Saturday, May 18, 2013

Difference as Blackness

One of my son's "special interests" (as the autism/Asperger's people say) is the waterways of eastern North America. He has about two dozen books about the Hudson River, the Saint Lawrence Waterway, and the Erie Canal; he loves the classic Paddle-to-the-Sea; and he spends a lot of time drawing maps of the Great Lakes and the cities that are built on their shores.  As a reward for good behavior, I recently got him a collection of DVDs called "On the Waterways," which was apparently a PBS series in the 1990s, and is narrated by Jason Robards. The episode about the Mississippi, predictably enough, uses a clip of Paul Robeson singing "Ol' Man River" from the great musical Show Boat, which, in the show, is sung by the dockworker Joe, and includes the lyrics:

Darkies all work on the Mississippi,
Darkies all work while de white folks play


Let me go 'way from de Mississippi
Let me go 'way from de white man boss;
Show me dat stream called de River Jordan;
Dat's de ol' stream dat I long to cross.

My son turned to me one night after watching this and remarked sadly, "I don't like being black."  He elaborated, "I don't like having doors closed in my face because I'm black."

This interested me, since my son is white. It may have interested me even more because my grandmother and mother were committed to the cause of civil rights. What does being black mean to a white boy? Is blackness its own essential suchness? Is it a state defined through self-recognition, or is it a condition demarcated, even imposed, by society? (Interestingly, Show Boat raises some of these same questions.) And why does my son, who is not black, believe that he is?

I am convinced it's because he is starting to perceive himself as different from, as other than, and as outside of. And the most prominent and notable class of people who, in our culture, have been those things has historically been black.

Below is a clip of John Lennon and Yoko Ono on the Dick Cavett show, with Lennon explaining the genesis of his controversial song "Woman is the N*gger of the World," and Yoko thumping arrhythmically on a tambourine. Lennon quotes a statement by California congressman Ron Dellums suggesting that, owing to their alienation and figurative disenfranchisement, "most of the people in America are n*ggers." Perhaps this is the real meaning of my son's self-perception of blackness.

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