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Re: [LS] talking past one another
When I taught at St. Andrew's School in Delaware in the early 1960s
(Robin Williams later had my room when they filmed the DEAD POETS
SOCIETY there), the chaplain of Princeton at the time, Ernest Gordon (see
came to speak about his experiences as a prisoner at the River
Kwai, which separates Thailand from Burma. Some of you may have seen
the classic film, BRIDGE OVER THE RIVER KWAI, which records many of
the grim details of that prison camp. Ernest and I visited it in
1987, and were very troubled by what we saw. The Japanese had been
especially brutal in their torture; most prisoners died. For example,
they would place men in small structures with tin roofs in the blazing
sun and deprive them of water. They practiced exquisite tortures on
How did you survive? I asked the chaplain.
'I practiced the discipline of remaking the face of each torturer into
the face his mother had seen cuddling him in her arms,' he said. 'It
is very difficult to be swallowed in bitterness when you can do that,
and it is the bitterness that would have killed me, even had I lived.'
That is 'talking past one another' in a way that I can respect, seeing
eyes and faces that have disappeared.
Early in my relationship I was overwhelmed by seeing at close range
the blatant racism that Ernest faces, sometimes even from people in
Integrity. One chapter of Integrity invited me to speak, and when
only the convener showed up, he explained that it was because of "your
black lover." I can still hear the purses snap as Ernest and I
boarded a bus on Lakeshore Drive when we were in Chicago for the first
Integrity convention. He was dressed in fine clothes, but the
blue haired ladies at high noon saw only a thug.
At a meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English in NYC in
1977(?), as co-founder of the lbg caucus, I had persuaded the
Council to put into the packets of all 2,000+ conventioners a list of
gay restaurants that I had collected from the National Lesbian and Gay
Task Force, on whose board I sat at the time. When Ernest and I went
to one of the restaurants, we waited for over an hour and a half
before we realized they were never going to wait on us or serve us.
He was the only black person there, and in a fine fur coat.
Ernest was one of several black students to integrate his high school
in Georgia. He worked in a hospital for a while after we married, and
was fired for organizing the underpaid black staff. When we were
kicked out of housing in Wisconsin in response to the landord's
distress about our gay activism, I was devastated, but Ernest
organized a local landlord-tenants association that worked for the
rights of all parties in settling disputes. The association won a
As a white man, I was trained to collect grievances and to seek
redress for each and every one. Early in our long friendship I told my
friend Louis Crompton, "You have to stomp on every snake." "If you do
that, you will most certainly get foot poisoning," he cautioned.
"Choose your battles wisely."
Ernest does not collect grievances. If someone treats him with
contempt, he feels sorry for the person. He has a spiritual gift of
being especially nice to nasty people; I think that is why he makes
such a fine flight attendant.
I pray always for a double portion of that spirit.
In time I have learned that I become like a snake if I treat my
enemies as snakes. It's vital to see in them not just the face that
their mother saw when they were babies, but the face of my own
A Quiet Description of a Queer-Basher
I see the same dimple his mother kissed
40 years ago as she rocked him through fears
like those which again glaze his eyes
as he pops his belt at my forehead
while he has me tied to the tree.
His snarl is as simple as his wrinkled nose
which rejected Pablum or prunes,
and he spits his tobacco juice in my eye
as gleefully as once he burped on her
or slobbered Zwieback down her bra.
-- Louie Crew
Brave New Tick 4.5 (August 1996). np.
Kindred Spirit 6.3 (1987): 8. Reprinted from Friends of Poetry
Chapbook. Used my Chinese pen name Li Min Hua.
Friends of Poetry Chapbook 2 (1980): 31.