Like a Built-in Dou­ble­take

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Niki Neems

houses that said, “Dear Sir; It has been called to my at­ten­tion that you were highly up­set about some chance re­marks I made from be­hind the fence at the A.D. club. I want you to know that I was to­tally ine­bri­ated when I made the re­marks, and I didn’t mean it the way it sounded. But if you want a per­sonal apol­ogy, please feel free to call on me at my suite in Low­ell House at about six thirty. P.S. I am not a mem­ber of the club, I was only a guest there.” Now that re­ally made me mad. And I think the prob­lem is that I have not been able in my life to ex­press anger when it hap­pened. I brooded about it. I didn’t get mad at the insult, I got mad at the insult in the let­ter. He was say­ing in essence, I’m dy­ing to let you call on me in my house at a cer­tain time, and I will apol­o­gize, not to you, but to save the rep­u­ta­tion of the club. His con­de­scen­sion. I could ac­cept the re­mark be­cause I’d heard it be­fore, but I couldn’t ac­cept that. I think it’s some­thing in me. It’s not pas­sive, it’s just re­signed. That’s why I call it fa­tal­ism. You as­sume cer­tain things.

CB: Through your de­scrip­tions of your mother in “Go­ing Up to At­lanta,” I sensed that she also had a re­signed at­ti­tude. She seemed to have great in­tegrity but also some pride in not want­ing to ac­cept char­ity. How do you in­ter­pret that?

JM: Well, it took me a long time to fig­ure out. I know that when she was a girl, she stud­ied to be what she called a per­fect Chris­tian, that was her goal in life. She stud­ied with ho­li­ness peo­ple in Florida, very strict peo­ple. And so, I don’t think she ever once fo­cused on this world as any­thing mean­ing­ful. She was fo­cused on Heaven. But it caused her a great deal of pain. She never once fought back at any­thing. She al­ways took it. And she passed it on to us to take it. That’s not real Chris­tian­ity. That’s masochism, so to speak. It takes you a long time to re­al­ize you’ve been tricked.

CB: Your fa­ther didn’t share that at­ti­tude. Even though he be­came frus­trated, he did ev­ery­thing he could to work within the sys­tem and to get what he could out of it. And he was still able to laugh when your brother was called a nig­ger.

JM: Sure, be­cause he was in­tel­li­gent enough to see that the man wouldn’t call him that un­less he was feel­ing threat­ened by my brother’s com­pe­tence. This is what I was say­ing about the guy that called me a nig­ger at the A.D. Club in Cam­bridge. I was mak­ing it. I was get­ting my law de­gree. I was writ­ing at the same time. It’s a waste of en­ergy to

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