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?