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April 14, 2005

Dancing on the Third Rail: Part One

(Today and tomorrow, I'm going deep into racial territory)

The problem with learning and caring is that you can never shutup, even when you want to. Even when it's better to let people be wrong, and misinterpret, to be committed to what you know to be true forces one, in the end to add another straw to the camel's back, hoping it will balance the odd one someone else put on a moment, or a millenium before.

So it is with race in America. The conversation never stops.

What I understand about race in America is that it involves two sides, and that neither side can win. Black and white are like twin brothers wrestling on the floor. But I think the most true thing about race in America is that it inhabits all of our metaphors. There are so many stories and so many reasons and so many prayers bound up in the drama of race. For anyone who truly cares about the American condition, the state of our union, the meaning of our values, race is always intrinsic, ever puzzling, ever revealing, ever punishing.

I shake my head because I have not yet reached that time in parenthood during which my children rebel. So my instinct remains at the patient-explanation-for-your-own-good level rather than the, fine-do-it-your-way-you'll-see level. And so I am taking an hour or so to respond at length to some straws I see poking out.

Two cats respond here at Cobb on the regular. One is Dave, the other is Chap. I don't really know them. I don't really know anyone in cyberspace, and it's difficult to explain how much of an in-your-face person I am, how I am such an acute observer of people. The web and all computer mediated communications represent to me an abstract medium for the expression of (more or less) pure thought, and it is perfect for certain things, but doesn't begin to approach what I can remember when watching a man or woman walk or listen to them speak or read their faces. So I am something of a bull in a china shop of ideas out here on the web, I am an arrow on a path. I redefine and correct, and I don't listen as much as I would face to face. And it is that gap bewteen the person and the virus of an idea inhabiting their minds which may or may not express itself clearly in the digital realm, that I both recognize and obliterate. So if it sounds like I am beating up them, or whitefolks, or blackfolks, I am, but only in digital bits, only in the realm of ideas. I am a great respecter of people, but when I see a bad paragraph, I am compelled to attack. I don't know that I will find one, but don't hold your breath. This is not about you guys in particular, it's sorta about your being a part of this thing that I and the Brotherhood, and America is going through. I understand your stake as Americans in the reconciliation between all of us.

The best defense, they say, is a good offense. And I really have no need nor cause to be defensive. I'm already here, on the other side of the mountain of personal achievement that unleashes a man's spirit. I have been unleashed for a dozen years and then some. It is how I have managed to take the diary I had been writing in college, to the public - to stand in front of hungry patrons and recite poetry from the heart - to write the unspeakable memo, to correct the man who thinks he knows it all. I care deeply for people, but I only answer to God. Engagement with me is an exercise in honesty, it's about how real I think I can get with you, it's about how much truth you show that you can handle. Sooner or later we get to that place called intimacy. It's a quick jump to there when I write. And I am true to myself and therefore not false with my readers.

So what is this racial thing and why do I bother? I thought about that at the baggage claim this morning after a good 4 hours of sleep. Why is it that this black experience thing is so difficult for my white cousins to understand? Why do I appear obsessed? Why even use such a word? The first answer that passed back through my mind was that it only seems obsessive if you don't see the value in it. But like breeding sows or birthing cows, somebody has to stick their whole arm into uncomfortable places, and once you have learned to do so everything is different. I think whitefolks depend on blackfolks to stick our arms up into race, and they take our civility to be a sign of forgiveness. That's partially true. But there is also a science of husbandry in this, we bring it along generation by generation. But that is always done by engagement, and never by distance.

Speaking for myself, and I think for many in my generation, much of black culture has been about representation. We have been engaged in a struggle to be a different we. We were like stowaway children under the tarp of the horsecart of the Underground Railroad. Our parents rode shotgun with their hats down low, not speaking too loudly less they draw too much attention. And yet we were their joy and it was our brightness, sheltered within our humble homes, that gave them the courage to take that road to freedom. But my generation crawled out from under the tarp and started talking loud. Yeah! We're free, and guess what you don't really know about us? We've been representing black culture, we've been blackety blackety black black y'all. We've been painting the white house black, and we've dared you to say anything about it. And it was necessary, God knows what the world has been missing in the wake of our parents' silence. And you've been discovering it from Eddie Murphy to Joe Jett to Serena Williams to Condi Rice. The Negro is dead. Blackness is about busting out of jail, about bringing music to the Nowhere Man, about never letting anyone forget about our flavor and unlimited potential.

The success of blackness is demonstrable but its task is not complete. It will take another two generations I think. When my grandchildren purchase banks in Chile or Ghana perhaps. When there's a country club in Georgia where two black ex-presidents hang out. When the Kwaku Foundation awards it's million dollar grant for the 40th time and the networks celebrate. These are my expectations of a fulfilled African American destiny. But lots of African Americans have their own. These hopes and aspirations were forged in different fires and every family's history shapes them, but there is a direction to it, and a common kind of struggle when it comes from African American history. In our generation, it has been to represent - to come out and be loud and proud. As Rick James said, we're bustin' out of this L 7 square, done braided our hair and don't mind if you stare.

The Balance
James Baldwin said:

Take no one's word for anything, including mine-but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration, There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.

And so I know that American destiny is not complete until African American destiny is complete. And we keep working, we blacks and whites, we keep working each others nerves until we reach a settlement. Today the settlement is an accomodation, a compromise, a tenable peace which is both uneasy and comfortable. We still live in a society where OJ makes a difference. We still live in a society in which Colin Powell's wife fears for her husband's life. We still live in a society in which Camilla Cosby was considered crazy when she said race mattered in the murder of her son. And whitefolks know very well, as they look at their own families and friends and associates, that something about them is unfinished and unreconciled to the rest of America. It's nothing a simple as 'discrimination'. Hell, nobody I know is a racist. Everybody I know hates racism. But only few can talk about it in mixed company for more than a minute.

Online is a different story. I've proven that, because I wanted to and I paid close attention. But the fact remains, there is still dissonance, sometimes it is as clearly defined and significant as the street between a white gentrified enclave and the beat down streets of chinatown. Sometimes it's as subtle and insignificant as choosing the right beer when ordering Thai food in New Orleans while listening to reggae music. I don't mean to be cavalier, but I'm not sure that we know what to do with our Multicultural ethos or exactly what it buys us in the post 9/11 world. I'm not sure we know what to do with our new sensitivities. Today, 3000 gay couples had their marriages annulled by legal fiat in the state of Oregon. Online we can talk about all this stuff, but what do we do?

More later.

Posted by mbowen at April 14, 2005 11:54 AM

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Tracked on April 15, 2005 01:26 AM


Beautiful piece, Cobb. What an intro. I do expect you’ll wreck this lovely vibe, but at least you’ve prepared us for it. One thing tho, the internets really is a place for theory. And there’s only so far theory on its own, for the sake of navel-gazing, will go. The DOING is ground-level, right?

Posted by: Anonymous at April 14, 2005 02:28 PM

Ask me again if Im prejudice and I might not be able to tell you the same answer as yesterday because today is a new era; a new day.In A world that is no longer fully plagued by the whites still not given in to what it means for a fellow American whose black and his equal rights in america. Weve gone from that track to whites teaching children differently about such cultural diversities and ethnicity,to saying I ve gots to look out for #1, and ridiculously evil as blacks urting whites, or whates hurting, black but blacks KILLING blacks and whites killing whites in my own city.....How in the hell can we waste more time deciding what to do about or colors, whern the BIG BOOK of them all tells me opposite of giving hell, I must love my neighbor my brother. Some of you Hitler Dick Lickers want to tell and show where it states that the color in blood lines should not be mixed and why all of this is the way it is. Well okay silly but faggot!!!! read it one more time for me and tell me where the hell did you find in order to have order we must obtain capture and murder all of those unlike our own color.Im glad today Im changed maybe call it saved but my children will know love and from God love was born regardless of what my same or different color brother decides to decides to teach. I believe that a future can become clear if all stopped thinking about all this extra curicullar bullshit, and start with the simplest of Gods teachings today and forget about why the white man owe the black race for a few hundred years of suppression, or why the black man should not or be subject to a white mans culture spranged hate or alienation upon shade of face. Why have got to do whats wrong if we could all just be hypnoitized into a once in a lifetime chance to live up to one great installed value one almighty virtue, work of all workings, for each mans thought to be consumed with the line; Love your fellow man, Teach acceptance and love, worry about the day your in, teach your children today, WE MUST TEACH OUR CHILDREN TODAY!!!! Maybe when I leave this earth it may had gotten a little brighter, but Id be happy and might none of that even matter but what I find to be sadder than any fucked up drama ever ever inspected was that the whole time so and so had this to say even the words that I spoke about love and sorts and teaching your children...The answers have always been there where they were written for the way the were suppose to be looked upon actioned and to some one those words gave, the teachings, the bible, his words which are the not suppose to be not only adapted as our own but felt within the hearts of every man and skin color. Look simple answers to it all everywhere yet humanbeings you cant realy trust any of them out there. And when it gets time for or judgement day I think 90% percent not only will be dumbfounded and shocked as to who they see there but more so who heavens gates have allowed in....... PEOPLE NEED TO GET THERE SHIT TOGETHER BECAUSE THIS TALKING BULLSHIT IS GARBAGE AND HAS GONE ON LONGER THAN a Great Dane trying his best to mount a poodle!!!!!!And all of you people that like to go out and be all you can be and then drown your sorrows and guilt during that one hour at church on Sunday Ohhhh Nooooo You dont get shit back in return for a half ass job you do at work so whayt in the hell do you think the king beyond allliving things is going to grant you for once a day work athat he has assigned for you to have never stopped incorporating into your daily lives, You people must be bugging and to think You can do and say some of the fucking thing you do saying to yourselves "Ohh what the hell Ill do it today and just pray about it tomorrow." Jeeeesh Okay well motherfucker you just hit my black hair-lipped fat gay step brother and now we both can shine in hell because that just triggered a whole line of possible accidents and maybe even murders....Dominoe effect people and it cant but will go on further if we cant take time to warp that wheel up a bit by throwing in it a few open minds, heart felt, love smeared lines, about everthing other than the topics we are wasting time on then Ill be meeting you all in hell, but start adding some links cause in a world everything has a link history will always repeat itself, so why not if you have at all a heart share your hope and let it spread through all that bad always came a good and history repeats it self remember maybe next time around that good will override somewhat the bad to the point where maybe my own children will and can live in a ho,e and when somebody robs a bank, kills an old person, rapes a child, riots a city, fighhts chickens and hogs, or get the last word it want be based on the colors at all but rather the person as a person themselves, just some other humanbeing that has fucked, fucked up or for whatever reason he chose in has life the paths to leads him to hell. where all you narrowminded shitheads will end up if you avent had that mind switch when its time for your number to be called...And ask again somedays way in the future if Im prejudice and Ill say hell yeah, To all you dumb selfish mother fuckers who choose to only see one way and that you bastard see only through the eyes of hell and thats all Ill be prejudice of.

Posted by: Allen "The Waxx" at April 15, 2005 04:41 AM

That was one of your better pieces of writting on this site in my opinion. It sparked a few thoughts of my own that have yet to be organized, but I wanted to say I appreciated it.

One thing I think I can say right now, without real revision, is how I've always wondered what another person's reactions would truly be if I explained why I feel I'm one of the last persons on the planet to be negatively racist. Well... I'll give it a shot with you :p. Just as you pointed out, I can communicate without altering what I say as I go along due to your reactions that I would see / pick up on if this were a live conversation... so here I go... (oh, i'm white by the way)...

I doubt I'm racist becuase of a lot of things I was exposed to in my childhood. When I was about 6 or 7 my favorite cousin to play nintendo and legos with was Derrick from Philadelphia. He was a few years older so whatever he did or thought was immediately cool to me. I remember sitting in his living room watching him beat Mike Tyson's Punch Out with a couple of his friends, and in between every round or so they all would pull their picks out their hair and comb their 'fros. I would try to immitate them, which would get a good laugh since my hair was strait. Yeah... Derrick was black. Half technically, but still with dark skin. My mom's sister, his mom, is white, but Derrick's father is black. So before I was old enough to pick up on people who were predgidous one of my favorite persons was different than my race (or whatever).

However I didn't live in Philadelphia with Derrick so I only saw him a few times a year. I lived down on the DelMarVa Penninsula, in a small smelly town called Berlin. My house was one lot away from a Purdue chicken feed plant, and accross the street from railroad tracks. On the other side of the tracks, and mill, there was a convience store we would frequently go to. At this store my Dad would run into some of his old friends from high-school... who I noticed were mostly black guys. I learned later in life that my Dad, and his brothers, were usually up to no good, and I guess he became friends with a lot of minorities who were up to the same. Regardless of why he knew them, I think it was a big influence on me that I saw who his friends were. He had white friends too, but not any more or less than non-white friends.

Another thing that struck me at a young age was when I saw one of those "For only pennies a day..." charity commercials for starving children in other countries. Since my only sibling was my older sister, who was deaf, blind, and mentally disabled, I had always thought of myself as very lucky to turn out how I did when I was born. I knew that it was just as likely I could have been born like her. Back to the commercial... it had struck me that I (my consciousness) also could have been just as easily born to different parents, in another part of the world. It struck me that I was no different from the starving kids at the moment of birth, and that (mis)fortune determains what happens from there, in general.

I never attended a school where kids were made fun of due to their skin color or something until I was old enough to know better... I went to a private school from kindergarden through 4th grade. The school had 2 black people, and the rest were whites... and the school had grades K - 12. You would think that a place like this would breed self-righteous racists, but since we were all the same we never had a reason to pick on race within school.

I started to organize all of these ideas when I was in about 8th grade, and I witnessed my friends make fun of a certain lunch table that all happened to be black. I found it strange that I didn't enjoy cracking the same jokes they did. I chalked it up to them just not having the same experiences as me, and that they would eventually know better. Well now I'm 22 and I still hear the same jokes being cracked (but this time by far less people, and it's usually country-boy construction workers who live real poor.) Hmm.... I've lost my momentum with this.... take it as you want, but I hope that I'm not just full of myself. ;) Maybe I'm one of those people who try to hard, and end up being reverse racists and insult others by overly embracing them...
(PS... what happened to all of the paragraphs I made? Everything got clumped together in my Preview.)

Posted by: Matt at April 15, 2005 06:39 AM