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October 01, 2005

Ofra Bikel's Journey

Americans think they know America. The only people who really look closely are the ones who don't feel quite American. That would include myself and Ofra Bikel. Bikel has returned to OJ Simpson in her new PBS documentary. A thoughtful person forwarded this information to me and so I am considering the nature of journeys pursued in search of each other in America.

I know that I am a special brand of American, and I'm particularly proud of that brand, which is why I spend hours pontificating here in the 'sphere. I recognize that, no matter how clear, comfortable and obvious I appear to myself, family and friends, that there are millions upon millions of America who simply don't get it. And so I write. But I am also compelled to listen more closely and try to make sense of this complex society, its politics, values, philosophical and existential dilemmas. I love the very idea of cultural geography - that where you live makes you something different.

So this country must seem all that and then some for those fascinated by it around the world. And those who come to live in our cities and towns must find it remarkably strange that we don't even know ourselves very well. And it's true - we don't.

For me, this discovery goes back to Marshall Blonsky's American Mythologies and his investigation into the signs and symbols of American wealth, power, privilege and taste. Where they come from, what they actually mean and how people interpret and give meaning to them. I was rather shocking to me that much meaning is invested in a thin veneer of respectability that once punctured leaves people drifting aimlessly and then clutching more tightly to other symbols and signs.

This was particularly difficult for me to deal with, given my own profile as a successful professional in a new field of endeavor, computer science, that had never before had a class of successful professionals. When I moved to New York City, everyone told me I wore the wrong kind of shoes. When I flew to Logan Airport with West African print pants and no luggage, the FBI agent told me that I looked like a drug courier.

But this is not about the existentials of 'being black', this is about a journey of discovery in a nation beside itself with confusion, and how we are emerging into a new world of classes and philes even as old ones are being clutched in desparation.

As human interest goes, there are few things as compelling as matters of life and death, war and peace, justice and injustice. So it comes as no surprise that we might find investigations into matters which have implications in all three dimensions as most worthy of getting the attention of television producers. After all, as Whoopi noted, television is the only place where you can have a million friends and still be considered a total loser. The economics of attention are what they are. So if you are on a journey to discover black Americans, there are few places to go in television journalism but to matters of the Justice System, and what better symbol of all that than the OJ Trial.

I can't tell you how tired I am of the story. I was tired of it when the Bronco Chase interrupted the ballgame I was watching that night in a bar on 7th Avenue in Park Slope. I was tired of it when my pager beeped me with the verdict however many months later. I was focused and exasperated because within the sense of a collective fate, so many millions were hoping and praying for a sign, a symbol that Justice was present in their homeland.

I wrote a poem about that whole thing, and I'd say it's one of my better poems. It made the pages of HotWired's Net Soup back ten years ago. The effort made to write that and this other piece about OJ the Black Male Image was about all I cared in that particular direction. It was all a part of the effort to convey ones humanity in a nation too large and too preoccupied to care beyond symbols. And so I wrote, before the verdict came down:

As for O.J., either one hopes against hopes that O.J. will be freed and that symbolically the black man will be free or, like me, we continue to laugh at the punk. Whether or not he gets a fair trial is beside the point, because only the jury and the court officers and the appellate knows for sure. One can have faith, but I think there are much better things to have faith in. The point of us looking at this trial anyway, I have already described. We are to learn a lesson about spousal abuse. It doesn't matter what happens with O.J., what matters is that we were supposed to learn a lesson. Either way the jury decides, all the legal followup on the technical merits of the case will take place for the benefit of the legal community. America doesn't pay attention to that. The question for America is does the wife-beater get away or not? Either way, the black male face is imprinted on this cautionary tale. But that is the manipulation. The individual black male has nothing to do with it. But we knew that before, didn't we? So after all, this is really nothing to get excited about. Unless of course, you are some kind of orphan.

The OJ trial was racialized because OJ represented something to blackfolks as we are, in our own way, trying to make sense of our emergence in America. Wealthy, powerful or famous blacks are not role-models so much as they are crash-test dummies to us. We want to know if, how and when they will be destroyed and on what terms. We expect that nobody makes it, that there is some kind of inevitable pain associated with black greatness. It might be the relative poverty and powerlessness of Hank Aaron, the greatest baseball player alive. It might be or the bullet reserved for Colin Powell if he were to announce his candidacy for president. It might be the ignomy faced by Paul Robeson. We all want to be the Emperor Jones, but we still hear dem drums. We are paranoid climbers on the great mountain of America and no matter how high we get, we keep looking down.

Because we keep looking down, we look down upon each other and we allow others to look down upon us. And somehow all blackfolks end up in some kind of collusion when the subject of attention (economics being what they are) centers around the least fortunate of our brothers. Everybody has to 'keep it real', and so all of our fates are tied to the fates of prisoners, crack dealers, pimps, whores, thugs, theives and the occasional, assimilated, well-off, suburban dwelling moral miscreant. There is no such thing as black success, it is only a figment of the imaginations of real successful blackfolks - you know, the kind you never see on television.

Never is a harsh word. Of course blackfolks are doing OK. Otherwise all the cities would be burning down, right? African Americans have nothing to complain about, right?

There is no Negro Problem of substance any longer. One cannot stand in the United Nations or have a conference in Bandung declaring the plight of the American Negro as uniquely poignant in the world. The loss of the Negro Problem has left many of us perplexed. How exactly should we see blackfolks? What are the appropriate symbols? How can we deal with the obvious differences in how we all think and view the world? What are some fungible sources of information? It's an enormous problem because the race problem has become too complicated, and there's no simple way to discuss all we have to discuss at a distance. There has arisen no appropriate vocabulary to contain all of the hopes and concerns of a liberal impulse to share. It was so much easier back in the 60s when your average privileged graduate student could say it all in a couple paragraphs. Yet even by 1971 it was too late. All we could do was cross-over and be polite, but the questions remained. Who are you people? What do you want? That question can and never will be answered in the abstract. Who blackfolks are depends entirely upon your direct relationship to them. If you have none, it's your fault. Go read a book blog or something.

Last night I listened to a Beach Boys song whose refrain was 'I wanna go home'. I never heard the recording before, but I distinctly remember somebody white in my distant past trying to get us kids to sing it at camp or someplace. All the lyrics seemed, both then and now to be ridiculous. Immediately before that song on the radio last night was Aretha Franklin's song, R.E.S.P.E.C.T. Everybody knows that song, or at least I think so. The lyrics still make sense to me today, though I pity the fool to whom they were originally directed. Music might be a way to know America. It's a good start, I suppose. From my perspective, it gives human beings the dignity of distance not afforded by curious strangers who dare to bound the boundaries of daily discourse.

There's no upscale black neighborhood. There is no old black downtown. The dream and the paradigm of the pre-integration Talented Tenth caring for our own has been shattered by a new integration and a new economy. There's no place to gather a thoughtful collection of black middle class Americans to see where we were, are and are going. That town hall does not exist. You pretty much have to take individuals' words for a consensus that defies practical reality. If Cosby speaks, then it's Cosby. But nobody elected him. We want to listen, we want to believe, but in the end there is no mutual binding contract. We're just free. We're just free.

Black freedom has taken away our metaphors. It has wrecked havoc on our symbols. There's too many of us going in too many directions at once. All that remains certain of black is that it is the color of would-be aborted babies to lower crime, or would-be savages rampaging maniaclly at the Superdom, or would-be victims of injustice, persecution and oppression. With 38 million of us, you're bound to find plenty who fit the profile. Perhaps that's all anybody needs to do. Perhaps that's all anybody needs to know. And yet, in the shadow of that monolith are those of us who are what we are, just as materially unaffected by stupefying poverty as the rest of the world who watches PBS, yet with the same thoughtful curiousity and human empathy as those who have the budget and time to knock door to door at Robert Taylor Homes, or wherever the hot getto mess is this week.

They say that all it takes for evil to triumph is for men of goodwill to turn away. I feel that. In that same way I feel that all it takes to undermine the image of strength is to promote an image of decay. I feel that troubling investment everywhere, because I personally feel like a character from Thomas Mann. The great loneliness of thoughtfulness and discipline is my companion. So I too journey through America. My journey is to find justice and harmony. And when I get there, bounding over boundaries, it takes a while. And then the people there discover that I too speak English, and then they start opening up and talking.

If I could put out a couple of symbols for our negotiation, I would suggest that there is a conservative black America and a liberal white America, both with deep roots. Both are trying to get what the other has. One is an emerging force of righteousness and confidence, the other is a disillusioned force of guilt and confusion. And yet the guilty force has the resources the confident force lacks. I don't know when those powers will be balanced and righted, probably not in my generation. But it is strange how our paths cross these days.

So now we look back at the OJ Simpson verdict ten years later. Where are those black and white Americas going? I don't know, maybe I'll talk more about it.

Posted by mbowen at October 1, 2005 11:23 AM

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I agree that there is no Negro Problem as there used to be. The improvement in status of black america is miraculous. And it could only happen here. There is no other place where a despised minority group can achieve what we have, least of all the places where people of color live. I have lived in Africa and it saddens me when people do not appreciate the US. They don't know how special it is to get a phone installed without bribing someone or to expect that no one will get in front of you in line just because that person is richer than you and a million other things. Now a liberal would say, what about this or that fault? Every place has faults. Everything that humans touch has so much evil. It's all a matter of degree. I feel that the US and to a lesser extent the other western countries are involved in an ongoing dangerous experiment, to see how tolerant and rational human beings can be. A phenomenal amount of self control is needed to live in a democracy. I hope the experiment goes on and on.

Posted by: Anita at October 4, 2005 07:39 AM