El Hotel Tres Palmas

Jimmy riffled the deck of mail. An envelope from a hotel in Mexico City addressed to both of them rang in his hand like a phone call at 4 am. He laid the envelope aside, poured a glass of wine, lit a cigarette, restacked the rest of the mail, ripped open the message from the Great Beyond affixed with a sello aéreo.


Dear Jimmy and Cathy,


He flipped to the end to find the signature.

Your brother,

Now he was scared.


I thought to write you separate letters, but that'd be hypocritical, wouldn’t it, as if you’d hide them from each other or there was a point in keeping secrets now you’re apart. Too late for that.


Please god let it not be a suicide note.


Drove down to Frontera to see Charlene last weekend. I don’t talk much about her, but I love her. We were the older kids, Ray came later. She’s in on felony drug possession, result of loving a small-time dealer not wisely. Pigs had it all set up. They cut her before I got there,  just enough. Told her to tell me if I didn’t leave Oakland, didn’t stop organizing, she was dead.


Simple as shit. I’m running for her life. The one thing I never figured on, but it makes sense. The state’s holding her hostage, and you don’t negotiate with the state by yourself. I can’t count on the sisters in Frontera to protect her, there’s no Panther chapter there, the Party’s preoccupied with Huey’s trial anyway. And I can’t count on the Movement to save a solitary life no matter how strong we may be or good at mobilizing. I can’t even trust my own people. I mean it was Black prisoners who beat Fannie Lou Hamer half to death on the sheriff’s orders. Charlene looked at me in the visiting room, so trusting and terrified, still believing her big brother could rescue her. They have us all hostage in the most powerful country in the world, and no one to rescue us. I guess when it all comes down, blood is thicker than revolution. I'd lay down my own life, but a shank between my sister’s ribs is more than I could stand, or all of us prevent.


Jimmy laid the letter down, lit a cigarette from the end of the one between his lips, dropped the stub in the sink, looked to the hot weedy hill behind, grieved for the living.


Wrote to Mom and Ray and Charlene and the brothers and sisters in the Party and the North Oakland folks. Now it’s four in the morning (the flight to Havana leaves in four hours) and time to write to the two white people I can ever say I truly loved and say what comes out at four in the morning, better and worse. While it was all going on, I could justify myself any number of ways, and did — it’s free love time, Jimmy does the same thing, we’re all adults, I deserve to get what I want cause I’m Black and revolutionary, there’s no contradiction between loving Cathy and respecting Jimmy— but when you’re in a one-dollar hotel near the Mexico City Airport at 4 am, it’s cash-out time. What is, is done, and deserves judgement. Ironically, if I betrayed you and how, is up to you to figure out. I’m not asking absolution, but if I’m a problem, part of me is a problem you created. I feel I betrayed you, but I’m not sure how. I don’t know what rules apply.


Calling you “two white people.”  That's shit. When I went to the OLAS Conference in Havana with Stokely, him shooting off his mouth about armed revolution and all, I’d never been outside the U.S. before. I don’t know what race relations are really like in Cuba, but I know from that visit there are no Negroes there, that “Negroes” really are an American invention. I hope I’m not just running away, but toward something, a country where to be African is to be welcome, not a victim in solitary.


White's an invention, anyway. A hundred years ago, Anglos called us “smoked Irish.” And Jews can keep up with us in the oppression sweepstakes any day. Which don’t mean a thing about actual people. I don’t believe in collective innocence any more than collective guilt. Your people got promoted to “white” and mine stayed black. I just think some part of the negritude of the Irish and Jews stuck to you, that you looked at your skin and saw the artifice of its color.


Cathy asked me were there times I looked at her and didn’t think “white.” I don’t remember what I said. Some platitude. I remember thinking that rightfully I should be asking her the question, which I never did — am I ever your lover and not your black lover? Anyway, the answer is yes, Cathy, often. During sex, and when we broke through all the social stuff except you-and-me, and sometimes when you seemed so out of place in your whiteness, not that stupid liberal defensive guilt, but how irrelevant it is to be made to be white, as if white skin was a hand-me-down.


As for you, man, I see you in the hall in the light from Mrs. Hayle’s kitchen and you're just a brother with a gun and I don't know what color you are any more than a Klan bullet would. You never tried to “act Black,” well, almost never. Mostly you acted “not-white,” which can’t be easy, to see part of the time what we see all the time, that whiteness ain't normal. (Like that Godfrey Cambridge riff about asking for a “flesh-colored” band-aid and getting something pink).


I think Baldwin said “as long as your friend thinks of you as a Negro, you don’t have a friend.” I don’t go for that. We’re all in the same bag. Black folks hold out our blackness as a primary color and then ask our revolutionary white comrades to act color-blind. If I was white, I don’t know how I’d do it — recognize Black Power, black is beautiful, blacks are a colony, whites have to accept black leadership, and then turn around and think, oh, my friend DC, I never think of him as black. It’s a bind, but it’s not a bind we created, it’s the bind we’re in. To see each other’s souls we have to look through our skins, but to know ourselves we can’t ignore the skins we’re looking through.


I started out thinking I’d say how I really feel and I didn’t. I can’t.


4:30 AM.  I don’t feel black in this hotel, I feel American. I want soft toilet paper. I want the smell of North Oakland. Maybe in Cuba, if there is no obsession with race, I’ll find out what I feel.


Hasta la revolucion,

Your brother,



Jimmy wandered. Surely Cathy was in the room ahead of him, behind him. Furious at DC for not asking them for help, at himself for being furious, at El Hotel Tres Palmas for their mealy spotted stationary, at every border. Furious he had not loved them more.