Friday, June 12, 2009

Southern Ignorance, Louisiana Hate

I grew up in Louisiana, so it is impossible for the state to disappoint me: I left as soon as I could, and, after decades away, I have been back for almost a year--more than enough time to be reminded of all of the reasons I left. I took a long walk home from St. Martinville the other day (June 8), walking on La. highway 347, and turned down a road, La. highway 680, that I think marks the half-way point of my walk and I heard the word nigger. I thought I might have been mistaken--I looked around and I saw a man and two children outside a brick home, the third house facing highway 680 from the turnoff, after the houses with mailboxes 1010 and 1020 in front of them: a brown brick house with a blue truck and a small boat in the yard (box 1030? box 1034?). As I neared the home and people, I saw the (white) man playing golf with the two tanned (white) children, boys, and the man loudly sang out, "In the jungle, the mighty jungle, the lion sleeps tonight" and I knew his voice could carry the distance and he had wanted the attention, wanted me to hear him--and I knew the word had come from him. There were no other people outside at any of the nearby homes. I wondered if something in my perceived attitude had brought this on--but realized this man doesn't know me, will not know me. I thought it odd that someone would enthusiastically, at this late date, display hate and ignorance before his own children: and then I thought it funny that in the age of Obama--when more (black) children will be committed to education and high aspirations--that this white man and his people have committed themselves to ignorance and hate--and will be lost in an educated, multicultural world.


A Letter to the Editor

To Whom It May Concern: On Louisiana Racism

(c) 2011

It was April 12th, an anniversary, the one-hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the beginning of the American civil war, the military conflict inspired by the South’s commitment to the enslavement of Africans and those of African descent. I had read an article on the war in Time magazine (April 18, 2011) about the ongoing disagreement about the interpretation of that war, but other than that had not given the day much thought. It was history and I had my own concerns—getting an agent for a novel I finished about a struggling African-American woman filmmaker, submitting a survey article on recent films to a web magazine, sending out notes for freelance assignments, and getting in touch with diverse friends in far-flung places, all things I worked on when I walked into the Louisiana town of St. Martinville on April 12 and visited the library, which has an internet connection I lack out in the country. The internet is a connection to news of real civilization, to cosmopolitan life and the intellectual conversations and great museums and foreign films and serious literature and ordinarily sophisticated newspapers I miss, all things that were easy to access when I lived in New York. I had finished writing a short piece the week before on Amede Ardoin (Mama, I’ll Be Long Gone, a new retrospective recording), the great early twentieth-century Louisiana Creole musician whose work is the foundation on which many Cajun musicians built their songs and whom, reportedly, was beaten viciously by white men after a white woman gave Ardoin a handkerchief with which to wipe his brow during a dance performance; and I had submitted that article on Ardoin, with other varied music commentary, via electronic mail to an editor. On Tuesday, April 12th, I read an e-mailed note from an acquaintance asking me to read his online article on jazz and race and to give my opinion; and I, who have studied and written about international culture, read his jazz and race essay and told him that I thought it was an important subject but that I wished that African-American writers would demonstrate getting beyond race by thinking and talking about other things—and actually getting beyond race. I would be reminded a few hours later why that is impossible.

I had arrived in town in the late morning, and left town in late afternoon; and I was almost halfway on my walk back home when I was looking away from the oncoming traffic for a minute toward the road on which I would turn—and, though my thoughts tend to be the solitary, melancholy complaints and considerations of most artists who are not rich or famous and find themselves in a cultural backwater, I was thinking that the walk felt easier and quicker than I had anticipated, and there would be less traffic after I turned onto the next road, and of what I would do when I arrived home. I was wearing light green pants with a dark green shirt, and I had a walking cane in my right hand and twirled it; and rather than poor and tired, for a moment I probably looked carefree. Suddenly, I felt a hard hit against the upper part of my stomach, just below my ribs, and I looked down to see liquid on my shirt and lower arm—then I looked behind me and saw an open can of orange soda leaking on the ground, and looked further back to see a sleek, small black car driving away. Unfortunately, I did not see the license plate. (Would reporting it to the St. Martinville sheriff’s office do any good, the sheriff’s office to which I had reported the theft of my bike without results, the sheriff’s office that had stopped me previously on one of my walks, for no good reason? Note: I conflate the sherriff's office and the police department: the uniform of the officers who stopped me were dark, as was that of the officer to whom I reported the theft; whereas the sherriff's office uniforms are usually pale.) I was near the spot where someone, months before, had called out “nigger” as I walked. I took the towel out of my pocket, and began to wipe my shirt and arm, then looked back at the car driving away, and realized that this had been intentional. Some sick, stupid person was offended by the sight of a young-looking African-American male who seemed free and happy: the myth of the happy Negro is one the old South promoted for years—but the thought of a free and happy Negro is one some in the new South still find vexing, apparently. (You would think that someone riding in a nice, new car would be confident enough to ignore someone compelled to walk—but no.) Of course, some people dislike angry Negroes, happy Negroes, sad Negroes, intelligent Negroes, ignorant Negroes, well-dressed Negroes, shabby Negroes, any Negroes. I had been warned that other people of color riding a bike or walking had been attacked by bigots, some in big ugly trucks, with small ugly minds; and although I hoped to be exempt from that kind of experience, a lifelong hope and a hope not disillusioned for the first time, I cannot say I was surprised. Anyplace in which citizens have to be wary of that kind of behavior on an ordinary day is a stinking, swampy cultural backwater. Who knows what drives such hostile people? How often do blacks and whites have an honest conversation about anything of consequence in Louisiana? I grew up in Louisiana, spent decades in New York, and returned for different reasons, one of which was to finish a book project, and nothing like what occurred that afternoon on the Louisiana road had happened to me in New York, a place in which—whatever its difficulties—some equal and honest conversation is possible and happens daily. Of course on this particular afternoon, it did not matter what my attitude or thought might have been—it never does with prejudice: you simply fill in your own attitudes and project them onto the other person. For instance, you abduct people from the country in which they live, love, and work, and you force them into a chattel state, exploit their labor for your lasting economic benefit, creating family and industrial wealth, and beat and rape and kill these enslaved people and their descendants, and then convince yourself that your victim is the immoral one. Unacknowledged guilt, like disrespected pain, can turn into rage, I suppose.

In Louisiana, the civil war continues, though its skirmishes are often personal and petty; however, ignoring the presence and repressing the power of African-Americans in civic and political life are prevalent and more significant. While one can hear the insane conservative talk on the radio, and read the lying and vile conservative commentary (of people who voted for notorious racist David Duke but did not vote for eminently qualified and well-intentioned native son Barack Obama) presented as respectable editorials in newspapers, one rarely hears the cogent and critical perspective that many African-Americans have in public. There are few political representatives who embody and articulate the lasting concerns of African-Americans: the desire for equal opportunity and treatment, and the need for good education for children and decent jobs for adults, so that good futures are possible. The irony is that blacks and whites, especially Creoles and Cajuns, have things in common: a relationship to the land and similar foods and music (and sometimes listening to black and white voices on local public radio, one of the few resources for complex consciousness and culture in the state, it can be hard to discern significant differences—the kind of thing that happens when there have been common experiences). Neither silences nor words ensure safety and security; and yet an individual can live in a perfect hell and think of it as heaven.

It is obvious that black people think so much about race because white people do. I was reminded of the kind of question one of my favorite authors, the late great writer James Baldwin, used to ask: what is it that white people do among themselves to make them so evil, so crazed and cruel, when dealing with other people? Certainly people who are happy, or who have spiritual peace, do not act like that. (I am not religious, but I imagine that if a moral god did exist he would damn such a people with hurricanes and floods, with crop drought and pestilence, with the breaking of industrial machinery leading to the spoiling of water and wildlife and even human fatality—things that never happen in Louisiana.) I tried to imagine what that person in the little sleek black car might have been feeling. Hatred? Cruelty? Mockery? Humor? I do not know—I cannot know. I only can speculate. That afternoon, I had to force myself to remember the people of different ages, ethnicities, and genders who have been kind to me on various days as I walked, someone they did not know, offering a ride or simply waving at someone who has lost that habit of hand. I felt a certain danger and worry but I continued walking, thinking about other things, but I returned to what happened. The pain in my chest returned me to what happened, even as my dark green shirt dried while I walked under the hot sun. (There seemed to be no stain on my shirt, but the next morning there would be a bruise on my chest.) For several weeks I had been thinking that many people do not know that black men have feelings; and this was more proof. However, I was glad that I did not cry when I arrived home that afternoon or later that night, as I was half-afraid I might—dealing with cruelty and stupidity day after day, month after month, is dismaying and exhausting. I want to be let alone: my lifelong anthem, and, of course, a song that no one will help me sing. Tears do not do much good, whereas thinking often does. I recall what I told the jazz writer before that afternoon experience of mindless and reflexive racism: the most important thing is to see and appreciate the differences in the abundance of human existence and natural life. April 14, 2011]