Wednesday, November 5, 2008

What It Looks Like

So, yes, I burst into tears last night, but now I want to tell you why.

A few days ago I wrote this:
Most people do not belong to the (incredibly small) demographic of white, straight, middle-class men at which most "mainstream" media is targeted; most of us will, at least once per day, be smacked in the face with a message that tells us we are unimportant or inferior, and most of us learn to shrug those messages off.
I was thinking about the election when I wrote that. I was thinking about the election, and I was thinking about the most basic and most urgent task that I engage in every single day: looking at that white/straight/middle class/male narrative of America - the atmosphere through which I move, every day, absorbing its countless messages that only those people truly belong in this country or this world, that only they matter, that only they can ever be imagined when we say the word "American" or even "person" - and understanding that for what it is, and talking back to it. I don't do this because I want to; I do it because I have to, in order to believe that I belong in this world.

There were two men who shaped the course of my education: Sekou Sundiata and Gary Lemons. Sundiata taught me to write. He insisted that I learn the necessary discipline and technique, while acknowledging that writing was - or should be - only one facet of a greater engagement with the world. He told me that your message is your instrument: it doesn't matter how beautiful that instrument is if you can't play it. Lemons shaped the nature of my political engagement. On the day I met him he stood in front of the classroom and told us about his childhood: his father's violence, his mother's pain, and how he learned to internalize racism, which told him he was worth nothing, and sexism, which told him that black women were worth even less. He spoke of political engagement as a life-saving action, a recovery, which allowed him to overcome the ugliest aspects of his own socialization and work to heal the same wounds in others. I do not engage with this theory because it is intellectually interesting, he said, I do it because without it I would be insane or dead.

I knew that it was true. It was true for him, and it was true for me. I was falling apart that year. I was living with the memory of my father's violence, and my mother's pain. I was coping with the ways that I had swallowed the misogyny embodied in that family dynamic whole, and had treated myself - or allowed others to treat me - as a piece of meat or a garbage dump because of my gender. I was coping with my departure from the very white, very racist community I had grown up in, and was uncovering unconscious prejudices and attitudes of entitlement in myself to which I had never consciously admitted - and I had never had to admit them, because within that very white, very racist community, they were simply normal.

You want to talk about hope: I will tell you about Gary Lemons and Sekou Sundiata. I do this theory because without it I would be insane or dead; your message is your instrument, so learn to play it. These men were never easy on me, or on any of their students. They called me out, over and over again, for sloppiness in my work, for errors in my arguments, and for exhibiting a privileged, entitled white middle-class feminism which reified the system I claimed to be working against. I owe them more than I can express.

Lemons, who had been openly critical of the school's student diversity and faculty hiring policies, was fired a year after I met him; he had served at the college for more than a decade. Sekou Sundiata died last year.

So, yes, directly after Obama's victory speech, I excused myself from the room, and I went out onto the sidewalk, and I cried, harder than I have cried in years. It was not about the Democrats winning, or about me getting what I wanted, which was a Democratic win. It was about the fact that people have given their lives to this work, and many have suffered for it, and many have died, and some may have believed, as they died, that it was worthless. Many have developed, as I have, an ugly cynicism - we push for things that we don't honestly believe can be achieved, so that, when we lose, we don't mourn. We just say, what more would you expect from this country? I want you to believe me that, when I cried last night, I was grieving. I was also feeling that cynicism lift from me. I was realizing that it had been so, so, so heavy.

The narrative is wrong. It has always been wrong. "People" and "Americans" and "America" do not look like forty-three white married men of means. They look like this:

Yes, evil still exists. No, electing Barack Obama did not magically solve racism or end the dominance of the master narrative. Yes, we have a lot of work to do. You know, last night, this kid showed up to the party:

He is still going to grow up in a world where his success and his comfort are prized more than those of others, because of his gender and his race. He will still see that people who look like him occupy the most respected and powerful positions far more often than people who do not. He will still be taught in schools where the intellectual and artistic accomplishments of people who look like him are considered "canonical" or "foundational" or simply "great" works, with no identity-based qualifier, whereas the contributions of people who do not are typically described as "great works by women" or "great works by African-Americans" or what have you, rhetorically and conceptually separated from pure (white, male, straight) "greatness." He will still be encouraged to consider his successes as entirely his own, without taking into account the privileges and support networks that people who look like him necessarily inherit, which have made his success not only possible but likely. He will still live in a world where it is unlikely for him to gain the critical apparatus necessary to understand his own privilege, or the empathy necessary to join others in dismantling the institutions and assumptions which make it possible. He is still, most likely, going to make things harder for the rest of us, without entirely knowing what he is doing, or why.

I know this. I know this because I am a white, straight, college-educated, middle-class professional, and I am constantly extended privileges that I do not deserve, and I am constantly encouraged to simply embrace those privileges as my birthright. It is easy, safe and comfortable for privileged people like me - and lots of people are privileged, like me - to affirm and reinforce the structures of oppression; it is painful, dangerous, and difficult for us to resist them. But I believe that, in order for last night's victory to happen, millions of people had to vote against their own privilege. They had to defy that master narrative for long enough to cast their votes. I hope that we are able to continue this; I hope that we continue to reach past the politics of pure self-interest. I hope that boy is going to be able to carry this moment with him, and to serve its spirit. He is going to need good teachers.


  1. Hi; I'm here from Shakesville. Sekou Sundiata gave a reading at the school I went to as an undergraduate in small-town Wisconsin. I'm still grateful for having had the chance to hear him. Just amazing.

    I did not know Gary Lemons's work-- thank you for the introduction.

  2. Yes, I second the thanks for the introductions. This was a really beautiful post. I wept when he won as well, completely not expecting it.