Sunday, February 19, 2006

You Want To Destroy A Black Person?

"You've heard the joke," she said to me after wiping the tears from her cheeks. "If you want to destroy a Black person, just leave him in a room with another Black person."

I hadn't heard that particular "joke," but I have often heard an African-American person speak of crabs in a barrel and how when one has almost broken free, the others will pull it back inside.

She had gotten the second highest grade in the class--what ended up amounting to even more than a perfect score once the extra credit points were added in--and then she admitted it when someone in the class cracked a joke about who it could be.

When a person has been out of school for a while and comes back, they very often find that suddenly (and somewhat unexpectedly) they are at the top of their academic game. No matter how well they did--or did not do--before, now, they fairly dazzle themselves with their own performance. It's quite a moment, really. I know, because I had the experience. One minute, I was paralyzed with terror over the whole prospect of "going back to school," my best friend holding my shaking hand and pledging to help me in any way I needed her to so that I could make it. And the next minute, I was already in grad school, having cleared my Bachelor's degree in a calendar year! Who knew?

Anyway, it's very exciting. And reassuring. Damn! Here I thought maybe I was too dumb to walk and chew gum simultaneously and, then, in what felt like a heartbeat, I realized that I hadn't begun to understand what was just waiting patiently to be unleashed. It's like the sun coming up and suddenly, all those shadows disappear and we're dancing for sheer joy. And it most definitely is not about anything or anybody but us.

So we might blurt out in a moment of celebration, "I'm the one! I killed the curve! Is that the bomb or what?" Not unlike how we might feel if our kid wins a race or our mutt dog does a particularly clever stunt we didn't teach it. We're so amazed ourselves that we can't immediately conceive of it having anything to do with effort or even ego. We're simply delighted.

But drawing this type of attention, of course, is like going out in hunting season wearing a deer suit, joy notwithstanding. It'll only ever happen to an individual once, I assure you.

In this case, however, the Curve-Killer was an African-American and the one she apparently most offended was, as well. Thus, the telling of the "joke." And the beginning, for me, of a week of thinking about it. Because even though this exact same thing could have happened to any returning student--male or female, Black or White, rich or poor--when it happened to this particular student, it became about "race." That's how it is in the United States: one way or the other, if you're African-American, everything is about race.

Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that it's perceived as being about race. I'm saying it's about race. Because White people can have a whole list of other characteristics as individuals, but African-Americans are first, foremost, and even with each other, primarily "Black." That's the way the European-American power structure set it up back in the 1700's to reduce Africans to one big amorphous body of labor. Cut them off from their respective traditions, from their languages and their religions, from their names and their peoples, and eventually even from each other. So that two hundred years later, two students of color--both bright, both unquestionably capable of being anything they have an opportunity to be--will find themselves unable to be allies. Now, whose best interest is that in?

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