Keren and I are getting ready to go on the Meet Me Halfway book tour, a three-week journey to 8 of America’s 10 Most Segregated Cities (we’ll go to the other two cities in the fall). It will be part book tour — supporting Meet Me Halfway, my collection of short stories about life in hyper-segregated Milwaukee — and part fact-finding mission. I’ll be doing readings in bookstores, but we’ll also be stopping in parks and other public spaces along the way with a sign that says, “Want to talk about race?” to hear what’s on the minds and hearts of these cities’ residents.
Often before I go on a trip, especially an important one, I dream about what to expect. I love that my subconscious gets some of this prep work done while I’m asleep — saves me time to pack and water the plants and put the mail on hold.
I had such a dream last night. I was in the small, rural Wisconsin town where I now live. Keren and I were with a couple of friends on a jaunt to see an 8-sided barn at a nearby farm, apparently some kind of local tourist destination. While climbing the barn’s stairs to get to the promised view at the top, I noticed a pale-skinned, red-headed baby following me. He was with his family and was showing off his 1-and-a-half-year-old independence by trying to make his way up the stairs on all fours.
Eventually, the baby got wobbly and sat down on the step, frustrated and cranky. His mom picked him up and reassured him she would carry him, but her help offended his sense of toddler-ability and he kicked and squirmed until she put him down. I got down on the step with the baby and I sweet-talked and cajoled him until he smiled and tried again. Something in what I said turned me into his ally and he followed me up the stairs. When we got to the top floor, I picked him up so we could look out the window. Best buds, me and the red-headed baby. I felt really good.
Then it was time to go to the next local tourist site, a quarry. Keren and our friends were ready to go, but the baby’s family had moved on, taking a walk in the fields surrounding the barn. I decided I would take the baby with us. We were in the backseat of the car and we looked out and saw the baby’s family following us in their car, smiling and waving. Clearly they were OK with me taking their child on the next stage of our outing.
For some dreamy reason, I just knew the baby’s family would follow us all the way to the quarry and I’d hand him back then. They did, but when they got out of the car they were scowling at me, the baby’s mom in the lead of their charge.
“You should have said something,” one of my companions said. “They’re mad you took the baby.”
“Yeah,” I said.
But when the mom reached me she didn’t ask for her baby. She said, “You stole my iPad!”
“What?” I said.
“You stole my iPad. I set it down on a bench in the barn and I know you took it!” She went on to say how Mexicans are always stealing things and so it must have been me and yadda yadda blah blah blah.
She made no move for her baby during this tirade, just threatened to call the police about her lost tablet. I couldn’t believe it. I laughed at her accusations while I handed the baby back to her. Then my friends and I left. End of dream.
“What do you think that was about?” Keren asked when I told her the dream over coffee this morning.
“It’s about the book tour, I think,” I said without much thought.
It would make sense. Keren and I have been talking a bit over the past couple of weeks about what we expect we might hear on this tour, whether it’s from the audience at the readings or in response to the “Want to talk about race?” sign. We don’t know exactly how people will react to a sincere invitation to talk about what Studs Terkel called “America’s obsession,” but we do know we are likely to be exposed to a range of responses — anger, confession, welcome, curiosity, antagonism, fear.
We are going to learn a lot about the state of racial discourse and race relations in these cities. We can be certain that much of it won’t feel good. Some of it’s probably going to feel like the angry dream-woman screaming unfounded accusations in our faces.
But, because I’m some kind of optimist, I’m hanging onto the image of the red-haired dream-baby. He’s making his difficult way up the stairs, befriending the woman of a different racial background, and leaving the racism of the prior generation behind, so he and his new friend can check out the beautiful view.
May it be so.