The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Elephants and Kick-Ass opportunity

My "elephant" metaphor was taken a bit too literally.  Or, perhaps not literally enough.  Saying that elephants at the zoo only have a rope around them is EXACTLY my point.  That the elephant doesn't know it is freer than it is, doesn't understand its own strength.  When you look at the degree to which blacks have, for instance, accepted white beauty standards, you'd grasp my meaning.  If you talk to your grandparents about how they had to avoid direct confrontation with whites, even if the law was supposedly on their side, you'd grasp what I was saying. The "bad software" comment has to do with the fact that, after studying success for forty years, I honestly believe that there are thought patterns that create opportunity, and those that minimize it.  When I find white OR black people with those positive patterns, they are far more likely to be doing well.  When I find white OR black people with the negative patterns, they are far more likely to be doing sucky.  I find that wisdom about success in any culture that has had an opportunity to really develop--and anthropologically, it takes hundreds or thousands of years of isolation to create a "culture."  Black American culture bears little resemblance to African culture--ask any African.  Or travel to Africa yourself, and you will feel the difference, believe me.  To make a slave, you have to convince them that they can't get away, that they have no control over their bodies, that their masters are untouchable.  To do this, a gigantic effort, generations long and employing vast amounts of political, military, economic and legal obstacles to keep those people under control.  This was followed by another hundred years of Jim Crow.  Sorry, but you can't beat someone over the head for generations and not leave damage. ANY people would be hurt by all of that--we'd have to be superpeople not to, and last time I noticed, kryptonite has no effect on black folks.  So  yes, I believe we are incredibly strong.  Yes, I also believe there was real damage done that is taking generations to undo.
Advantages to being the descendants of slaves?  Black Americans are the wealthiest, most powerful black people in the world.  Africans clamor to get here, and there is no other country in the world with the same degree of immigration pressure.  While Africans rather pitied my lack of knowing my name, my ancestors, the language of my fathers, or indeed my mixed blood, they were in awe of my wealth and opportunity. 
If you accept the basic tenant of "Guns, Germs, and Steel"--and I do, then there were very real, non-genetic reasons why Europe was able to "take" Africa and not the other way around.  And those reasons prevented certain types of social organization from spreading widely, as well as certain accompanying technological development south of the Sahara.  The differential in social development made it possible, when Europe came in contact with Africa, for the rape to begin in earnest--and more importantly, for Europeans to harvest the children of Africa damned near like a crop.  If the two levels of development had been closer (if sub-Saharan Africans had, for instance, developed and produced large quantities of rifles) there would have been a much more equal situation, and you would have had something closer to a real war, rather than a rape.  When those closer to equal meet, there is a chance for honest commerse.  Otherwise, the stronger simply takes the weaker, and usually has, through most of human history.
So, given the differential in levels of technological development, I see few opportunities for Africans to interact with Europeans in a "fair" fashion.  They could trade natural resources, perhaps, but that's asking Europeans to be "nice" and not take what they're strong enough to take.  People aren't like that.  Ultimately, I can't see the fate being much different than it was with the Native Americans.  "Nice land--we'll take it!"  Because I accept Jared Diamond's hypothesis, I have to ask questions about the likelihood that I would have been born into the class of those who immigrate.  If not, might I have been born into a relatively pastoral life?  Given my myopia and early prediliction for illness, I'd have been useless to my community, or dead by now.  What is the chance I would have traveled as much as I have?  Or know the people I know?  Or have done the things I've done?  In all likelihood, I would have lived the same life as my fathers and grandfathers...a satisfying life, and I can squint and see what that might have been and felt like.
And it feels good.
But I'm not that person.  I see the fact that people all over the world are dying (figuratively and literally) to get here, to replicate our success and lifestyle.  While in some ways this isn't a positive thing, in others it is understandable.  I'd say that it IS possible to compare the success of different civilizations, especially if you don't imply that the differences are intrinsic to the inhabitants. While many standards of wealth and power and many cultural goals vary, one thing pretty constant around the world is that we all love our children and want as many of them to survive as possible.  Hell, even infanticide is an attempt to control population so that it doesn't outpace resources, resulting in starvation for all.  And that means that Infant Mortality Rate is a great basic, fast-and-dirty measurement of a culture's success.  Western medicine has been GREAT at this, and I like it just fine.  Africans can't wait to go to western schools to learn it, and I don't wonder why.  And once they've learned it, they make innovations and contributions just like Europeans and Asians. 
My point of view?  Africa, the cradle of mankind, got screwed.  It wasn't set up geographically to develop certain resources (damn those zebras!  If they'd been domesticable, the history of Africa would have been completely different!). Sub-Saharan Africa was damned near as isolated as Australia, Melanesia, Polynesia or the Americas when it came to hooking into the Road of Silk, a primary vehicle for trade and information.  And the gap in development made its children vulnerable. Given that vulnerability, I see little that they could have done to stop that rape.  I look at Africa now, and for that matter the rest of the world, and consider myself incredibly lucky to be an American for a variety of reasons.  And if my ancestors suffered to bridge that thousand-year cultural gap, so be it.  So would anyone else.  I am standing on their corpses, and I try never to forget it.  I would dishonor them, and their suffering, if I didn't both acknowledge their involuntary sacrifice, and for God's sake TAKE ADVANTAGE OF IT.  If they are watching me, I hope they know that they didn't die in vain, that I, and my children, and their children will reap the benifits, never take a backward step, and make this country offer up the incredible bounty of wealth  and power and freedom...while simultaneously reminding America from time to time that it ain't all that...that the "we're the best" attitude is one every culture has, that this is our time in the sun but that, indeed, the very concept of nations is, I think, on its last legs (I'll give it another couple hundred years max).  Yeah, I love being an American, and think this country has more kick-ass opportunity to create the life of your dreams than any other country that has ever existed.  And I think that if my ancestors hadn't been enslaved, I'd be less likely to be here.  I also know I would kill anyone--twice--who tried to do to my children was was done to my ancestors.  It was hideous, and reprehensible...and very, very human.  If we don't understand that aspect of human history, we are indeed doomed to repeat it.

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