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.