Our Heart of Darkness

In honor of Black History Month, this is the first of a multi-part series on the struggle for racial equality in the U.S.  I’m aware of the potential arrogance of writing about racial experience while occupying the throne of the U.S. racial pyramid (whiteness), however false it may be.  I hope you will have forgiveness ready should I blunder into words and concepts that are offensive.
My interest here is not in trying to imagine myself in the shoes of a brown-skinned person but rather in honestly assessing the damage done on my own soul — on all of us — by an unwitting acceptance of racial mythology. I hesitate to even use the term BLACK HISTORY, it’s American History that we have lost. The white majority not only profited from the exploitation of black and brown-skinned peoples, but also wrote a myth/history in which those same people were written out, except as faceless victims. We must unlearn that whitewashed history, and re-learn our real human history with all the bits included. This is not solely for the benefit of black and brown-skinned peoples. It is for our own lost selves who, by consciously or unconsciously serving the “white myth,” have helped our culture to lose touch with its humanity and the stunning richness of its diversity. The Darkness at the heart of our American Dream has been obscured by our own complicity in accepting a false history. Black History Month is about saving ourselves by knowing truth. 

I have always had faith in the fundamental decency of the American “character.”  Our stumbling steps toward equality have depended on Americans of all races trying to empathize with the “other.” But I grant this decency is equally-often obscured and has recently been hard to detect — a least in majority electoral terms…

This wrestling in our souls gains a personal dimension when I go back to my Dad. In the real world, my dad’s life was lived with decency and respect and a deep connection with the people who helped build his company — including black people and brown. His life, as he lived it, was the embodiment of this distinctive underlying belief in the humanity of all races: he found and bound with native americans, hispanics, african americans, immigrants and others in a life of adventure lived from Iowa to Alaska to Washington State, and filled with stories of amusement and affection for all the different people he bonded to. He was a regular Walt Whitman — in prose.

Yet, in his later years, he became an ardent Fox News addict, spewing all kinds of “dog whistle” prejudice his pundits were pedaling. It shows that, in America, a false racial-construct thinking, the apology for institutional racism, is never far below the surface.

In the case of  the country we love, it is instructive to go all the way back to the clarion call of America’s founding which stated unequivocally that “All Men Are Created Equal.” Ironically, this resounding call to human rights — still the basis of democratic revolutions and liberation movements around the world — was crafted by Thomas Jefferson, a slave-holder. Modern research has painted a fuller picture of Jefferson’s conflicted soul: he spent much of his life alternately fathering children by a slave, supporting his political career with proceeds from his plantation, and at the same time, idealistically trying to bring down the slavers and slave trade, and make the future of the United States free of slavery. What better paradigm of American conflict about race? Equality in the clouds; racism on the ground.

My Dad’s own stain, that preceded his adventure with Fox News, was his uncritical acceptance of a common myth of his day: the inferiority of ‘coloreds’ when it came to the “thinking man.” While he followed and appreciated the achievements of colored athletes, for instance, and was greatly in favor of reducing barriers to darker-skinned athletes to participate at the highest levels, he expressed his opinion that these same minorities would never make good quarterbacks or coaches. (In partial defense of his prejudice, he may have carried similar prejudices about the suitability of Italians, Irishmen, and Slavs at various points in his life, so prejudice may not have been exclusively reserved for people of color — since, in his day, all racial and national groups had some kind of “character.”  Still, in light of how much I love my father, it does grieve me to make this admission.)

My mother’s part was more direct: the social mores adapted from a genteel southern culture of leisure and privilege that was at least part of her background; a gentility built historically upon subjugation and exploitation of dark-skinned people.  I remember the shock I experienced when I heard her and her family discussing, in casual fashion, the “nigras” they knew and had known. Another oddity: they reflexively felt entitled to describe the experience of those subjugated people (this was in the Jim Crow era) in positive, endearing terms — imagining the difference in stature and privilege between the “races” was something the victims happily embraced!

Somehow, however bright and progressive my mom proved to be throughout her life, she fluently used a word, ‘nigra,” that bristled with exclusion and dripped with honeyed disrespect that she was blind to. While intellectually righteous, her language when in the presence of her parental family was dotted with compromising words, expressions and phrases that briefly illuminated the dark cultural heart of her own life. Was she racist, then? I refuse to believe so. She ardently supported Martin Luther King in his battle against those very Jim Crow laws. But the sickness had crept into her heart through the back door — common language and a shared history/myth designed to cover up the brutality of that society’s origins. It appears she was almost helpless to resist such stealthy incursions into her personal morality. But here’s the point: we probably all are.

A quick look at The Sound and the Fury or Absalom, Absalom, shows how the superstructure of a society built on human enslavement gradually crushes the human meaning out of life. This awareness, and his own part in it, helped make Faulkner the first godless “existentialist by default.” Make no mistake, as a Southerner, he tells these stories of the unspeakable crime in the most nostalgic and generous way he can (he understands that people live within their cultural history, almost never outside it). But he never is less than honest about the magnitude of the crime itself or unaware of its deadly consequences. Reading any book he writes is enough to understand the human catastrophe, the moral enfeeblement caused by the institution of slavery (and its cultural successors) and its false racial constructs. In doing so, he reveals the modern day bankruptcy of its continuing defense by the old South’s children — real and cultural.

It is for our own lost selves who, by consciously or unconsciously serving the “white myth,” have helped our culture to lose touch with its humanity and the stunning richness of its diversity. The Darkness at the heart of our American Dream has been obscured by our own complicity in accepting a false history. Black History Month is about saving ourselves by knowing truth. 

This post would not be complete without my own confession. While I hope to NOT be blind to my own heart of darkness, I must acknowledge and confess an example of how I have been infected. I marched for integration in 1965-68; yet I thoughtlessly subscribed some decades later to at least some elements of the “war on crime and drugs” out of fear (crime rates were rising significantly through the 70’s and 80’s). I bought a story of crime recidivism, inner city crime, and “crack babies” peopled by black faces that seemed more threatening to me than the cocaine-fueled self-indulgence of the 90’s, even though I intellectually understood their linkage. I watched with partisan glee as Bill Clinton coopted the crime and “welfare” issues from Republicans, a mindless endorsement, on my part and maybe his, of policies which returned our nation with a vengeance to the world of Jim Crow. (See Michelle Alexander’s startling book, The New Jim Crow to see the devastation that has resulted.) In retrospect, it makes me nervous of what other actions I may undertake or may have undertaken so casually in my ignorance, which cause such devastation in communities of color.

So what does all this have to do with today’s resurgence of “white nationalism?” I will treat that subject with the breadth it deserves in my next post, Time to Deconstruct Systemic Racism? For now, I will just note a general outline of how our Heart of Darkness has become manifest in the modern world. In the United States’ long history with racial politics, this dark heart seems to ignite and animate after each advance toward integration and freedom: “All Men Are Created Equal…” leads to the shame of a constitution that enshrines slavery; The Emancipation Proclamation and 13-15th Amendments lead to Lincoln’s murder and the emergence of Southern-led Reconstruction; voter protections and growing enfranchisement of minorities, lead to Jim Crow’s systematized cultural and legalized racism; Civil Rights victories lead to the “War on Drugs” which criminalizes and stigmatizes predominantly people of color for a lifetime.

And in the latest iteration, the election and corruption-free service of our first black president ignites birtherism and Donald Trump and the Pandora’s box of open white supremacy, racial murders, and anti-immigration nationalism (white nationalism). Not to mention the blood hatred and the brazen attempt to write that dark-skinned President out of history, just like his slave ancestors. That shameless attempt must be written as PART of our history (not black history) and never forgotten. It needs to go prominently into our modern histories to bring moral disgrace and shame upon the President and the political party that have joined together in the fraud.

This is the horror of being an American: we can be proud that, inspired by that perfect statement by a flawed man — “All Men Are Created Equal” — we have grappled openly with the issues of multi-culturalism and racial integration, and in those efforts are gradually unleashing a magnificent intelligence, creativity, and innovation that had been long-suppressed in our country. But we can’t ever seem to shake off that Caliban in our collective soul that works so hard to deny and reverse these advances. I AM an American. I am proud. But I also bear the burden — even if I oppose them — of the egregious systematic denials of free citizenship and opportunity to a subset of our citizenry that our country seems to return to, over and over again, as our “default” setting.  Will we ever be free of it?

This is MY word, not the LAST word on this topic. I welcome perspectives, particularly from those on other sides of racial divides, but also by people who just don’t agree with me. I continue to try to understand as much as I can, but know that such knowledge is evasive, and it takes many participants from many sides of the issue to begin to reveal any truths we may be seeking. Use the “Leave a Comment”  button below to help create that fuller truer picture.

Bottom Line: In spite of the bleak prospect of the inevitability of our own participation in the racist construct, we must continue to try, mustn’t we? It is in this miserable confessional space that I welcome and end with the forgiveness and luminescence of Dr. Martin Luther King. He somehow transcended “race” and skin color, and opened up a glimpse of a new heaven in which we could all be freed from this heart sickness! Reverend King pored over each word he uttered, knowing how important those words would be in the battle to bring a transforming truth into our heart of darkness. Through his entire public life, he always seemed to live and speak on a razor’s edge between elements of violence and hatred on both sides of the civil rights battles. What kind of human restraint did he possess to be able to consistently portray that state of all men as one of love, and hew to such a miraculous vision of integration, opportunity, and equality? Why is it so hard for us to keep hearing him?

  1. What is your point?
    Where do you want us to go from here?

    I think we are in the midst of a great movement being led by the young in our society.. Millennials see few if any colors.. People are people to them.. This is where we are headed, despite where we have been.

    Our laws, except where demanding preference, are now color blind

    The young do not see most drugs as inherently evil.. They are probably right; at least some of the time.. The young see the War on Drugs as inherently evil. They are right most of the time..We are moving away from incarceration and lifetime stigmatization for possession of most drugs.. That is good.. We still have criminal sanctions for dissemination and trading in drugs- at least some of them..That is also good

    So, let’s come to the question that is the most difficult.. Do you and I, and our children and grandchildren who had NO part in any institutional racism have a collective guilt, and therefore owe reparations to some class of individuals for that guilt? The answer for me is an emphatic NO.
    Any privilege that I had was not because of my race, but because of the effort that my parents and grandparents put in. They worked hard to insure that I worked hard and beat my fanny when I didnt.
    They instilled in me a code of what was right and what was wrong and beat my fanny when I strayed. They didnt suppress the chances of anyone else from achieving a similar outcome

    That is the same code of conduct I instilled in my kids (without the fanny beating)..Never once was race brought up in my house in any sense except to acknowledge that the insides of every kind of person, which I have actually seen in my life’s work, are identical.. We are all the same inside

    And yet, for some reason, I am supposed to be financially responsible for some benefit to some as yet undeclared group of people to compensate them for something I and my entire line of ancestors had no part in? My poor ancestors were all in fear of being put to the sword by roving bands of Cossacks, when they werent starving.. And having lived in New Orleans for most of my life, what is Black? There are many Creoles who have skin tone and eyes lighter than mine.. Yet they are considered people of color by themselves.. Some have passed for White thru so many generations of mixed marriages, that they ARE White.. At least until some genetic testing is done..Many families have gatherings where some of the people identify as White and some as Black.. Why ? Because that is what their parents told them they were.. At at what percentage does a person qualify for a future benefit or reparation? Is it like being an “enrolled” member of a tribe..Or because you were told a story by your grandmother, like that vile Senator Elizabeth Warren, can you parlay that into a position reserved for minorities at some elite college? Pocahontas, indeed ! Has that woman no shame? Apparently not, when you have the chance to enrich your own self at the fountain reserved for a special group

    When I was a little boy growing up my Mom told me (she had NO shame) that we were directly related to Aristotle, and our lineage could be traced all the way back to the Greeks… She did that not in the hope I would use that to gain admission to Harvard College, but that I would believe that inside I was someone special, and as such, mediocre achievement in school was simply not in my genetics and would cause my ancestors to roll in their collective graves.. That sense of self worth sustained me through countless mental beat downs that I endured during Internship and Residency, when I was told I was stupid, or inadequate, or the worst intern in the history of the hospital, and I could be fired any day lest the training program put out a doctor who would kill people and bring shame on the institution.. It also sustained me through many Open Blues Jams where I heard ” You Suck!!!” coming from the drunken back rows..Well, ok, Pat, you know some times I really DO SUCK.

    But it that sense of self that allows me to keep on working and trying to get better, at anything I do.
    We all fail. Sometimes we fail a lot..But it is the drive to try one more time, or to review the text one more time, or to practice the scale one more time that comes from the way we were raised—-NOT from the color of our skin

    So, where do you want us to go from here?



    1. I have to agree that millennials are a hope, and I HOPE we are in the midst of a sea change in the U.S. But we are putting an awful to of responsibility on them that may ultimately be unfair. Younger generations generally are more in tune with moral imperatives because they’re not in a position to suffer real consequences in the world. And at the same time, they are also vastly unprepared for the long hard work that societal change entails. In my idealistic days, I thought my efforts for voting rights and civil rights was a cure to Jim Crow, lynchings, voting rights etc, and that we had remade the world.
      But the point of my post is that this heart of darkness keeps its own counsel in our culture, disguises itself in our language and customs, and keeps returning in different guises to exact more punishment on dark skinned people in our country. And it needs to STOP. Yes, our laws are colorblind, but only the most see-no-evil blind would say that their implementation by the police, the courts and our prisons have been anything other than a cultural nuclear bomb for people of color.
      I would never argue that your family-instilled principles of hard work, and then more hard work, self-respect, and self-esteem weren’t critical to your success. They are important to every success. Yet if your starting point were unceasing messages and beliefs from virtually every point in society that you and all of your color were stupid, criminal, drug-addicted, and shiftless, do you think you might have had more difficulty in, say, getting through school? getting into the best classes? getting into college of your choice? getting credit? getting a job? avoiding police harassment? getting OUT of trouble that you got into?
      I’m not arguing for reparations, but I find your argument extremely naive — that black people had the same opportunities as the white majority. And if they’d just worked harder, they would have achieved the same benefits as you have (although, of course, some extraordinary people of color have done so). Remember, they were systematically excluded from the postwar mortgage bonanza that essentially took the working class and entrepreneurial class of this country’s WHITE people to the biggest, most financially secure middle class ever. It wasn’t just because white people were all brilliant AND hard workers to boot.
      The point is until we recognize the discrimination that has penalized whole swaths of our citizenship solely on the basis of skin color, it will be difficult to achieve an actual society of equality of opportunity. As long as we cling to the mythology of racial differences, we will NEVER achieve it. But of course, you and I won’t be the ones penalized — that’s the beauty of being the privileged majority. Whatever destructive ideas we may hold that may suppress those with a different skin color, will be of no material consequence to us because we’ll still be in the catbird seat. But, as I tried to point out with Faulkner, there are longer term consequences: a society based on subjugation of colored people is a castle built on sand. While we no longer have slavery, we didn’t have it in Faulkner’s time either: he was talking about the weight of history, when your own mythology is based on immorality and falsehood.
      So, I’m not questioning your hard work nor my Dad’s nor Oprah Winfrey’s or Elizabeth Warren’s. But, no matter how our personal myths are constructed to avoid recognizing the privilege granted us by our skin color, the facts that are immutable: your ancestors were NEVER (in living memory) slaves; they never had their family torn apart by their “owners,” they were never subject to a “Reconstruction” that systematically re-enslaved them after a brief glimpse of freedom; nor the crime of Jim Crow, nor of having a family member lynched, nor of segregated and inferior schools, nor of redlining; nor of being denied the vote, or denied credit to buy a home, nor of being victimized by the War on Drugs and sent to prison in droves while their white brethren were given a slap on the wrist and released. These were, and are, the ongoing impacts of living life as a colored person. That the denial of opportunity is based, as you point out, on something as nonsensical as the color of skin is an outrage worthy of giving time and effort to reverse. That’s the point of my post. Whether we did anything overt, we are all responsible, as citizens and as shareholders in the destructive myths that enable racism, for the good and the evil done in the name of our country.
      Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful and thought=provoking comments. Look forward to music again soon.



      1. Aside from the homicidal violence done by police against black American- which has to be made to stop- 99% of violence is black on black. That has nothing to do with Jim Crow and everything to do with the widespread failure to educate young black males. It is also part failure of a culture that glorifies ‘manliness and honor’ and fails to glorify paternal responsibility
        Laws can only do so much. Families and Church are everything. No amount of reparations will remedy that. Instead of glorifying the Hip hop culture and putting down staying in school and trying to ‘act white’ community leaders need to take care of their young and nurture and mentor them into boring lifestyles that overwhelmingly lead to successful lives

        We are fast moving toward a colorblind society as long as the race-baiters who personally profit from the polarization of our society are seen as the new
        profiteers from institutional racism


  2. Shal,
    Seems like you’re suggesting we bypass trying to understand the actual impacts of racial discrimination from a white perspective, and focus instead on the the “profiteers” (usually, yes, people of color) who have the nerve to point it out, and who are therefore the “true” criminals of racial discrimination? James Baldwin? Richard Wright? Martin Luther King? Michelle Alexander? Profiteers? Can’t agree. Knowing your thoroughness and fairness at heart, I would hope that you would also Google suggestive claims about black-on-black violence and incarceration before passing them on as fact. The survival of falsehoods in the public realm is directly contingent on people who are respected passing them on. A predisposition to believe the worst about minorities as also a precondition of systemic racism. Can you do me a favor and go here for a fact check and a little perspective on statistics about ‘black on black” violence?
    Also, yes, police violence against minorities needs to stop, but our justice system from top to bottom appears by overwhelming statistical evidence to be rigged against people of color, from police stops, to poor legal representation, to plea deals, to sentencing, to incarceration. Another favor, if you can spring loose the time: please read Michelle Alexander’s book “The New Jim Crow.” My eyes were opened. I realized that by far the majority of incarcerated minorities are there not for “black on black violence” but because of drug sentences, often minor — for which they go to conviction or felony pleas at about four times the rate of white people, in spite of equal arrest rates (which themselves are a travesty because of the vast racial difference in police stops).
    My original post is exemplified by this exchange between you and me; about the urgency for people like us to take the time to actually grasp what our systemic racism looks like, take it seriously, and work to reverse it.
    We can’t control, and I daresay we can’t understand the experience or dynamics of families of color, given the vast differences in living conditions, privilege and opportunity they experience. But we can work to eliminate everything we can understand that is prejudicial to opportunity for their success, and maybe then we’ll begin to see a society emerge that is “equal opportunity.”
    Likewise, it’s hard for me to go along with the suggestion that we lecture their families about their failures regarding things we barely understand to begin with. Rather than work to right what we know is wrong with our own culture.
    Thanks again for engaging. That’s the most important thing!



    1. We have color blind laws
      Our society is moving towards real acceptance thanks to the younger generations
      You are thinking like a 60’s hippie. That time is over. Our time is over
      You can’t change people’s hearts. You can only make the laws equal in intent and equal in application

      If you pick up any paper in any major city from east coast to west coast the vast majority of homicides are gang related and drug related. Black on black. Hispanic on Hispanic. It has nothing to do with discrimination or Jim Crow. It has nothing to do with White prejudice. It has everything to do with the breakdown of the family, poverty of the spirit, failure of the community and educational system and the glorification of the violent gangster culture

      You are not going to make any headway against that blight by passing laws or redistribution of wealth or reparations. It has to come one church at a time. One community center at a time. One family at a time.

      Pay a living wage. Encourage men to be responsible fathers. Get religion and morals back into the schools. There is right and wrong, not just what feels good today. Rebuild the schools. Insist upon education, not just passing kids thru

      We have always had poverty and we always will
      But we have never had such disregard for life as we have now. No law will change that



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