The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Saturday, January 22, 2005

Red-Headed Step child of the American Dream

Got into one of those Nature-versus-nurture conversations with a dear friend who is Jewish, and somewhat conservative, and about 100 pounds overweight.  I made the comment that being born black was about like being born 50 pounds overweight.  We argued around in a circle, and I commented about the lack of role models of sexuality in cinema.  She commented that she never sees obese people as sexual, and I felt she'd made my point for me.  A critical difference, of course, is that obese people lose weight every day, and with the exception of Michael Jackson, people born black stay black. (Of course they do everything possible to minimize the visual difference, like straightening their hair, but this "protective coloration" discussion is for another time.
But this opened a little door for me, and I started thinking about this.  This lady was sexually molested by her father.  Many of the morbidly obese people I know have similar, specific emotional damage that they are coping with--and in essence use their bodies as a "dumping ground" for their pain and rage.  Hmmm.  Could I build a bridge of understanding here?
Because I absolutely see a huge amount of toxic, damaging, stupid, self-destructive behavior in inner-city black life.  If I use the Lifewriting approach, and also maintain my basic position that most of this can be explained without demonizing either side, what can I say about this?  Well, if I take the position that being born black is kinda like being born 50 pounds overweight, what am I saying?  Well, I think I'm saying that black culture in the U.S. is the Redheaded stepchild of the American dream. Yeah, it grew up under the same roof, but was beaten, given hand-me-down clothes, told it was second rate, laughed at, force to go to inferior schools...and then told consistently it was responsible for its own failures.  Hmmm.  When we see people treated like this in families, don't we expect to see them come out somewhat dysfunctional?  Let's be honest.
Of course, I believe in individual responsibility.  I talk about it constantly.  But also, compassion, and the extension of our own humanity to others.  And while it is the responsibility of every black person--and every obese person--to deal with their lives in an adult, focussed manner, it is also true that we are the result of both our environment and our genetics.  And the environment for the average black person was NOT the same.  Talk to a room-full of fat people, and you will hear a litany of poverty, sexual abuse, neglect, shame and despair.  And until they are willing to deal with their emotional pain, they cannot change.  Until black people are willing to deal with their conflicted emotions about America, to find a way to embrace those who wronged them, and understand that we are all part of the same massive human realize that they, as black people, are responsible for healing the inner cities and the culture surrounding them, (even though they had LOTSA negative help creating said culture)---they will not heal and grow and reach their potential.  As fat people, white and black, won't lose that weight, and keep it off, until they come to terms with their anger and fear.
Hmmm.  You know something?  I like that metaphor just fine.  I remember the brilliant Chris Rock saying once that being a black American is kinda like having an uncle who sent you to college and paid your bills---but molested you.  Wow.  Profundity, disguised as humor.  It doesn't get much better than that.


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