Friday, December 12, 2008

December

Perhaps it is winter's bleached shadow light and contemplative spirit that keep me quietly aglow. Even some recent (and unfortunate) surprises haven't dimmed my mood. They have, however, resulted in little writing and less studio productivity, deficits I hope to address in short order.

Still, December is with me, and I am happy.

I wish you all a happy holiday season and beyond!

Dead Birds


Noel Grunwaldt
"Untitled (Hawk #3)"
2008
Watercolor and graphite on Strathmore illustration board
40 × 30 inches
"Birds still alive with their wings compound-fractured, bone sticking out, the angles gruesome. A confiscated mesh laundry bag stuffed with falcons and owls, many dead, many not, all mashed together like dirty underwear...A pile of forty-seven dead hawks and eagles, each one decapitated by poachers to keep it from biting, all of them confiscated in one morning. A smaller pile of bloody heads found scattered on the ground the same morning."

-Jonathan Franzen, "The Way of the Puffin," The New Yorker, April 21, 2008

Monday, December 01, 2008

Blog Against Racism Day



Chris Clarke declared December 1st, 2005, Blog Against Racism Day because it marked the 50th anniversary of Rosa Parks' celebrated civic disobedience in Montgomery, Alabama. I don't believe Clarke intended the call to be observed annually but, four years later, on the heels of a successful "post-race" presidential bid, I'm compelled to touch again on the subject of black-white prejudice in the United States.

This Thanksgiving, my family and friends pondered the possible cultural benefits of Barack Obama's election. Will African American youth have a more positive role model? Will well-educated black men be celebrated by their community rather than labelled an Uncle Tom? Will racial tension decrease? The scene itself - a group of educated white professionals discussing race in between bites of pecan and pumpkin pie - proves that the "post-race" claim is misguided.

Like most liberal whites, I fancy myself free of the prejudice that drives genocide, hate crime and careless discrimination. Indeed, relative to an openly racist individual, I am a tolerant pluralist and hopeful progressive. Nonetheless, biases remain that need to be addressed and, I hope, corrected.

Bill Wilson and Dr. Bob Smith, the co-founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, believed that an addict must admit his shortcomings before he can confront them. In 1939, the two men formulated the original twelve steps of recovery; the fourth step enjoins AA members to make a "searching and fearless moral inventory." Below, I've used such an "inventory" to address my latent bigotry.

Some readers will doubtless consider the exercise an impotent confessional, but by acknowledging the embarrassing biases and feelings, I become more conscious of them and, in turn, better able to erode them. If any of what I've written offends you, please comment.
- When I read reports of the world's happiest nations, I expect the more racially homogeneous countries to top the list. The assumption is wrong-headed. Low levels of poverty/unemployment, freedom of choice, gender equality, and social tolerance are all significant contributing factors to the overall happiness of a given populace, but racial make-up does not figure prominently. Nevertheless, my assumption persists.

- I'm occasionally guilty of beginning a statement "Well, my black friends...," as though, because a sizable portion of my circle is African American, I am better able to speak on cultural differences. In fact, I have only two friends who identify as "black," and both are inter-racial, having one Caucasian and one African or African American parent. I do have a number of black acquaintances and professional contacts, but these tenuous connections certainly don't qualify me to speak on the American "black experience."

- When I travel to predominantly African American neighborhoods, I become anxious. I'm not fearful of violence, but I am made uncomfortable by the sense that I represent the oppressor ("the man") and, as such, am a target for resentful stares and verbal harassment. Indeed, I've been spit at, shoulder-checked and called names; my worries may not be unfounded, but they feed a poisonous anger directed both at myself and our American legacy. I am frustrated that, by virtue of my ancestry, I am the face of oppression.

- As a general rule, I assume that black Africans are more optimistic and harder-working than African Americans.

- Although I believe that social decorum is more closely linked to socio-economic class and education, I also assume that African American teens are louder, more physically expressive and less considerate of others than their white counterparts.

- For years I've believed that African Americans comprised the majority population of the Virginia counties I grew up in. I was certain that Accomack, where my hometown is located, had a narrow white majority, but that Northampton, where I attended public school, was predominantly black. In fact, according to the 2006 census, Accomack County is 60% white/non-Hispanic, 30% black and 9% Hispanic. (For those keeping score, that's a 2-to-1 white-black ratio.) Northampton County is 54% white/non-Hispanic, 40% black and 6% Hispanic. To be fair, both counties are home to proportionately more blacks than the United States at large, but my belief, so long held, is undeniably wrong. Furthermore, the only explanation for my inaccurate reckoning is that I noticed the black individuals more, suggesting that I weighted "otherness" heavily.
Barack Obama's election to the highest political office in our country is a hopeful victory over base ignorance and reactionary thinking, but it is also a clarion call for renewed commitment to civil rights. I feel strongly that the best way to begin working for that renewal is a thorough self-assessment. I've assessed, but now I've got work to do.

Photo credit: BBC