Afraid of Dyin' ?

I said in the comments section under my post about AM Mayhem the other day, "I can't say what I think about race."  Let me elaborate.

You've heard my voice before.  I'm the happy-go-lucky white guy who says, too easily, "We're all one species -- we're all part of one big family."  At least I was, before graduate school.  Then I spent seven years learning (explicitly) to value diverse racial perspectives, learning (implicitly) that race determines perspective.  I left graduate school better able to listen to the stories of racial injustice from American, and world, history.  But I left much more pessimistic than I entered.

By the time I left graduate school, my friends (both white, black, and "other") had convinced me that white people could never really understand the black experience in America.  This isn't just rhetoric to me: it's what I came to believe.  But my friends left it there... 

I went home and thought about it.  What would that mean for America?  In particular, what would it mean from the perspective of African Americans?  I thought to myself, "Well, if I were African American, and I was convinced that white Americans could not understand what it's like to be black, I suppose I wouldn't bother with them much.  They're a lost cause."  After all, I reasoned, if I ever concluded that anyone could never understand my identity, could never understand me, under any circumstances -- I wouldn't waste my time.  Ultimately, if I were African American, I think I would conclude that white Americans just don't "get it," and that conclusion would inevitably lead to a lack of trust.  If I were black, I wouldn't trust white.

So that's how I thought through it as a white person -- of course, it doesn't end there: just as I'm drifting off to sleep with that crystalline thought in my head, I remember: but white people can never understand what it's like to be black.  Some clearly I don't.  So maybe I'm wrong about If I were black, I wouldn't trust white.

A paranoia develops -- a paranoia that ("doubtedly") runs both ways.

I talk to my two or three black friends, and begin to wonder whether they mistrust me.  I wonder whether I (subconsciously) mistrust them.  I try very hard to listen, to understand, to concede the "final word," and so on -- I get a Ph.D. in American Literature, which, obviously, requires a relatively deep knowledge of the history of race in America -- but nothing seems to surmount my starting premise: white people can never understand the black experience in America.  I conclude, pessimistically: Unity is impossible.  If I believe what my few black friends tell me about the black experience in America (and I must, if I am trying to be "ethical"), then I must conclude, as they have, that authentic understanding is not possible.

Then I hear something as simple as this, on another radio talk program in Charlotte (though, this one might be syndicated): "Listen, people: we're going to have to leave some people behind.  Some people are not getting this.  To my black families, Latino families: ask yourselves this: 'Do you have more in common with the white people in America who voted for Obama, or the African Americans and Latinos who voted for McCain? ' "

The speaker is Michael Baisden, who has been playing Sam Cooke's "A Change Gonna Come" more frequently than usual lately.  He is an adamant Obama supporter -- so adamant that he is willing to leave, en masse, the McCain team in the dust of history.

Yesterday I asked Fenhopper a question that always intrigues me: how do we recognize the prophets?  How would I have recognized "who John the Baptist was" if I had been alive then?  By what indication would I have recognized Jesus as Gd?  Would I have been able to comprehend Whitman's poetry when it was first printed?

I know what my academic friends will say about Michael Baisden.  I know the objections to unity.  I understand what is keeping us divided, and why (according to some) we aren't ready for a great leap forward.  But I am ever drawn to mystery, and Baisden's voice (with an increasing number of voices in the media and on the sidewalks) sounds mysterious and tempting to me.  It sounds like an invitation to a party.  We're might-just-gonna leave some people behind.

*See tomorrow's post on my "midrashic" interpretation of the Biblical use of the phrase "to die" if you're concerned about the title.


Monica said...

In my own studies over the years I've come to understand a similar kind of thing within my field--one can never truly know what it was like to experience Auschwitz (or to be a survivor) unless one was there. But isn't it also true, at a very base level, that we can simply never know the experience of any Other? I'll be provocative here: Is it any different to say to the African American man/woman or to the Holocaust survivor "I will never know what you have gone through or what it is like to be you" than it is to say it to anyone else?

Of course, I think there is a difference, but I'm not altogether sure how to explain it.

I know I've said this before on your blog, somewhere, but the solution is caught up in Martin Buber's idea of "the thou must which takes no account of the thou can." Sure, it sounds like a paradox, but the point is that all we can ever do is try to understand--and talk about our failure to understand, if we want to be ethical--even if we know that we never fully will.

Monica said...

I should have also said that the closest we can get to understanding someone else's experience is to try and to simultaneously actively acknowledge our inability to do so.

Casey said...

That is provocative, Monica -- but it's just what I was looking for. I know that it's the manic/mystic in me suggesting this (see my next post on "the words of the prophets..."), but why do we consider it a final and fundamental ethical law that interpersonal understanding must always be elusive?

A question has lingered around in the back of my head for a while, and this has helped me formulate it: "What do two Buddhas say to one another?"