Where I Live, by Kathy Engel

We returned to the tangle of place called home in 1994 — me, my husband, and our young daughters. I was afraid of it, terrified of myself in it, loved it the way you love food you think you’re not supposed to eat and fear will make you sick. 

This is where when I was a child Claribel the angry Angus cow taught me caution. 

This is where Trill, the Welsh pony, reared up each time I attempted to slip my leg over her back, my stepfather, the farmer, and his brother trying to hold her down.

This is where my mother and her friends showed me how to start something (a school) in your community, at the kitchen table.

This is where the vast salt ocean and rough wind soothed my agitated mind; I learned that in the physical world one could locate a sense of belonging and mystery.

This is where I got the train from the spit of a stop in Bridgehampton back to my father’s life — the city and its grit, activism, my Jewishness, art.

This is where I was the only Jewish kid in John Marshall Elementary School.

This is where I learned to hide my fear.

This is where I couldn’t/can’t hide. Because it’s where I live. The fields, sea, the spectacular beauty, the farmers and what they grow, my family, and the bald glare of contradiction and old plantation segregation. 

This is where the landscape of race rode up on me, closed like a barn door locking in the rat of injustice.

This is where I saw how people live in daily acceptance of inequity and don’t name it.

This is where I sometimes joined on the harvester after school. 

This is where I sometimes rode in the pickup truck with my stepfather to take Geraldine, who was black and from the South and up here to pick potatoes, back to her shack a few miles from our so comfortable barn-turned-home near the beach.

This is where Geraldine and the others working the harvester welcomed me, showed me how to pick out the bad ones, toss them off to the side — dirt on my hands, brush of wind, red crank of the tractor, the stories, her pipe and deep voice. 

And this is where something felt so wrong when I saw where she lived — the tattoo of two worlds divided by train tracks. This is where those who lived on the Turnpike didn’t make that decision, didn’t say: We want to live here in shacks while you have your bigger homes across the tracks and we take care of your kids, clean your messes, and pick your potatoes. 

This is where in fourth grade I witnessed a young black female slammed against a cement wall by a white gym teacher, couldn’t shake my inability to intervene, a rock of guilty silence lodged in my abdomen, prodding me like a splinter.

This is where as a young woman I returned after travel to war zones. This is where the summer of ’82 I was called an ignorant self-hating commie in the letters section of this newspaper after writing that American Jews (me) should protest Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. 

This is where when we decided to come home, a number of progressive white friends said: You’re moving there? Why? And most of my friends of color said: That’s wonderful. Can’t wait to visit. And did.

This is where whenever someone visited for the first time I was afraid she or he would judge me, find out my secret. 

This is where I returned. To live inside contradiction. 

This is where once a week as I write my poems or take a run, a woman from Central America cleans my house. 

This is where more than one black woman friend traveling on the bus from the city to visit us was asked by a white woman sitting next to her: Oh, are you going to work? This is where, in our backyard, under the mimosa tree, we laugh in that uneasy way when the friends report the story over pasta and poems, as I step back from the squirm of my whiteness.

This is where when our younger daughter was in high school some of her white classmates threatened her Latino and African-American classmates, made swastikas and emblems of white supremacy, so a group of us, parents and teachers, formed a committee. This is where the black former teachers and administrators told about their daily pain working at the school. We didn’t use the phrase white supremacy. This is where the committee soon stopped talking about race and focused on drugs and alcohol. This is where I learned that drugs and alcohol don’t discriminate, even though law enforcement does. This is where I knew that project was urgent, tapping into my own scab and flood of denial. At the same time this is where discussion of race was once again erased. 

This is where our older daughter and her friends were told to return after volunteering in New Orleans post-Katrina. The leaders of the unlearning racism workshop led by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond instructed the group to go home and find the Katrina in their own communities.

Here the hurricane lives underneath the belly of the good life and enlightened conversation.

This is where the storm lives, where I live, in my body and the body of the split. In the ZIP code 11962. Under our floorboards. On Shinnecock land. Where many who speak the language of Lorca and Neruda are called alien while digging up weeds in other people’s gardens and mopping other people’s floors, often living crammed in motel rooms and also running businesses or making art. 

Here not all residents go to Pilates classes and the ocean on weekends. 

This is where it’s hard to find a hair salon that does black hair. Unless you know who’s opened up shop in her living room.

This is where my paragraphs break down because I’m afraid of what I’m writing. It will never be right. I will never be right in it.

This is where I returned after standing on the bridge in Selma last year marking the 50th anniversary of the bloody march. And couldn’t move for a moment. And couldn’t write about it. Couldn’t find an adequacy of language in my throat.

This is where as in so many wheres I often hear white people asking the one or two persons of color in the room to be the expert, the wizard of addressing race, the flag carrier, burdened by teaching. 

Where the mirror is confused.

This is where I get calls and emails from people who identify as white asking if I could recommend a person of color for their activity. I believe they are driven toward inclusivity and change. At the same time I want to suggest they ask themselves what prevents them from knowing black or brown people where they live. Will white people fight white supremacy living in isolation, when the reality can be turned on and off like a TV show? 

This is where I fear alienating friends and neighbors.

This is where this summer, 2016, I march with my daughters, mother, and husband in support of Black Lives Matter in our villages, following new local leadership. Where in our home we make signs as we’ve always done. This time: Black Lives Matter/White Silence Kills/Cultural Equity/Don’t Shoot. And our older daughter’s boyfriend, who is white, joins, for whom this is a first, and that is powerful. This is where I know again that the young leaders of Black Lives Matter are doing my job for me.

This is where I sit with my coffee after a dunk in the magnificent Atlantic, watching the strolling turkey family, small chicks, and a lone big-antlered buck on our nearly two acres. I hear my best friend’s voice. A brilliant and acclaimed writer, a black woman, and our daughters’ godmother, she recently said to me: “I want to wake up one day and hear that people who identify as white are calling the demonstrations so we who are being killed can stay home for a change.” Her voice vibrates in my chest. 

This is where one of the people who have bravely stepped up where we live was a friend of our older daughter from high school days. A young black man, it turns out he is the son of a man who worked for and alongside my white stepfather, the farmer. 

This is where I live. I am steeped in the story. I seek an ethical, lyrical language and the courage to do the next right thing. To end the systemic, structural denial and brutality that is white supremacy and is killing us, and my participation in it. So we can all live well where we live.

This is where I live, in this gift of a place, in this particular America, where in mid-August on a Monday evening I go to enjoy Escola de Samba BOOM, the band my husband and a number of friends play with, on the beach, under a nearly full moon, kids of all sizes and colors dancing in the ocean and on the sand, the sound of multiple languages infusing the air, piping plovers still alive. A truly community formation, when I look around, inhale, it smells like hope, it tastes like joy, the sweat and beam emanating from a group of people who resemble the world. For an hour. Making music, in music. By the sea. 

Kathy Engel is chair and associate arts professor in the department of art and public policy at N.Y.U.’s Tisch School of the Arts.