Wednesday, May 28, 2008

On Emancipating Minds -- Our Own and Other's

I don't want to give anybody the wrong idea. I've assured my students here in Louisiana that institutionalized oppression in the form of racism is, unfortunately, alive and well throughout the U.S. culture. The default position in this country, I tell them, is White Supremacy. From coast to coast. Even for those -- Black or White -- who have money. (Can you imagine a major White actor being sentenced to three years in prison for being convicted of the misdemeanor crime of not filing his taxes -- like Wesley Snipes just was?) Even for those -- Black or White -- who have advanced degrees from college. (African-American men are four times more likely to be unemployed than European-American men at every educational level.) It's not just in "The South," I promise you.

However, many people in Louisiana don't try to hide it as readily or as well as they do elsewhere. They aren't more racist, you understand. They're just less apologetic about it. They see it as natural. Even reasonable. And African-Americans here have been down so long, they think they prefer segregation to having White folks all up in they business. I don't blame 'em. Sometimes I don't want White folks up in my business either and I'm White (as far as I know).

That's what has bothered me most about Louisiana so far. There's much I love about it. People are often gracious. Almost anybody will feed you. Virtually everybody will invite you to church. Laughter is common. Music is lively. The food is famous. And people kiss you on both cheeks. No place is perfect, after all. But the n-word, as I mentioned the other day, is so common that I've been left off guest lists to avoid a possible scene. (Note: I'm the one left off the guest list.) Once, when I engaged a Black man in a conversation about a business matter, his White employer marched up, joined the conversation, and then summarily dismissed the African-American with a curt "Don't you have something to do?" despite the fact that we were standing in the space where he did his work. On another occasion, I was blessed with a whole collection of racist materials (including an Imperial Klans of America patch and a copy of The Turner Diaries) that a casual acquaintance had skanked from a former cop. At least half of the people of color I've talked to here have warned me in no uncertain terms to be VERY careful who I offend (as if I have any control over what goes on in other people's heads, past just shutting up entirely -- the tack most folks like me apparently are expected to take). And my least favorite moment so far occurred when I was at one point (and I swear it) called "Boss Lady."

I even had an African-American student write me an infuriated note after the grades went in because the F he received (that's going to destroy his chances to keep his athletic scholarship) was MY fault. That poor child was so ill prepared for the idea that he would actually have to do the work in the course that he was incredulous at my behavior in holding him responsible. I tried to work with him all semester, giving him all kinds of encouragement, setting him up with a study group, outlining exactly what would be necessary for him to do to make sure he passed the course, and I could tell he wasn't making the needed effort, but I couldn't figure out why. In the end, he simply didn't believe I was serious. Now where do you suppose he learned that? Black students here are by and large relegated to schools that make little if any attempt to teach even the most basic skills, are trained to believe that their only hope is in sports, and ultimately become convinced that they are incapable of even adequate academic performance, in any case. And that just eats my lunch. Yes, I know it goes on everywhere (which makes it okay how?), but I've never seen the level of self-doubt that I see in people of color here. I'm told it's worse in Mississippi, but I can't speak to that, not having lived there.

This sad reality recently caused me to realize that I now see my primary mission in education NOT as trying to raise European-American consciousness related to "race" (which I used to think), but rather to reach young African-Americans and unmask the lies they have been told as truth about themselves. I mean, I always saw this as important, too, but I used to reverse these two commitments. No longer.

Bob Marley wrote: "Emancipate your mind from mental slavery. Only we ourselves can free our minds." And he was charging all of us with this responsibility. It's no mean trick to shake off the dead hand of history (as Walter Mosley called it here) when the whole society with all its authority, culture, and media machine is ever wrapping chains around anything that moves. But some of us have not only the responsibility to emancipate our own minds, but to feed others that they, too, might free themselves. Of those with much, it is said, much will be required. What is much? It's all relative, now isn't it?

The poster above can be found at Northland Poster Collective.


bubamarenya said...

i am always down with what you say. so much so that at times i forget what a beautiful writer you are. your method is as brilliant as your message. thank you for the lovely words. as an educator i really took this one to heart.

Changeseeker said...

B., you make my heart sing.

Cero said...

Did you get randomly surveyed also by
a public policy project from LSU? They called me up at home, didn't realize I was a professor and it wasn't a question on the survey so they still don't know. Anyway they wanted to know what I thought of the place and whether I'd retire here, I said h*** no and ranted and raved about the defects of the state - apologizing of course to the surveyor, a Louisiana native, who said no no, this is great input, this is actually exactly the kind of stuff we are hoping to hear
but scientifically cannot try to elicit... it was quite interesting.

Changeseeker said...

No, I missed the survey, Cero. More's the pity. I'd like to tell somebody that we need an extra couple of feet added to all the roads, too. I'm constantly terrified I'm going to get sideswiped by one of these extra wide trucks being driven by a good ole boy drinking a daiquiri behind the wheel. A petty thing, perhaps, next to the vote buying and the general racism, but still and all, wearing on the nerves...