Like most of the people slightly older than me, I thought the Space Race was a thrilling time and I picked up the usual compliment of values and heroes. Like the Boomers, I have lamented the failure of vision and see no flying cars or colonies on the Moon. I have lamented the lame days of the 80s when American Muscle cars disappeared from the planet - enough to make Knight Rider a superstar. But unlike Boomers, especially those that don't get the 'Information Superhighway'. I know where the energy of all that inspiration has gone. It has gone into my generation through different metaphors, like Star Wars and video games, and come out different and more powerful. I never forget the inspiration and the original vision, but I don't mistake the different shape and form of today's reality for failure. No matter how brilliant Kubrick may have been, the future of computing was never HAL 9000.
Whenever I hear somebody older than me (and I'm 50) talk about how many race problems we have in America, I know immediately that we are hearing the voice of some pesky Boomer demanding his flying car. Another clue is the phrase 'post-racial America'.
A thoughtful reader has reminded me that Frank Rich might be exactly the kind of bummed out Boomer missing his racial utopia. Consider the following litany of complaint ailing our poor critic's conscience, and presumeably that of our nation:
Just a short list would include: the arrest of Henry Louis Gates Jr. in Cambridge; the hysterical tea-party rally against health-care reform that showered obscenities on black congressmen entering the Capitol; the ousting of the African-American Department of Agriculture worker Shirley Sherrod after she was libeled as a racist; the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia; the killing of Trayvon Martin in Florida; and, this month, the protest of more than 40 percent of West Virginia Democratic-primary voters, who pulled the lever for an obscure white federal-prison inmate rather than endorse a second run for the incumbent president of their own party. Last week brought the pièce de résistance: the Times revelation of a proposed super-PAC TV commercial that would slime Obama as pretending to be a “metrosexual black Abe Lincoln.”
and then finally
I still remember seeing A Raisin in the Sun as a white middle-class kid in 1961, a few months after the Kennedy inaugural, when it played the National Theatre in Washington, D.C., on tour. It was just as Martin Luther King was bringing his gospel to the nation. For an 11-year-old attending a (de facto) segregated public-school system in the nation’s capital, it was an awakening to the unreconstructed apartheid America all around me. Anyone of any race who remembers that America knows just how epic a difference the civil-rights movement made in sweeping so much of it away. The actual lives of many, if hardly all, black Americans have improved immeasurably in those 50 years.
What about 'Blues for Mister Charlie'? Didn't he see that play too? Or how about 'The Colored Museum'? Or ar the only plays that have anything significant to say about race bound to be that old sentimental favorite?
I happen to be blessed with the curse of having read at least 50 books by black authors over the past 20 years. My sentimental favorite is 'Drylongso' by Gwaltney. The premise and proof of this book is that black Americans see their situations very well and do so continuously with a very clear understanding of their individual predicaments. The implication of this is that for the purposes of justice and the general welfare, there needn't be great orators, politicians, speechifiers, playwrights or their critics.
Think about it. If you were writing about computers in 1961 and you cared about equality, you might be concerned that the government would create some Colossus or WOPR to take the planet to the brink of nuclear war - something no black Americans wanted. Today, 50 years later, black Americans have more compute power in their pockets than Neil Armstrong had on the moon, and they play chess better than HAL 9000. That's because the vision of the future and the nature of social reality is in the hands of the people, not so much in the hands of great orators, etc.
There are not flying cars. But a car has gone faster than the speed of sound, and there are cars that parallel park themselves and there are styles of automobiles that reflect the specific and uniques cultural tastes of some black Americans.
Like many Boomers, I had some trouble thinking past '2001'. For decades we thought of that year as 'the future' and we all through we knew how it would be shaped. But we were as wrong as the Japanese filmmakers of Godzilla were about the effects of nuclear tests at sea. We were as wrong as the animators of the Bugs Bunny era were about household robots that looked like toasters with their own arms and four-fingered hands. We were as wrong as Edison was about DC electrification of the country.
But let's talk about race shall we?
My parents don't. They've done their share, and as black parents they stand pretty much in awe of what has transpired. I speak as the son of a mother who dodged bricks thrown at her when she was pregnant, protesting restrictive housing covenants in Los Angeles County. Something far less odious than Jim Crow. I speak as the son of a father arrested and thrown in jail for dating a white girl in New Haven, CT. I've known what they think about race for my entire life, a conversation that has never been difficult to have, or require the ministrations of a Broadway production. I speak as the nephew of one of the first black stewardesses in the American airline industry, and as the nephew of a college president. I speak as the brother of a young man who died in police custody. I speak as the brother who is a sworn police officer. My black family has experienced a lot of the things we like to talk when we talk about race and a lot of things we don't like to talk about when we talk about race.
I have the choice to abstract these experiences into that narrow kind of plus and minus calculation we like to use when we talk about race in America. But since I know, like all reasonably unsentimentally thoughtful people know, race is a fiction - a narrative kept alive by people who want to believe something about race and have some idea how things ought to be when it comes to race. I'm tempted to say that I have no idea how things ought to be when it comes to race, but I have my druthers. In fact, thinking about race is as easy to me as thinking about sin and I understand very well what a lack of moderation in thinking about sin turns you into. So on the whole, it's very clear that you take race like you take sin, like you take war. Which is to say, you bury the dead and you move on.
I am not stunned that wars end. I am not amazed that the future happens. But here is Frank Rich:
There has been change on the American playing field of race since Inauguration Day 2009—not so much for the better or the worse, but a shift into a kind of twilight zone where the nation’s racial conversation has moved from its usual gears of intractability, obfuscation, angry debate, and platitudinous sentimentality to the truly unhinged. It’s as if everyone can now say, well, that’s that, we’ve elected our first African-American president, we can pat ourselves on the back for doing so, and, with that noble and historic accomplishment in the bank, we will sign on to sideshows ranging from a Herman Cain stunt presidential run to a malicious jihad mounted by a right-wing hit man in Los Angeles, Andrew Breitbart, to destroy Sherrod, an obscure federal worker in Georgia. You’d think Obama’s victory gave the entire country permission to act out like the racial brawlers ofClybourne Park.
There is something unhinged about detatching the narrative about race from its traditional boundaries of 'civil discourse' to the kind of sideshow freakorama it takes on these days. I think two things about that. The first is that Rich, among his Boomer peers, remains bound to articles of faith about race that were set in stone by simple American conventions that are passe and were never quite welded to sound philosophy. And the second is that the unreality of race - its essential Orwellian nature has made all civil discourse about it plainly absurd. These thoughts reinforce each other when taken in the historical context of the Negro Problem and the international attention it once commanded and now no longer deserves. If Herman Cain is a joke, perhaps it is because Thurgood Marshall had to be so serious. But in Thurgood's light, Barack Obama is a joke as well. Perhaps a more sophisticated joke, of the sort that gets giggles of the sort reserved for New Yorker cartoons, but a cartoon nonetheless. For how could this, the administration of the NDAA and secret B-52 bombings, er drone assassinations, be considered serious in contrast to the civil libertarian standards of Justice Marshall? All these jokes are acceptable because there is no deadly or world historical subtext. No great Communist conspiracy is attempting to turn the Negro against America in any Cold War context. No great Pan African Summit awaits great black American keynote speakers about the post-colonial future. Skip Gates is no WEB DuBois. He's just another Harvard professor, and that's all he needs to be. So we don't need to think about him, his predicament or his predictions do we?
Speaking of which, Toni Morrison won her Nobel prize in literature 19 years ago. How many of her books do you suppose Trayvon Martin read? I happen to be one of those black Americans who tends to think a great deal more about our Morrisons than our Martins, more about our Churchills than our chavs. And I recognize that it is outside the narrative for a black American to be inspired by Winston Churchill or to use the term 'chav'. Then again I'm one of those folks that Gwaltney was talking about. I write my own words. I'm invested in the idea that my individuality matters, no matter what whomever is scribbling elsewhere about the significance of the sacking of this or that petty bureacrat or how fair or foul ethnic insults get.
I suddenly was attacked by the idea of the single word I've banned from this website being amplified in a sort of twist on the Stanford Prisoner Experiment. There is that assumption that if the white person turns up the volume dial high and hard enough that the black pain is inevitable. It's not the content that hurts, but the ridiculous volume. The narrative on race has always and ever been noise. The truth is in millions of lives who neither fit the profile, nor the audience for the utopian dreams of yesteryear. How do I get through life without a racial discourse? How does anyone?
I hear they're making plays about race on Broadway. I wonder if any line from it will ever compete with Marcus Garvey who said around the time my great-grandparents died, "Up you mighty race, accomplish what you will." What if we had and nobody noticed? I suppose we couldn't be called a race any longer could we?