Saturday, March 19, 2016

Examining the American Slave Narrative

I really want to go further into the concept of narratives and how they affect our lives, but for now I will zoom in on a particular issue that was highlighted for me recently because of a film that I saw.

The underlying structure of the narrative echoed by this film and many others goes like this:
  • White people are mean to black people 
  • Black people escape mean white people thanks to nice white people
  • Be like the nice white people to do your part and eliminate racism; ie, don't be outrageously cruel and abusive to people just because you can 

The stereotypical plot structure goes something like this:

Abusive-white-man-with-kindly-wife-or-daughter-figure enslaves determined-but-reckless-black-man-or-woman until the latter somehow escapes this environment.

Telling this same story over and over again in our literature and media does three things.
  1. It implies that there is no more to black history than being enslaved by American white people. Let's realize that slaves who were brought over from Africa had a life and a culture before that event and that they formed a life and a culture during their enslavement and after it even though many of them continued to be oppressed in other ways.
  2.  On a more micro-cosmic level, it reduces the lifetime of the black slave in America to the story of his literal captivity and freedom. Let's look at slaves as people with many aspects, dreams, struggles, and plans that went awry in which slavery was probably more of an obstacle to their life than their entire life encapsulated.
  3. It portrays the white master figure as the cruelest of the cruel when in reality many white slave owners would have considered themselves, and have been considered by acquaintances, as good Christians, decent businessmen, kind fathers, good husbands, etc. Portraying the white master as inexplicably violent and greedy may be accurate when considering interactions with slaves, but it dehumanizes the abuser so that modern-day racists might look at themselves by comparison and understand themselves as vastly kinder and therefore pure, good, un-racist people devoid of any racial bias. This is almost like implying that as long as we tell the story we can eliminate our responsibility for the oppression experienced by ethnic minorities.
All of these things point to an over-simplification of our understanding of white-on-black enslavement in American that disables us from exploring the complexity of the issue and the lives of the people involved.

To be clear: I believe individuality is independent from race and that our choices define us, not our ancestry. Our ethnic background doesn't determine our choices and therefore not our character; but it does predispose us to a particular position in society that gives us an advantage or a disadvantage in relationship to other ethnic demographics.

To try to eliminate that position to the degree that our choices in regard to other community members seem neutral to us is irresponsible and ignorant. The American slave narrative attempts to do this. It tells white people "don't be like these mean white people, be like these nice white people, and you have done your part to not be racist." It tells black people "accept the treatment people give you, because at least it is not as bad as getting whipped and starved and separated from your family." 

Oversimplifying the past is the quickest way to ensure that we don't learn from it.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Why Am I Doing THIS?!?!?!?

I realized today that I want to teach because the most important people I have ever met are teachers.

That college kid teaching young kids art who most of the time seemed harsh and serious, and one day held up my sketch of two profiles and said to the whole class that I had made the best example of mirror imaging. Even though my brother's profiles were pretty, and probably everyone else's in the class too, and I knew it, I will always remember that my teacher praised me for my ugly drawing because I did my best to tap into the real meaning of art.

The piano teacher who assigned me a performance piece I felt I couldn't handle and that I hated the first time I practiced it, which taught me how to wrestle with an art work until I understand it and can touch it with my own pulse.

That startling, persistent horseback instructor who never let me leave the arena after a fall and never cried with me when I was scared but always told me with her insistence that I would reach my goals and if I had not reached them I was not done working.

That sweetest of teachers who overcame a life of self-abuse to embrace a holistic understanding of health and an unapologetic, pervasive spirituality that gave her a passion for students while she still maintained firm authority.

That short, sharp English teacher who challenged me to work hard every day of the week and never once allowed me to think I could get by on talent alone.

Those professors who have modeled interpersonal excellence, and made me through their own joy and passion in everyday life to prioritize loving and understanding others above anything else.

I have said to my friends before in trying to understand my own growth as a person and how it has been stunted and come in bursts that teachers have been better parents than my true parents could have ever been, and this is not a fair statement because my parents have sacrificed a lot to give me the gifts that I have. My mom, after all, was my first teacher, and the one who showed me how varied and intrinsic and joy-infused, how self-generated learning can and must be.

There is something about choosing to invest in someone else's world, even if only on the merest fringes, that dedication to changing the soul in the slightest ways that will become the person's realization of their true self, that unshakeable belief that each of us holds unlimited potential and that the rest of the world, if it is skeptical about that potential, may go to hell.

When you make someone else's success your goal, you hold a tremendous power to give the gift and the joy of life in a million different ways, a million times a day. It is staggering to me the amount of influence a healthy adult can hold over the wellbeing of a young person still coming to understand who they are, not yet conscious of what they need.

Anyway, enough of the pretentious language and run-on sentences.

The point is this:

There is nothing that will satisfy me but to pass on the gift, to exude the joy - to teach.