Once You Know Who They Are, You'll Know Who We Are Print E-mail

lyflyfyr(First published in Times of San Diego February 19, 2023)

The Negro is America’s metaphor. — Richard Wright

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In the latest volley, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and his educational propagandists are hellbent on removing the “radical elements” of the College Board-approved AP course on African-American studies for high school seniors. They plan to eliminate “contemporary topics,” meaning “instruction in” Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration, reparations, and critical race theory. I’ve been meaning to punch back at such suppression sooner than now but I, a White American, have been busy studying one of my favorite writers, the great African-American music critic and autobiographer, Albert Murray.

Indeed, it’s something I’ve been doing for decades—writing about American artists who are also Black: novelists like Richard Wright and Toni Morrison; composers like Duke Ellington and Anthony Davis; essayists like James Baldwin and Jamaica Kincaid; singers like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Whitney Houston; and the maverick Murray who I believe penned the most improvisational, multi-voiced, and pluckiest memoir in American literature, South to a Very Old Place.

Imagine that. Me, a White man, writing about my culture heroes, many of whom are Black. What gall to have strayed from my lane! You’d think I swallowed that CRT bait, hook, line, and sinker. No. Theories don’t grab me. In my teenage days, like most who felt the moral impact of the civil rights era, I immersed myself in Black culture, history, and conflict because, well, the easiest answer is Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. Look him up, bend an ear.

Here’s what’s so galling about DeSantis and his Florida henchman. (He's not president yet but he acts like he's running the country's culture.) Apparently, these thought-cops believe a class in Blackness as a force in American life is politically divisive because it pits one race or ethnicity against another and that students (no matter their color) should not be battered by what one cruel race (not all but many) did to another race (not many but all) on our soil for hundreds of years as this might make “innocent” descendants of the cruel race feel ashamed about themselves for that which they didn’t do. Got that?

This is a joke, serious to be sure, on so many fronts. For one, the very idea that studying contemporary Blackness will expose the young to a progressive agenda. So what? Reforming American racism has always been a progressive goal, in so far as Making America Separate Again can only be a conservative cause.

But much deeper is a misreading as to why we study cultures of non-White groups in the first place. The goal is not leftist indoctrination that sows greater division. The study of the “other” in a culture is simply to learn the long life of a fact, that is, how the separation of classes of people and experience, based on centuries of legal segregation by skin color and ethnicity, paradoxically, binds us together as Americans.

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Let me come at this quandary first by describing the best college class I ever had—bar none: Afro-American Literature taught at UC San Diego by the indomitable African-American poet and novelist Sherley Anne Williams. Sherley became my mentor in graduate school guiding me and my master’s thesis on American Political Writers of the 1930s. With her, I began reading the core literature of Black American writers from Phyllis Wheatley to Zora Neale Hurston to Albert Murray.

Sherley wrote Dessa Rose, a novel about a pregnant Black woman and fugitive slave who conspires with a White woman to sell runaways to new masters, help the concubines escape, and use the proceeds to repeat the scheme. In the process, the White woman takes a Black man as her lover, with much erotic to-and-fro, which provokes bitter jealousy between the two women. You can hear in the plot how separation and integration are purposely pushed together. In addition, Sherley’s book, from a Black female’s perspective, confronts and dispels the stereotypes of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its sentimentalized portrait of White masters and docile Negroes.

(How well I remember, when I taught the novel in 1990s, the prurient outrage I got from several freshmen White students as their eyes had to travel over a good deal of interracial lovemaking. Today, if I busted such a move—and one student complained—I’d be canceled and dumped on my keister, no, worse: I’d have to take “sensitivity” classes.)

Sherley liked to talk about “racial memory,” an affliction a people scarred by slavery and its sins, especially the lowest rung, Black women, feel. Such scars manifest throughout Black literature, beginning in the slave narratives, which was my introduction to the commercial memoir—Whites ghostwriting for illiterate Blacks. Sherley felt the memory of her race, and she showed me that I could feel it, too, in myself. Extant in my forebears and me were reverberations of that scar, an affliction I placed almost wholly on the “other.” Though I couldn’t name the still-alive pulse of slavery in me then, I could hear it in Mayfield’s “Pusherman.”

It’s probably escaped your notice, but racial memory still runs our collective lives. An interactive racial memory joins Black and White in the heat of rage and forgiveness, spite and tolerance, that will last until we purge our assumptions of race-based inferiority and superiority. One example of how racism persists is the Memphis skateboarder, Tyre Nichols, murdered by five Black cops for being young, impudent, and Black.

Yet there’s something more elusive and more benign to this memory, what Albert Murray calls “antagonistic cooperation” between Blacks and some Whites, which Sherley dramatized in her novel and which I think of as uniquely American.

This intermixing has led to ways in which African-American culture has enlivened our literature and, especially, our music. It’s a New World dialogue among the artistry and experiences of different classes, races, and genders. Think of the rough insouciance in Lester Young or the shadowy joy in Billie Holiday. These voices embody human sensibilities, urban and urbane and sexual, that everyone feels. If you think it’s a Black thing, OK. But I think that’s too simplistic. In their music we feel what any talented artists express—full-stop. Love is love: A color boundary is incidental. I think the greatest pleasure of art is to be captured by another’s sensibility, which is or could be our own.

Sherley’s career as a teacher and a writer was very successful, though she also felt and conveyed a burdensome self-consciousness about her against-the-odds ascension to university teaching. She grew up in the San Joaquin Valley, the child of migrant farmworkers. Her mother and father were both dead by the time she turned sixteen, meaning she, too, worked California cotton during high school to get by. Nonetheless, she was an academic wunderkind; she blossomed early as a writer; she had a quiet, dignified manner with students; she was fiercely independent in her poetry—traits which brought her educational advantages. She once said, “To go from having no prospects at all to having seemingly limitless opportunity . . . well, in my case, I feel I just wasn’t prepared for seemingly limitless opportunity.”

My grad student friends and I sensed her loneliness at UCSD where she taught a generation of mostly White students from 1973 until she died from cancer in 1999 at 54. (She told me once that she longed for just one Black male to mentor but never had one.) I felt that absence in her; she was an exile from her community and her history, plying her own version of “antagonistic cooperation” with the academy.

Even still, her loss was my gain. Much of my adult reading and writing life came, rewired, because of her. Our weekly exchanges as well as her subtle broadening direction of my ideas coaxed me to listen to my own calling as an outlier, seeking my purpose, my individuality. I’m still getting there, but I’m also realizing that my fate charts a kind of rootlessness, a desire I’ve always had to not “stay in my lane,” to embrace the untried, to love the new, a radical style and its confrontive rhetoric. Seeking a kind of awareness of how freedom and oppression is organized in our society—a kind of White-in-Black-in-the-Other enculturation—has generated my best work.

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Though I believe in teaching all issues involved with Black life, it’s true that people can learn on their own the full legacy of slavery and Jim Crow despite what high schools and colleges do or don’t offer. I have. Though I believe in the varieties of American racial memory, I care nothing about White guilt or virtue-signaling or owning my privilege amid “mixed” company. I won’t prostrate myself before any woke committee. What I really care about is passing on the material culture of America to the next generation, an interracial pot that continues to simmer.

How do we keep this cookout going? Via exposure and knowledge, via listening. Most Americans know little of our country’s Black heritage. (They know little about our Mexican, Irish, Japanese, and Native heritages either.) It’s why we still should celebrate February as Black History Month. It’s also why the College Board has spent decades developing a detailed curriculum for a college-level/high-school AP course in Black studies to make “their” history American history.

Start at the top. Perhaps the most emotional charge of Black studies is that non-Black students see the hidden idea that a group of importers became their enslaver and, slowly, over centuries, their liberator—and then how strange this is, a kind of terrifying interdependence. Few Whites experience this directly, but they can know it, even better, feel its existence. Which is why the unifying elements of music and literature exist.

Read Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man—an epic tale of bigotry that depicts the absence with which Blacks were seen and often saw themselves before 1950. There but not there. Have you ever wondered why Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. the day before his murder was marching with Memphis sanitation workers, all African Americans, who were paid much less than their White counterparts in comparative municipal jobs and, to nail down the point, held aloft signs: I AM A MAN, as in all men should be paid equally. That was a 1960s version of Black Lives Matter.

Americans need to learn that greatness lies in acknowledging oppression, accepting its legacy. We need to feel that pain is real, ongoing, irresolvable—just as Christians say they feel Christ’s crucifixion. Who shares in this pain? Everyone, certain someones more than others. It beggars belief that to recast African slavery as “harsher” on Whites who did the selling, the shackling, and the forced labor (often to death) of a people than on those who were sold, shackled, and tyrannized is an insanity only “victims of committing oppression” can claim.

Too many Americans have trouble grokking the ridiculousness of this claim. So, in the spirit of enlightenment, I propose several scenarios of victimhood, ironically cast. Maybe my topsy-turvy versions of this nutty ideology will awaken us.

(Trigger Warning: Sarcasm Ahead!)

Dear haters, please stop teaching the Holocaust because Germans have suffered enough from the relentless reminders of the Shoah—the camps preserved, “Schindler’s List,” countless polemics, demands for repayment, museums worldwide (sixteen in the U.S. alone), the founding of Israel, a few survivor memoirs, a few faked memoirs, and Anne Frank’s diary—for crying out loud: Constant reminders of the Third Reich’s final solution is too much to bear.

Dear media, hasn’t the Sackler family suffered enough after losing $9 billion of the fortune they made from pushing opioids on the rural poor and other vulnerable communities? Can’t we give them a reprieve from having their name sandblasted off a wing of the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York?

Dear historians, let’s emphasize all the good the U.S. did in Vietnam, and in Iraq, and in Afghanistan. Let’s thank Dow chemical for all the single-use plastic containers they’ve produced and the Norfolk Southern railroad for manufacturing and shipping vinyl chloride for PVC pipes in liquid tankers from Illinois to Pennsylvania. And while we’re at it, let’s present an Oscar for Sustainability to factory farming, gas-powered cars, and “clean coal.”

I must say. All these upside-downs are beleaguering. I beg your leave because I’m going back to reading and writing about Albert Murray who left us this coin of the realm in 1970: “You can’t be an American unless you’re part us, and you can’t be an American unless you’re part them.”

To figure out who “you,” “us,” and “them” are, you need to learn, in or out of class, the reasons why historical identities and racial memory still need an airing in our asphyxiating times. It’s why you study the “other”—because the “other” you learn about is really that part of you, which refuses to recognize the “other” in yourself.