My fifth grade social studies teacher was an earthy, sexagenarian, ex-Brooklynite, who one day while preaching WWII morality to my Schenectady, NY class asked us to self segregate on the basis of loyalty to Axis or Allied powers. I chose the Axis wall and explained that it didn’t really matter what side I moved to, that as many Blacks suffered here as Jews in Germany and the end result would likely be the same at some future date. She lambasted me, and the kids who followed along, thinking I was some kind of quiet, nerd who was often quick to raise a hand and often right, if unheralded and even antagonized by the all-white faculty.
I believe that our culture is deafening and our ideas of race crippling. I believe that as a species we may be a science fiction novel’s long eon away from even beginning to work on the roots of white supremacy, its pervasive presence and surreptitious proselytization through the pedagogy. I believe, as a result, that my children and younger siblings are doomed to years of stymied growth –no matter what our culture’s response to their outward successes–as they struggle to understand their worth and modify their self-identity in the face of monolithic whiteness.
My two twenty-two year old brothers, thirteen-year old daughter and seven year old son will likely graduate from college, grab ‘good’ graduate degrees and, being attractive and bright, find healthy, educated mates, and rewarding careers. They are likely to find stations in the upper middle class, like most of our Mississippi-rooted family members. They will learn the importance of sound fiscal behavior, the infinite rewards of closeness within family, the jewel that compassion is within the community, and they will struggle through finding a psychological place in the world. What they will also learn, is that there is no place for their blackness, as they shake-and-bake through the American social milieu, like Michael Vick through an all-pro defense. They will find their friends’, family’s and community members’ accents ridiculed in countless places– blockbuster movies, hit t.v. shows, critically acclaimed bestsellers– constantly reminding them of their lowly place in the Great Western Narrative. They will struggle to find media that tells them something different. Their subconscious will balk at the options they have for acceptable dress, the staggering lack of diversity in architectural and urban planning design, and the need to speak White English as a second language. The competing dualities within their American lives will sting their hearts, possibly shortening their life spans, certainly stealing countless hours of peace.
They might look to other minorities for models of coping and standards of assimilation. They will find mirrors of their struggles and as much hope as failure. As they wander the halls of elementary, middle, high schools and university, they will sometimes find the teachers who protested integration following Brown are still teaching now and are abdicating their responsibility to share first-rate instruction in favor of sabotaging their learning. They will not learn about the contributions of Polynesians as a seafaring people; they will not learn about the flowering of Buddhism, the African-ness of ancient Egypt, or the individual contributions of Nagarjuna, Imhotep, Ankhenaten, Sundjata, Dogen, Hui Neng, Lao Tsu, etc. And not only in February, or in the Peoples of the World section of their social studies books, but for their contributions to the holism of contemporary thought. Latin, African, Asian and Native American classmates will suffer similar fates, even if they make no bones, whether or no their faces, accents, dress or futures describe the wrong.
I believe there is no righting this ship. The ballast too heavy to drop, the Sargasso that is culture too thick with growth, no tell-tale wind of change. I believe I am doomed to hunt for decades for the soul medicine that might bring my children, my brethren some relief. It may be equal parts compassion and pride in something not fully known, will and fight, self-sufficiency and love of wisdom. But while I am looking, and while our American culture continues in its tendency to retard our collective growth -with its allegiance to the myth of a distinct Western Narrative–their story of art, science, exploration, humankind’s connection with God told ad infinitum- we cannot move as a species, only in circles, working the capstan bars under whip of vain progress, in a morose sea of vanity and shame. This I believe.
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