Wednesday, December 14, 2011

THE 4TH CONTEXT


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "In her book Charles Johnson In Context Linda Selzer looks at your work in relationship to "the critical issues raised by the emergence of three black intellectual and cultural formations in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries: black philosophers, black Buddhists, and "new"black public intellectuals." Might one conclude that with the election of Obama and intellectual discussions turning to post-blackness we are seeing the birth of a 4th context by which to view your work?"



Quietly, and almost too subtly for most of us to consciously recognize, Barack Obama's first term in office has, I think, made the question of his "race" irrelevant to intelligent Americans in their political and cultural discussions. Love him or hate him, the matters of importance discussed for the last three years have been those that are about his daily performance as POTUS, that is, the same questions about individual performance that we would talk about for his predecessors in the White House. How well or poorly has he been responding to America's economic problems? Do we approve or disapprove of his handling of America's interests in international affairs? Has he been good or bad as a post-9/11 defender of this nation? We, the public, have been judging him strictly in terms of the policies he promotes and those he opposes. It's interesting to note, too, that before his campaign to become the GOP's presidential candidate was derailed by accusations of sexual misbehaving, Herman Cain was primarily talked about in terms of whether his 9-9-9 plan was a good or bad idea, and if he knew enough about international affairs to be qualified to sit in the Oval office---exactly the same questions the public had about Rick Perry's competence in that area. The "race" of either Cain or Perry (or Obama) was as unimportant for these deliberations as their weight or the size of their waist-lines.

This is how progress often incrementally happens. Not dramatically, but rather in terms of what people once obsessed over in the past simply falling away from their consciousness, like skin from a snake, or is forgotten. Or the matter suddenly strikes us as being very shop-worn and very boring. One day we wake up and suddenly realize, "Hey, we haven't talked about Obama or Cain being black guys in a long time," and no sooner than the words leave our lips, it's clear to us and everybody else in the room that these two being "black guys" (whatever that is supposed to mean) is not only unimportant---it's downright uninteresting. To be honest, "identity politics" has always been uninteresting and wrong-headed. Is it really important that this administration's Secretary of State (as well as that for the last administration) is a woman? We all know the answer to that is, no. First we cheer and celebrate the historical racial or gender breakthrough, as we should. Then it fast becomes old news and joins the ranks of the Been There and Done That.

True enough, there are still Americans who cling to essentialistic notions of "blackness" and "whiteness," and to some vague feelings about "race." They are fast becoming dinosaurs in 21st century America. In today's world, people who talk in those terms just sound odd. Like they're stuck in the past or a time warp. Their eventual extinction is something we should welcome as social evolution and greater social enlightenment leaves them behind, consigned to the dust bin of history (like my tragic character George Hawkins in Oxherding Tale.). Our children---those twenty-somethings---and our grand-children in the post-civil rights era seem not weighted down by the historical baggage of race-consciousness that even some aging Baby Boomers born at the end of the era of segregation still carry to a certain degree. Is that the meaning of the phrase "post-blackness"? If it means that most Americans today see notions of "race" as being as silly, cumbersome and unnecessary to carry around in their heads as the medieval belief in angels or devils, or the 19th century search by scientists for phlogiston, then I would say: hallelujah, we are witnessing some small but significant measure of progress for our species.

In 1974, when Faith and the Good Thing was published, one enthusiastic reviewer referred to it as being "raceless." In other words, what was important in that story was not the fact that Faith Cross was black, but instead her Candide-like journey through 2,000 years of ethical ideas about the Good was the novel's focus. So it has been with my other novels, and so many of my short stories, some of which do not even identify the race of their main characters ("Kwoon," "Moving Pictures," some of the stories in Dr. King's Refrigerator and Other Bedtime Stories). Why have I always approached my characters that way? The answer: because whatever we call their "race" is one fact among many about them, and not even the most interesting fact about them. My stories are not blind to their racial history and background, but neither are the characters bound by that history or background. And what my best stories are about are conflicts of a philosophical kind that have (or so I hope) universal application across what we call the human condition. It is fair, then, yes, to see my literary art in terms of "post-blackness."

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