Part III – Returning to The Atlantic in order to illuminate a disturbing dynamic; AND (finally) a suburban, white “Zonie” reflects on his imperfect and incomplete journey…
SOOTHING A WHITE EDITOR
Before I briefly synopsize my personal journey across racially complicated America, I have to add a postscript to the previous installation of this blog series. It concerns the video embedded on the page of The Atlantic that features Ta-Nehisi Coates’ essay, “Fear of a Black President.” This video presents Coates discussing his essay with his boss — THE editor of The Atlantic (rather than a “senior editor,” Coates’ title) — and here is why I feel compelled to discuss it: Their conversation serves (perfectly) as an unintended reinforcement of everything in Coates’ essay about the need for prominent, successful blacks to “soothe race consciousness among whites.” It’s astonishing, really, that the editors of the magazine would embed this video, not seeing how illustrative it is of Coates’ point!
In the video we learn that Ta-Nehisi Coates’ boss, Scott Stossel — after some discussion with The Atlantic’s editor in chief, James Bennet — told Coates that his piece was “angry.” Coates responds, “I did not think it was angry when I turned it in… You said that, and I went back and read it, and I do think, now, it is angry.”
Stossel feels the need to reiterate the claim, saying of the essay: “There’s anger at the United States. There’s also anger, or at least frustration, at Obama…” and Coates assents (Yes, boss, I said it was angry…).
Personally, I do NOT think the piece is angry. I think it is powerful, incisive, disturbing, and altogether brilliant. But just because it makes some white men at the top of the organization squirm, that doesn’t mean it is an “angry” piece.
I’ve now watched the video three times, and I can’t get over the irony. The video unintentionally makes Coates’ case for him. It captures the moment wherein a senior black editor is (gently, even cordially) admonished, figuratively taken out to the woodshed, and made to publicly acknowledge how: a) he has, perhaps, gone too far; b) how Obama’s strategy (soothing, rather than confronting, the white establishment) is probably for the best and will “benefit” blacks; and, also, c) how none of the things he (Coates) is saying about how to succeed in the white-male dominated world apply to his nice, white-male bosses.
Stossel: “You work with us in, in this environment… D-d-d’you act… are you conscious of acting, you know, for lack of a better way of putting it, whiter, and then you go home and…” (NOoo! No boss, not here! No, I like it here; I’m talking about those other blacks in those other jobs…)
Please understand that I am not trying to stand in judgment over Scott Stossel or Ta-Nehisi Coates, both of whom I very much admire. I do not see Stossel as imperious “master” and Coates as servile “slave” — and I think that such an interpretation would be going WAY too far (offensively so). What I am saying is the dynamic that Coates describes in his essay is REAL, pervasive, and all but inescapable in today’s America — and this video demonstrates how very far we have to go as a society, before TRUE EQUALITY is anything like a reality.
I’m saying that America will be a hell of a lot better off when we reach that place where this dynamic is fully behind us, where blacks are permitted to be as angry about racial injustice as whites — and where African-Americans are not required to soothe the consciences of whites and constantly reassure their white bosses and peers in order to succeed.
* * *
James’ Journey: a tale of growing up (suburban and white) in a racially kerfuffled nation
I guess the oldest story I have in my personal history, concerning race, is one that I don’t technically remember. It’s one of those stories from childhood that becomes a part of the family lore, told from time to time, regardless of whether the subject has any recollection of it — like the time I apparently told our waitress that she was a “lousy cook” because the toast she’d served me was burnt (“What a charming four-year old!” she must have thought to herself). But this particular story consists entirely of the fact that first-grade James had brought home a “girlfriend” — for the first time, of course — and she was a little black girl! My understanding is that she was a cute little thing with pig-tails and, after visiting for a while, my folks drove her home. In the ensuing years, I was sometimes present when the story was recounted for neighbors and relatives, basically under the category of Kids do the darnedest things! (Would there have been a story at all, had I brought home a cute little redhead or blonde? It seems unlikely.) But the story, I suspect, had a function apart from its race-based entertainment value. In the brave new world of the suburban Southwest (Arizona, where I would spend the vast majority of my formative years) — in the liberal 1970s, on the heels of the largely successful Civil Rights movement — I suspect that the story was also intended, on some level, to convey my parents’ racially tolerant and enlightened beliefs.
Were my parents misrepresenting themselves? Were they being pretentious or merely trying to act hip? (For, though they could still do a mean Jitterbug, they were probably a bit more conservative and “square” than “with-it… daddy-O.”) But no: they were sincere. Aside from being basically fair minded, good hearted, and reasonably worldly, educated people, they did not (and do not) embrace ANY overtly bigoted notions. And while prejudice and ignorance often work very subtly within the hearts and minds of many (if not most) people on this earth — and while my parents haven’t always proven immune from such biases (any more than I have) — my mother and father could not easily be mistaken for bigots or racists. Along with the majority of the country, my mom and dad laughed at “Archie Bunker” and not with him. And they loved Sammy Davis, Jr., Bill Cosby, and Sidney Poitier. And they watched, with their children, much of the television mini-series “Roots,” based on Alex Haley’s book of the same name. It was, after all, a cultural landmark and a significant chapter in white America’s slowly advancing racial sensitivity and appreciation of the African-American experience. We all saw what those humanity-enslaving bastards did to Kunta Kinte — and we all knew that it was very, very WRONG.
But I promised to recap my journey in this blog, so enough about my parents… (Mom, Dad, if you’re reading, I LOVE YOU!)
What other early experiences helped shape my attitudes on race?
Television and movies played a role, to be sure — as a child, I certainly saw my share of old Warner Brothers and MGM cartoons, several of which (like “Tom and Jerry”) occasionally featured some fairly (to very) offensive racial caricatures (not that I was sufficiently race-conscious to be offended — or particularly amused — by such “jokes”). There was also Disney’s “Song of the South” with Uncle Remus’ tale of Br’er Rabbit and the tar baby (which, unfamiliar with the racial epithet, young Jimmy simply took to be a funny story about a trap for a tricky, briar patch-lovin’ rabbit). There was “Rochester,” comedian Jack Benny’s television butler, who I remember (vaguely) as somewhat beleaguered, but also clever, resourceful, and wryly funny. There were “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times” (which I remember as funny, sometimes over-the-top silly, and sometimes eye-opening, with regard to race and poverty).
[Just now, it occurs to me that those 1970s sitcoms also taught me something about African-American culture, including that it was in some ways different from my culture (whatever that was): characters like George Jefferson and Jimmy J.J. Walker celebrated their black-American-ness with music and dancing, “jivey” lingo, and a certain PRIDE in their ethnicity that did not particularly resonate with me (my family didn’t especially celebrate our Canadian-French/Irish, New England-Roman Catholic whiteness... we just lived it). My thoughts on that cultural difference today: perhaps there is less need to celebrate one’s ethnicity when one hails from the dominant, de facto “legitimized” race.]
And finally, there was, as I mentioned, “Roots” featuring Kunta Kinte and Chicken George, whose stories were not funny but shocking, and based on real lives and historical events. (One final note: I recall that actor John Amos, between “Good Times” and “Roots,” impressed me, overall, as an Everyman and a MAN (a male ideal), with his gruff-terse disposition, powerful build and strong face, his dignity, morality, and menacing glower — and his willingness to soften and capitulate to “Florida” and his TV children.)
I’ll move on now to my first encounters with black schoolmates (whom I could count on one hand, so far as my elementary school experience goes) — actual people I knew (not just characters I saw on my parents’ television set). Who were they? There was “Terry,” who was mostly quiet in class and generally easygoing: a NICE kid, I thought. He was chunkily overweight, but very good at softball and kickball (as I was at soccer — and only soccer). He was dark-skinned, unassuming and gentle, with big white teeth when he smiled (I also vaguely recall being surprised the first time I saw the palms of his large hands — so pale-pink, such contrast…). “Terry,” in my estimation, was also more comfortable than I in the culture of young males (where I — a smallish, unsure, and crew-cutted little freak — gained acceptance only because of my exceptional drawing skills and sense of humor). But I remember being shocked and taken aback, one day, when I saw him administer the most painful-seeming (underwear-ripping, protracted, and tear-inducing) “snuggy” (aka, “wedgie”) that I’d ever seen performed… on the class oaf, of course. I would never in a thousand years have expected such cruelty from nice, easygoing “Terry,” who’d had an encouraging crowd around him when he performed this commonplace act of childhood sadism. It seems to me, in retrospect, that his unusual conduct that day may have been part of his seeking acceptance in the cult of young boys (being twice as ‘good’ — or conservative — as his white peers… in this case, twice as cruel).
There were also two black brothers at my elementary school, neither of whom was in my class. Like “Terry,” they had full afros and were very good in sports. The older brother, in fact, was legendary for his size and strength. During recess, he was the ultimate (un-smearable) “queer” with a football, when we boys would play “smear the queer” — an unfortunately named game that involved tackling (or “smearing”) whoever had the football. I once saw “Eric” remain vertical while dragging 12-14 kids, all hanging off of him and each other. He reminded me of the folk legend “John Henry,” the “Steel-drivin’ man” who beat the machine. And that, by the way, was a story I truly loved (WAY more than that of “Pecos Bill” or “Johnny Appleseed” or even “Paul Bunyan”) — such HEROIC DRAMA! But I also remember that I found “Eric” and his brother intimidating, somehow, not as friendly or nice as “Terry,” who was in my class. In fact, they seemed sullen and apart to me, disapproving or resentful, maybe. I’m sure it confused me, but I remember feeling that they were differently black than “Terry.” There were two of them, for one thing, often together, and I regarded them with a small measure of fear…
* * *
There is obviously more to this story, but it occurs to me that this is supposed to be a blog and not a book… and I do not mean to try my readers’ patience. I’ve been wondering about when I would weigh in on The Sequester and other current events (like the apparently imminent EVISCERATION OF THE VOTING RIGHTS ACT by five so-called “Justices” on the Supreme Court). I’ve also been reading through Lawrence Lessig’s Republic Lost, in order that I may be more specific when I talk about SOLUTIONS to our campaign finance system of legalized bribery.
I will try to return to this subject (perhaps sooner, perhaps later), if only to finish what I’ve started. But for now, the journey will have to remain incomplete.