Sunday, March 22, 2009

Conversation Recap for March 22, 2009

We welcomed Dexter back, and had lots of good food for breakfast.

Dexter told us about a recent meeting of the Washington Alliance of Black School Educators (see here), and of his research in Jamaica. Some funny stories there that best stay with the group.

This led to some observations on local history. It is rare that the stories of people get recorded, such as the accounts of the oldest people in communities who can fill in the details of what life was like—things that don’t get into the newspapers.

The stories also led to a brief overview of Rastafarian communities in Jamaica. Rastafarians were, in the early days, among the few who would question royalty, investigate blackness, and attempt to construct an appropriate life. They started several communes in the area Dexter visited, and they lived on the beach, fished, did their carpentry, read and talked about Scripture, and lived as men of peace in the town he grew up in. If people want to learn more they can look up Leonard Howell, whose biography is entitled “The First Rasta.” So far no one has published anything about the commune is his particular town. One of the reasons it was not noted much in print was the peaceful lifestyle that fit right in, were not raided by the police, and did not directly confront the authorities (for example, no back-to-Africa doctrine, no veneration of Haile Selassie, no extensive use of ganja, and so on).

Today’s central topic is to look at the experiences of several participants, Growing Up in Which America. (The concept of which America does not refer to North/Central/South Americas, but to the ways the color line divides the United States.)

One participant related how during the first grade (approximately), a woman she was staying with attempted to instruct her in racist ideas. She brought up some of the vocabulary with her mother, who explained that some people were racist. When school busing started in her school district, the white kids continued to go to the local school and the black kids went somewhere else. Another time she was being teased on the playground for being white, and when she got home her mother explained the historical background that helped her see how these attitudes came about. Her mother purposefully tried to organize her social life so that she would have more black friends.

Another participant described the topic today as looking at growing up here that is different from people who are exposed to multiple languages, cultures, and so on. In the USA there is an ideal that isn’t how a lot of people actually live.

Growing up in the USA, one will be exposed to lots of names that mark one as not the ideal. He shared some of the names that mark people, your reporter won’t put them here. Suffice to say we have a well-developed vocabulary for sorting people with respect to the ideal—they all mean “lesser,” in some way.

These names mark us, and the experience of growing up around this constant sorting marks us. What interests him now is constructing a community that is more caring, and more just.

Another participant started by describing a class she is teaching in which she has students write about and discuss their encounters with the color line. That will be more fully developed in a subsequent meeting of the Conversation.

In her own life, she remembers some incidents that happened before she had a vocabulary to process color as a defining feature. On one drive through a poorer neighborhood, and asking about the dilapidated houses. Her parents said that these people don’t take care of their property. She asked why not. There was a long pause, and he said it was because the people who owned the houses do not live there, and it is they who don’t take care of them. She had the sense her dad was doing something

In another memory, an African American woman who came to do housework was referred to by her first name. Weird, her parents referred to all other adults by first and last names. When asked, her mother said, yes she does have a last name, and gave it. She had a sense to not pursue this any further.

In still another memory, a prominent person in the neighborhood, called The Colonel, came over and said something that was somehow portentious. She thought it might be that the river was flooding. When asked, her parents said, no, the concern was that a “Negro” family might be moving into the neighborhood. When asked why that was a problem, her dad said they don’t take care of their property. Oh, she responded, like the (name of family) down the street. That family, of course, was white. Her dad went quiet at that point.

What seems to unify the stories—These are all examples of where people know the myth that they are projecting, and when asked to account for it in careful terms, show they are aware of the contradictions.

An interesting discussion followed these reports of early memories. Many of the accounts were of their own early memories.

One participant told a story of how we cherish the things we now believe. We seem to believe that what is absurd must not be true.

One participant noted it would be nice to have some clear analysis of how white people become split growing up with the self-deception.
As one participant noted, there are quite a few pieces on that…. we should assemble a bibliography.

One participant noted a Native American concept called “acculture.” One has to learn to be mainstream. It is a normal topic. “Say what you want, but we are still prisoners of war.” A good novel: “The Indians Won,” by Martin Cruz Smith, 1981.

One participant noted that kids quickly learn things in a culture of hate. Kids pick up who is hated, and use this knowledge to construct a self. This makes the family something strange—it puts kids on notice that there are dangers here, and that they to can be hated.

One participant noted that he came to North America at the age of 15, and he found that he could walk where he wanted to and do what he wanted to do. It was some time later that he realized the house was subdivided, and that the people there were living differently from others. On the whole he grew up without hearing a lot of disparaging remarks. There was plenty of discrimination in Canada, but the stark divisions described by those of us who grew up in the US were not part of his life. Interesting border. One participant suspected there is, indeed, a big dose of such divisions in Canada, although they may be more obviously mapped in the Native/immigrant line, or the French/English line. In the discussion, it came out there are real differences among the regions in Canada.

Several people noted the “schizophrenic” qualities of the ways race and racism get expressed, as noted above in the stories about myths and absurdities.

One participant shared a couple of stories from childhood. He thought the city he grew up in was a black city. He would see white people downtown, and here and there, but there was a clear association between poverty and being black. And, of course, there where white people on TV. A white teacher at school was nice.

One participant noted The Wire. Most people here have never seen it. Those of us who have said the acting, the writing, the whole thing, is perhaps the best thing we have every seen on television. See the website here.

One participant described The Wire as unfortunately focused on the blacks-as-drug-users. As a kid he did not experience much in the way of white racism, he got all he needed from TV. The depictions of black people are generally pathological. Another participant suggested that the show does get at the complexities—the complicity of the many institutions that contribute to the decay of US cities.

Why was The Sopranos such a huge cultural event, and The Wire was not? That is perhaps something we can do in conjunction with Evergreen.

One participant related discussions about growing up in Tacoma. An early exposure to logic can make a big difference in a life. Parents play a huge role in encouraging kids to make sense of things we see AND things we feel.

One participant suggested that moving towards something else, to be building that more just, more caring society, should be on our minds.

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