In June of 1992, I embarked on a month-long cross-country trip with a woman I’d met only two weeks earlier. Her name was Coco and she’d been mildly dating my on-again, off-again boyfriend while I was out of town. (Objectively, I see now that the level of sexual intermingling amongst my friends back then wasn’t an acceptable mainstream lifestyle, but at the time it seemed natural.) Coco was striking. She was a dancer and seemed to move effortlessly through the world while I inelegantly stumbled. She was beautiful, funny, provocative, sweet…
I point this out now because at the time, I pretended not to care and instead continued to believe that I was color blind. I accepted all beings. My best friend was Indian. I even had Puerto Rican and Native Indian friends. I was open minded. One love, man.
We didn’t call her Black, though. We called her Mulatto. Someone else gave me this information, of course. I’d never known anyone who had a white parent and a black parent. I thought this was how she wanted to be referred to but I don’t know what she wanted, because I never asked.
Shortly after we met, Coco mentioned she was driving to Colorado for the weekend to her half-sister’s high school graduation and did I want to come with? Oh yes, please. Any reason to escape the romantic entanglement I was in with two young men, one of whom would later become my son’s father.
While I could share highlights from our journey such as…
- narrowly missing multiple tornados in the midwest during one of the largest tornado outbreaks in history.
- being stuck in the car for three hours trying to leave the Grand Canyon while a manhunt ensued for an escaped convict.
- riding old bikes through back country roads, in utter silence except for the sound of the wheat swaying in the breeze.
- sweltering nights trying to sleep with windows open at Coco’s aunt’s house, watching the white lace curtains move slowly against the dark night before we explored each other’s bodies.
- going to clubs in Chicago with her famous jazz drummer Dad.
- the car finally breaking down outside of Victorville, crashing in a motel then being jostled out of bed by a major earthquake.
… I want to focus on these three moments in particular from a journal I kept during this trip.
At midnight, we arrived and surprised the hell out of her grandmother, her mom’s mom. It’s a very small town here. Mother, daughter and granddaughter live next door to each other (no lie.) On Sunday, we went to the local Baptist church, twice. Everyone here is white (her Dad is black) and it’s odd that she’s the only non-white person. But they love her, clearly. Except the priest kept saying that anyone who is not a Christian is damned to hell. So I started tuning out.
We went to the quarries – Greg, Coco and I jumped off. What an insane feeling – my stomach in my throat. I swear my heart stopped. It was fantastic. But after, while we were drying off, we heard this argument between this white guy RAMBLING about a “fucking Puerto Rican” – no sooner did 30 hispanics come out of nowhere, picked up rocks and almost killed the guy. He had blood GUSHING from his head. We left shortly after, but we were all twisted from the experience. There I was – with a white boy, a tall Greek, a little Indian and a Mulatto rasta. I realized how fortunate I am that I don’t have ignorant friends and that to me, my friends are just as color blind as I am.
Coco and I went shopping with her Dad and stepmom and after looking around, I noticed I was the only white person in both supermarkets and the restaurant we went to. At first, I didn’t notice, but then I noticed them noticing me. Now, I know that no matter what, when we see differences in our world, we notice them. Fine. But why do we see it necessary to make definitions between us? Also, there are bars on the windows in this house, in their home. Why should there have to be?
I could give many explanations for my thinking back then. This may even be the thinking of many ‘open minded’ people today. Look, I was noticing things! I was upset, even, that the disparity existed. But that was over 30 years ago, and up until recently, I probably would have continued to have the same reaction, given those scenarios. Oh sure, in 2012 when Treyvon Martin was killed, I signed some petitions and expressed my anger on his family’s behalf. But then I went back to my life. And then came Eric Garner and again, I was sad and confused. I wanted justice for his family but didn’t think there was much I could do. Then Tamir Rice. Then Philando Castile. Botham Jean. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd.
The ignorance of youth and miseducation of upbringing can no longer be an excuse for how I behave in the world. Noticing inequity is a great first step but it isn’t enough – we have to address the cause of inequity in the first place. And we have to take brave action that will make others uncomfortable in order to create long lasting change. So I ask myself, what is a little discomfort when I don’t have to worry about the ways I will be deprived of the privileges I’m afforded because I was born into whiteness?
I wish I could say I stayed in touch with Coco but after we got back we went our separate ways. Spending 24/7 with someone can make or break a relationship, as I’m sure many are finding out these last few months. For us, it turned out that we weren’t stronger in the broken parts and that’s ok. I will never forget the indelible mark that she made on me that month, though, and it was my privilege to explore the country with her.