Green onions. I pause in the middle of the frozen goods aisle, blinking at my own scribbled writing, and I curse.
Stuffing the grocery list into my pocket, I dig through my current haul, searching with my fingers. Sweet potatoes, yes. Chicken, yes, and broccoli. My fingernails scrape the bottom. I curse again, feeling lazy and belligerent. The frozen vegetables are nearby, and for some absurd reason, I scan them, perhaps hoping that the onions might appear if I communicate my inconvenience well enough to the universe. They don’t appear. I head back to produce.
I pass the registers en route. A store manager is chatting with one of his cashiers near an express checkout lane. Two black men. They are smiling, chuckling at times, observing every aberration of their Saturday routines caused by this rare Nashville snow day.
I don’t need green onions, I decide. I start toward the two men. Yet at the same time I decide this, a couple emerges from an aisle ahead of me, much closer. They carry only a small handful of things and they, also, are black. They arrive at the register. The manager steps forward.
“Need a place to check out?”
“Yeah,” says the man. The manager clasps him on the shoulder and smiles to the woman, who smiles back. The cashier takes their things. They chat about the snow. I slow to watch.
On paper, there’s nothing unique about this exchange, yet it is altogether different than anything I am used to. I am transfixed. Magic starts seeping out of them. There are words being said beneath the words being said, and I hear it as one recognizing a foreign language without knowing its meaning. The cashier tells a joke in that language, and the woman laughs. It is an unrestrained laugh, unapologetically loud. It flies through the room like sunshine.
The sound infects me and I giggle, but then, feeling self-conscious, stop myself. I decide to keep walking and to remain unseen. I know this magic is not mine. I've witnessed it countless times before. At work, for instance, in the jokes two men of color tell each other before I approach—before changing their manner of speaking to address me. It’s in the way I hear the word “girl” from a black woman’s lips.
If I am being honest, I covet this magic. I do. I covet it even while believing that it's rightly inaccessible to me. And I think that’s one reason white people continue to commandeer the cultural artifacts of people of color—we hope those artifacts might give us the magic.
I remember looking for it all my life, growing up, trying to be all things for all people, striving to be exceptional at every endeavor, desperately hoping to earn admittance to some group that might share its identity with me. I looked everywhere. Sports, drama, choir, honor society—these and others were the coteries I gave my rotating devotions to. But since I refused to promise exclusivity to any of them, I was always denied full acceptance. By participating in everything, I belonged to nothing. This pattern reiterated itself until the murky desires of my heart began to surface, and then materialize into words, a sentence, a question:
Who are my people?
I keep my head down. Green onions would be nice, wouldn't they? I push ahead toward the produce section. I grab a plastic bag from the roll. I put on a podcast in my headphones, but I’m not hearing the words. That perennial question has possessed me. I feel it sinking down into my stomach, undigestible, crooked and thorned.
"What is this feeling?” I ask myself. “White guilt? White fragility?” I am an artist—a connoisseur of emotions—and I can’t discern the truth. It’s a longing, yes, and a type of mourning too, that seems true enough. But what am I longing for? Connection? Belonging? Yes, both—an escape from my own catatonic individualism. Access to some form of magic.
I once tried looking for magic in the pages of my own family history, daring to hope that I might uncover my people there. In my imagination, I followed the routes of Scandinavian royalty migrating to the new world and watched Irish indentured servants earning their freedom with their sweat. I spied on the secret love affair between a man named Mundle and his Spanish bride. I felt my heart swell with their stories. Those people possessed their own unique mysteries, and those mysteries seemed strewn before me, waiting to be taken up by my own hands.
But if I studied long enough, I found that each of those stories ended the same way. Whether king or servant, my ancestors reached the same end, becoming enticed by the rumor of some new form of magic—one that had been made by men, created to endue them with unmatched power and absolve them of the sins that always accompanied such ambition. They should have known (and we should now know better) that things like magic could not and cannot be manufactured by humans, and that the endeavor only ever produces a crude and sinister imitation. And it's never without consequence.
To possess this new power, it required two things of my ancestors. First, it required that they relinquish ties to any former identities, and second, it required that they wear white skin. Perhaps they counted these costs. Perhaps they didn’t. Regardless, each of my ancestors ended up making the exchange, and the peoples and the magic that they forfeited in their ascension to whiteness are now lost to me. I don’t greet the Danish people I see in the grocery store with inside jokes and unrestrained laughter. I don’t feel less alone in the wider world when a person of Irish descent walks into the coffee shop where I’m writing. I mostly feel nothing. I don’t know how to recognize my kin.
But at least I still have my whiteness.
Even from the produce section, I can hear the woman when she laughs again, her husband joining her this time. Where does their magic come from? I can only guess that the ties that bound African-American communities together after centuries of slaughter, exploitation, and oppression were forged of their shared suffering. Their magic comes from their pain. It was not manufactured. And what are the bonds of whiteness? Power. The infliction of said pain. Our desire to control and insecurity of losing control links us together, and since we don’t like to talk about those things, well . . .
We put ourselves to work denying any notion that some shared group identity exists, because if we have one, it must look monstrous and bear a great responsibility. Perhaps my descendants, in another time and context, might find it possible to derive goodness and joy from some group identity someday. I cannot. I must and will use the magic of whiteness against itself, even if I am alone.
I find the green onions. I stare at them. “Where do I belong?” I beg them. Years of dehumanizing others has dehumanized me.
I go to the checkout—to the cashier I saw earlier—and ask him, through my gaze, the same question. He stares back as if to say, This was never my responsibility.
I nod. I know.
I take my bags and walk to the car, chasing my breath across the parking lot. Tantalus.
Once inside, I turn the key and pause the podcast. Silence. Then I remember a song I often play in times like these and, not knowing what else to do, I flip to it. I don’t drive. Deeper magic is nearby, somewhere—perhaps in this parking lot, so I lean back in my seat. I close my eyes. I breathe. How often I forget about the deeper magic.
The song starts with clapping, and then a guitar. I try to place myself back there, six years ago, when it was recorded, in that stuffy auditorium in the middle of summer. My feet and my hands grow warmer from the memory. The snow around me melts away and I am there.
Every seat is packed and the air is thick with the incantations of the saints. People I know and love adorn the stage. Many more dot the rows before and behind me, and beyond them, countless others stand, raising their different voices—voices molded by the magics of many tribes and many nations. Among them, I imagine that I hear a familiar baritone. It is the Kroger manager, and beside him are the others, their songs as unfettered as their laughs.
The voices threaten to shake the ceiling loose, each word in unison a powerful charm. I sing the words too, but a greater part of me is still troubled, still asking, still begging, the question.
The instruments drop out unexpectedly. Those on stage are swept out into the congregation. I am breathless, staggered by the enormity of the realization that we all are, very literally, one—united before and cherished by a power that subverts every other power.
“I am bound,” we all sing. Our different trajectories converge on a single point. “I am bound for promised land."