by Kleitia Vaso

I only truly understood racism as I looked, mesmerized, at an image of Michael Jordan flying towards the basket. I had never seen a person, wingless, soar so high, not simply defying gravity but ignoring it, disproving its presence. Perhaps, he never believed in its existence. And, if he did, he certainly fails to show any concern about this constant, losing, human battle against it.

Everyone else behaves as if flying – not falling with a parachute or some similar concoction but actually moving further and further away from the ground, rising up – represents a physical impossibility. Yet, here is Jordan, living proof of the possibility of shedding the shackles that keep us enchained to physical laws. Should we not celebrate this occurrence?  Should we not rejoice at its existence, the possibility that we might achieve this momentary freedom, too?

In theory, we should feel hope and joy, yet, in practice, this image might actually provoke the opposite reaction. We might not want to acknowledge what it so blatantly reveals, a man capable of what is considered a superhuman ability. A Superman, some kind of superhero whom most [white] people would dream of being. A man who seems to possess a closer connection to a greater, higher power which perhaps, can be approximated, perhaps not. But, if reachable, this power can only be accessed through an ungodly amount of work, discipline, endurance, confidence. If.

Either way, as a result of pure impossibility or lack of willpower, our distance from such exhilarating freedom may inspire anger or envy in us, reminding us of our physical or mental shortfalls, instead of inspiring us to overcome them. Why him and not me? Why can’t I be so awe-inspiring? If attainable, flying would require action, discipline, no words, which would spare us the fury but not the fatigue. Tiredness just imagining it, let alone doing it. Even regular visits to the gym are a hassle. Surrendering, then, seems like the logical step. But, I’m afraid, most people would feel better about themselves if he did not exist at all. They, we, wouldn’t, then, be tormented by his triumphant body skyrocketing through the air, beautiful, equally weightless and undeniably physical.

Here we arrive at the answer, the solution. Such a long history of this unnecessarily cruel and terribly weak solution which precedes Michael Jordan and goes beyond any one specific enemy. A history of ways to hurt someone, damage him, when pure eliminating is impossible or impractical. Violently or subliminally, undermine that confidence that enables him to think he can fly. Exploit his power so he will feel polluted and somehow, against all odds, inferior. Directly attack him, if you can, which might be impossible if he is protected by that mysterious, incomprehensible power. Drive him away entirely, to the end of the world, if possible, like an Oedipus Rex, sad, destroyed, humiliated. He has not committed any grave sin but mistakes can be found anywhere, everywhere. Make him feel like the unpleasant outlier he is, reminding us shamelessly that we are part of the group that merely watch him rise, rise, rise. Stop! At all costs, try to hide what will surely rise above. The truth. Someone extraordinary like Michael Jordan.

So strange to think that so many vicious things have been said and done in the name of race. And are being done still, sneakily, including seemingly superficial comments on physical features which one look at someone like Jordan renders ludicrous.  The dark skin that appears smoother and longer-lasting than its paler version which – comically – undergoes countless tanning sessions or fake-tan applications; the muscles that seem to not need as much effort to emerge, lean and harmonious through the skin; the fullness of the features that is so emulated, carefully or carelessly applied to sharper, smaller, less naturally plump features in plastic surgery rooms worldwide. Butchers. Yet, every message sent, generally subliminally nowadays (as, apparently, we have evolved) undermines the too obvious beauty, a gift of nature. I am afraid that this reaction results from the perception of something more inherently powerful. I would like to avert clichés of thought and phrase but they do contain a grain of truth.

Nature has certainly something to do with these unhealthy dynamics. She is guilty of bestowing her favors capriciously, allowing certain people to maintain a closer link to her, while letting others move further and further away, usually trading such power for comfort. Indeed, her taming, our comfort. Our comfort, our distaste for everything that disproves it.

Like all of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ characters, mistreated angels and demonic girls, forced to reform, to trade their unbridled power for approval and a warm welcoming to the group. Otherwise, we know what happens. There is one telling but brief episode in Of Love and Other Demons by Marquez which illustrates his understanding of the world, specifically the popular response to a person who possesses an extra amount of a quality: beauty, strength, something powerful, unreachable, and untouchable. The reaction that has caused such great amounts of pain through the perverse versions of religion, or any of the beautiful words most commonly ending in –ism: racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, for instance.

A slave, who appears at the opening of the novella, is so unbearably beautiful that a rich man, the governor, purchases her for her weight in gold. An action that goes against all reason and economy. When she is eventually displayed to another important visitor, the Viceroy, he looks at her and says “Take her away, for God’s sake. I do not want to see her for the rest of my days.” She would overthrow his world with all its attached values and no amount of money could retrieve it.

The story’s protagonist, Sierva, whose name means slave, is considered demonic simply because she is not schooled in the Spanish culture and religion. She is bitten by a rabid dog but shows no sign of madness unless provoked or mistreated. Her only “fault” is her attachment to the slaves who work at her father’s house and their way of life: a life in harmony with the laws of nature. Yet, the more “rational” society guided by the Church has created orders of its own which send Sierva away to a desolate monastery to be cured of her demonic nature. The sadistic “sisters” keep her physically caged in hopes that her soul will follow suit. They violate her, the least violent but most offensive violation being the shaving of her most distinctive feature, her very long red hair, never cut until that point. Needless to say, they don’t cure her “demon”, or theirs, for that matter. Their maltreatment results in her death, i.e. extinction of her physical body.

Yet, after her death, her beautiful red hair grows again signaling, unequivocally, that nothing truly powerful can ever be buried or hidden. Similarly to nature, which we try to cultivate, destroy, tame, order and which endures until it, sometimes reasonably and sometimes irrationally, reminds us through a catastrophe or its overwhelming beauty that we cannot contain it. We cannot subdue it. This power lies beyond us. Like the hair growing, like Jordan flying, unencumbered by the laws of physics in textbooks, despite attempts to keep them enchained, enclosed, enslaved. Like a flood, like an avalanche, like a bird, like the beautiful, sublime sea, infinite and constantly changeable.

Forgetting this tie to nature, relinquishing this power for mere comfort and acceptance seems to be a terrible mistake.

People might appreciate this collective shared weakness and perhaps enjoy it for a moment. But nature, the world, will never truly reward you for betraying yourself.

by Kleitia Vaso