Toni Morrison, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Baldwin
There is a neurological condition that causes brief paralysis after sleep. In my family we call it the witch’s wake, a lovely, macabre title for a terrifying predicament. This happened to me a few times as a teenager: I rose to consciousness out of a dream, out of normal sleep, only to be locked in an unresponsive body. This was as close to death as I could fathom then, as close to being buried alive, which may not be in the top five on my list of worst fears, but it’s on there. The whole body becomes a tomb and the mind is a ghost, skimming the space between the living and everything else. I remember screaming when it happened, hard, loud, in tears, and yet I was silent. I say this because it is the nearest analogy for explaining not just the black experience in America, but the white experience as well. There is a seam between consciousness and sleep, between the wreckage of the body and being able to see the forces that attack it. The black American is born on that seam, that fragile space of knowing your physical self is in peril and being unable to act. We watch our bodies wrecked for the economic and sadistic benefit of whiteness and our screams are silenced through disbelief. Remember that whiteness is not personal, a white person is not whiteness itself; whiteness is institutional, it is what James Baldwin identified as the price of the ticket, the entry into America. Baldwin noted that the racial caste system is an affront to humanity, saying, “I am a man and so are you. As long as you think I’m a problem you’re demeaning your own manhood.” As obvious as it is, even a generation later, little is being done to curb that artificial construct.
Currently, I’m teaching in the most politically conservative environment I’ve ever been in. It’s Fresno, California. Who knew? Now, a conservative environment is not itself a concern, but one that has been co-opted by a legacy of whiteness is. I have had colleagues, all women of color, bullied and harassed by agents of that institution in ways I had never witnessed before: onslaughts of property loss, vicious messages, vandalism. Any substantive acknowledgment, either by leadership or local news, has yet to manifest. The stakes are higher than even that. The myth of the dark criminal is still pervasive, justifying the mass incarceration of black and brown bodies within the country and now at its borders, turning them into silent cash batteries, generating profit for private companies through tax dollars. Financial instruments are designed to keep the poor impoverished, their property values low. Their schools, starved for resources, maintain an obvious status quo which buoys whiteness, always.
In truth, everyone knows that tribalism, and the lie of racism, could be eradicated, but no one agrees on the method. The only real solution is vulnerability, and that is no easy choice. To give up whiteness is to become vulnerable, to confront the deep tears in the psyche gouged over generations, to see hate in the face of a loved one and name it and therefore open yourself up to being seen and ultimately touched. For most morally sound people who benefit from whiteness, there is a need to absolve oneself of guilt and responsibility. In the literary world, that means we hold up champions against racism, the demigods of American letters: Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., among others. A funny thing happens, though. These forces, while they are championed, are neutered of their philosophies, of their observations, of their astute articulations of the black experience. It’s an act that protects whiteness while allowing the free-thinking white person to believe she is challenging the institution.
I was a rather rebellious youth when it came to black idols. Dr. King didn’t give me stoic, regal pride in the face of mindless oppression. The parts of King’s language which echoed around me felt hollow and presumptive, passive, and they ignored what I thought of as a clear truth. Tolerating institutional racism and waiting for justice was like making peace with a swarm of bees: it was an act of foolishness and self-destruction. I’m allergic to bee stings (and almost everything else). Only later did I realize that I, like so many Americans, had been manipulated into seeing only a truncated mantra, one pieced out and arranged with an agenda (much like the Bible over time, pieces removed for being too fantastic, too outrageous, too unpalatable for the ruling classes who printed the paper). The tender, G-rated “I Have a Dream” speech is readily hauled out annually as a declaration that we’re doing our best. However, in “The Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King said, “I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councilor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace of direct action.” That one gets little repeat play. Now, as then, moderates are seen as the revered bridge between extremes, but that position is itself extreme. Toni Morrison is often quoted as saying, “If you can only be tall because someone else is on their knees, you have a serious problem,” but the rest is too often lobbed off. She continues saying, “White people have a very, very serious problem, and they should start thinking about what they can do about it.” Anyone who has met Morrison can probably confirm that she means what she says the way she says it. Yet, the jagged pills of injustice get reduced to comfortable aphorisms and tokenism, and white adjacency becomes more and more tempting. Even people of color can cozy up to whiteness in the softer perimeters, where lip service is given to appease tender hearts that seek no harm (or seek to remain invisible). The perimeters need to harden.
I used to teach a speech by Arundhati Roy titled “Come September” to undergrads. The speech is a thoughtful consideration of American foreign policy’s global impact and employs clever instruments of argumentation. A couple of years after 9/11, I got in a little trouble for having students read the speech. One student said it was “reprehensible” that they should be exposed to such ideas. As far as I could reason, the only idea that might have offended them was the suggestion that America is not always a victim or a savior. I’m really good at not getting heated, so somehow I finessed the situation without yielding. Part of growing up is realizing our parents are extremely flawed human beings. Recognizing the same in a nation is called being a citizen. It is not easy. Accepting vulnerability is not just psychological, it is also physical. To deny that the institution of whiteness impacts us all is to be open to harm.
These days, I walk around in parts of California that are some of the most historically hostile to people of color. I love my students. I hear their stories, some of jeopardy and some of blindness. This is not a call to violence. It is a call to action on behalf of another generation paralyzed in the system. This is not a condemnation of those already aloft in the dream of whiteness. They are so untethered to reality that they spout nonsense about eugenics or, as a final act in their theater of psychoses, draw blood. There is no arguing with fanatics, so in essence they are lost. It is not the marginalized people, the black and brown bodies under assault, who carry the burden of saving this nation; they carry only the burden of seeing the flames first. When I say “save the nation,” remember that America was born in cardiac arrest. The great experiment has never truly risen to sustainable levels. The cognitive dissonance necessary to profit off of gruesome human suffering and yet remain happy is too great. And perhaps all civilization works this way, in a state of eternal adjustment. But when every attempt at a correction is met with deviation and denial, implosion is very much a possibility. White people must save themselves from whiteness. They must meet every test of whiteness with more than silence or a plea for civility. To do so is to awake fully into one’s body for the first time.
Read Venita Blackburn’s story “Fam” in our Fall 2018 issue.
Venita Blackburn is the author of Black Jesus and Other Superheroes, winner of the Prairie Schooner prize and the PEN America Los Angeles literary prize. Her works have appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review, The Paris Review, The Spectacle, and others. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at California State University, Fresno.
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