Saturday, June 08, 2013

"Being" While Black

We have all heard by now the problem of “driving while Black,” and in places like New York City there is an obvious problem of even “walking while Black.” Surely there is a problem with “standing on street corners while Black,” and no doubt there are in some circumstances and places with even “eating while Black,” “drinking while Black,” and of course there is the obvious question of being President while Black. There is, it seems to me, an even more fundamental problem with being Black, the existential problem of even “being” while Black. Depending upon where you are, and with whom, you may not even exist at all if Black. Ralph Ellison’s book, Invisible Man, speaks wonderfully to this point.

As a simple example here is one from my childhood. In the small mining town where I grew up it was said “The sun will never set on a n……. (Black person) in this town. This was partly I think just because of ordinary prejudice against Black people, but it also had special circumstances in our town because once when the miners were striking a group of Black soldiers were brought in as strike breakers and there were some problems as a result. But it was common knowledge that Blacks were persona non grata. But curiously enough there was a Black man and his wife who lived in our little town, and while he was not all that dark he was Black enough that he could not pass for white. Not only did he live there, eking out a living mostly by janitorial work, he and his wife were expert bridge players (this was at the time when contract bridge was a rage). They played bridge with at least some white families and their skills were appreciated.  Thus even though they existed in the flesh they did not exist in the beliefs of the townspeople, their actual “being” was more or less denied.

Similarly, in the small town where I now live you would not necessarily be aware of Black people even though there are two or three Black families living here. North Idaho is widely perceived as a hotbed of White Supremecy and has a well-known reputation for that. Yet a few Blacks live here and you virtually never hear of racial incidents or problems. In the local ethos it is as if they do not exist.

Interestingly, the existential position of Blacks has not been the same in other countries. It is well known that Blacks were welcome, perhaps even more than welcome, in France, and many of them flocked to that country for just that reason. They not only lived there, their very “existence,” their “being” was not contested and many of them became quite famous and successful. Similarly, there is an interesting book recently published called The Black Russian that traces the life of an 18 year-old Black man from the deep South who wanders the world working in restaurants, learns the business, and becomes a very wealthy restaurateur and businessman in Russia. He became so successful and wealthy he was forced to leave during the 1917 revolution. He fled to Turkey with almost nothing and then repeated his success there until eventually driven out by Ataturk who wanted to cleanse his country of all foreigners. It is clear that in Russia, France, Turkey and elsewhere in Europe he did not encounter the prejudice that he did in the U.S. His very “being” was not denied or ignored, he was accepted as just another person.

There was, in seems, no concept of “race” or racial inequality until well into the fifteenth century, when the colonial period began. In the ancient world, where Blacks and Whites co-existed, they were all accepted merely as persons (living beings that existed in nature). But during the colonial period racial inferiority was used as a justification for the otherwise unbelievable brutality that was used to exploit the “savages” for ivory, gold and silver, rubber, cotton, oil, land, and whatever else so-called “civilized” society wanted (and didn’t want to fairly pay for).   

It seems this denial of “being” extends to President Obama. He is not treated with the respect due to the office as most or all other Presidents have been, he is sometimes referred to as merely “Obama,” he is described as a socialist, communist, Kenyan, fascist, Muslim, even as the anti-Christ, anything but what he is, a Black President of the United States. These are all, it seems to me, attempts to deny his “being,” to pretend he is not really President, is a fake, and whatever. Why race and racial prejudice is so prevalent and persistent in the U.S. and not in so many other countries is an interesting question. If I were fifty years younger I might consider it. Anyway, think what you will, President Obama actually and truly exists, he has “being,” as it were.

The hatred you're carrying is a live coal in your heart - far more damaging to yourself than to them.

1 comment:

Marie said...

Lew, As always, well observed.