Calvin’s Ghost: A Novel / 17 / Vacant Hearts

Calvin’s Ghost: A Novel / 17 / Vacant Hearts November 9, 2019

Previously in Calvin’s Ghost16 / Squeeze that Charmin


Tobias – Letter Two

November 4, 1991

Dear Eli,

What is the matter with you, boy? Since you continue to insist that we not speak directly, I am resisting the urge to pick up the phone right now. But I want you to understand how upset I am about this new development concerning the Chalmers in February.

Hugh Smalley informs me you are to introduce me at the lecture in February. Am I supposed to be flattered by this? Honored? Tell me, son of mine! Was this your idea? Of course, you understand why I might be piqued, just a tad, by this news.

To add insult to injury, Smalley also allowed that you will be included as a panelist, since your research challenges the “prevailing wisdom” on the political meaning of abolitionist thought. Prevailing wisdom, indeed! Is that not simply a reference to my book on antislavery reform? Moreover, it now appears he is expecting me to engage the debate more directly. So much, then, for my “honorific” status at this event.

The planning for this entire affair has progressed entirely beyond the point where I can reasonably refuse his request. For the record, though, I want you to understand I do not appreciate the trap. You know well enough the issue here is not whether I take your research seriously. Nor am I resisting an opportunity for you to showcase your talents. You may not be aware of this, but I am the first to admit these talents are substantial. You don’t need to prove anything to me by going through with this Sophoclean exercise.

But what you must realize, Eli, is that you have forced me, both through your selection of a dissertation topic and, now, by hopping on this bandwagon, to choose between my own work and my eldest son. It isn’t fair. I have been sandbagged. I do not appreciate it.

Your Dad

PS: I hate to be churlish, but I am wondering when you plan to reimburse us for your share of the cost we assumed in flying you to New York for Evangeline’s wedding. As you may remember, we agreed to split the plane fare, since struggling graduate students tend not to have that kind of mad money at their disposal. I have tried to be patient, but I do want to remind you of your obligation.


17 / Vacant Hearts

“Yo Pro! Saw you at the track yesterday. Howja go?” Gary waved merrily. He sat with his friends by the window, stroking his chin and grinning. An autumn chill had settled in now that it was November. Gary and his friends wore flannel shirts, except for Jake Jackson, who wore long johns. None had shaved their beards in day. They’d assumed the appearance and manner of a herd of wooly mammoths.

Although Jake Jackson had shaved his head. “Yeah!” he now shouted, aping Gary’s merry ways. “I saw you at the track, too, Pro! Howja go?”

“You guys saw me?” Eli said, trying to keep the edge from his voice. Up to now, he’d been able to separate his racetrack and teaching lives. Eli was sure he didn’t want this wall breached.

“It was you all right,” Gary said. “You were pissed, jumping up and down and screaming. It was after the seventh race. I figured you didn’t get the photo.” Gary turned back to his buddies. They laughed and smacked hands about how “the Pro” handled losing the photo.

Blade piped up from the back of the room, all smiles. “So…. The Pro been at the Rose. I ain’t seen him on the bridge.”

“He’s there every weekend,” another student said. “He comes with Associate Dean Hamish. They drive in Associate Dean Hamish’s sports car.”

Antoinette offered Eli a tiny shrug. Eli saw her all the time at the track. He enjoyed betting at her window, and they’d become friendly. In class, she usually sat with Blade T, but said little. Eli figured she hadn’t told Blade about his forays to the track, because Blade most definitely wasn’t the type to keep something like that under his doo-rag.

Blade smiled. “You riding in style, huh Pro? No bridge for you. Well you really want to ride in style, you bet my stock. You just find out who Blade T humping that day, and you put the money down on the nose of that suckah! Then you be cashing big-time!”

“You was humping that horse he didn’t get, Blade,” Gary said. “You whip that shit to pulp. The horse ain’t got nothing left in the stretch. Man, you better learn to stow that whip now and then.”

“Shit,” Blade muttered. “I’ll stow it up your fuckin’ ass.”

Eli shuffled his notes. He wondered whether Blade and the Rover Boys, between the five or six of them, possessed the brains of a potted plant. The class had been a disappointment. And, somehow, both the failure up to now and the promise of salvation for the rest of the term rested with Shahid, seated at the front of the room, as always, bolt upright in his chair, staring at, through and almost beyond Eli. As if Eli merely fronted for some larger, yet invisible (to all but Shahid) goal or purpose.

“Shahid and I have come to an understanding,” Eli told his students the Monday following Eli’s first excursion to Rose City. “Shahid will be with us for the duration of the year.” Blade and the others smirked. And then Shahid himself had flowed into the room, his cotton robes billowing behind him he like was Moammar Khadaffi. He didn’t say a word. He seated himself at the front, angling his chair so he could see only Eli, so no other students would pass into his line of vision. And there he sat through the rest of the month, through October and now into November, virtually silent unless called upon. Excepting Blade, with whom Shahid looked to be cultivating some special relationship, students rarely approached him.

This did not mean students hadn’t taken sides in the confrontation between Eli and Shahid. Eli knew students understood their connection to professors largely in terms of power – power the professor had, and they didn’t. Eli had faced Shahid down and won the first battle, but obviously, since Shahid ended up in the class anyway, Eli had lost the war. Black students, especially, appreciated this triumph over status and authority, and Eli hadn’t been getting too much respect, or even attention, from Blade and the Que Dog. And even the whites by the window, whom Eli knew for a fact were no champions of the black race, even they relished this victory over “the Pro.”

While Shahid himself remained aloof from the other students, Eli still blamed him for the miasmic quality of the class. If the students ever meant to put in an honest effort with this material, they gave up after Shahid infiltrated the class, because his infiltration removed any need to take Eli seriously. Most days, the students by the window, and Blade and his friends in the back, laughed and joked amongst themselves or traded nasty jibes across the room. Fiske Newton was into the material, and Antoinette too, but they were about the only ones. Even Laurel Modigliani had begun nodding off in recent weeks.

A cloak of mystery still surrounded Shahid. He’d had his moments in class, and at those times everyone else came alive, although nothing he’d done had yet to approach the alleged Gwendolyn Rochelle shenanigans. He was clearly holding in reserve his energy. For what reason or purpose, Eli couldn’t yet say.

Shahid had been true to his warning at the end of the first day in at least one sense, however. He was monitoring Eli. He stared at Eli with enormous fixity of purpose and he looked down to take notes with great economy. A few jottings here and there. Only rarely, it seemed, did they concern the substance of the class. More probably, Eli guessed, they concerned Shahid’s own agenda, whatever that was.

Eli had learned a few things. Shahid was a junior at Tillamook State, on full scholarship, a straight A student majoring, not in Africana Studies as Eli had initially guessed, but in civil engineering. He was 23 years old. Eli assumed he was the product of a military family, because he had attended schools around the world. Shahid edited a campus newspaper called The Afrikan Nation but did not obviously belong to any other student or campus organizations. And that was it.

The Afrikan Nation, itself, was a four-page weekly, partly funded by student association money, with editorial offices in Alpha House, near the T. State track stadium on the northern edge of the campus. Eli hadn’t been able to determine where the rest of the money came from. The newspaper covered issues of concern to African-American people and promoted the values of economic self-help and Black Nationalism. Eli thought it was well-edited.

However, Shahid as an individual remained opaque. His age suggested he had not entered college immediately after high school, but Eli had not been able to gather any information about that two or three-year gap. As for his political views, Harry correctly described Shahid’s low regard for reformist, inclusive political organizations. He espoused a more radical, militant, and separatist position, involving demands for reparations to African-Americans, community-based militias, and the establishment of protected homelands for black Americans within the present boundaries of the United States.

But none of this information provided a full picture. Eli needed to learn more about Shahid. Not so much the details of his life. More useful, by far, would be a taxonomy of his mind. Whence the fierce, disciplined mental energy? The knowledge of history? Why the disdain for partial solutions? The hatred of whites? Eli wanted answers to these questions.

* * *

“You heard the rumors, Pro?” Gary, still abundant with autumnal cheer, wagged his hand in the air metronomically.

“About what?” Eli said.

“Pritchard’s going to shut down the Diversity Project.” He grinned at his friends, fist thumping into palm for emphasis. “Slam the door on that sucker!”

“Where did you hear that?” Eli said.

“Word’s floating around campus, man.”

“They won’t shut it down,” Blade said. “They too scared. Fact is, the Diversity Project’s about all this dump has going for it. That’s what gives the school its reputation.” He glanced at Antoinette. “Ain’t that right, Toni?”

Eli noticed Blade periodically experienced bouts of earnestness, exposing a core of concern that provided at least partial answer to the question about why he was in school at all. Eli knew from the track that Blade probably didn’t need a college education to make a living. The purses at Rose City weren’t very large, but Blade was the top apprentice, he got to ride a lot of good mounts, and Eli assumed he grossed $40,000 or $50,000 a year from purses and morning workouts.

Eli had learned from Harry that Blade’s grandfather was a bullring jockey in Oregon during the 1940s and 1950s. Blade himself was from Los Angeles, so there was also a sense in which coming up to Portland, to ride and go to school, he was returning to his roots. At any rate, he showed up for class regularly, though his attention frequently lapsed, and his attitude certainly needed a buffing. Now, seeing how Blade reached over to touch Antoinette with his hand, Eli wondered if the only reason he came to class at all was because he had a crush on her. Eli was pretty sure she wasn’t going out with him, though of course he couldn’t be positive. But Blade attended to her like a puppy.

“I don’t really see the point in getting rid of the Diversity Project,” Antoinette said. “It’s helping a lot of students who might not be in school without it.”

“I’ll give you a reason,” Gary said. “A lot of white students don’t get the same opportunity to come here. But colored folks and other people who happen to be lucky enough not to be born white, can get in here, can get jobs, when they’re not so qualified as a white person. Now that’s racism.”

“Colored folks,” Blade said to the Que Dog. “Now we back to being colored folks. Soon we just be plain old niggers.”

Gary waved his hands, mocking Blade. “Colored people, people of color. Niggers, niggas. What the hell difference does it make? You pay more attention to your riding, Blade, less to words that don’t mean anything, you’d be much better off.”

Shahid stirred restlessly, but before he or anyone else could say anything, Eli cut off the students. “You know what?” he said. “I don’t care what any of you think about the Diversity Project. I don’t want people flying off the handle on a rumor. Besides,” he said, more warmly, “today we get past the preliminaries and get into the meat of the course. Today we start to consider slave resistance, slave rebels.”

Eli rubbed his hands together eagerly, his excitement genuine. Rebellion and resistance against slavery, in all its forms, constituted an epic narrative of struggle and triumph. Eli expected this material would engage the students more directly, bringing the class to life. How could it not? There was a harder edge to his anticipation, too. He guessed this material might prompt Shahid into revealing more about himself. Deep down, he also wondered if his excitement didn’t have something to do with the reading he had assigned for this day’s class, with the book he was about to discuss with his students.

* * *

Eli told his students that in the academic literature there had until recently been one dominant basis for understanding antislavery efforts in Britain and the United States during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. This framework had been developed by Eli’s father, in his path-breaking book on antislavery reform, Slavery and the American Soul.

In this book, Tobias argued that antislavery thought in America represented a projection of a Calvinist religious sensibility into social and political consciousness. In other words, the binding of black slave to white master provided a vivid representation of sin as a collective, social condition.

This specific understanding of sin conformed closely, of course, to Tobias’s broader ideas about the importance of Calvinist thought for the foundations of national identity. That much was well known. More than any other historian, Eli told the students, with scarcely a trace of pride, Tobias had committed himself to the belief that Calvinist Protestantism provided the key to understanding everything of significance in the history of the nation. In the process, he had transformed the study and practice of history in the United States.

But there was a second part to the argument, Eli said, less often discussed, because so casually and implicitly accepted by other historians. This second part, though, which concerned the influence of capitalism on the antislavery reform movement, was critical for understanding the broader implications and influence of the book.

In Slavery and the American Soul, Eli told his students, Tobias had observed the vigorous support of many 19th-century slavery opponents for the progress of capitalism and free labor. By the 1840s, the more broadly based, centrist wing of the movement, led by New York reformers such as the Tappan brothers, had jettisoned the Calvinist focus upon slavery as the epitome of sin for a more pragmatic, evolutionary approach, closely linked to optimistic assumptions of capitalist visionaries, that free markets in goods and, especially, in labor would eventually weaken slavery to the extent that it would simply wither away. Ironically, then, opponents of chattel slavery could not avoid providing cover for emerging forms of “wage slavery” in the “satanic” mills and factories of the North. For Tobias, this support of the moderate abolitionists for capitalism reflected a betrayal of the deeper moral and religious foundations of the movement.

That was the heart of the argument in Slavery and the American Soul. And for more than 20 years, the argument had survived a variety of assaults without buckling. Eli, however, believed the time had come to dismantle this argument about the moral and spiritual foundations of the antislavery movement. His research in graduate school undermined decisively the conclusions reached by Tobias in Slavery and the American Soul.

Eli believed evidence demonstrated that abolitionists were not primarily concerned with slavery as a religious or moral issue. Nor were they cynics or hypocrites when they evinced sympathy with capitalism. To the contrary. The new humanitarian sensibility identified with antislavery reform – the commitment to help those who suffer, even though they might be strangers, precisely because of a shared sense of a common humanity – was positively the consequence of capitalism, and the personal conscience it engendered. The conclusions were stunning, Eli told his students. Not only did the rise of capitalism require that individuals possess a personal conscience, its ascent could not be distinguished from the development of this personal conscience.

Two indisputable facts buttressed this argument. First, even the skimpiest knowledge of history revealed the brutality of human existence prior to the advent of modern capitalism. Satanic mills or no, conditions improved for most factory workers compared to the circumstances of their lives in the countryside. However, one could take this argument a step further. Because the profit motive, scabrous though it might be, constituted only one element of western capitalist economies. Market economies also disciplined and instructed. And clearly many people in the 19th century, abolitionists among them, thought of the free market as an especially humane form of education and social control, precisely because it operated impersonally and efficiently.

What was the moral significance of market economies, Eli asked his class? Market economies altered character and constructed character. They did so in two especially significant ways, by inducing individuals to keep their promises and by encouraging them, quite simply, to plan. The promise-keeping associated with the impersonal contract – between strangers who might conceivably share no tie but that of mutual interest – imposed upon merchants and manufacturers the need to attend scrupulously to the ethics of their activities. This ascendance of conscience was also linked to wider horizons of causality and a broadened sense of efficacy, to the belief not only that one ought to help suffering strangers, but that one could help them. For this reason, passivity in the face of evil or injustice began, by the early nineteenth century, to appear both abnormal and blameworthy.

But the most important impact of markets in fostering the emergence of the new humanitarian sensibility was to enlarge the human sense of possibility in the future. The plasticity attributed to the future provided men with confidence they could escape from the past. In Christian terms, it offered true freedom, not simply from history, but from guilt and from sin. Through the ability to plan, those engaged by the market discovered it rewarded, of all things, imagination.

The market also extended and enlarged a precious commodity, trust, creating possibilities for collaborative enterprises that had not previously existed. In this sense, capitalism had long labored under a canard, that it inevitably fragmented society and atomized individuals. In fact, the new social and economic order simply brought people together in new, more dynamic types of relationships. This dynamism and this forward-looking orientation, the idea that human institutions and relationships could change, ultimately destroyed slavery.

* * *

Eli paused, waiting to see what questions students might ask about what he had just offered them, the purest nugget of gold he possessed, the heart and soul of his dissertation.

Laurel raised her hand. On this chill morning, she wore leggings under her skirt and a dark blue and red caftan over her top. Bundled from head to toe, she still managed an icy tone. “Your father must have loved it. The son giving his father the back of the hand. In print, no less.”

Eli shrugged. “Nothing personal. He’s written lots of books. I just happened to become interested in this topic.”

“I’m sure,” Laurel said. “You just happened to become interested in slavery and race relations.”

Eli signaled to Shahid, who had been twirling his index finger in the air for several minutes, almost from the moment Eli had begun to speak. He did not look pleased.

“Yo, Little X!” Blade said. “You on, baby! Give us the word!”

Shahid glanced at Blade, swallowing angrily. Contempt dripped hot wax upon his words. “Well, Professor,” he said. “I don’t have much to say about the book, Slavery and the American Soul. But I can talk to you a little bit about the reality of slavery and the American soul. The professor, here,” Shahid nodded smoothly at Eli, “he wants to shed light upon the thought of abolitionists. But you’ll notice he has failed, really since the beginning of the term, to mention the most important – excuse me, the only important – group of abolitionists, African-American people. What are we left to conclude, then? Even when you’re talking about slavery, African-Americans remain invisible.

Shahid pointed to Jake Jackson, who had been smirking. “This simple motherfucker, here,” he said. “How different is he from the so-called abolitionists the professor wants to hang his clever thesis on? The reality of the American soul is that not one white person in a thousand is prepared to take risks to help blacks. You weren’t then, during the slavery years, and you aren’t now. You don’t think about us as people. For you, we’re animals.”

Fiske Newton leaned forward. “Hold on there, my man,” he said. “Give credit where it’s due. Not all white folks are racist. You know that.”

“I’ll tell you what I know, Preacher,” Shahid said. “I know power isn’t fungible. It doesn’t disperse and spread. When it’s rammed down your throat, it don’t go down easy. Power lumps up and gets stuck and you find you can’t breathe and you’re choking. That’s the truth, Preacher. The only way to get well is to cough up that lump. I want the brothers and sisters to realize we ain’t taking no more food from the white man.”

An embarrassed silence spread thick across the room. Eli did not try to cut through it. He sat on his thoughts. Blow on, baby. Blow on. Tell me who you are.

“We’ve sat here now for how long? Eight weeks? We’ve read about slavery in the ancient world, in preliterate tribal societies. We’ve studied its varied forms, its complex and shifting foundations, its positional importance for development of ideas about inner and outer freedom. But now we come to the heart of the matter, to ideas about slavery and freedom in the Americas. But how many of you know, or care, what slavery was really like for Africans, brought to the New World against their will, under conditions none of you can come close to imagining? How many of you know anything about the Middle Passage, with its devastating, enduring effects on slaves? Or what it meant to break families up as if they were only so many pieces of livestock? Or what the lash felt like, with the welts it raised, thick ropes of permanent scar tissue interlaced across the backs and the thighs and the arms, and the pain so unendurable? Or the iron bits twisted in the mouths of slaves as if they were no better than plow horses. Or the twenty-hour days in the fields, under a parching sun and a freezing rain?”

Earnestly, from beneath the wool cap steepled above his head, Bear leaned forward and invoked Thomas Jefferson. He appealed to liberal precepts of tolerance and equality, a vision of freedom, a counterweight to the reality of slavery in the Southern states. These ideals, he claimed, had been responsible for all progress in relations between the races.

Shahid offered Bear a patronizing smile. These ideals did not touch the real lives of Americans, he said, especially black Americans. They did not speak to the reality of power in the world. Freedom for some depends upon – could not exist without – enslavement of others. Which requires creation of The Other, the externalization of the evil within the human heart and its projection on to another people.

Race consciousness had always been and ever would be. Nothing human, Shahid said, and this word he nearly spit from his mouth, nothing human transcended race consciousness. There could be no common ground, by definition, nor any common language, between the slave master and the slave, the powerful and the powerless, the white and the black. The one only existed upon the labor and, more important, the debasement of the other, and, as slave rebellions such as Nat Turner’s suggested, those facts, alone, justified any action the under group might take to defend, and in the process to liberate, themselves.

Eli thought of Tobias, who believed “enslavement” of black Americans endured beyond emancipation. For blacks, too, the memory of enslavement, brutality, and exploitation continued to provide a racial, tribal basis for understanding social relations in the United States. Times had changed, though. Eli angled toward the front of the classroom from the corner where he’d been standing. “I’ll tell you what I see,” he said. “I see someone twisting history, distorting it irresponsibly, to claim an innocence and purity that can justify any statement, or any action even.”

“Tell him, Pro!” Gary called out, and over by the window a few students applauded his remarks. Otherwise there was silence. No professor in recent memory had dared challenge the racial caste verities of black students. However, Eli was not merely interested in upending racial orthodoxy. He hoped through his language to provoke Shahid, to lure him into deeper intellectual waters, to trap him with his own foolish words upon some isolated rock outcropping and there abandon him.

Shahid, more than ready to lock horns, pawed the floor with one of his feet. He inched his chair forward. “Who’s twisting history, Professor? What do you provide, in the texts assigned to us, which speaks to achievements and influence of black people, or other people of color? How to account for the burdens we have borne, the abuse we continue to suffer? In what sense do you want to argue the abolitionists succeeded?”

Shahid launched into his rap. About how blacks catch hell simply for being black, how they cannot rely upon the good will of whites. Indeed, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, blacks should assume the ill will of whites.

But Shahid clearly wanted to make a larger point, about the irrelevance of nonviolent, reformist, political solutions to America’s racial agony. The lines Shahid traced, lines of revolutionary consciousness and action, not evolutionary accommodation and capitulation, extended back in time along a groove parallel to but entirely separate from the traditions embodied by Thoreau and King.

“Malcolm once said about Martin, you’re not singing in a revolution, you’re too busy swinging in a revolution.” He also said, A revolutionary wants land to set up his nation. The Civil Rights Negroes only want to crawl back on the plantation. The forebears I recognize are Malcolm’s. Not white do-gooders like Thoreau. Not false prophets of a universal Christian love like King. But black revolutionaries. Prosser, Vesey, and Turner. Boukman, Toussaint, and Dessaline. Is it no accident you exclude those men? You avert our gaze from slave revolutionaries who acted from true knowledge about the white man.”

Before Eli could answer, Shahid turned back toward the black cohort in the classroom. He asked them to consider the effects of the historical education they received at the hands of the white man, an education that purposely reinforced stereotypes about black passivity, ignorance, and incompetence. He snorted. “The average black man’s no better than a Sambo because for years he’s been taught only whites can act, only whites can make history, and as a result he needs whites to be free, to be whole. This is devastating knowledge, psychologically and spiritually. You will only be free when you learn, not to integrate, but to separate, to create your own nation, and define in the act your own identity. In the meantime, you must learn from your progenitors who acted in the same spirit and with the same knowledge.”

Eli paced the room while Shahid spoke. He watched Shahid harangue the other black students. He watched the white students watching Shahid. The entire class was transfixed. Who was this guy? No, that was not the right question. Who did Shahid imagine himself to be? Clearly, he drew inspiration from history. He had steeped himself in the lore of the past, and now he inhabited it, preternaturally, like a dark ghost. This must be the key. Shahid’s own identity, Eli realized, depended upon this amalgamation of past and present. And this compression of time within Shahid’s own consciousness must be the explanation for his intensity, for the dark and brooding authority he wielded over other blacks at T. State. If Eli could somehow shake Shahid’s connection to the past, he might, at least possibly, surrender some of his rage and engage the world on more constructive terms.

“You understand yourself to be a revolutionary,” Eli said. “But you sound like Clarence Thomas. You sound like a mouthpiece, some ventriloquist’s dummy for Republican puppeteers.”

“One thing about Clarence Thomas,” Shahid said, mildly enough. “He’s played the power game about as well as any black man can in this white world. But you watch. They’re going to string him up to yonder lamppost and then he’ll just be one more nigger from Pin Point, Georgia. That boy’s been set up. You see, it doesn’t matter after all if you’re a house nigger or a field nigger. House niggers think they’re something special. They’re in the Big House. They’re almost white. Clarence Thomas is a house nigger. He even married a white woman. But they’d still rather kill him than let him out of the kitchen. And you know how clever they are. They’re going to let a black woman, a sister, string him up all by herself. She’s been set up too.”

“Anita Hill knows exactly what she’s doing.” Antoinette, her voice low and melodic, spoke up, virtually for the first time since the term began. She was a good student. Her first essay, on slave participation in the American Revolution, had been thoughtful and articulate. But she kept her distance from the other students, who appeared, in any case, to be in awe of her beauty, maturity, and poise.

“What makes you say that?” Shahid did not welcome this breach in the solid wall of support typically offered to him by black students.

“What makes me say that? She’s smart, capable, accomplished. Women like her, in professional settings, get harassed all the time. It doesn’t matter whether she’s black or not. In fact, I’d say it takes even more courage for her to speak out than it would for most women, since she is black. Most of those white Senators aren’t likely to believe a black woman.”

“She’s being used. She should think about the race. If you’re black, you don’t cater to white folks’ fantasies about black sexuality. It’s pornography for them, imagining oversexed, overendowed black men and women going at it like wild animals in heat!”

“What if he did harass her? What if he threatened to fire her if she didn’t have sex with him? You think someone who would do that should be a Supreme Court Justice?”

Shahid’s eyes clouded over. He shook his head. “This is a matter for the black community to handle, on its own. We don’t need white politicians adjudicating our private lives!”

The timid white girl, Paisley, her thin frame pressed like a leaf between the folds of her severely starched dress, peered nervously around the room. Then she raised her hand. Shahid’s baleful stare did not intimidate her this time. She wanted to agree with Antoinette. Sexual harassment was a big problem for women. Men in positions of power frequently abused their authority or influence to obtain sexual favors.

Shahid rolled his large brown eyes. That patronizing, half-amused contempt for the ignorance of the world. Over by the window, the Rover Boys emerged from their torpor to dig elbows into each other and grunt like monkeys. Clearly, they thought, this Paisley – this mousy girl with her high collars and big shoes and prim manner – had no reason to worry about sexual harassment.

Blade spoke up. He sat up high in his chair and addressed the class earnestly, hoping, perhaps to disagree with Antoinette without offending her sensibilities. “Y’all have to understand something,” he said. “There’s a style in black communities. A style of flirting, or courtship. It’s like rapping, man. Direct and blunt, but rhythmic, if you know what I mean.”

Blade shot a sly look toward Antoinette. “You want a woman, you tell her. But it’s all in fun. You tell her she lookin’ fine or she fly or how you gonna introduce her to some good lovin’.” The students laughed, even the Rover Boys.

“But it’s a game. No harm intended. And this woman, Anita Hill. I don’t know much about her. But now that she’s this educated lawyer, she’s too good for that style. She wants to make it in the white world. She turns from her people. Her culture.”

Jake Jackson tilted back in his chair. He was talking to Gary, but his words, half-formed and thick, could be heard throughout the room. “Sounds like the brother’s not talking about rapping. Maybe he’s talking about raping.”

“White cocksucker. Fuck you saying?” Blade’s voice low, fretted with danger. He and Jackson had been tilting at each other for weeks. He was fed up.

Jackson, slit-eyed. “I’m talking to you. Y’all best stay away from white women with your jungle boogie business.”

Blade was halfway across the room. Eli grabbed him by the arm. Blade shook off Eli. Shahid, too, wrapped himself around Blade’s torso. “Sit down, brother,” he murmured. “Sit down. This ain’t the way, man. Your time’s going to come. But this ain’t the way. Not right now.”

Still, Blade pressed onward toward the Rover Boys, his momentum slowing, as if now wading through deep water. Shahid’s own strength had begun to topple the three of them. For a moment, they struggled together to regain their balance, then, with Eli and Shahid clinging desperately to Blade, they all tumbled to the ground. Eli found himself prone beneath Blade, lying next to Shahid.

Blade, awkwardly, began to rise, his anger not stilled, Jackson now scared. From the back of the room, the Que Dog laughed. “You a dead motherfucker,” he said. Jackson sprinted for the door.

In that moment, Eli also thought he could hear Shahid whispering something to him. Shahid was whispering. “Heed the words of the priest Boukman,” he said to Eli. “Heed his appeal to the Good God. To the Good God. To the Good God,” Shahid now chanting, under his breath, “who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm. Though hidden in the clouds, he watches us. He sees all the white man does to us. The god of the white man inspires evil, and our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. We shall throw away the symbol of the god of the white man who has so often caused us to weep, and listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all.”

Eli shook Shahid’s arm. “What do you want from me, Shahid?” he said in a low voice. “What do you want from white people?”

Student were streaming from the room. Shahid, still whispering, had risen now to his knees. “I want nothing from you. I don’t care what you do or how you act. That is your problem. I am concerned with my people.”

“We’re doomed to live together, Shahid. You don’t have that luxury.”

“If we’re doomed to live together, then we’re doomed. Period.”

“Are you preaching violence, Shahid? Do you think we’re still living in the 19th century?” They were now alone in the classroom.

“The violence is there, Professor. It is in the marrow of our being. It is a presence hovering, an avenging spirit above our interactions. The only question is how we will use this violence, upon whom and to what end.”

Eli shook Shahid’s arm again. “You’re not a prophet, Shahid. You’re not a prophet. You’re not Toussaint. You’re not Boukman. You’re not Nat Turner. Those men are dead. They failed, Shahid. You don’t need to fail. You must rise beyond the image of yourself as a slave rebel. You’re not a slave, Shahid. You’re free.”

Shahid shook his head. Now chanting again. “Attend to the day of judgment, white man, to the caesura that shall cleave through the earth…,” he said, his eyes closing, his body still, “… for you must not believe Allah is unaware of the wrongdoers’ actions. He only gives them respite till the day on which all eyes stare with consternation. They rush in terror with heads uplifted and hearts utterly vacant. They stare but see nothing.”


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