I began life with a special relation to basements and cellars. When I was a boy in Washington, D.C., we lived in a place called McLean Gardens, a housing project that had been built during World War II. The buildings were connected through a labyrinth of basement corridors broken into sections by massive fire doors that closed themselves to the clanking of counterweights on chains pulling up, like the drawbridge Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood scales in pursuit of his beloved in the clutches of the wicked prince and the sheriff of Nottingham.
Each apartment was connected to the basement by a stairwell running off the kitchen, and it was my job after dinner to take the garbage down three flights of stairs and put it in a can at the bottom. I will never forget the sound of the apartment door closing behind me and the feeling of descent as I went down and down on my skinny five-year-old legs, the bag clutched in my hand, fear doing flip-flops in my belly, alert to the sound of clanking chains, afraid of something—just what, I didn’t know, except that it was going to reach out and grab hold of me before I had a chance to get back up the stairs. And I will never forget the feeling of release the moment I dropped the bag into the can and slammed down the lid and raced back up to the safety of the light and my family and the door closing behind me.
Another basement was in the house of my great-aunt Alice Bailey. She lived for many years in Massachusetts with her sister, Bullah, who helped found the Little Theater movement and corresponded with Bernard Shaw about producing one of his plays. Bullah was married to Uncle Ned, an inventive Yankee who made a cannon that he liked to shoot off on Sunday mornings just to rouse the neighborhood and who built a giant wooden bird perched on a pole, whose wings would flap in the wind.
While my mother visited with Aunt Alice in the kitchen, I did what children do and wandered around looking for things to get into. When I happened to open a door off the kitchen, the dank smell of an ancient basement drifted up the stairs and took hold of some longing deep inside me, drawing me down into the darkness, which, for some reason I can’t recall, I did not fear. I remember nothing of that place except the smell, the memory of which still touches in me a deep sense of rootedness in the earth, timeless and silent.
Well, not quite nothing. There was also what I saw on the bedside table in Aunt Bullah and Uncle Ned’s room. There was a book, which I remember only as being authored by J. Edgar Hoover and having something about communism in the title. And beside it was the largest revolver I’ve ever seen, and I could tell, leaning down so my cheek almost rested on the table, that it was loaded.
It was my fate to be born a white man in the United States, a house of endless rooms described to me from before the time when I could understand the words as a matchless home to light and industry, equality, courage, and liberty, and noble striving for the freedom to be who you are, all of which coalesces in the tears that come whenever I hear Oh, beautiful, for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain. . . . America. . . .
A flawed house, to be sure, being full of human beings with a tendency to overreach and dark times when the worst comes out, but one in which we tell ourselves and the world that we are always forging ahead with the finest of intentions and are destined to be the envy of the world and ultimately find redemption in the relentless pursuit of what is just and good.
It was my fate to be enfolded in this house’s vision of itself that I would love for many years as the place where I was from and, through that, know who I was and where I belonged.
I did not know for a long, long time about the nether regions of this enormous house, deep below the light and air in the foundation on which it rests, the thing that holds it up, where all the artifacts and memories that are unwanted and shunned are cast out and hidden away to be forgotten as if they never were.
It was also my fate to spend the first six years of my life in Washington, D.C., the capital of this house with endless rooms. I sailed toy boats on the Reflecting Pool in front of the Lincoln Memorial and listened to the Marine Band give Sunday concerts on the Capitol steps, and my father took me to visit Arlington Cemetery and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. It was in this city that I first came to love the idea of America long before I knew how much of it was built on the slave labor of human beings kidnapped from Africa. I did not know this until many decades after leaving that shining city, and only then because of my destiny, which, to judge from the course of my life as I look back upon it, has been to go down into those nether regions and sit and listen and feel the presence of all the things this house seems organized to forget—and then to come back into the light and remember and speak and write it all down.
I cannot change my fate, it being fixed in the past, in whatever I came in with, born into a particular time and place. But destiny, the trajectory of fate through the living of my life, what it is that I came here to do, may or may not come to pass, depending on many things I cannot control but a few that I can.
It has been my destiny to go down into the cellar of this nation’s history and then return. In doing that, I have had to become familiar with dark nights of the soul, to grow accustomed to the belly of the whale. There have been many times when I wished for something else, but destiny is destiny and fate is fate and, besides, I have learned that if you hang on long enough, there always comes a moment when the whale gives you up and spits you out. And for that moment, you must be ready.
From Not from Here (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2015). Copyright 2015 by Allan G. Johnson.