The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter


Sunday, March 02, 2008

Shell or Spine?

Anyone out there have experience with Google Documents? Looks like when it grows up it might be a perfectly fine way to collaborate (sharing documents is easy) and even write a book solo. I hear that web-based Word Processing, etc. is the wave of the future. But right now, the documents seem too small (500k) and the formatting doesn't quite work. Still, I'm experimenting.
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That's Fred Armisen on SNL doing an Obama impression. Not bad, but it seriously annoys me that SNL seems to have seriously short-changed minority comedians over the thirty years of its existence. This would have been a perfect time to rectify that, and they chose not to. MadTV seems to have no problem finding talented black performers. Hard to believe Loren Michaels couldn't, if he really wanted to. Then again, SNL's roots are the National Lampoon, which in its entire history never treated black people as human beings--only as "black people." In other words, never had them in the magazine without making a specific, and generally derogatory, reference to their race. The apple don't fall all that far from the tree.
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It's kind of fun to see the number of people who now say the "why is Obama black? His mother is white..." routine. Are they really that ignorant? All right, it works like this: those with African blood were defined that way for purposes of social control and economics. Down to 1/8th African blood we could still be sold. Clearly, this is not a genetic or anthropological designation. It is purely social, and we had to live with it for almost 400 years. Now, I grant it's ridiculous. But anyone who asks that question is so oblivious to the history of race relations that it calls into question anything else they have to say on the subject. Now that Obama is functioning in what I would call a Post or Trans-Racial fashion, everybody wants to claim him. Great. Fine. Let the entire system of designations break down.

Now, we light-skinned black folks have ALWAYS been encouraged to consider ourselves "different" from our darker-skinned brothers and sisters. Better. Not as good as white folks, you understand, but different. This is how you create a "colored" class in places like South Africa. The Colored act as a buffer, a system of social control, spies, and reinforcement of basic racial attitudes. They have better jobs and lives because they are more capable, of course. And they are more capable because they have more White blood, of course. Shockley would be proud.
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We'll get beyond this. We already are. But let's not pretend not to understand why black people designate light-skinned folks "black." We didn't start it. It was obscene to begin with. But 400 years of programming can't be overcome in two generations--and that's all it's been since we've been fully fledged American citizens. I've often asked: what is the wound that heals in less time that it took to inflict? Considering all factors, I think that black America has made an absolutely astonishing recovery.
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In fact, I'll go further. I've said to Tananarive on a number of occassions that there is nothing to worry about, ultimately, about black America. Yes, we will lose many of our children to drugs, jail, despair, violence. But that was the inevitable consequence of the artificial barriers dropping, exposing us to raw competition in arenas where we are dreadfully "always outnumbered, always outgunned" and the other team has a "who, me?" attitude about fouls--and all the referees are paid for by the other "team" as well. Fine.

But my point was that, so long as you really, honestly believe that blacks are not really different, and not really inferior, the pressure and heat creates an evolutionary pressure that will inevitably create not just competence, but excellence and new ways of operating. The sports metaphor works well here: blacks actually changed the games of boxing and basketball with rhythmic and positional play that the white teams and competitors could barely understand. And those "diamonds" remember the game very very well. How they were treated, and how people conveniently forgot what their parents and grandparents did ("gee, why do we call him black?")

Part of that, I think, is fear. People don't want to consider the results if black folks ever got power and decided to "get even"--as illogical and un-spiritual as such an intent would be, it goes right along with human behavior throughout history. And I think that a LOT of white racism throughout American history has been about postponing this day of reckoning long enough that no one remembers the cause of the grievance any more, and the price never has to be paid.

In the war between white and black, (using an admittedly violent metaphor for the purposes of clarity) I have a perspective that you can't get in, say, the "war" between men and women unless you are an hermaphrodite or transexual. I really don't have a dog in this fight, and can sit back and watch the fur fly. It's sad. And entertaining as hell, in a sick way.

Obama, I think, is genuinely beyond this. His autobiographies suggest a level of personal reflection far beyond what most people ever really attempt. He has actually processed a huge amount of his personal pain, and emerged on the other side (his wife Michelle, however, has not). It is the avoidance of processing this stuff that poisons relationships, cripples careers, and, I believe, dooms "diet" programs.
I think he is what he seems to be. That DOESN'T mean he'd make a good president. I personally consider him the best of the field, but that's just an opinion.

I do think he is one of the healthiest, best-integrated human beings I've seen on the national scene, and that that is part of what people sense about him. He likes himself, and he loves others. He sees his own flaws, and carries his own cross. He doesn't want to "get back" at you, and is responsible for his own life. He seems more honest, more congruent than most people. Where I look at Hillary and KNOW she is blocking huge amounts of emotional pain, hiding behind a mask...I would bet that Obama's public and private personas are closer together than 99.9% of people in the public arena. It costs a gigantic amount of energy to wear a mask all the time (part of the price black men pay in society--for too many generations they dared not reveal their true feelings, for fear of LITERALLY being killed. No shit.)
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So much of this stuff is breaking down now. But just like a woman who was sexually abused in childhood keeps a cocoon of fat on her body despite the fact that her abuser is long gone, a culture retains the armor that protected it in generations past, shedding that armor slowly. Obama isn't carrying a lot of armor. He has something far more interesting, I think. Like a master Aikidoist, he has a CENTER. He knows who he is.

We all need more of that. In life, you can either have a shell, or a spine. With a spine, you get cut and scarred more, but you can bob and weave, and you get to feel the wind, and the rain on your face. You are more alive.

I choose a spine.

12 comments:

Dan Gambiera said...

Tiel and I have used Google Documents. It's good enough, but it does some irritating format things that makes it very difficult to transfer to one's personal computer. Getting it to and fro requires a lot of tedious hand reformatting.

Good, but not great. I would use it for collaboration only with reservations.

Anonymous said...

Your discussion about people who are part white and part black being considered black particularly hits home today. If all has gone well with the birth today,I have a new grandnephew who is half black and half white joining a grandniece and another grandnephew. As you say most people will consider these children black and I admit that in my own mind I am conflicted about accepting this.

Marty S

Steve Perry said...

You working with the Indians now, Dan?

Steven Barnes said...

Marty--

You don't have to accept what other people say, only that it is their opinion. Your grandnephews and neices will be mixed blood. They need YOU to see them as human beings, able to speak with them about their heritage, and history...but more importantly to point them toward a future less governed by this poisonous bullshit.

Mike said...

Some friends and I have been using Google Docs to do critique on our writing. It's nice for what it is - I wouldn't use it to type my text, but it's a nice system for sharing the text. You can limit who sees the finished work - good for copyright issues - and you can lock some text and leave some text open. That's good for creating collaborative comment documents.

Anonymous said...

"How they were treated, and how people conveniently forgot what their parents and grandparents did ("gee, why do we call him black?")"

...or don't yet know what their new neighbors' parents and grandparents did.

I know someone who's unfamiliar with the One Drop Rule because she's a first-generation immigrant to the U.S. ("Gee, why do they call him black? Back home we'd call him something else...").

Mike Ralls said...

Hey Steve,

Don't you think one of the big reasons many people question Obama's blackness is that he is not, culturally, from the same group as most American Blacks?

American Blacks, except for a small recent minority from the Caribbean and Africa, are the descendants of slaves and those who lived under Jim Crow for 100 years. Obama's mother doesn't fit in there, nor does his father who abandoned him or his grandparents or step-father who raised him. He lived in Hawaii and Indonesia until after the major accomplishments of the Civil Rights era were over and then he came back to America where he seems to have almost been looking at being Black in America from the point of view of an outsider for a number of years.

Rightly or wrongly, if one is considered African-American one is assumed to be the descendants of slaves. Obama doesn't fit in that narrative. In that light, wouldn't you be a little disgusted if no one questioned his blackness? Wouldn't it disappoint you if everyone just assumed that his genetics trumped his culture?

Steven Barnes said...

"Obama doesn't fit in that narrative. In that light, wouldn't you be a little disgusted if no one questioned his blackness? Wouldn't it disappoint you if everyone just assumed that his genetics trumped his culture?"
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If I thought being "African American" meant specifically being descended from the North African slave trade, yes I might. And there have been discussions to this end. I myself do not, and the enthusiasm of black voters suggests most of them don't, either. Colonialism was almost as destructive, and separating people out into micro-groups is a great way to play them off against each other. I don't think it's culture. That's not what people say, dude: they say "since his mother was white." And I think that's exactly what they mean.

Mike Ralls said...

>If I thought being "African American" meant specifically being descended from the North African slave trade, yes I might."

Fair enough. Group identifications are nebulous things, and by their nature if enough people think you belong to group X, you pretty much do regardless of the logic behind such things.

One point though: You know that list of social trends (incomes, incarceration rates, etc) you posted a while ago that you would have to see met before you would consider black Americans to have equality? If you take the statistics of recent African immigrants and their children, they pretty much meet all of them. The quantitative data shows that African immigrants are acting like any other immigrant group and that their crime rates, incomes etc, match other immigrants (adjusted for education and income levels before emigration, etc). By contrast, there are still large gaps between native-born black Americans and native-born white Americans. Doesn't that suggest to you that there are some important social distinctions between the descendants of slaves and recent African immigrants?

> I don't think it's culture. That's not what people say, dude: they say "since his mother was white." And I think that's exactly what they mean.<

Thought experiment, let's change the environment Obama's grew up in: Instead of being born to a white mother and an African father who left him, he's born to a black mother and a European father who left him. He is raised by his mother and his black grandparents in a black neighborhood and eventually by a black Step-father. He's still the same skin color as in Our Time Line, but he has lived his whole life in the African-American community. In that instance, do you think there would be nearly as much question about his "blackness" as Our Time Line? I don't.

Todd said...

Give it a few more generations. If the price of travel doesn't go absolutely through the roof everyone will be beige

Dan Moran said...

"And I think that a LOT of white racism throughout American history has been about postponing this day of reckoning long enough that no one remembers the cause of the grievance any more, and the price never has to be paid."

Not sure if this is overly cynical or overly generous, but I think it's wrong. I think most racists act as they do because they're racists. You really think the lynch mobs of the early part of the 20th century were worried about retaliation? They took photos of themselves ...

Anonymous said...

I, too, have a spine having lost my shell some time ago.
My son is doing voice-overs imitating Obama in NYC for various radio shows. He is an actor who attended the Stella Adler Acting School and has taken a course at the Upright Citizens Brigad (has just signed up for another).
He has been trying to get visible to SNL to show them they don't have to use someone white to play Sen. Obama. Do you have any ideas?

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