Tuesday, May 19, 2015

The Last Day of School

"People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster."
James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son

Last week, the dozens of students whom I've come to see and know since January were released from their obligation of talking about racism with me. It is hard work discussing the nature of your relationship to white supremacy, and fifteen straight weeks of it must seem like enough for anyone. So it was with some trepidation that I chose my parting words for the last day of school. "In all likelihood," I said, "you will never again be held to account for what you learned about racism in this class. At least not by any institution that has any power over you." If they are accepted, graduated, hired, promoted, invited, befriended, married, or congratulated, they are so in spite of their antiracism and not because of it. For where in the world will their grasp of the reach and power of white supremacy attest to the state of their competence? Our society just isn't built that way. Where the Potomac is Lethe, every day can be a forgetting and an absolution. Like summer vacation. Who else besides their earnest professor will so esteem such knowledge?

The answer, of course, must be ourselves. For our own sake, we must hold ourselves accountable for what we have learned. We are all that we have.

We must do this for ourselves because the alternative is oblivion. Ta-Nehisi Coates recently held a Twitter colloquy on the proper role of the political writer in America. He describes the part at the end of a talk where an audience member asks him for "a reason to hope" for the coming of racial justice. Coates cannot offer any optimism because failure is a very real possibility. The kicker, however, is that pessimism shouldn't change a thing.
Of course this leads to the obvious question--Why struggle? For me it's simple--so I can sleep at night. There's too much talk about "inevitable victory" and not enough about keeping your conscience. I could very easily imagine an America that is racist to the very end. If you showed me that future, I'd say, "Meh. And keep fighting." How I live my life has actual meaning. As much meaning--perhaps more meaning--than convincing other people.
Similarly, graduating seniors have asked me for advice on how to make a difference. Despite their evident desire to accomplish something in the world, I tell them that their goal should be to hold themselves to account. This is not an easy thing. Most will forget everything they learned about racism within a year. Given the currency of our realm, they should expect nothing else. In time, a stranger will cry colorblindness, and they will stumble reaching for an adequate response. Live your life so that there is no reaching. The measure of your virtue is the health of your conscience. To know this is not to waste your time and blood.

Toni Morrison knew this forty years ago when she delivered a lecture entitled "A Humanist View" at Portland State University. It is a remarkable jeremiad for a new age. In this part of the transcript, she cautions against forgetting who you are and who you are responsible to.
It's important, therefore, to know who the real enemy is, and to know the function, the very serious function of racism, which is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining over and over again, your reason for being. . . . None of that is necessary. . . . And I urge you to be careful. For there is a deadly prison: the prison that is erected when one spends one’s life fighting phantoms, concentrating on myths, and explaining over and over to the conqueror your language, your lifestyle, your history, your habits. And you don’t have to do it anymore. You can go ahead and talk straight to me. To avoid the prison of reacting to racism is a problem of the very first order. Where the mind dwells on changing the minds of racists is a very dank place. . . . And where the will that you allow to be eroded day by day, day by day, by consistent assaults from racists, then the will just settles into a little tiny heap of sand, and you just have a second-rate existence, jammed with second-hand ideas.
I wish that words like these would ring in every commencement from coast to coast, but of course that is impossible, which is entirely my point. Black women cannot even whisper white supremacy without a Nobel Prize. All that is beyond will sanction and measure us against their vital fictions, so we must be the ones to know better. Anything less is a puny humanity.

To be accountable to yourself is to stay awake despite how vigilance can smart, for white supremacy is nothing if not an ether. Ask the lawyers of Cleveland, who nodded in time when one said blame the child. Or ask the police of Baltimore, who will break your neck to make you nod. But you do not have to nod to be asleep; you need only say nothing despite the pricks of your conscience which, one by one, slowly dissolve into your dreamy plot.

You are your own stern lecturer or you are done.

In 1855, Herman Melville knew this when he wrote Benito Cereno, the story of Amasa Delano, a white American sea captain who encounters a Spanish slave ship, the San Dominick, floundering adrift off the coast of Chile. He boards the ship and discovers it in disarray. Its captain, Benito Cereno, behaves so erratically that the American begins to feel threatened. Over the course of the story, Delano contrives a series of possible explanations for the odd behavior: Cereno is inexperienced, poorly bred, insane, a pirate, an impostor, in league with his slaves. With each new theory, Delano is momentarily shaken, his perspective dizzied, calmed only the vision of black slaves in their customary roles on deck. Familiar stories displace the novel and the truth they bring.

Amasa Delano lacks imagination. He cannot unify the fragments of meaning before him into a true history: that the slaves had masterminded a revolt and then a charade to deceive him. The leader of the slaves, a Senegalese named Babo, is puppeteer to his hostage Cereno. Delano had authored countless biographies for Cereno but only one for the Africans: slave. Readers who fail to decipher Cereno's freaks also subscribe to an oppressive single story of the Africans. Even when Babo drives a dagger toward Cereno's heart, Delano miscalculates, believing himself to be the target. Once safe, Cereno calmly expresses his frustration:
"[Y]ou were with me all day; stood with me, sat with me, talked with me, looked at me, ate with me, drank with me; and yet, your last act was to clutch for a villain, not only an innocent man, but the most pitiable of all men. To such degree may malign machinations and deceptions impose. So far may even the best men err, in judging the conduct of one with the recesses of whose condition he is not acquainted. But you were forced to it; and you were in time undeceived. Would that, in both respects, it was so ever, and with all men."
Cereno is changed by his long captivity. Delano cannot abide Cereno's enduring gloom, unsure why his counterpart cannot be more like himself: "'You are saved,' cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained; 'you are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?'" Exiled for weeks, lost at sea on a crippled galleon, Cereno had a singular experience: to observe the fullness of black humanity on its own terms, absent any worldly mediation. The knowledge is too much to bear for the slave trader.

We end the semester reading Benito Cereno in my early American literature course. I want it to remind my students that new stories will come to dizzy them as they did Delano, who was as real as they themselves are. They will be on the brink of something new and terrifying. That is the time to pay attention and to refuse craven innocence. At times unsteady and out-of-focus, the truth will be right in front of their faces if they will only see it. But old stories will materialize to settle and distract them, say that it is all right for now and ever. Their only reward for pulling away from these lies will be their conscience.

The classic American literary archetype was never Huckleberry Finn or Jay Gatsby; it is Amasa Delano, who in Melville's tale remains asleep to the world and yet is celebrated by it. We live in different times and on dry land. There is no Babo with a razor at your throat in the middle of the ocean. You are free to go. There is nothing to hold you to account to learn what white supremacy scorns. Do it anyway and for yourself.

For all of my students, past, present, and future.