came to the United States as a young child back in the late seventies – a French Jew. Growing up, I was obese and solitary. Aside from a couple of minor acquaintances, I generally kept to myself, preferring the company of an old book or the greasy comfort of a Big Mac and fries – back when the Golden Arches used to sizzle their goods in animal fat. Despite my reclusive tendencies, the outside world still seeped in, like a pernicious slime, leaving me raw and withered as a skinless frankfurter in a microwave.
I was the perpetual outsider, completely disengaged from the American soda/chewing gum/beer commercial aesthetic. Skinny, pretty white people having a glorious time, shiny perfect smiles, sunny day fellowship, white water rafting, skiing, sharing the perfect moment – together. Black people rarely popped up on the tube then, unless they were a secondary character in a sitcom, or maybe in an ad for Burger King. They were living in the shadows, just as I was. I felt a connection with their experience, their struggle. I felt alone. I hated the oppressive images of the ‘good life’ bombarding me, attempting to inculcate me with a plastic set of values I could never abide. It was a blonde, blue eyed illusion of superiority. I was inferior. A fact of which I was reminded daily in school.
As I grew older and learned about U.S. history and the psychic genocide inflicted on African-Americans it only added to my increasing feeling of antipathy for the country I reluctantly called home.
Now I am an adult. Over my lifetime, I’ve seen the national relationship between black and white strengthen, fray, repair, and ultimately transmute into tenuous ambivalence and ever present distrust. Trump was elected to our highest office. A singularly unqualified, racist, misogynistic pig of a man. While many of my friends were shell-shocked, I was not surprised. I could see the writing on the wall for years. The United States is incapable of elemental change. We all know why Trump was elected. It was a combination of liberal entitlement, resigned frustration on the part of blacks, and most of all the seething resentment of working class whites. And who was there all along, manipulating their fear and ignorance, frothing their emotions into a blind hatred for their own personal gain? Who else…the rich.
I recently saw the documentary I am Not Your Negro, an affecting account of James Baldwin’s experience as a black man raised in America’s hostile terrain. The film’s narration was culled from his unfinished manuscript in which he attempted to tell the story of his relationship with Medgar Evers, Malcom X and Martin Luther King. Intercut with his interviews and speeches, the documentary becomes more of a general statement on the black experience and specifically the inability of whites to take accountability for the decimation they have inflicted on African Americans for over 400 years.
Baldwin saw clearly the queasy psychology behind black oppression. The fear and guilt of whites, and the need to culturally infantilize black men to calm their own insecurities. He understood the deserved anxiety of white Americans and their undeserving wish to be absolved of their sins. Not to mention, their absurd desire to be loved by the very souls they tortured. He expressed it all brilliantly.
What the film only really touches on though, and what I believe is never hammered home enough when discussing our nation’s history, is that every atrocity the United States ever committed against the black population was done so in the name of greed. From Slavery to Jim Crow to Ferguson. The wealthy and powerful have never been held fully responsible as the main actors and manipulators in the subjugation of black America. Racism is not an inherent trait, it’s learned behaviour – but why and how is it learned in the first place? It is all for one simple reason, to maintain the social and economic hierarchy. The concept of white ‘superiority’ always was and still remains a concept perpetuated by the rich to maintain their position over the poor.
Still, when we talk about race relations in America, those on top are never assigned the blame they deserve. Sure, it’s a sliver of the conversation, but not what it should be. Even in Baldwin’s speeches, he recriminates white America as a whole. But the truth is all of America has been psychologically twisted and raped…we have all been oppressed – black and white. And as always, the rich have gotten off scot free, able to continue their machination and manipulation.
The American pipe dream is an illusion for which we have all paid the price.
I believe, at long last, it is coming to a head. The election of Donald Trump as president, the mass murder of black children at the hand of law enforcement, the blatant, frenzied lies espoused by our lawmakers on the right…the cracks have become fault lines and we are ready for a seismic shift. As our leaders, our mutual oppressors, become unmasked one by one, perhaps we as a nation will be finally able to see through the illusion and come together — united.