What does Obama's "Race" speech have to do with motorcycling? A cursory glance and the answer is probably "Nothing." But a closer study--to me at least--and race has much to do with riding. As I listened to CNN and MSNBC and various local news stations deconstruct Obama's "Race" speech, I was putting together early plans for the riding season.
Like many, Keith Olbermann of MSNBC praised Obama's speech. For him it had universal resonance. Olbermann considered it reasoned and intelligent in a way politicians are not known for demonstrating. Olbermann felt Obama particularly poignant because Obama's speech drew us in on a personal level. His considered thoughts about his grandmother, explaining how in spite her stereotypical and often cringe-worthy comments, he loves her. She is family and he could never reject her. He spoke of similar feeling about his minister, even while he rejects the content and tone of his message.
Olbermann felt that this mirror Obama was forced to put on his life could encourage a public discourse on race. Olbermann went on to talk about his own grandfather whom he loves but heard use the "N" word when his baseball(?) game was interrupted to announce the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. Olbermann remembers his grandfather's admonitions not to touch a black person because it would rub off on him and he would turn black. As a child, Olbermann found these race lessons disturbing and confusing and hard to reconcile in a grandfather he loves. But he has. Many people are forced into this kind of mental reconciliation concerning family and friends we love but with whom we do not agree.
Cognitive dissonance. That's what was running through my mind while listening to all the post "Race" discussion panels. Simply put, cognitive dissonance occurs when one holds opposing or conflicting beliefs about the same thing. These views co-exist--in an itchy sort of way. The discomfort, particularly if one struggle too long and too hard at reconciling and bringing meaning to the conflicts, ultimately can lead to all sorts of crazy-making thoughts and behavior.
An example of cognitive dissonance I remember hearing in a college class pertained to being an American. Accordingly, we are expected to be patriotic, to love and honor country. But the country can be wrong and do wrong. I recall first reading about the "Trail of Tears"? Cognitive dissonance. Read the Constitution. For me, it leads to cognitive dissonance. I recall my grandfather's tales of serving during WWII and telling me that black soldiers were relegated to sitting in the back of army trucks--behind captured German soldiers because of segregation and how serving in segregated units contradicted American ideals and how it felt returning home to a society as uncivil as ever to him and those who look like him. Let's just say his stories of growing up in Louisiana in the mid 1900's were character building. Many people lived with cognitive dissonance. Yet, until the day he died he remained a man proud of his service to his country, a country that denied him full citizenship during the formative periods of his life. Cognitive dissonance. So, where's the motorcycle connection?
Well, I'm a free woman. I come and go when and where I please--mostly. Riding solo is my right. I know the dangers and I recognize and accept the risks. I am not naive. I consciously quell the voices inside that whisper about strange and evil men lurking about, waiting to slash and murder those that dare to venture out alone or far.
I suffer from wanderlust via two-wheels. I can stay close to home but I read the papers. A stray bullet can shatter a window and a family's life as a child is killed while watching television in the safety of his own home. I ride because it's fun--it brings me peace and a joy that restores my warm-fuzzies about humans and nature in a way that nothing else does. Out there, on my own, I am renewed and and the strength within is unearthed. Yet that joy and peace is often interrupted in some small way that matters a lot. For the most part, I choose to ignore it (or navel gaze on it here) .
As I now hover over atlases and maps and tour guides, my mind fills with dreams of traveling to far too many places than time and funds will allow. Like a kid in a candy store, I consume far more than I can digest. Last summer I didn't go to half the places I put on my wishlist, but I logged a ton of miles just going where I wanted, soaking up memories and taking pictures that pull me through the harsh Midwestern winter.
While planning, a bout of cognitive dissonance creeped in. Deep down, I fear certain places. These tend to be remote (meaning they are beyond the urban centers). They are the kind of places that when I ride in, it is obvious that I am the main tourist attraction. Many places are like this. In some of those places I feel fine. In some others, I feel extra-terrestrial or like I'm sporting a tail. I hear the comments, I see the elbow nudges, and the pointing children (whom I can forgive). None of this ever deters me, mind you. I go where I please and as long as no one puts a mean hand on me, you will not read about me in the newspaper. It can get exhausting, however.
I live in these united states, where principles of equality, freedom, pluralism supposedly applies everywhere and defines our nation. Thus far, however, I've not had a riding season without at least one incident, one experience that is strictly racial. I know we motorcyclists get crazy stuff happening to us on the road all the time. I get that too. I'm referring to something else. I'm referring to eating in a restaurant. A pit stop. A hotel reservation made on the spot. Stupid comments yelled from a car---obviously some people didn't get the memo--and haven't heard about it either--written in 1865.
I believe in the democratic ideals this country espouses. The reality is that some don't believe these apply to me. Other people's problems can suck the peace and joy out of motorcycling. Riding, in spite of the venom out there, is my way of exercising my freedom.
This riding season, my mettle will be challenged to the max. I admit to fears--rooted in ugly facts--of riding alone through the South. I am reminding myself that my experiences outside the South haven't been a piece of cake. Can riding South be any worst? Collectively, my relatives would say "Yes." But two dear friends now live in the South. I've accepted their invitations. So why has Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" been running through my mind?
It's easy to get stuck in the toxic mucky-muck and never step beyond one's bubble. I must believe that there is more good out there than bad. Cognitive dissonance. And when I dwell in all the contradictions, I tell myself, "This too shall pass." I force myself to refocus on the good. When that doesn't work, it's yoga breathing or taking pictures of flowers or going underground for alone time with a good book.
My riding plans are underway. Come hell or high water, a solo trip South is on the list. Tennessee and North Carolina, here I come.