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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
17.1 (Winter 2017)
A Brief, Honest Conversation About Race in America
Peter T. Singleton and Friend
The author’s one-time student, now long-time friend, shares some thoughts about race in America which justify neither the view that our nation is a white racist hornet’s nest nor that impoverished minorities just need to buck up and work harder.
When I first met Rodney, he was what we call a “non-traditional student” in the academic biz; but besides entering my class as a freshman at the ripe old age of twenty-five, he was untraditional in so many other ways! A black male with an active interest in literature and history, he soaked up everything put before him with a mind like the proverbial sponge. His two “parents” had exerted the preeminent influence on his life. To have two parents both at home has already, sadly, become quite anomalous in America’s black households, but in Rodney’s case the anchoring gravity of these figures was even stronger in that they were, strictly speaking, his grandparents. The “father” (or grandfather) had labored hard and somewhat successfully as a blue-collar worker, eventually starting his own small business, and was an alderman in the local CME church. Rodney’s birth-mother had drifted off the radar when he could scarcely remember her. A victim of the Seventies free-love and recreational drug culture, she had been first in her family to enter college only to have her sense of meaning in life dissolve in the acid of “higher learning”. Rodney’s aunts had played a far greater role in his formation than she did at any point; and his grandmother, of course, was his guiding light.
All this I found out very gradually. Rodney was my student in three classes during his undergraduate work; and later, after he had started his own family and then returned to our campus for a graduate degree, I would have rare but delightful chance encounters with him in the halls of my building. Now that he has entered a seminary and appears destined for the ministry, he seems more focused than before—and also, perhaps, a little more willing to speak out and cry foul.
I received Rodney’s permission to record and transcribe one of our most recent conversations, which I conducted essentially as an interview. I have met few African American males of about forty years of age who have such an insightful take on racial affairs. Yet insight does not necessarily produce clarity, and sometimes (maybe often, in these matters) it produces just the opposite. I had the distinct feeling several times that the more one understands racial problems, the less one believes in easy, quick solutions to them. Particularly with the “race card” being played cynically and abundantly in politics to cow adversaries these days, a reverse reaction seems finally to have set in among certain Caucasian groups whereby racist inclinations now defiantly burst into broad daylight and beg for a street brawl.
That’s my observation, not Rodney’s. Hopefully, he hasn’t seen as much of this tendency as I have: hopefully, it hasn’t really dared to show itself in full daylight, but has favored circles of white people as an audience for its bravado. I find myself not wanting to share such observations with my friend. In my utter disgust, I find myself hoping that the election-year spectacles behind them will quiet down, and that the adolescent resentment of constant provocation will go back to sleep.
PS: Is it safe to ask your opinion of the Black Lives Matter movement? I don’t want to put your life in jeopardy, or any such thing, you know… and sometimes it seems that the lives of blacks who question the matter of Black Lives Matter don’t matter.
RJ: God, we live in a stupid time, don’t we? Everything is said in double-speak, in code—and if you don’t know the code and just try to talk in plain English, as if words still meant what they meant without the coding, then you lose your right of free speech. I mean, it’s a really dumb phrase to begin with. Do we really need to point out that all lives matter? But if anyone dares to point it out, then he’s disparaging black lives. So does that mean that other lives have to matter less so that black lives can matter? No—but that’s how the code makes it sound. The code is trying to say something like, in plain English, “Stop ignoring us. We’re dying too young and too fast, and we’re going to prison way too often. And even when we’re alive and not in jail, we’re just nobody—just masses in the ghetto, shelling out food stamps at the grocery store or trying to get from the projects to the park without getting shot. Stop making us be nothing!”
PS: But to be brutally honest, who’s responsible for all that? Are white people making all those things happen?
RJ: Yes and no. Do white people make black girls have one baby after another, or do they make black males run off and leave girls pregnant with no father for their babies? Hell no! But do white politicians shell out dough to make pregnancies and more children profitable, like some kind of industry? And does the average intelligence of kids born to kids decrease over generations—and does a culture of dependency grow up around this ethnic group that doesn’t have half a chance, most of them, from the cradle? It’s the new slavery. You know that, and I know that. Instead of picking cotton, we stuff the wagons with votes every election—and you and I know whose wagons they are! We know whose plantation those wagons go rolling away to. Marse give us food and clothes and a place to sleep, and we pick dem votes and stuff ‘em in dat wagon.
PS: Of course, BLM doesn’t dream of holding said politicians responsible for imposing this new slavery.
RJ: In fact, let’s continue being brutally honest. BLM is financed by white politicians—or by white “players” who have a stake in creating social upheaval. Turns out that slaves are good for other things besides voting. You can get them to take to the streets and scare the living tar out of everyone.
PS: The rebellion against servitude, though, would in that case be another act of servitude.
RJ: Of course it is. But it’s not necessarily true that none of the rebels gets that, either. What I wish I could express is how “no win” the situation seems sometimes. What I just said, for instance, could be taken as endorsing a kind of ruthless conservative viewpoint, where every man goes forth and makes his own way. Rugged individualism. Except that the situation has slid so far that a lot of black kids really, truly cannot make their own way. And this sort of “sink or swim”, tough-love crap has been going on a long, long time on the other side of the political aisle. Ever get a peek to your left or right when you drive through the heart of a big city like Dallas or Birmingham on the interstate? Those neighborhoods are just pathetic. But at one time, Dr. Pete, they weren’t. They weren’t at all. Children played safely up and down those streets. Older children walked to the corner store or road their bikes. Moms hung out clean clothes on their clotheslines and saw everything that was going on. Old folks sat on the porch in rockers. The men carpooled or took the bus to work, with lunch pails and hardhats. It wasn’t a bad life at all. What made it a cesspool, among other things, was the interstate you’re driving on. The city fathers didn’t give a second thought to the people who lived in those neighborhoods. They didn’t want or need their votes. That’s kind of symptomatic of the attitude from the other political party over the years. How do you pull yourself up by the bootstraps when the party that’s cutting you loose to be free, as they call it, can now drive a bulldozer through your front lawn?
PS: So you know when you adhere to the other side that you’re being taken advantage of… but you also know that if you defect, so to speak, that the Freedom Party (let’s call it) will use the liberation from restraint to exploit you in different ways.
RJ: And you just don’t have the clout, or the savvy, or the education, or the resources to keep that from happening. The running down has gone too far, has gone on for too long. It’s kind of the same thing in entertainment—or maybe what I mean is that entertainment is where you can see this really clearly. Movies, the music industry, and let’s not forget sports… they’ve created a ton of black multi-millionaires in recent years. They’ve been really good to the black community. But look at what you have to be to make it big there. A bad-ass. You’re the white community’s hero because you don’t give a damn, you talk bad, you act bad—you’re trashing authority with every step you take. Even athletes. The black athlete is creative, he’s pushing the envelope, he’s a scrambling quarterback who’s unpredictable, he’s dunking with style. You can’t just be a good, solid ballplayer of any sort if you’re black, it seems. You can’t be in a suburban comedy without being a hilarious lunatic like Kevin Hart. You can’t be in a primetime drama without being a body-builder, an update of Mister T. Or maybe you’re an older guy who’s a spectacled director of the FBI; but there’s still that smoldering, unpredictable you that’s smoking away behind the coat and tie. To be black, in this society, is always to be a contradiction. You’re the not-white, and increasingly the not-Asian—the other. You’re like this primal, irrational vibrancy that modern, industrialized man is always trying to bury, and always trying to resurrect. And you’ve been that so long that you don’t know how not to be that, how to create a framework not to be that. If you’re an accountant or a brain surgeon, then it’s like you’re trying to run away from your destiny. And that makes you either a hero or a self-denier—a race-traitor—depending on which political side is trying to handle you. But you yourself… you get to where you don’t know what the hell’s going on with you. And, believe me, you can get really pessimistic about your children’s future. You wonder if there can be any possible exit from these alternatives that you don’t particularly like, either one of them.
PS: Do you think the ongoing flap in the NFL this past season about players disrespecting the flag is an expression of that frustration?
RJ: Sure it is. A very, very unsatisfying and unfocused expression. They don’t know how to say what they want to say. Frankly, I don’t know how to say it, either. Because every time you try to call it out, that problem, you could very well just end up making it worse. Racism? The more you say that word, the more you invite the one side—the oh-so-virtuous side, in its own eyes—to cuddle you and patronize you some more. And the more you tick off the other side that’s tired of paying subsidies for every aspect of your life as if you’re a paraplegic who needs everything done for him. From both directions, it just gets worse.
PS: And what you’ve been describing, in any case, really isn’t racism in any typical sense. It’s not as though you’re up against a formal doctrine that asserts the inferiority of one set of DNA to another.
RJ: No. You’re right. Again, we run into an inadequacy of words. I don’t know what word to use for it. It has much more to do with social conditioning, of a completely subconscious kind. There’s no ideology behind it, like Nazism or the KKK. The feminists say they run into the same thing… and now the gays, they’re getting into it. I get annoyed at this “persecution sweepstakes” routine with all these new groups wanting to apply as late entries; but then again, in a way it makes me think about the problem in a new light. Maybe this is just part of life. Maybe everybody is always limited to just two or three realistic options in this life. A fat guy, a thin guy, a tall guy, a shy fellow… they are all up against obstacles that they’re not likely to clear, in most cases. If they do break out of the stereotype, it will be because they use incredible intelligence and energy, and not because they guilt-trip the public into treating them differently. Who could enjoy a victory like that, anyway? You’d have to know that everyone was just pretending to handle you differently, to avoid saying those trigger words that are streaming through their heads. Is that what you want—to go through life having people say, “How are you today, Napoleon?” as if you were some lunatic with a short fuse? God, I hate to see that kind of regulation of speech encouraged on our campuses! It’s so dehumanizing, condescending, and counter-productive! No, that’s not the way.
PS: Yet being black… not to rain on your parade, but the feelings you described—and I have to say that I think you did so really well—are not going away as easily as a woman’s sense of oppression or a gay’s. A gay can always cover up his tendency if he wants to (and my own politically incorrect view is that many actually enjoy the exhibitionism of being eccentric). A woman can rise now in the man’s world, and will even be given lots of special opportunities to do so. But the situation you describe… even when a black man breaks the black mold, he finds himself tightly contained within the new mold of “black man breaking old mold”. That’s what I hear you saying.
RJ: Thanks for embracing my brief optimism! But I’ll tell you: that’s all we’ve got, is the attempt to break out. And from failed attempt to failed attempt, I think eventually we may build a successful escape for our children. We have to be patient, and we have to be brave. The worst thing we can do, in my opinion, is to lose heart and slide back into calling names. We have to keep climbing, for those who come after us.
PS: Amen, amen, and amen.
After a teaching career spanning three decades, Peter Singleton now lives in semi-retirement in the North Texas area, where he is a freelance writer and part-time teacher.