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Letter to my Afroamerican nephew

May / June 2002 -- Mark Satin, Editor, The Radical Middle

Race-conscious gruel v. Amer'c'n gumbo: Letter to my Afroamerican nephew

I am a congenital optimist. So I'd like to think that, if it weren't for September 11, the news media would be paying more attention to the extraordinary debates taking place now in the Afroamerican community.

Not since the 1960s have so many African-American thinkers been speaking out so clearly -- and contentiously -- on the deepest issues affecting black people.

But Sept. 11 may not be the only stumbling block. Most white journalists today, from Time Magazine to Alternative Press Review, appear to be more interested in parading their "tolerance" and "understanding" than in honestly assessing black people's views.

I'm no more immune to wanting to be seen as tolerant, etc., than the next guy. So to force some honesty into this article, I'm writing it in the form of a letter to my nine-year-old nephew, Christopher.

Chris, an Afroamerican from Oakland, CA, was adopted at the age of four by my little sister. I've carried him on my shoulders through some of the best zoos in North America, and I wouldn't mislead him about his fundamental life choices for all the PC accolades in the world.

The letter's a bit advanced for a nine-year-old. But I hope my sister will share it with him when she feels he's ready, or when he turns 13.

Dear Chris, -- Hello out there! I hope you're happy and well. I've often wondered what sorts of gifts I could send you, and I think I've come up with something you might like -- if not now, then soon enough.

Before you know it, you're going to start making choices about life that are incredibly important: How to see yourself. How to see the world. How to see your place in the world.

One of the most important things on Earth is for the adults in your life to help you understand the choices they made -- and the choices you'll be called upon to make.

Unfortunately, some grown-ups have a hard time talking honestly with their kids. My parents' generation, which likes to call itself the Greatest Generation, has also been called the Stiff Upper Lip Generation. Many of its members didn't put much energy into talking with their kids about anything real.

As a result, many of us were incredibly naive when we left home -- and incredibly gullible.

My generation, for all its faults, is a lot more forthcoming than my parents' generation. That's why you're getting this gift from me here -- seven quick pointers to help you navigate the merciless river of life.

You may be wondering what I have to say that could be useful to you. I am, after all, 46 years older than you (!), and I'm white not black.

Read on, kid. Although you may remember me as basically a pair of strong shoulders, I think I already know you well enough to say that I've been places you've been, or places you'll be tempted to go to.

1. Don't let them convince you you're a Victim

In the 1960s, the New Left encouraged young people to see themselves as Victims, and many of us went along. For one thing, we wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with the other oppressed groups at the forefront of social change. For another thing, it was fun!

I worked as hard on my Victimhood as anyone in my generation. I dropped out of three different universities -- never for a good reason.

I got myself kicked out of VISTA, the domestic peace corps, by refusing to sign a loyalty oath. (I knew about the oath before joining VISTA.)

I immigrated to Canada long before I was drafted. It wasn't until I became a prominent draft dodger leader that my draft board finally drafted me.

After that happened it was illegal for me to return to the U.S. So I got a set of fake ID and moved to Eugene, Oregon, to live with Janice, a lesbian whom I considered to be my girlfriend.

(Janice worked on her Victimhood too. She was a promising fine arts student who kept dropping out of university just like I did. Then she drove into a pole in a parking lot and knocked out her front teeth.

(Finally she managed to convince the authorities she was psychologically incapable of working, so when I met her she was living on welfare and trying to make low-low-low budget radical films.)

One day in Eugene, a hero of mine -- Tom Hayden -- came to speak at the local university, and Janice and I squeezed into the auditorium to hear him.

Tom was a revolutionary leader in those days. He was the kind of person who taught me and people like me to define ourselves as Victims. Some day, according to Tom, all the Victims would get together and rule the world.

Tom had graduated from a great university, where he'd edited the student newspaper, and he was an excellent speaker. (Later he'd marry a beautiful actress and become an important California politician -- perhaps you've heard of him.) But while everyone was cheering and cheering his every word, I was having a different reaction.

There I was, one of Tom's Victims-in-arms. I had given up my education for the radical cause; I had given up my career; I had given up my country; I had even given up my identity! But what had he given up? Every man in that auditorium wanted to be like him, and every woman wanted to sleep with him. Even Janice!

By my sacrifices (I realized then), I hadn't made the country better, and I'd devastated my future. All I'd really done was turn myself into a battering ram for the Tom Haydens of the world, who rode the dogged loyalty of saps like me to fame and fortune.

The black community today has its Tom Haydens -- probably the best known is Al Sharpton. They want black people like you to define yourselves as Victims and become their followers.

There is one difference, though. White kids in the Sixties like Janice and me were supposed to "earn" their Victimhood by rebelling against The System and wounding themselves in the process. Black kids today are supposed to see themselves as Victims just because they're black.

A lot of people over the next few years are going to try to convince you you're a Victim. Most of what they'll tell you can be traced back to a couple of prominent black thinkers and activists.

One of them is my old law school professor, Derrick Bell, father of what legal scholars call "critical race theory" and author of a book every good activist reads, Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992).

In it he says that racism is an "integral, permanent, and indestructible component of this society." If that isn't depressing enough, he adds this: "Slavery is . . . a constant reminder of what white America might do."

When Professor Bell doesn't have his Victimhood cap on, he can be an inspiring teacher, and in my class with him most of the students (both black and white) worked extra hard so that the class discussions would be as lively as possible. At the end of the year he invited us all to a potluck dinner, and after we finished stuffing ourselves and were sitting around happily he showed us a movie based on one of the stories in Faces at the Bottom of the Well.

It was called "The Space Traders," and it's about how some time in the not so distant future, all the white people in the U.S. will round up all the black people and sell them to beings from Outer Space -- who'll take them away for good.

Professor Bell got a kick out of showing us the film and wanted to know what we thought.

It seemed so untrue to me -- and so ugly -- that I wanted to throw up. A lot of other students there were upset as well.

Another prominent black activist who wants you to see yourself as a Victim is Randall Robinson. Mr. Robinson is founder and president of a group called TransAfrica, and has been a member of the Advisory Council of the Calvert Social Investment Fund. His most important book is called The Debt: What America Owes to Blacks (2000).

Mr. Robinson isn't quite as gloomy as Professor Bell. He thinks that IF white Americans can be made to pay billions of dollars to black causes (instead of to causes that help all needy people whatever their skin color), then maybe -- just maybe -- "[s]olutions to our racial problems are possible."

In the meantime, he wants white Americans to understand that blacks tend to do comparatively poorly in school "because of slavery's lasting legacy."

He blames black violence on slavery too. He wants whites to stop obsessing about the "short-lived inconvenience" of criminal behavior and spend more time thinking about the horrors of slavery.

Chris, do you really think any problems you might be having with schoolwork have anything to do with your great-great grandparents?

And do you really think getting beaten, raped, or held up with a weapon is a "short-lived inconvenience"?

A lot of black writers are beginning to ask such questions now

Stanley Crouch is one. He was a radical once, like me, and he's become what he calls a "radical pragmatist," like me.

Probably his best book of essays is The All-American Skin Game; or, The Decoy of Race (1994), and in it he makes mincemeat of the concept of Victimhood. "If we speak only from positions of resentment and paranoia," he says, "we resist the facts of [our new] era."

John McWhorter is a young professor of linguistics at UC-Berkeley, where my sister (your mom!) went to school, and he lives in Oakland within bicycling distance of you. His latest book is one long attack on Victimhood, as you can tell from the title, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America (2000).

He understands that "racism is not dead," and he supports affirmative action in the workplace. But he doesn't want you to think of yourself as a Victim, either.

"Victimology is seductive," he says, "because there is an ironic and addictive contentment in underdoggism. However, it also inherently gives failure, lack of effort, and even criminality a tacit stamp of approval.

"In addition, because focusing on the negative debases the performance of any human being, focusing on remaining aspects of victimhood rather than the rich opportunities before us is a ball and chain restraining any effort to move ahead."

Some black thinkers are trying to hang onto Victimhood even while admitting that the original reason for it (racial discrimination) is rapidly fading. Take Glenn Loury in his latest book, Anatomy of Racial Inequality (2002).

Mr. Loury, who teaches at Boston University, argues that blacks are Victimized today not so much by overt discrimination as by an "ingrained racial stigma."

Because of slaves' "dishonorable status" in 19th century America, he says, black people today are suffering from a "spoiled collective identity" that affects how they're treated by whites.

I don't know about you, Chris, but I think that's ridiculous. I don't know any white person under age 56 who thinks slavery gives blacks a negative stigma!

Thanks partly to improvements in national history teaching standards, most whites today have phenomenal respect for the way blacks coped with slavery.

Virtually everyone knows, now, that blacks are a vibrant, creative, and resourceful people for whom the sky's the limit (and not in Derrick Bell's sense!).

So don't act like an angry or beaten-down Victim and you'll go as far as your efforts and talents take you. (Blind luck is important, too, unfortunately -- as Mr. McWhorter points out in one of the most moving passages of his book.) Don't court Victimhood like Janice and I did.

2. Don't let them convince you there's been no black progress

One of the reasons I kept dropping out of university is I wouldn't let myself believe things were getting better -- for blacks, for the poor, for the environment. I felt an overwhelmingly urgent need to be out there on what I thought were the front lines, putting my uneducated and uncredentialed shoulder to the wheel.

Many black writers want you to feel a similarly overwhelming sense of desperation today.

Take deep breaths when you're reading them, Chris. In the long run, you'll be more effective if you take the time to acquire (1) a balanced view about what needs to be done, and (2) the credentials to do something a person off the street can't do.

In his generally admirable book, The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America (2002), journalist Ellis Cose occasionally lapses into gloom and doom. For example, he says blacks face a "steady diet of society's contempt" and have to face life with only "one hand swinging free." He's not talking about 1963, he's talking about today!

Randall Robinson is even gloomier. In The Debt, he asserts that blacks have made no socioeconomic progress compared to whites. He goes so far as to compare black progress to "aged redwoods rooted in a forest floor."

John McWhorter -- your neighbor -- recently replied to Mr. Robinson as follows:

"[A]lmost 50 percent of black families [are] middle class, in contrast to only 1% in 1940 and 39% in 1970. In 1990, one in five blacks were managers or professionals. . . .

"The median income of black two-parent families is about $41,307 [now], as opposed to about $47,000 for whites. [And] the gap is extremely difficult to pin on racism. In 1995, 56 percent of black Americans lived in the South, and wages are lower there."

This argument isn't just academic, Chris. If you think there's been no progress, you probably won't want to stay in school and try to become all that you can be. You might tell yourself to stay in school, but your heart -- wiser than any brain -- might not follow.

If you think things are changing for the better, though, you'll probably want to stay in school and learn to do something exciting and socially useful.

I dearly hope you'll hang in there.

3. Don't let them convince you the world owes you anything

In the early 1970s I went through my "Jewish phase." I spent weeks learning about all the sickening things that Christians had done to Jews over the last 2,000 years -- then spent months telling myself that "Christians" owed me and "my people" a living. I actually managed to get myself onto the welfare rolls for a few months (easy to do in Canada in the 1970s), and was proud of it.

A Jewish friend of mine had even more chutzpah. He used Canadian welfare money to pay for his art education in Paris . . . for three whole years!

I wasn't on welfare long. Sooner rather than later, I figured out that nearly every "people" feels brutalized by history, and that North America's unsentimental solution to that fact -- suck it up, you're free now, don't look back -- is the only approach that doesn't promise endless ethnic conflict.

You may already know that many black activists feel differently. They're demanding what they call "reparations" -- payments by whites for all the sickening things that whites have done to blacks since African tribal chieftans started selling black prisoners of war to Moslems and Europeans in the 16th century.

Derrick Bell's writings provide the intellectual and emotional rationale for the current push for reparations. Randall Robinson's book The Debt is the leading U.S. text.

You can tell from the title that Mr. Robinson isn't really interested in debating reparations. So far as he is concerned, the question is closed, "the debt" is owed, and if whites don't pay up they're selfish racist pigs.

They're also courting disaster. If African Americans aren't "compensated for the massive wrongs and social injuries inflicted upon them by their government, during and after slavery," says Mr. Robinson, "then there is no chance America can solve its racial problems" [italics his - ed.].

Obviously, many blacks are hurting today -- I'm sure you see that every time you go to school. But many other kinds of people are hurting today too, and writers like John McWhorter think it would be more efficient -- as well as more fair -- to help people according to need rather than according to skin color or ethnic origin.

In fact, according to Mr. McWhorter, we've already begun doing that. Welfare already supports poor people for a few years while stewarding them into jobs. Community Development Corporations already channel funds into inner-city communities to help residents buy homes. . . .

Wouldn't you do more good in the world by working to improve and expand such programs, rather than working to obtain special treatment for blacks?

When thinking about your position on reparations, Chris, you might also want to consider this:

Of all the unusual things I've done in my life, hustling "reparations" from the Canadian taxpayers is the only one that shames and embarrasses me today.

4. Don't let them convince you all your problems are society's fault

When I was young I used to blame all my problems on "capitalism," my parents, or both. Not surprisingly, my problems -- such as they were -- never seemed to clear up.

Randall Robinson wants you to be just as arrogant and pig-headed today. "You are owed," he cooes. "There is nothing wrong with you. They did this to you" [italics his - ed.].

Other black writers are a lot more constructive, in my opinion.

"I emphatically disagree with those self-styled conservatives who argue, in effect, that all the problems black people face are of our own doing," says Ellis Cose, the journalist I told you about above.

"[But g]riping about the state of society, therapeutic though that may be, has its limits as a life-improvement strategy. And justifying criminal acts or cruel behavior by pointing to what the white man has done becomes, at some point, nothing more than an exercise in moral irresponsibility. . . .

"The trick (one of them, anyway) is to learn where to spend your energies and where not to."

Glenn Loury, the Boston University economist I told you about above, lays out three choices for you:

(1) Blame "external structures" like schools or the welfare system;

(2) Blame "non-external structures" like parental expectations or peer pressure or your inner fears;

(3) Blame the "essential nature" of black people.

"The role of the responsible race-marked public intellectual of today," Mr. Loury concludes, "might be understood as follows. Keep both (1) and (2) in play, finding a way to make reform in either sphere complement that in the other."

In other words, Chris, most of our problems are partly society's fault. But they're also partly our fault and our loved ones' fault, and if you want to really grab hold of life you have to be one part political activist, one part spiritual explorer.

5. Don't let them convince you you're not part of the mainstream

In the 1960s, the counter-culture convinced me to see ordinary Americans as "pigs" and "straight people," and I tried to think and act as differently from them as possible. So did about a million other kids my age.

Some black activists want you to feel as alienated from mainstream America today as I felt in the 1960s. Here again, Randall Robinson takes the cake.

He invents a "12-year-old neighborhood black boy" named Billy, and has Billy walk around the Washington Mall with a mentor.

You and I walked around that same mall two years ago -- remember? We saw the Washington Monument, the Natural History Museum, the Air and Space Museum, and the Capitol dome.

Well, Mr. Robinson has Billy cover the same ground. In fact, he visits even more attractions -- the Lincoln Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, and so on.

But instead of enjoying his day on the Mall, Billy "does not feel anything much, other than small. Not small but small. The monuments don't seem intended for him.

"They do seem, from the look on their faces, intended for the white family of four from Nebraska standing near him. Look at them, sunny with pride in their ridiculous plaid vacation wear. . . ."

Chris, you may be wondering why Billy's mentor neglected to take him to the most dazzling display room in the Natural History Museum -- the one on Africa (which we hung out in) -- or to the American History Museum, which has extensive materials on the African American experience. It's because Mr. Robinson needs to use Billy's unhappiness to make two very dubious points.

He is trying to suggest that America is not about ideas; it is about ancestral blood.

And he's trying to suggest you're not part of the American mainstream, because you're not white.

In my humble opinion, both points are not only wrong but dangerous. If you buy into either one of them, you'll end up as alienated, and as embittered, as I was at the end of the 1960s.

America's founders -- the people celebrated in the monuments on the Mall -- were born a long time ago. Many of them didn't like blacks. Many of them didn't like Jews, Hispanics, or poor people either.

But we don't celebrate them because we think they might have liked us! We celebrate them because of the political ideas they stood for.

Without those ideas, every single one of us would be less free and less equal than we are today.

And those ideas are accessible to all peoples equally. Thus, the monuments are meant for all peoples equally. If Billy can't relate to them, it's not a skin-color thing, it's a lack-of-knowledge thing.

Fortunately, many black thinkers have rejected the race-based alienation that Mr. Robinson wants you to buy into.

Stanley Crouch, the essayist I told you about above, is especially good on this subject (as was his mentor, Ralph Ellison).

"In order to be ‘authentic,'", he says, "[black] Americans -- so goes the politics of perpetual alienation -- aren't supposed to identify with the ideals of the country at large. We are supposed to enlist all of our energies in pretending that we are somehow part of another tradition. . . .

"Well, I'm not down with the new model of segregation. I see Americans as people who play out variations on the same fundamental music."

It was fun feeling like an outsider in the 1960s. But the feeling never really goes away, and that's a very steep price to have to pay, Chris; life is very long.

6. Don't let them convince you there's only one way to be black

In the 1960s, I joined the political left, and without even knowing it I adopted many left wing attitudes and prejudices. In the 1970s and 80s, I adopted many New Age attitudes and prejudices.

It wasn't until the 1990s that I felt secure enough to cast all my pre-packaged attitudes aside and begin thinking and acting from my gut.

Today many black activists are trying to sell you pre-packaged "black" attitudes. In The Debt, for example, Randall Robinson ridicules "a black woman wearing thick owlish glasses, strolling hand-in-hand with a bookish-looking white man."

John McWhorter tells us what that's all about: "[A] wariness of books and learning for learning's sake as ‘white' has become ingrained in black American culture."

It is easy being Green. And it's easy being Black as Mr. Robinson defines it. It isn't easy being real.

Fortunately for you, many black thinkers are beginning to address this issue. For example, Ellis Cose makes this one of his "hard truths":

"Recognize that being true to yourself is not the same as being true to a stupid stereotype."

It took me 25 years of adult life to figure that out -- I mean, really figure it out. Here's hoping it comes easier for you.

7. Don't let them convince you that the thin gruel of racial purity tastes better than the thick Amer'c'n gumbo of hybridity and intermingling

When I was in the New Left and New Age, I could go for days without talking to a single person whose values were different from mine. I thought I was in Seventh Heaven! Everything was so cozy and warm.

In reality, though, I'd stopped learning and stopped growing.

Today, many blacks are striving to be as "pure" as I was in my New Left and New Age daze. For example, in his book How To Make Black America Better (2001), BET talk show host Tavis Smiley urges you to "Think Black First, 100 Percent of the Time."

And, of course, Derrick Bell and Randall Robinson have nothing good to say about racial or ethnic mixing as a primary social or cultural goal. When Mr. Robinson attended his son's graduation at Howard University, he was appalled to hear the student commencement speaker say, "If I were French I would say merci, if I were German I would say danke schoen, . . . but I will simply say thank you."

Other parents might have been impressed by the student's cognizance of other cultures, but not Mr. Robinson. "The young woman was indeed not French or German," he complained. "She was an American of African descent. Why on Earth was she iffing herself European?" [italics his - ed.].

Actually, on most college campuses today, most of the time, Mr. Robinson could feel pure as punch; a new black tribalism is in the air. In his brave and wonderful book Out of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa (1997), young journalist Keith Richburg remembers student life at the University of Michigan:

"It seemed to me almost like a kind of voluntary resegregation -- we want[ed] to be equal, but separate. . . .

"Most of the black students lived together, clustered in certain dormitories. . . . And when I walked into the [campus] dining room, I had to decide whether to sit at the black table with my black friends or to integrate the white table so I could sit with my white friends."

Is it for this that Martin Luther King and thousands of black and white students took to the streets in the 1960s?

I don't think so, Chris. And neither do many others.

For every radical black thinker preaching some hip version of racial separatism today, there's another black thinker at the radical middle singing the praises of integration, impurity, hybridity, and intermingling.

John McWhorter is one of them, as you may have guessed.

"One hundred years from now," he says, "the marvelous inevitability of interracial mixture will have created a deliriously miscegenated America where hundreds of millions of cafe au lait Tiger Woodses and Mariah Careys will be quite secure in knowing that American is ‘who they are.'"

Another champion of impurity and intermingling is Stanley Crouch.

"We can no longer afford to traffic in simple-minded and culturally inaccurate terms like ‘black' and ‘white' if they are meant to tell us anything more than loose descriptions of skin tone," he says.

"We are the results of every human possibility that has touched us, no matter its point of origin.

"As people of the Americas, we rise up from a gumbo in which, after a certain time, it is sometimes very difficult to tell one ingredient from another. All of those ingredients, however, give a more de- lectable taste to the brew."

In his bluesy novel Don't the Moon Look Lonesome (2000), Mr. Crouch gives center stage to a pair of lovers, a white jazz singer from South Dakota named Carla and a black jazz musician from Greenwich Village named Maxwell.

Carla and Max spend seven tumultuous years together, and their journey includes a seamless mix of thoughts and feelings about Balzac, God, relationships, Hitler, Duke Ellington, Carla's "black ass," the Founding Fathers, Mark Rothko, Sophocles, and much more. The novel is a 546 page stirring of the grand gumbo of life.

I remember how comfortable I felt in my New Left and New Age days. But that was the comfort of purity squared.

Life can be infinitely richer than that, Chris -- as I hope you'll discover on your own journey.

Please, let me know how it goes.

Your uncle, -- Mark

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