The sun had set over gloomy West Virginia by the time I finished my conversation with the Amish travelers of the Old Order. Diane listened with unfeigned politeness. Yet my report back did not stir the curiosity of my seat companion. She lived in Philadelphia, and knew quite a bit about them.
In the seconds that took me moving to my car from the one in which the Amish family was, my identity had changed, at least in the eyes of others. For the Amish, I was “English,” their generic for any non-Amish in the States. But for Diane, who cared more about my Argentine upbringing than my Armenian ancestry, I was “Spanish.” Never mind that I would never call myself either, because objectively I was neither. Yet that reminded me of a Central American colleague at news corporation who would be mystified as to why an informal group of black journalists kept inviting him to their gatherings. “Man, I’m not black,” he used to say on those occasions. In his home country, he was not. But to all of us he looked like one.
The Amish would encounter occasional hostility of others, Diane told me. Like blacks did? I asked her. As a black woman, she had not experienced any noticeable racism she could remember. “But there are places you know you don’t go,” she said, patting her arm. She meant the color of her skin. “You don’t go to those mountains,” she said again, pointing to the darkening hills outside the window. “You go there, you find the Clan: that’s no good.”
Then I realized that that as a white person I lacked the race awareness that blacks had, at least in the American setting. It was not a consideration that would dictate my moves.
It was my impression that most passengers on the train were black. So I decided to walk it from the first car to the last one. There were indeed numerous black travelers. But there were as many whites and Hispanics, if not more. Yet I had been color blind to the last two groups.
These days, Diane was fascinated with the story of pioneering photographer Alfred Stieglitz and his protege and eventual lover, civil rights activist Dorothy Norman. Diane knew a woman who had been friends with Dorothy Norman, who had told her about their forbidden romance and their intellectual passion. “What we need is a Renaissance, a revival of culture and the arts.”
A retired kindergarten teacher, Diane was a book lover. She read mostly non-fiction and biographies “of great people, to see how they overcame the odds and made it.” These were people she admired, she said. Like Thurgood Marshall.
But if she admired the first African-American Justice in the Supreme Court, it did not follow that she would the first black president of the United States. She took some verbal detours to convey what she meant without saying it. She related differently to Obama. Yes, Obama was black, but he wasn’t. His mother was this white professor and his father was a professor, too. From Kenya and black. “But he is not descended of slaves.” Smart as he was, however, Obama had blended in the community and, in a way, had “become” black.
The definitions were making her uncomfortable, however. “You know why?” she told me. “My son was a straight A student, and he is now an engineer with the Air Force, doing work on drones and magnetic fields, and things I can’t understand.” His son was indeed black. “But he doesn’t fit in with the black guys.” Why? She said something unflattering about black men.
Still, there was progress of sorts for blacks in America, she conceded. “It’s two steps forward and two steps back, two steps forward and one step back, but it’s not as bad as it used to be.” At 57, she had some perspective. Back in her childhood, even in Philadelphia her skin would have barred her from certain places. She had never been turned back, but only because she did not go to those certain places in the first place. “But I’ve seen them all: Bobby Kennedy shot; Martin Luther King shot; Malcolm X shot,” she said. “They murdered them all.”
West Virginia had now vanished into the depth of night.
* * *
This is the ninth part of The Trans-American Railroad: New York to Los Angeles at the Speed of Iron, a travel diary. Please see the previous stories below: