Friday, April 23, 2010


Seems this article by Professor Henry Louis Gates has riled some people up.
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I'm seeing nothing (on Twitter) but disagreement with what Gates had to say, probably because he said something not 100% in step with mainstream opinion.

As I wrote yesterday about Jason Whitlock's Roethlisberger article, just because an assertion is unpopular & makes you uncomfortable doesn't mean it doesn't contain kernels of truth, or perhaps much more than kernels. The more people protest the more curious I grow as to why.

Sometimes people are near unanimous in opinion for an obvious reason. But when we focus on the obvious we tend to ignore critical nuances.

I'm not nearly as riled up by Gates' opinion piece as are the various tweeters I've seen remarking on it. Basically he asserts that Africans were largely complicit in the selling of other Africans into slavery, complicating reparations issue.

This is not really new info except for the degree of African involvement being asserted. Perhaps as high as 90% of those shipped to the New World were enslaved by Africans and then sold to European traders per recent findings.

I can neither agree with nor refute such numbers as I'm no scholar on the subject. Nor do I conclude that the reparations issue should be re-examined based on them.

As they say, two wrongs don't make a right. Even if we opt to see the role of Africans in a harsher light, this doesn't change severity of light on America and the white forefathers who enslaved black Africans for free labor.

There will never be actual reparations paid for too many reasons to get into. We're talking symbolic gesture here as Gates correctly points out.

Dividing up a symbolic gesture would only weaken its impact, assuming gesture ever gets made, yet another reason I do not co-sign Gates piece.

However, unlike many who were angered I am glad Gates wrote the article. It prompted thought which I am always grateful for, and my train went in different direction than the reflex reaction of anger.

Black Americans (thanks largely to Roots) decided in the 60's-70's that we needed stronger, well, roots. Slavery had splintered & F'd up following generations of Black Americans.

I've taken this mindset as gospel for the most part, though I personally also look to the Caribbean [St. Thomas in the house!] for my roots. But Gates shook reasoning up a bit.

Africa after all is a continent, not a country. A continent comprised of MANY countries comprised of MANY tribes. Africa itself is splintered.

So what does African American really mean then if Kenyan-American surely means something far different than Nigerian-American?

Most whites don't say their ancestry is European. They say it's Italian or Irish or German? If European doesn't say enough, why should African?

Black Americans are not in fact splinters, but splinters of splinters. This complicates an already pretty complex situation.

Most don't bother to track down which tribe in which country they personally descend from. Not always possible anyway. Not necessary either.

Post Africa, post slavery, black people in America were supposed to finally be a single group. A continent & an abomination united us.

But how united can splinters of splinters truly be, especially without a strong common cause such as the 60’s civil rights movement provided?

Without a uniting cause does splintered tribe mentality inevitably surface? Dark skinned or light. Bougie or Ghetto. Tupac or Biggie devotee. Blacks who date interracially stand over here, those who won't even put milk in their coffee stand over there.

While Gates did not cause me to reconsider "untangling the knot" of the reparations issue, to think more about splitting of blame rather than sticking with "blame whitey" mentality, it did make me think about how far back we must look to pin pride, assign blame, establish responsibility for identity.

I don't see the point of Gates article as being: Black people need to blame themselves, not just whites. Although I see how that translation can easily be made.

I think the point is - everybody and nobody is to blame. Evil exists in the hearts of all men & brings about evil results. Therefore, don't concern yourself too much about whom to blame. Concern yourself with where to aim in bringing about a much better tomorrow.

If someone pushes your button in a way that makes you think - pause, re-examine, determine if a deeper point lies beneath the blatant one.

Truth is, Professor Gates was no more absolving America/Whites of blame for slavery than Whitlock was promoting a man's right to rape the other day. They were both simply expressing that there are quite a few ways to skin a cat or examine an issue. Rather than simply grasping the one closest and easiest to reach, dig deeper my friends.

Twelve Years a SlaveTwelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northup
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I suspect that the film adaptation, which I look forward to seeing after keeping a promise to myself to read the book first, will be more melodramatic and pull on heartstrings to greater effect and purpose than Solomon Northup's telling of his life story. Northup writes in somewhat stilted prose, his style academic rather than evocative like great novels or movies. He is not trying to draw out our tears. He is not attempting with every stroke of the pen to stir up emotions. Northup is simply telling us like it was - straight no chaser. No need to exaggerate the brutality or the tragedy, no reason to willfully demonize people whose monstrous acts and barbaric attitudes speak for themselves. Is the reader outraged, astounded that people could casually treat others in such a manner? Only if the reader has a soul. Northup doesn't use his words to move us the way his violin playing moved people. He is both impartial reporter and the subject of his piece of journalism. He doesn't ask us to feel sorry for him, or to hate his oppressors. What he does is recount what it was like for a man to suddenly find himself in bondage and servitude, endure it for over a decade, and then miraculously find himself free again with a most amazing and devastating tale to tell. He tells the truth in as unbiased a manner as possible and allows us judge it for ourselves. How did any man ever convince himself that it was okay to treat another this way? How did they ignore the humanity they surely saw in the brethren they stole from another continent? How was a single one of them able to look in a mirror? Twelve Years a Slave asks these questions but is unable to answer them, nor does it bother to try. Nothing can adequately answer them. The mystery of such heartlessness has not revealed itself over a couple hundred years. This is what our country was founded on, inalienable rights unevenly dispersed with extreme prejudice. This is what we need to atone for and move forward from. This is the stain that will never fade. Yet quite tellingly, those 12 years are not what made Solomon the extraordinary man that he was. Those 12 years happened to him but did not become him. Otherwise he probably would not have been able to write his book. The past brought us to this present, but it need not define any of us. In even the most suffocating circumstances, we have the freedom to do that for ourselves.

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1 comment:

  1. I think this is a beautiful essay, and it seems to capture perfectly the spirit of what Professor Gates was saying.