Sunday, November 20, 2011



E. Ethelbert Miller today offers us this quotation: "Come, then comrades; it would be as well to decide at once to change our ways. We must shake off the heavy darkness in which we were plunged, and leave it behind. The new day which is already at hand must find us firm, prudent, and resolute. We must leave our dreams and abandon our old beliefs and friendships from the time before life began. Let us waste no time in sterile litanies and nauseating mimicry. Leave this Europe where they are never done talking of Man, yet murder men everywhere they find them, at the corner of every one of their own streets, in all the corners of the globe. For centuries they have stifled almost the whole of humanity in the name of a so-called spiritual experience. Look at them today swaying between atomic and spiritual disintegration. And yet it may be said that Europe has been successful in as much as everything that she has attempted has succeeded." Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. 

As we draw near to the end of this E-Channel project, Ethelbert Miller has decided to add a stimulating new wrinkle to the questions he asks me. For five days, he plans to present me with a famous quote by a black intellectual and ask for my response. The first (above) is from Frantz Fanon, and I'm glad he selected this one. I haven't read Wretched of the Earth since the early 1970s, but I was at that time strongly influenced by this work, Black Skin, White Masks, and the phenomenological flavor of Fanon's investigations into the experience of black embodiment. Before I examine Fanon's quote, I'd like to start with a statement made by poet Jaswinder Bolina in his superb essay, "Writing Like a White Guy," which can be read in its entirety at this link: 

        "If the racial Other aspires to equal footing on the socioeconomic playing field," Bolina writes, "he is tasked with forcing his way out of the categorical cul-de-sac that his name and appearance otherwise squeeze him into. We call the process by which he does this 'assimilation.' Though the Latin root here---shared with the word "similar"---implies that the process is one of becoming absorbed or incorporated, it is a process that relies first on the negation of one identity in order to adopt another. In this sense, assimilation is a destructive rather than constructive process. It isn't a come-as-you-are proposition, a simple matter of being integrated into the American milieu because there exists a standing invitation to do so. Rather, assimilation first requires refuting assumptions the culture makes about the immigrant based on race, and in this sense assimilation requires the erasure of one's preexisting cultural identity even though that identity wasn't contingent upon race in the first place."

I've written often that America is inconceivable without the contributions made by black Americans since the year 1619. We can take that issue off the table. But because America has for so long been a Eurocentric nation, and because the creation of so many of its cultural forms have been dominated by whites who ruthlessly exploited about seventy years of segregation to rig the game in their favor after the Civil War, another important question arises: How shall people of color live here? Assimilation was never an acceptable---or even intelligent---goal. I've seen research that says whites make up 17% of the people on this planet, with the remaining 83% being people of color. (Other research I've seen places the white population at 30%, but even with that larger percentage, people of color, globally, are far greater in number than whites.) Why would anyone wish to assimilate with only 17% or 30% of the world's population? Or as Malcolm X once put it, "Why do you want to integrate into a burning building?" Or, for that matter, become an "honorary white man"?

During the course of my life, I think I've shocked (and maybe even saddened) some of my white friends who simply assumed that because integration brought them together for the first time with black people in school and on jobs, that black Americans either (1) Wished to be like them, or (2) Wanted to do the various things white privilege allowed them to do. (That mistaken notion may well have been fueled by anti-segregation arguments used during the early Civil Rights Movement by some of our leaders who said blacks languished or suffered when separated from whites. In other words, they made an appeal to pity or sympathy, the logical fallacy known as Argumentum ad Misericordiam.) When I explained that, no, that wasn't the reason at all, their expression became sober and perhaps even a little bit hurt. The reason, to put it bluntly, was that I was there studying and working beside them only because I desired to support my family and build upon the positive and inspiring work of my black predecessors. (This is partly why in an earlier post I said that, looking back, I see the last sixty-three years of my life as being much like a tour of duty in a foreign land.) As individuals, we could be friends and colleagues, yes (that was my father's counsel to me when I was young), but that wasn't the motivation that carried me from my father's home to white schools and the workplace. No, I didn't want to culturally imitate their life-styles or join them in some of the dysteleological behaviors they seemed to enjoy. (Many were liberal or progressive, as we say today, and felt the need to be rebels because they had painful "issues" with their own parents, which I didn't have with mine, whom I simply wanted to honor, because I saw the dignified way they lived in the Jim Crow world as noble.) I didn't want to marry their sisters (even though I obviously have no problem with inter-racial marriage). Get drunk or do drugs. I didn't want to play or party. I didn't have any interest in conspicuous consumption. Or being sexually promiscuous in this culture, which is drenched every day through the media with the propaganda of sex and violence. Or the adolescent, infantilized aspects of American pop culture. Richard Wright addressed what I'm saying here in American Hunger when working as a dishwasher, peering up from the copy the American Mercury he hides behind a newspaper, he observed white waitresses whose "lust for trash" was paralleled by similar desires for alcohol, cheap thrills and consumer goods in the black community. He wrote, "It seemed to me that for the Negro to try to save himself, he would have to forget himself and try to save a confused, materialistic nation from its own drift to self-destruction."

 My only reason for living in America---staying in America---was to acquire as many useful skills as possible, contribute as a citizen to the professional fields I belonged to (and assist my colleagues and students of all backgrounds), and increase the happiness and well-being of my family. (As a friend of mine from Ghana said in the late 1960s, what he loved about America was that whatever you wanted to learn, there was someone here who could teach it to you.) In a word, my feeling was that I didn't need certain European and white American cultural formations because I had my own unique culture and history in America which, sadly, most of my white friends and associates were woefully uninformed about (that, of course, was damage or lack of knowledge caused by the era of segregation.) Something I felt I certainly didn't need to be involved with was the refuse or dross and culturally damaging ideas of European and American societies. To know Western intellectual history was necessary, yes, and even to know it better than the majority of my white kinsmen, because the West is where I live and work. But, as the old saying goes, I felt it wisest to be "in it but not of it." Early in Middle Passage, Rutherford Calhoun, a freeman, expresses this sense of himself when he speaks of how revolted he is by the thought of becoming a "gentleman of color," which he sees as being assimilation turning him into "the image of an Englishman, round of belly, balding, who'd been lightly brushed with brown watercolor or cinnamon." Yet, to a certain degree, when in Rome one must minimally do as Romans do. When in a foreign land (culturally) courtesy demands that one acquiesce to a degree to the customs, dress and etiquette of the host country. I would do that if living for extended periods in either the West or the East.

 So what is my point? It is simply this: While black Americans are co-creators with whites of the nation we call America, and have been intimately involved (with good and bad results) with whites during the last 300 years, we---as black people---are wisest, in my humble opinion, when we recognize our situation to be very much like that of immigrants of color who come from countries that have in recent decades thrown off the yoke of colonialism, as we did slavery and segregation. Our survival strategies in the white West are quite similar to theirs. Indeed, I would say they must be identical to theirs. And the most important of these strategies, I would add, involves the principle of Take the best and leave the rest. And how shall we interpret "the best"? Malcolm X offered this test: Ask yourself, "Is this good for black people?" 

Fanon lauds Europe when he says, "And yet it may be said that Europe has been successful in as much as everything that she has attempted has succeeded." He was right to make this remark at the time he made it. But we should define more clearly what Europe has been most successful at. After the Dark and Middle Ages, after the Enlightenment, Europeans made rapid, then exponential progress---relative to older nations and cultures---in science and technology (and the achievements of some older cultures, especially in the Middle East, made this possible), thereby giving Europeans the edge in manipulating the material world (Nature), and producing (again in terms of material life, though not always in terms of the life of the spirit) unprecedented levels of wealth and prosperity. Historically, science and technology as we know them today are products developed since the 16th century to a degree of refinement within Western cultures. But the beauty of science and technology is that they are not inextricably bound to Western cultures and religions. India has its version of M.I.T. That nation and China now surpass America in the production of engineers; America's IT industry increasingly relies on scientists, technicians, and engineers from non-Western countries where STEM education (science, technology, engineering, and math) are emphasized. (I recently had the occasion of visiting a California school and seeing a meeting of its Honors Math Club---all the students were Asians, with about three being Caucasians in a group that filled a small auditorium.) Even as I write these words the Chinese are making progress toward developing their own space station. China, India, Pakistan (and Iran, according to recent reports) have developed nuclear technology within their own cultural matrixes. The material standards of living are rising in those nations. As we progress deeper into the 21st century, as President Obama works to link America's future to the no longer sleeping giants of Asia, we can say, I believe, that what we call modernity is no longer the monopoly of the white West. But for people of color world-wide this must be a qualified and critical modernity, one in which cultural or racial assimilation is no longer a conversation we need to have; one where we examine the cultural and scientific successes of the white Western world for the last 2,500 years, but also its errors and failures, and resolve not to repeat them. A century in which we, as people of color, take the best and leave the rest.

            That is my response to the quotation by Fanon.

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