The Quiet Voice of Rage

The stench on urine in the elevator of the project on 115th Street in East Harlem was so strong I had to half breathe, but I couldn't make a face because this was the first time my boyfriend Robert had invited me to his home.

When we walked in, his mother was making pasteles, a Puerto Rican dish with an aroma that quickly made me forget the elevator. That night, I tried to learn how to dance salsa from Robert's uncle, Cha Chin, and saw Robert's mentally retarded twin brother Nelson for the first time.

His father cooked breakfast in a hotel kitchen for 30 years and supported a family that sent Robert to Oberlin and his sister to Harvard Law School. His family was more functional and warm than mine. I loved being there and eating, laughing and dancing the night away.

When we walked out, we felt that still cold that makes you hate walking because your movement creates a breeze that chills you more. Robert was walking me from 115th and Madison Avenue to Lexington Avenue where I could catch a bus home.

We came upon a fenced outdoor playground at around 11:00 at night, and rap music was blaring from a boom box. Six inches away, a 2-year-old girl sitting in a carrige with her hands in her ears. This was gang territory, and they were having a party. Beer everywhere. "Robert," I asked, "shouldn't that child be in bed?"

He was silent. We walked further toward Lexington Avenue. Under a streetlight lighting a brick wall, with the music having faded out, he said to me softly, "I hate the ghetto."

It was the quiet voice of rage. I will never forget how his whisper pierced the still coldness.

I had no words to comfort him. There was no family there, no warmth, no Uncle Cha Chin. There was just a young black-Puerto Rican man with his anger in tact.

Is this what racism does to the soul? Has anyone else ever heard the quiet voice of rage?

© copyright, 1999, Barbara Steinberg
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