Friday, February 29, 2008

His Mind is so Troubled by Thoughts

I did it again, dropped the ball here, stopped writing. It's so hard to keep writing here, I don't know why. I'm pretty active in my pen-and-ink journals, though. My brick-and-mortar journals.
One topic I always avoid talking about is racial issues. Being a white male in the US, I don't feel I have much right to candidly reflect on my perceptions of my environment. There is so much context I don't have, I feel like I could do a lot of damage to myself and others by ranting about phenomena in a vacuum. I wouldn't even say I have strong opinions on racial matters, but it's unquestionable that I have strong reactions to events. I just have to take a breath and remind myself I know very little of what's really going on in most cases.

My memoirs class has me reading James Baldwin and Maya Angelou. This is for me, like for many insular whitefolk, an eye-opening experience. I looked at I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings with some dread: I expected to be made to feel bad about the culture into which I was born, overly mournful for the poor author and the culture into which she was born.

But she doesn't treat it like that at all. This book is gripping and compelling, I'm irritated when I have to close it and do something else. Any dread found there is the dread of humanity, at once transcending race yet plumbing the depths of primal nature. I'm reading the story of a person growing up with people, interacting with other people. Race is an arbitrary designation as... Every first-year psychology student reads about the experiment with a flock of chicken, where a ribbon is tied around the neck of one. For that discrepancy, the rest of the flock will peck that chicken to death. That's what race is: an insanely arbitrary, meaningless detail that a society has, for no good reason, chosen to focus on and oppress others for. Emo Philips was making a joke with a lot of truth behind it when he said (words to the effect of), "Why hate someone based on ethnicity, politics, or religion, when there are so many real reasons to hate someone?" There are much better, more justified reasons to hate people for the things they do, much moreso than something as stupid and temporary as appearances.

I'm not showcasing my enlightenment, here. I'm just sorting out my own thoughts. I have to see them outside of my head to be sure of them, and I haven't written anything here for almost a month.

So. No sooner do I start reading Baldwin and Angelou than I'm riding the bus home, a southbound 4 down Lyndale Ave. It's mostly empty, I'm reading a book to pass the time. Something stirs in the front of the bus: a drunk white guy is trying to talk to two young black men. He's insisting they listen to his iPod for some reason, but he is operating under the belief that he is an inner-city black youth and insists on establishing a rapport with them by addressing them as "nigga." Repeatedly.

The two men just yell at him, and one of them walks to the back of the bus in frustration. I'm grateful for everyone's sake they didn't lash out with the beating he deserved. One well-dressed white woman yells at the drunk guy to get off the bus; a semi-punkish young woman echoes her sentiment. He shrugs, abandons the iPod in the aisle, tries the back doors; I yell for them to be unlocked and he tumbles out into the sidewalk.

The young men decide that this is actually their stop, too. Well, so be it. You buttered your bread, good sir, now sleep in it.

The rush of multiple perspectives was dizzying. I was ashamed I hadn't leapt up to get in the drunk's face, that my own role in this scene was paltry. I'm trying to shut up, the more I read, keep these fledgling illuminations in check until they have a chance to mature, grow feathers, and fly under their own strength... but, you know, as soon as you get a new super-power the first thing you want to do is try it out as much as possible, and that's usually the worst idea. So I'm trying to just shut up, at least wait a few days before I even hint at what's going on in my head.

But it's getting easier to separate ethnicity from culturally imbued traits. There are traits that are racial in origin, and there are traits that come from an actively selected social clique, and there are traits imposed upon one by society. A lot of pain and confusion comes from mixing these up and acting on the misgiven premise, that's why it's important I try to keep my head clear. I think I'm seeing clearly, for the most part, but it's still a better idea to shut up and keep taking information in.

In I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, I encountered a word I'd never heard before, and quick research showed me it was a regional slang term. In that research I found someone else's blog, that of a very angry black woman. She was so angry about being black and so angry about being a woman that one would be led to wonder if she had not always been these. It was as though some government agency took her life away from her with a sex/melanin change operation. She seemed to have nothing else going on in her life but ethnicity, gender, and frothing, acid hatred. There was a time when I would have attributed that third element to either (or both) of the first two, but now I'm starting to sense those things are immaterial and she's only an injured soul in pain, above and beyond the rest of it. As much as I may be construed to pray, I pray for her eventual peace.

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