12 May 2010

On Black Like Me and Others

The Chicago Reader has published its spring books issue, and this time they're featuring books that (have) address(ed) black life in America over the last fifty or so years.  They cover Simeon's Story, the memoir of Simeon Wright, the cousin of Emmett Till, who saw Till taken from his relative's home that fateful summer Mississippi night.  They also profile Ytasha L. Womack, who has recently published a book, Post-Black, that explores black identity in the early 21st century.  (I read the first 30 or so pages--for diss reasons; I'm not sure I'll finish.)

The cover story is on John Howard Griffin's Black Like Me, that little piece of new journalism retelling the account of Griffin, who with the help of a dermatologist and a pair of clippers adventured as a black man traveling through the south in the spring of 1959.  I suppose that makes Griffin a kind of weird predecessor to the modern-day white savior movie--I couldn't help but think about District 9 as I recalled the skin treatment he underwent--but that's for another blog, another time.  Griffin's articles on his experience as a black man in the south were funded and published by Sepia (go figure), a kind of Look magazine for Negroes; the account was published under the title "Journey into Shame."  I could wax about the title alone, but that's another digression, and I'm sure you know what I think about it.

Griffin lived as a black man for three weeks because he wanted to articulate how much Jim Crow sucked for black people.  The presumption being, of course, that although the account was published in Sepia, a black interest--though white-owned--magazine, some white folks would become interested in his story and that it would attract readers beyond Sepia subscribers.  (I'm assuming, here, that black people in 1961 already knew that segregation et. al. occasionally made black life a tad bit difficult.)  Of course it did.  The account got reworked into a best-selling novel and later a movie.  Fifty years later, the Chicago Reader is highlighting it in its songs in the key of black life edition, and I'm writing a blog about it.

I was with Rachel when I picked up this copy of the Reader a couple of weeks ago, and we talked about it briefly.  I mused that I put Black Like Me, which I had read at a very, very young age (shout out to the tattered copy on my parents' bookshelf), in what I called the no duh genre of writing.  You know, books, etc. that deal with issues that are obvious to people who occupy socially marginalized positions, but are/have to be legitimated by someone of privilege before other folks (of privilege) take the issue seriously.  Black like me = Life ain't been no crystal stair for black people under Jim Crow.  In other words, the Negroes ain't lying. 

But black people knew that already.

The cover story and the conversation with Rachel reminded me of those who make (part of) their living in the realm of the no duh, and what effect that has on those who don't speak from the bastion of privilege.  I've discussed this ad nauseum with @moyazb, specifically as it pertains to racism and feminism.  There are a motley crew of men and white folks who garner (even more) attention because they've (recently) become anti-racists or feminists, or at least find discussing the issues pertinent to their work and incorporate it as such, and as a result, persons who had not taken issues like racism or sexual inequality seriously start paying attention because, well, someone with the same privilege they have finds it worthy of discussion.  This happened to Griffin:

Griffin [...] found himself in a room of community leaders, "concerned and sincere men," all of them white. One said, "Well, Mr. Griffin, what is the first thing we should do now?"Griffin replied that there were many capable black men [and not women?] in the city, something he knew because he'd called some of them to find out what was going on in Rochester [New York]. He advised the white community leaders to invite them to the next meeting.   
Perhaps it's the way that blogs and Twitter and Facebook allow us to transmit information from a variety of media so quickly that I've started to notice, but I feel like I encounter this [very obnoxious] kind of thing pretty frequently.   On any given day, "friends" and "friends of friends" tweet and repost ostensibly enlightening work by folks of (some kind of) privilege writing articles and blogs full of their ruminations on issues folks who are directly affected by such ideas have been masticating on for quite sometime.  My initial reaction is usually, "Well, [suchandsuch] forwarded this argument already, and really did so with more eloquence and nuance than this person here.  But I guess I'm supposed to think it's genius because this dude momentarily forgot that he stands up to piss?" It gets annoying after a while, especially when you know that said person's understanding of racism and feminism is simplistic when juxtaposed to the myriad of folks who've thought longer and harder about it, and/or when you get the inkling that the whole schtick is really an exercise in narcissism.  Admittedly, that latter point is one hell of an inference.

Though I do think some folks adopt anti-racist or feminist stances because it's trendy, I don't want to suggest that a white person who decides to become an anti-racist does so merely for attention, or that she doesn't find herself feeling the wrath of that same privileged group she may belong to.  Still, it boggles me that we're reluctant to recognize the ways in which the very privilege certain folks are exploring and arguing against is the very reason why we pay attention to their words.  Is the blog Stuff White People Do--and I think the site is useful--advancing notions of white privilege that blogs and other pre-internet media haven't already?  What's the allure of a white male talking about his privilege, especially if that privilege has been interrogated for years now by people of color?  How can we acknowledge that his work is instructive while remaining vigilant of the way that we pay attention and/or ignore the voice(s) of other, less socially appreciated  people who echo similar sentiments? What's your favorite male feminist saying that isn't (better) expressed over at the crunk feminist collective?  Why are you paying so much attention to him?

I understand the need to build coalitions with and listen to folk who come from the right and wrong side of the tracks, but I think it's important to note who we validate by listening to them so intently and why.  We should be careful not to reify privilege by expressing a peculiar admiration for those who have it and are willing to discuss of its dismantling.  For every John Howard Griffin, there are a slew of folks before and after him who need no similes: Black Like Me. 

Of course, I must leave you with this:


AC said...

this was my EXACT (but not as cogent...or even written) reaction to when people began forwarding dude's ruminations: what if the tea party baggers (or whatever) were black.

like. thanks? why are people so happy that he said shit that is pretty obvious?

summer of sam said...

@ac: i remember that. it was such a banal question to me--what if the tea baggers were black?--because i already know the answer. and my homies know and their homies know. but this white guy writes an article about and folks was passing it around like it's a collection plate--or something.

z.bediako said...

fuck yeah
so glad you're updating...

MB said...

Right on time!!!! love your analysis!!! So important!!

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