On the Slap
It is the spring of 1991, and my first wife, Alyssa, and I are at a picnic with her family. My first wife is Filipina, and she has dozens of cousins (not all blood-related), and at least twice a year, clumps of us gather for a barbecue and impromptu football games on the grass.
Alyssa has lupus. There are many things that aggravate her disease, but sitting in the sun for prolonged periods of time is one of them. When she gets too warm, purple blotches spread across her face. Alyssa is sensitive about that, and I’m wary of putting her in a situation where she could become overheated and subsequently self-conscious.
It is too warm at the park that day, and one of her cousins – we’ll call him Tony – starts in on my wife, teasing her that she looks like she’s been drinking. We ignore him, but Tony has had one to many Coronas, and he won’t let up. Alyssa has told me he’s tormented her since they were little.
“Maybe if you tried losing some weight, you wouldn’t be a purple tomato. Maybe Hugo wouldn’t look at other girls either.”
One of the aunts speaks to Tony, and he ignores her. Alyssa stares at the ground. I glare at Tony.
“Drop it, man, please.”
I want my words to carry moral weight, but there’s too much of a plea in them. I am an outsider here, the nerdy white boy graduate student who married in.
There’s a long silence, someone changes the subject, Tony laughs, and Alyssa grabs my hand and demands we leave. We do.
In the car she cries, and then erupts in anger at me. My wife berates me for not standing up for her more effectively. “You should have punched him! My family wants you to stand up for me!”
I protest I haven’t punched anyone since I was seven, and that in a fight, Tony and his brothers could easily beat me to a pulp.
“No one would let that happen, Hugo. He might hit you back and they’d pull you apart and everyone would… would be proud you stood up for me.” She sobs more. “And it might make him stop. It might be the only thing.”
I drive, my hands tightening on the steering wheel, shame coursing through me.
“That’s not the way I was raised,” I say.
Alyssa turns and screams in anguish. “I hate the way you were raised! You fucking passive coward, you can’t protect me! I fucking need you! Your wife needs you!”
“I’m so sorry,” I reply, and I mean it, as I always do, and my words assuage nothing. They never do. The marriage will survive one more year.
It is 2010. I am 43, a father in early middle age, a tenured professor at the zenith of his own self-confidence.
I am in my office one morning, meeting with a student, when I hear a commotion in the hallway. Shouts, profanity, something slams into the wall. I open the door, and two young men are throwing punches, trying to wrestle each other to the ground. A circle is forming in the wide hallway of the third floor of the C building.
I do not think. I yell in my most commanding professor voice, “Stop that right now,” and I wade in. I throw myself between the boys, grabbing the larger one’s shirt and attempting to push him back. He cocks his arm, and I grab it. “Stop it,” I repeat, firmly.
The lad throws me off, and I crash to the floor, a sudden fire in my shoulder. Others rush in and separate the scrappers.
Students run up to me. One retrieves my glasses, which have gone flying but are undamaged. A colleague joins them in helping me to my feet. “Well done, Hugo,” she says.
I look around, and say, “I won’t have fighting here. I just won’t. This is sacred ground.” Those words I remember, and I say them with real conviction, and I say them because I believe them but also because I know they will leave an impression on those who hear them.
Another colleague suggests, in a conversation the next day, that my intervening was white privilege. A middle-aged white man in a suit tries to break up a fight between two brown men, and he knows he’ll come across as a hero, she says. If I were a Black professor, and the students were white, I’d think differently. I sigh. I am tired of seeing everything through that lens, and I know that people less privileged than I are far tireder of living life under unbearable scrutiny.
My shoulder is strained but a week off from the gym and prescription ibuprofen set it all to rights.
David is sent home from first grade for fighting. He’s far more of a battler than I ever was. (“Taurus sun, Aries rising, Leo moon,” says the principal, because the school believes in astrology – “He’ll always battle his own fierceness. Help him channel it.”)
In the car on the way home, we talk about when it’s okay to hit. I explain we don’t hit first. “You are not permitted to start a fight, but you are permitted to finish one,” I tell him. I tell him that words are never sufficient to start a fight – if you’re longing to lay hands on someone, you must wait until they lay hands on you – or a weaker, smaller third party – before you can put your strength to use.
David asks if name-calling is sufficient provocation. He thinks in terms of hypotheticals. “What if someone calls Nena a bad word?” (Nena is his name for his sister.) I sigh. This is a thin line.
“You tell him to stop it.”
“What if he doesn’t?”
“You tell him again.”
David gets frustrated. “He won’t stop, abba.”
I think about Alyssa.
“If you get in trouble for protecting someone you love, you still might get consequences. You might lose iPad for a week.”
David thinks. “That might be okay, though, if I had to hit a mean boy.”
”If you are willing to accept the consequences, I will be proud of you.” That’s a lot of conditionality for a six year-old, but it’s the best this old dad has.
I am not sure what else to say, so I put on country music. We listen to Kenny Rogers’ “Coward of the County,” a song that deals with just this moral dilemma, and the tension between avoiding the bloody cycle of revenge and the courage to protect the vulnerable.
I point out that at the end of the song, the son realizes sometimes he has to fight. He separates from his father’s fears for him to defend his wife.
I tell my son for the first time, but not the last, that he doesn’t have to make my choices, and I will stand by him, no matter what.
I cannot defend Will Smith, and I hope he faces consequences. But the condemnation of violence is not the same as the condemnation of the violent, and I still love and honor Will’s work, as I honor Chris Rock’s ribald and provocative humor. My moral universe is broad enough for both to be good men doing their best.
A fierce defender of unlimited free speech, you know I’m firmly on Team Chris. But I also do understand, deeply and profoundly, those on Team Will, and I hope that we can continue to find grace with each other. There is no one right way to do any of this, and as we pick apart Sunday night’s extraordinary scenes, I hope we will find ways to hear the fears and pains and stories of those who interpret the slap differently than we do.