The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter


Friday, May 22, 2009

Morning Thoughts

Anonymous: I am indeed in contact with Cliff. He's my current Silat instructor, and if it weren't for him, I never would have successfully renewed my relationship with Mr. Muhammad. Cliff is just a rhino on ball bearings. Anyway, you should be able to reach him at: CLIFFWAR@aol.com

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On assimilation: I'm all for it, and have lived my life that way for 57 years. However, it is folly to extend the hand of brotherhood after you've been hurt too often, or discovered that others don't use the same definitions of "brother." In many ways, it's like working for a big company. They will encourage you to consider them "family" as long as it's in their interests...like guilt-tripping you into working extra hours or not quitting when they need you. But if they have to downsize? You are gone.

Steve (let alone his grandfather) experienced racism like few people still alive today can believe. If that pain had a white face, it is unreasonable to expect him to have more flexibility and a more open heart than almost any man I've ever met. How many times would a woman have to be raped, or watch her sisters raped, before she no longer trusts men as much as she trusts women?ᅠ

I don't take the position that any group is better than any other group (by birth, gender, religion or major political orientation). But note that very large chunks of the population do. I would suspect that a majority of people believe that Right is better than Left--or vice versa. Men better than women--or vice versa. Christian better than Muslim--or vice versa. Straight better than Gay--or vice versa. You'll have to pardon me for thinking that anyone who thinks this way is more vulnerable to racism as well. You can only run into people who talk "brother" (especially: "brother, agree with me that group X isn't as human as we are...") and then say "nigger" (or "fag" or "towelhead" or "castrating bitch" or "Right-wing loon") when they think you aren't listening so many times before you get the joke. When a man has fought and killed for his country, and that country doesn't stand up 100% for his rights as a human being, it would be foolish not to have some defensive attitudes.

How many times do you have to have your fingers burned before you jerk them away at the mere sight of a flame?

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ON being a warrior. I found a quote from Steve: "Being a warrior doesn't necessarily mean to physically fight against an opponent. It means that whatever you want to be in life, whereever you want to go, you have to have a warrior spirit in order to achieve it. Otherwise when there are obstacles set in front of you, you won't be able to go around, through, or under them."

So "going to war" doesn't just mean killing or dying. It means being willing to put it all on the line.

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Personally? I don't think black people will ever "catch up" with whites in America. Too much damage over too much time, and there has never been, and will never be, the kind of isolation anthropologists tell us is required to create a separate "culture." I DO think we'll get close enough for all practical purposes, however, and more to the point, "races" just aren't going to mean as much in a few generations--too much genetic drift, too much travel and intermarriage. And I do think that blacks will continue to rise to excellence in every field, to a remarkable degree. But it will always take just a little extra to get there, and I think that, on average, my three big measurements will continue to lag:

1) life expectancy

2) Incarceration statistics

3) Net Worth

But "black" and "white" as concepts are shifting. "Black" has been a lie in this country for hundreds of years. You can have 25% black blood and you're "black"? Note that there are no dark-skinned white people, just light-skinned black ones. This horseshit is finally breaking down, and it can't happen too soon. Only distance and natural barriers protects racial "purity." As the world gets browner, the issue becomes moot. I'm not interested in a game I can't win. I'll concentrate my attention on helping those who can muster the extra 10% it will take to make it, without holding resentment. When people, white or black, expect me to take sides, I just smile.

##

There are a number of things we've assumed are inflexible that I suspect will be quite porous and flexible indeed in the future: the concept of "Nation-states." The concept of binary sexual identity (I already watch women shift back and forth across that line with apparent ease). "Family." "Neighborhood" (Facebook is just the beginning.) "Race." All of these things were (or are, by some) considered graven in stone. I'm watching them shift, and much of that shift is good. Some is not, I'm sure. And those attached to the old definitions are going to struggle. The definition "multiracial" makes major sense to me--it is the literal truth, rather than labeling someone "black" because they have "one drop" or even "one half."

But there are political (small "p") reasons for a person of mixed blood to go ahead and associate with a major group. It's better than standing alone, and unless the culture GENUINELY embraces racial differences, you can get killed out there believing the "Kum-bah-Yah" mask. Human beings are tribal, and visual identification is a powerful. I get into this argument with Tananarive, who has had a deep, powerful, and meaningful connection to her African-ness her entire life. Me? Not so much. I would have ignored all of that if I could. It was only the desire to understand the playing field as it actually was, to maximize my chances of getting where I wanted to go, that forced me to re-examine much of what I was told.

What an idiot I would have been if I'd thought that, as so many try to believe, there are few black images in science fiction, few surviving blacks in horror, few sexual black males in film, few black leads in television, or few blacks in the Senate because of some statistical blip. Being able to grasp that human beings in general prefer "their own" whatever "their own" is considered to be, has allowed me to work with insane focus for decades without taking defeat or disappointment personally. I can look at the huge difference between black male and female reading audiences and see that as some common expression of a single truth that also manifests in prison, education and employment statistics.

But it's a balancing act, because I also refuse to fall into the "whites are evil" bullshit. That is so easy to do, and there's barely a political movement that doesn't demonize their opponents. Trying to maintain a perspective on my life and career that allows me to understand the landscape, and navigate it without resentment, self-pity, self-importance or fear has required every resource I can find.


What is my tribe? All humanity. The people who are interested in self-growth. Writers. Martial artists. Black folks. Maybe in that order. Maybe not. Depends on the day.

This is one of the reasons why when Octavia Butler died, I was shocked out of my complacency. It's unbelievably lonely out here. In my entire career, stretching thirty years and hundreds of conventions, not ONE time have I ever been in a room with another working black male SF writer. (In fact, almost all of the black SF/Fantasy is actually fantasy. Why, I cannot say. But it seems to be true. Note that I believe Fantasy requires as much skill and intelligence as any other form. But...there's something odd going on, and I'd be blind to pretend it wasn't). Can anyone out there say that about their own profession? That in thirty years they've never met another member of their race and gender who practices it? Twenty years? Ten? If I don't associate myself with my African genetics, I can't see the underlying pattern. But identifying too strongly will keep me "stuck" there, when race is at least partially a cultural illusion.

I never wanted this. I just wanted to tell swell adventure stories, with some of the characters resembling me. That was about the height of my ambition in the beginning. But when I saw the resistance to such images, and realized that people tended to be utterly oblivious to the fact that the problem isn't "out there" but rather within us all, I realized that I could end up broke and in the street if I was wrong about the potential acceptance of black characters in the SF field. If I was wrong, if there was a problem...then all the people smiling at me at conventions, all of the editors who genuinely wanted to support my work, all the reviewers who said nice things...none of that would make any lasting difference. And I reached the point where there was literally no one whose career I could look at to find answers. Octavia didn't make any money until she was discovered by the Women's movement. Not much help for me there.

But the trick is to navigate this territory without bitterness. I get frustrated at times, but as long as I remind myself that this is all a matter of universal human traits, I continue to consider all mankind my brothers and sisters. But if the day ever came when that began to change...well, frankly, I'm not sure I'd like the person I'd become.

18 comments:

Pagan Topologist said...

Greg Walker (Brother G) was at the Octavia Butler Symposium a couple of months ago. He says he is not an sf/fantasy writer, although his writing seems to me to be exactly that, from where I sit. Maybe being white I am missing something, and he has not responded to my email on the subject. But it seems to me that he ought to count as another black professional sf writer who was in the room with you, and damn, I love his books.

Mike Ralls said...

>However, it is folly to extend the hand of brotherhood after you've been hurt too often<

That depends on if the consequences for _not_ extending the hand of brotherhood are likely to hurt more. I view it as a matter of tactics. Pushing for assimilation in the South in the 1910's would have been highly unproductive. In Hollywood in the 1990's?

I maintain that as Blacks are outnumbered 8 to 1 in America that giving whites tactic permission to think of Blacks as a different group/tribe is not in the best interests of Blacks, or of the country. Stating that blacks are your brothers but a white can never be your brother does gives whites that tactic permission because, regardless of the historical justification, humans are wired so that if they hear, "Those people can be part of my tribe, but you can never be" they are going to see that tribe as a different tribe from whatever tribe they think of themselves as belonging too. I maintain that it is in the best interests of the country if everyone thinks of themselves as part of the same tribe. The number of countries with different ethnic groups that have not experienced assimilation into each other and have lived together in harmony over the last 100 years is dwarfed by the number of countries with different ethnic groups that have lived together, stayed unassimilated, and then fought very bloody wars or had long simmering conflicts within.

> If that pain had a white face, it is unreasonable to expect him to have more flexibility and a more open heart than almost any man I've ever met.<

I never said he was being unreasonable. From what you say, it sounds like he has handled his hurt better than most humans. That does not change what I said about such attitudes preventing assimilation from being true.

Mike Ralls said...

>"races" just aren't going to mean as much in a few generations--too much genetic drift, too much travel and intermarriage.<

My fear is that in two or three generations there is going to be two "races" in America, "General American" and "Unassimilated Blacks."

Currently the marriage market between Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans, and Whites is essentially one market, with all of those minorities having around 40- 50% intermarriage rate. The Black marriage market, however, is still very much cut off from the rest of the marriage market, with an intermarriage rate of around 5%. Now that 5% is higher than it was 30 years ago, but it's been a slow growth. Even if we assume it doubles every generation, which is optimistic, we are still looking it being the 2080's before it reaches the Asian intermarriage rate of today.

Mike Ralls said...

>All of these things were (or are, by some) considered graven in stone. I'm watching them shift, and much of that shift is good. Some is not, I'm sure. <

I don't think the nation-state is in trouble in the 21st century, but who knows about the 22nd? The nation-state, like "race", money, and a host of other things is a creation of humans, and hence, mortal. It may end tomorrow or in ten thousand years, but it will end. Gam zeh yaavor - this too shall pass.

seabhacson said...

You've given me a lot to think about here. Thank you for that. Keep up the good fight.

Christian M. Howell said...

I maintain that as Blacks are outnumbered 8 to 1 in America that giving whites tactic permission to think of Blacks as a different group/tribe is not in the best interests of Blacks, or of the country. Stating that blacks are your brothers but a white can never be your brother does gives whites that tactic permission because, regardless of the historical justification, humans are wired so that if they hear, "Those people can be part of my tribe, but you can never be" they are going to see that tribe as a different tribe from whatever tribe they think of themselves as belonging too. I maintain that it is in the best interests of the country if everyone thinks of themselves as part of the same tribe.I agree that we ALL have to be Americans; not Afro-Americans or Chinese-Americans, but Americans.

Of course there will be some differences, but the assimilation Steve is talking about is NOT cultural assimilation (read: pick up our traits), but societal assimilation - yeah, you were slaves at one point but not every black person in America in 1710 was a slave.

And yes, a lot of it is in the hands of black men who have never been slaves. Jews were beaten up, but they stood up. Orientals still play comedy relief bit parts.

I'm not what I would consider a "loved-child," and certainly images of fire hoses being turned on people was difficult to grasp, but giving up and lettign someone win is not in my blood.

That way people who just want us "all to get along," will be empowered and people who don't will hinder themselves by your accomplishments.

Corporate America has not been "bery, bery good to me" but the bastards won't win. I'll be there competing as an equal. Soon, Hollywood will have the same psycho to deal with.

My creative urges are overwhelming me. Besides, I actually want to help someone. I still can't believe it. Really.

Christian M. Howell said...

My fear is that in two or three generations there is going to be two "races" in America, "General American" and "Unassimilated Blacks."



I fear this has already happened. An entire city of men - young and old in NYC - have decided that even their clothes have to be different even though this difference means welfare and illiteracy.

I hate that it is such a moot point as no one will comment on it or even attempt to set a better example. But as soon as the economic factors effect more of the rest of the society, will we just complain or will we finally say, feel sorry for yourself on your own time, you live in a society where you have to have marketable skills PERIOD. If you have problems there are routes for redress.

It's a an endless circle though where the "centrists" need to realize the same thing. It has to be a totally concerted effort or this will be the beginning of the end.

NYC has become a place where no one has any respect for the term "financial capitol of the world."

Ratty jeans and t-shirts are becoming the norm which begs the question, "how serious a professional are you?"

Dan Moran said...

Steve,

A while back I said I wasn't going to volunteer my opinions to the black community and your response (not just to me, I think) was that whites who knew black people should be the ones volunteering their opinions. I don't really agree with that, and the problem, if that's the word, is men like your spiritual father. What on earth do I have to say to such a man? I disagree with him and his attitude, I think it's neither helpful nor productive ... but I understand. I can't imagine that there's anything in my life experience that would make any noticeable impact on him. He's going to die, and you're going to die, and I'm going to die ... and the people who come after us will have an easier time of it. He can't be a brother to a white man, much as I know any number of women who can't be friends with men, for what seem to them (and usually me, for that matter) awfully good reasons. I can tell Steve Mohammed that things have changed, and they have; I can tell women that most men aren't like the monsters they've encountered, and we're not ... but it doesn't change Steve Mohammed's truth, and it doesn't change the truth of women who've encountered monsters.

Really ... what am I going to tell women that's more useful to them than what other women have told them? I'm sorry for the monsters who look like me? (Same answer to the Steve Mohammeds of the world, for that matter.) The people blacks should be listening to are those who succeeded with the same problems they have -- other successful blacks. Maybe a hundred years ago whites had something to say to blacks at large that very few blacks knew, but that's hardly the case any longer.

I have mentored individuals of different backgrounds over the years. But that's different from trying to preach to an entire community -- I'm the guy there, at that moment. It's entirely appropriate for me to pass on survival skills from my career to young people in the same career, regardless of their ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, etc. But the idea that my insights into success are something I should be sharing with the "black community" doesn't pass the giggle test. What, Oprah and Obama and Robert Johnson and Magic haven't talked enough about how they got it done? "Son, you look like a damned fool with your underpants showing, and the tats are going to destroy your shot at a white collar career?" They've heard it before, from people who've both had more of the problems they've had, and who are more successful than I.

Anonymous said...

Christian, Oriental refers to objects not people.

Steve said, Personally? I don't think black people will ever "catch up" with whites in America.

I do think that blacks will continue to rise to excellence in every field, to a remarkable degree. But it will always take just a little extra to get there.

I'm not interested in a game I can't win.

I'll concentrate my attention on helping those who can muster the extra 10% it will take to make it, without holding resentment.
Actually, I think black people as a group can catch up with and even surpass white people as a group. (Of course we might not.)

I vacillate between optimism and pessimism. If there is any goal in my life that I have not achieved it is because I didn't believe that I could. I didn't think I could win the game.

The story we're (Americans of all colors, including and especially African Americans )currently telling about Black America is a story of dismal statistics where a few people succeed but the group generally fails. So the too many black people don't play the game that could lead to success because who wants to play a game they THINK they are guaranteed to lose.

Once people wake up and realize only takes an extra 10%. Once people acknowledge that the potential rewards of exerting that extra 10% are worth more than time spent focusing on how fair life is things will change drastically.

Christian M. Howell said...

Christian, Oriental refers to objects not people.That's being a bit semantic. The point was to cover, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, etc. They are inhabitants of what is called the Orient, hence the term Oriental.


Until everyone says "you can't sag your pants and complain you can't get anywhere," the whole country is headed to hell in a hand basket.


I'm of the opinion that if you don't want to participate as an AMERICAN, LEAVE. I'm sure plenty of other countries will provide you with welfare and better health care.

And that includes the "centrists" who feel like they should "cheat" to keep the job market open for them. I'm on the verge of filing a complaint against my company, so it's not like the "centrists" will "get away with it."

I can say that I can only be brothers with AMERICANS: people who want all of the streets clean, or everyone to want to excel.

I can say that effeminate men are anathema to me but if they work, I will work with them. Too many people act like being friendly at work means you have to invite people to your house. You don't.


I wouldn't invite most people to my house but anyone at my offices could tell you I'm the most helpful person they've never partied with.

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

They are inhabitants of what is called the Orient, hence the term Oriental.The problem is, "Oriental" is like "Negro" - one of those words that was commonplace a few decades ago, but if you use it now, you sound rude. It's not just semantic; however clear it may be who you're referring to, it still has a connotation you want to avoid.

Christian M. Howell said...

They are inhabitants of what is called the Orient, hence the term Oriental.The problem is, "Oriental" is like "Negro" - one of those words that was commonplace a few decades ago, but if you use it now, you sound rude. It's not just semantic; however clear it may be who you're referring to, it still has a connotation you want to avoid.Is that like being politically correct? Is Asian enough to not appear to be a slight or taken in a negative connotation?

I'm thinking you're being to sensitive.



What do you think about sagging pants and doo-rags as a cultural imperative?

Do you think that could be a problem that needs correcting?

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

Is that like being politically correct? The way I see it, if the people I'm dealing with have a clear preference to my using one word rather than another to describe them, it's an easy thing, and only polite, to follow that preference. If that's "politically correct," so be it.

Sometimes there doesn't seem to be a clear preference (e.g. "black" vs. "Black" vs. "African-American"), so I just pick one and don't worry about it. But if everyone I've met from some ethnic group who expressed a preference prefers not to be called by a certain word (or only accepts that word from someone else in that group), I avoid it.

Is Asian enough to not appear to be a slight or taken in a negative connotation?In my experience, yes.

What do you think about sagging pants and doo-rags as a cultural imperative?In general, I don't care too much about what people wear if they're not on the job, but think all kids should learn proper job interview dress and demeanor for when it's needed.

The main thing I want for the teens of the family, though (whatever their varied races) is no baby mamas or baby daddys, show some sense about drugs, and realize that whatever you want to do for a living, you're going to need to apply yourself to learn to do it well.

Christian M. Howell said...

Is that like being politically correct? The way I see it, if the people I'm dealing with have a clear preference to my using one word rather than another to describe them, it's an easy thing, and only polite, to follow that preference. If that's "politically correct," so be it.

Sometimes there doesn't seem to be a clear preference (e.g. "black" vs. "Black" vs. "African-American"), so I just pick one and don't worry about it. But if everyone I've met from some ethnic group who expressed a preference prefers not to be called by a certain word (or only accepts that word from someone else in that group), I avoid it.

Is Asian enough to not appear to be a slight or taken in a negative connotation?In my experience, yes.

What do you think about sagging pants and doo-rags as a cultural imperative?In general, I don't care too much about what people wear if they're not on the job, but think all kids should learn proper job interview dress and demeanor for when it's needed.

The main thing I want for the teens of the family, though (whatever their varied races) is no baby mamas or baby daddys, show some sense about drugs, and realize that whatever you want to do for a living, you're going to need to apply yourself to learn to do it well.


That sounds more like deflection. I refuse to say I was being derogatory. Sagging is based on a desire TO NOT GO TO SCHOOL OR EXCEL.

I don't know what the disconnect is but saying it's OK for a whole "group" to basically dress like bums and criminals but then say they are being "profiled" is BS to the extreme.

We need official social dress codes for most people nowadays though as when I watched the inauguration ceremony the flashback to the 60s - when Jim Crow was still in full effect in some areas - all of the men were well dressed and slimmer, but the scenes from today showed a bunch of fat people dressed badly. I mean VERY BADLY.

There is an entire market for clothes that look rumpled and cheap. Where is America going, and why do you think I want to go?

I wear a tie and jacket to work when I don't have to and don't own ANY JEANS. I have respect for how I look. Everything starts with self respect and it begs the question, why don't these young men respect themselves?

Is it the fault of parents, the media, society in general? Sure, Hollywood tends to pander to not-so-prurient interests, but individual accomplishment happens within.
Things are getting real tight with so much work being made technical and America just isn't keeping up. Everyone has an excuse to not do the job of someone that could be referred to as a nerd.
I'm sure we like the comfy chairs and lack of manual labor and hey the five and six figure salaries certainly steel my wool.

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

I refuse to say I was being derogatory.By using the word "Oriental"? I don't care whether you say you were being derogatory. I'm not myself saying you were being derogatory. All I'm doing is relaying what I've been told, by Asian-Americans about how Asian-Americans perceive the word "Oriental" vs. "Asian" or "Asian-American." Make of it what you like; I've relayed what I've been told, and have nothing further to add there. The only reason I jumped in there was that it looked as if there was a disconnect between you and Anonymous that I thought I could clarify.

Or about the sagging clothes?

Sagging is based on a desire TO NOT GO TO SCHOOL OR EXCEL.See, where I'm coming from here is that, as a white middle class teenager, I tended to want to wear grubby clothes, and also wanted to go to school and excel. My parents placed limits, sometimes, on my clothes; sometimes my mother would tell me something was too grubby, or veto a shirt I wanted to buy as "too grown up," or something. But they weren't super strict limits; what my parents were firm about was grades.

Now, if I'd grown up in an environment where all the kids in sagging clothes were the ones cutting classes, and all the kids with good grades were the ones who dressed presentably, I might feel differently. And maybe that is the environment you're in, and so you have a reason for your reaction to the sagging clothes. I'm not trying to argue you out of it, just saying why I don't have as strong of a reaction to that. I myself do own jeans (neat ones).

It's definitely not me giving a specific pass to black guys to wear sagging pants. If I were interviewing any guy for a job, I'd expect him to be dressed at least business casual, no sagging pants, no matter his race. (And the "casual" part of "business casual" is just because I'm in a technical field and in California; if it were a sales job he should be dressed nicer than business casual.) If I met him at a party, and were single, I might not care about the sagging pants (regardless of his race - I'm rather less conscious of clothes than the average woman), but I'd care about his education, and what he was doing with himself.

I hope that clarifies.

Christian M. Howell said...

Sagging is based on a desire TO NOT GO TO SCHOOL OR EXCEL.See, where I'm coming from here is that, as a white middle class teenager, I tended to want to wear grubby clothes, and also wanted to go to school and excel. My parents placed limits, sometimes, on my clothes; sometimes my mother would tell me something was too grubby, or veto a shirt I wanted to buy as "too grown up," or something. But they weren't super strict limits; what my parents were firm about was grades.

If you don't have respect for your clothes you ARE NOT Trying to excel.

If it's not a problem why is economy collapsing. If people are excelling, there will not be a deficit. If everyone is trying to "dress down," whose trying to dress "UP?"

I work in an office too. As a matter of fact, I've worked for Pfizer, Bristol Myers, NYC, etc. and all I see is under-achievement.

People who only want to do ENOUGH to KEEP their job but not to excel and get a promotion and bonus and raise every year.

I have people telling me I'm doing too much. That implies they are lazy and hope they don't have to REALLY work. And we're talking about programmers, who only sit and type.

The most lazy ones I find are the ones who live for casual Friday. Some people only do it to fit in. That's even worse. Why would you want the approval of a BUM?

And so you understand a bum is a guy who will buy a brand new sports coat and wear it with the rattiest jeans they can find. Or a guy (not man) who will wear pants that are too big, as if he needs to prove he's black. I think your skin will do that.

I honestly know why they sag. They're cowards and they want to trickle down to the women - just like white guys. They don't have any balls they hide in the ghetto with the rest of the spineless jellyfish.

Oh and BTW, I live in NYC. the financial capitol of the world - where people are bummier than Calcutta.

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

where people are bummier than Calcutta.Probably true, as far as clothing, at least for offices in Calcutta; where I live, computer jobs have a disproportionate representation of Asian immigrants, and they generally tend to be the most neatly dressed programmers.

Scott said...

A lot of fashion is hurtful; shoes and neckties spring to mind; suits and long sleeves in hot climes, too. (Indoors, at any rate; I'll cede the UV protection argument for outdoor workers.)

Hard work is nothing to be proud of.

Accomplishment is, sure; set high goals and reach them... as quickly and pleasantly as possible.