Wednesday, September 28, 2005

nobody knows my name

(this is another from the old email files, so it was written quite some time ago and was originally private corespondence.)

I can't stop reading James Baldwin. I am not reading his fiction now though. I have been reading his books of essays and interviews and I love them. I really don't know when I have quite connected so well with someone's way of thinking. I guess it is important to say that I don't really swallow everything that he says and really think that some of his stuff is really challenging (not in a difficult to read kind of way, but like in a "I challenge you to a duel" kind of way).

Most of the essays are about being an American Negro (his words, a little outdated, but appropriate to what he is talking about). I have been trying to put my finger on what it was that I really connected so much with in his writings, since I of course am not a black man and even though he is also a homosexual, that seems to have been the easier of his social baggages to come to terms with. Today I was really really struck by something he said about black people almost always performing, and when two met each other in a strange context (in this case, at a white cocktail party in Europe) they immediately size one another up and are connected if not by both being black, by both knowing the others appearance is a performance and thereby being both a potential ally and threat. They can "knock" the other's "hustle" if they chose, "give the other's game away." Not exactly an earth shaking generalization but an earthquake of an idea that broke through somethings that I have been trying (am trying, will always be trying) to get at the root of. I think that I did make a breakthrough in my connection to Mr. Baldwin.

Maybe what he is saying isn't just about the nature of black people so much as about the nature of black sheep, those on the outside looking in, anyone who has had to realize that the rules of the game had no room for them and that they would have to knoe more than the rules if they were going to survive. I think that it really doesn't matter why someone is a black sheep, or even if they are different kinds, they will ultimately know and understand one another. Not that they will agree or like one another, but they will be able to see things that the general populace can't, because there survival has always depended on this. It is one of those weird things that I think explains alot of things like "gaydar". Kind of a dumb example, but the less dangerous it has been for a person to be gay and the longer they have lived with it openly, the less they can tell who is gay or not. And on the same note, but a little differently, some people have laughed before when I have said this, but I meant it totally seriously, that you can't fool black people or children. I was talking about being gay, but I kind of think it extends to other things, and of course there really are plenty of black people and children who can easily be fooled about alot of things, but how little you can fool them about is a fuction of how disenfranchised they have been, and both groups are consistently, even today, still left on the outside (perhaps with children it isn't so much disenfranchisement as them not yet being fully enfranchised -is that a word?). More and more black people are beginning to be more often on the inside (at least officially and at least some of them) and so more and more don't really have to be able so much to see everything in such a bare, honest way, and so they don't. That is what any black person means when they accuse another black person of acting "white": they mean that they have reached a place where they are comfortable and are believing that everyone else has the same access to that comfort that they do and so dissconnect themselves from any real direct knowledge of that kind of suffering. this is not meant to be particularly condemning to black people who are letting themselves enjoy prosperity that they have found because not everyone has it, unless it is also condemning of anyone who lets themselves enjoy the prosperity they have found; this is just saying that the spaces within our social structures which black people can occupy have opened up to let them also live comfortably enough in some cases to forget that there are those who do not also have such opportunity. I no way do I suggest that many (perhaps most) white people are not guilty of the same myopia, rather that it is that shortsightedness which necessarily describes what has often separated whites (the general 'ingroup') and blacks (the general 'outgroup'), and finding themselves in a place where they can afford this loss of perspective is exactly what is meant when someone says someone acts "white". I think this is a gross generalization and that all of the most effective people anywhere have to know something about disenfrachisement that those who are 'there' and have always been 'there' can never relate to.

I guess I have begun to feel that something was slipping and I was losing something important as I began to feel more and more like I could act more naturally and felt more attractive and popular and less like a freak or an outcast. I guess this has just helped me begin to put a finger on that.

I also think this explains alot of why whites in the South are more comfortable around blacks than are northerners. And I don't think it is just about proximity and familiarity in a literal sense (although this is of course part of it), but in also in some way being connected in also feeling separated from and rejected from the 'ingroup'. This is the great legacy of the civil war that we are supposed to carry around as baggage. I think most of us in our generation have let go of any feelings of being beaten or resentment really directly relating to that conflict, but we still feel the effects of bearing the physical damage of the war on our soil relating to how that put the South back economically, socially, etc. and the intellectual attitude of being constantly represented as backwards, primitive, country, slow, dumb, etc. We know what it is like to walk into a room of people from all over and have them find out only where we come from and immediately assume that we are less of something (ally, foe, partner, student, etc.). And even if we don't so much feel that too terribly directly, it is blasted into our minds in popular media and bolstered by the people who represent us (pick any alabama govenor ever, Trent Lott, Strom Thurmond) nationally. Now I am not trying to directly compare southern whites to blacks and do feel that even as we may in general be more in touch with black people, we are still in a somewhat more priveleged position regardless.

I have to say that all this has alot to do with how I have always really felt that south carolina (Charleston in particular) strikes me as so different from most of the south. I feel when I am in Alabama or Mississippi like I am playing perfectly fair if I sort of politely sidestep things or embelish and play out every interpersonal interaction like a chess game. I feel like almost everyone works from this vantage point of having some idea that people take advantage of people and they know to watch their back and being conscious of what you are doing constitutes staying alive and being able to get ahead in the game. Here I feel like it is cheating. I feel like everyone expects everything to be so laid out and honest in a blankly boring way that if you really do what back home is just prudent consideration, here it is taken as underhanded and disagreeable. And I think that it is because this south is not the rural south and not really connected to it at all except in that same condescending way that the north also connects to the rural south. Now there are definently things here that I find familiar, but I am really often rubbed very wrong by the way in which things do still run with some of the old machinery that is (thankfully) a little more broken down where we are from. You can really feel in this city very clearly that it wasn't the same kind of civil rights battle ground that our state was. Not that progress hasn't been made, but the tops haven't quite been blow off of some of the institutions in the same way and some of the sentiments haven't either been driven underground or brought out in the open in quite the same way.

This wasn't meant to be such an analysis of the South so much as just about me trying to more and more understand how I fit in the world. I am beginning to feel perhaps like James Baldwin did in Paris, so separated from what was familiar and finally find my way in being able to really go at things directly instead of slinking around in the shadows, but I feel like it is something of a bitter victory. You find that you have sort of reached that position that will afford you some comfort and that you are finally allowed to join in the reindeer games, and with this you begin to feel some obligation to start to play by the rules, but you still feel connected to those still left on the outside. And maybe a place at the table isn't all it's cracked up to be if no one at the table is going to listen to you. The problem isn't totally about feeling that taking your place at the table leaves others to pick through the crumbs on the floor, but (recklessly switching metaphores midsentence) more that by agreeing to play by the rules, you have to make others agree to change the rules to even things out instead the old familiar standard of just playing your way and beating them because they are trapped and blinded by their rules. This all makes me think of an old Indian proverb I read somewhere: 'the big fish eats the little fish, and the little fish must get smart.' When you are invisible, ignored by the system, what you do doesn't matter to the system itself, you just have to be smart and stay alive. Once the world decides to see that you exist, you are stuck in their rules and you are expected to play by their rules. You can't just buck the system in the same way you did before, you have to change it. Just trying to side step things and slinking through the shadows either put you in a position of danger and will be attacked or you are making a declaration of wanting to be outside again. You are pulling yourself back to that familar place that you came from, which is not a place that I am trying to romanticize: life on the outside is brutal and dangerous. There you are in competition with EVERYTHING. It is exausting and painful.

of course in this analysis (I am sorry that you are so often the person who gets stuck with these musings from me, you know that none of this would ever be to preach or that I feel that I am speaking from a more informed or enlightened position, but that I just really think you have some amazing lucidity of thought and know me well enough to understand) is way too general and over dramatic and simplifying. But I just am really feeling that I am finally understanding something important and have really made some significant connection to James Baldwin's ideas.

One thing that i find sort of funny, is that so much of the language that I have been using (particulary, 'outside', 'ingroups', etc.) mean dramatically different things when I am talking about black people and gay people. With reference to being black or poor or disefrancised in most ways, being in the 'outgroup' means having not yet transcended this separating factor, while with gay people, the 'outgroup' encompasses those who have most embraced this seperating factor. The effect is potentially separating in that it is acknowledging that they are separated (something which may or may not have been apparent before), but it is when a gay person decides to live with this difference being baldly apparent that they begin to be stuck in the rules of society. I guess I am letting myself look at this in a offcenter sort of way. I guess I am kind of ignoring, that so many gay people don't take coming out as really an occasion to find their place at the table, but rather take it as occasion to set their own table and turn their back to the rest of the world. This is a tendency that I am finding myself fighting with. I guess this is where people get stuck...

well, actually, i am going to have to stop for awhile. I know this is abrupt, but I think if I don't pull out now, I am going to end up with you suffering a discourse that is much longer that anyone should ever have to read at one sitting at a computer.

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