My identity, Our history & The politics: Part 2.
This is the second in three-part post, which started here.
Maybe a slight mis-representation here but I’ll explain why.
I recently read a blog post (Nelson Mandela is African-American?) which talks about how children in a summer camp in the USA believed that Nelson Mandela (and therefore all black people) is African-American. What was worse according to the person making the comment, was that his colleague also had this same assertion, or at least didn’t see a problem with the idea that black or African was essentially interchangeable with African-American. The author of that post was discussing political correctness, but it got me thinking about how much of the history of race relations in the USA stands for the history of race relations across the world.
A good friend of mine pointed me in the direction of a Henry Louis Gates Jr. three-part documentary aired in the US earlier this year called Black in Latin America which, explores the experience of blacks brought over from Africa during the slave trade to the Americas, in countries other than the USA. It’s an interesting documentary, worth watching (if you can ignore Mr Gates and his annoying manner).
Not many people would know that Brazil has the second largest population of black people in the world, after Nigeria. I.e. not only were five times as many slaves trafficked to South America as North, but only one country in Africa has more black people in it than Brazil! That little fact blew me away.
To then encapsulate all that, I’ve just finished reading a book called Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. If you were brought up in the US school system, apparently this is a junior-high textbook (be interesting to know if this is true). Griffin, a white liberalist who ended up being a key activist in the 60s & 70s, changed his skin colour using drugs and make-up, to travel the southern states of the US and experience first hand what it was like to be a black man.
Needless to say, articles he published about his experience led to him and his family being made outcasts and the victims of hate mail, threats and dummy lynchings. The thing about this guy which intrigued me in his epilogue written much later after the original publication of the book, is that he basically got it.
Although it was patronising at first that he felt he could ‘black-up’ and integrate with black society, it was also revealing that he succeeded. He wasn’t writing sympathetically about the experiences of a black man, he was realising them and contextualising the attrocity of his experience in his reality as a white man. He fought to see things from the white point of view, but it didn’t always work.
His experience after the study was that white people saw him as someone who could tell them what to do about blacks, and blacks saw him as someone who could actually relate to, and speak for their experience.
Whilst Griffin’s book is again possibly an example of how US race relations are considered to be the complete ‘black’ experience, I feel like it practically validates Cress-Welsing’s theory on racism being a tool used by whites to secure their genetic survival. He talks about white folk who are kind, do seemingly good things, but when it comes to black people, they have a duality, a part of their character that doesn’t see a human in a black person, but sees a threat, an animal, a thing.
I’m not trying to justify this (my regular readers should know me better), but what Griffin describes in some ways is an example of Cress-Welsing’s theory, when applied to the context of the horrible things that happened to black people on American soil during, and since the years of slavery.
Where this somewhat shaky justification totally falls flat however, is in explaining how the white European adventurers got on ships sailing far and wide with no fear, and then out of so called genetic fear committed acts of genocide, rape, theft and devastation upon countless communities all around the globe. If you have little to no awareness of another group of people, are your first instincts really to to kill and pillage?
Another element from Griffin’s book which stood out to me, is that the discussion was not limited to racist southerners. He also mentions liberals and white activists who turned against black people because they felt that self-determination for African-Americans was an affront against them. Ungrateful black people turning against the white saviours.
Sound familiar? It’s the modern story of post-colonisation. The story of every country in Africa. The story of Australia’s aborigines. I know people who see the symptoms of racial inequality all over the world (riots, poverty, joblessness, vagrancy, crime) as examples of how ungrateful the repressed community is, after everything the benevolent others have done for them. The famine crisis in the horn of Africa is seen by many to be another example of why Africans can’t rule themselves, how despite years of Red Cross adverts of flies in their mouth children, ‘these people’ just don’t seem to be able to get their act together.
So yet again, we come back to a relevant example that broadens Griffin’s experiences beyond the USA.
Do I have a coherent argument to make here? Probably not. And that’s half the problem, coherence is hindered by all the various theories, all the real experiences (each with their own biases), all the political correctness and incorrectness. Our history, my history, your history is only ever a series of events defined by our respective exposures to life. No mater how widely (or not) a person explores, they come no closer to have a solid view on why people do what people do.
My conclusion? It’s tragic. Our history is tragic. Not only do we constantly tend to either homogenise our classifications of each other and our ‘shared history’, we also seem stuck in this idea of us and them, and how ‘they’ is never us. We never quite get to the point in the discussion of race where a classification truly represents an experience in a meaningful way.
In Gates’ documentary, he seems angry that black people in Latin American countries often choose to label themselves anything but black, but the American idea that ‘one-drop’ defines you really doesn’t work either. Especially in the case of Latin America where all the other drops combined outnumber the one.
So let’s just say its a big bowl of alphabet soup, you’ll never count all 26 letters, nor will it ever stop bugging you that you have two w’s and 5 b’s.