunglasses. Her shirt has short sleeves, and her stiff circle skirt has a picnic-cloth pattern on the bottom half. She holds a book in her hand. The trooper is telling her where to go, and she too points into the distance. But he is not looking at her. Holding his gun across his chest with his free hand, is he advising her to or away from Little Rock High School?

* * *

You only encourage them with your bread and tea. They are looking for their chance . . . And he brought the little boy’s tricycle from the garden into the house every night, because if the house was surely secure, once locked and with the alarm set, someone might still be able to climb over the wall or the electronically closed gates into the garden.

You are right, said the wife, then the wall should be higher.

Nadine Gordimer, “Once Upon a Time” (1989).

* * *

When I was five years old, my mother and I lived in an apartment with a small patio spacious enough for my mother to plant flowers and place a fence around them. The patio faced a busy street and, despite the repetitive look of each apartment, it was easy to tell which was ours as we drove by. My mother did the planting. I, a curious child who had not yet discovered a dislike for insects, did not help much with the gardening but played with the earthworms that would surface as my mother dug holes for the flower seeds.

One evening, Mom and I sat in the living room listening to music. I got tired and went to bed. When I woke up hours later, our glass patio sliding door was covered with wood panels. Shattered glass lay scattered on the burgundy and emerald rug. Mom provided an explanation the next morning.

Not long after I had gone to sleep, there had been a knock on the front door. Mom looked through the peephole and saw a man with a hat on that cast a shadow over his eyes, a man with his hands behind his back, a man she did know. She did not open the door, of course, but returned to the couch to indulge in her music. The unknown man took the initiative to circle around to the patio door, take his baseball bat, and smash the door to shards for a viable entrance. My mother ran into the room where I lay asleep, locked the door, and called the police. When they arrived, they discovered the man had taken some jewelry and other valuable items. Mom was furious but not about that.

In his haste, the burglar had carelessly trounced over her flowers and broken the garden fence.