• U.S.

THE MUSEUM OF SLAVERY?

5 minute read
Lance Morrow

I say, “blacks should focus on whatever increases black self-respect and pride. That is the answer.” He–old friend, old comrade–leans across the table, voice angry, eyes flame throwing. I should not have said “should.”

“Listen,” he starts, meaning, Listen, Whitey. “After everything that has happened, no white man has the right to tell blacks what they should be doing–about anything!”

I have a temper too. I stifle an impulse to fire back what W.C. Fields called “an evasive answer.” Instead I pause and let the adrenaline subside; I roll my eyes to the ceiling and raise my open palms, priestlike: Peace.

But I am right–presumptuous and prim but on the money: self-respect. The answer is in the black mind. Forget about the white mind. The Muslims have been saying it for years.

But when a white man says such things, the truth, arriving from the wrong direction, becomes an enemy truth to blacks–less welcome than a lie. (Enslave them, and then lecture them about self-respect–cutely done, Mr. Charles.) Still, my Inner Ranter is awake and would push my friend even further. He wants to say, “Forget about racism, about racists. They are always there, and irrelevant. What matters is the content of the black mind, not the white. Building the black mind, its morale.” I do not say it. I have no right. My friend ascribes the ills of the universe to racism.

My friend is handsome, brainy, son of a distinguished family, successfully married, light-skinned in a city (Washington) where–a source of ideological discomfort–light skin proclaims the black elite. He was educated in the Ivy League, has climbed high in his profession. But precisely the reasons for which he should feel self-respect, airtight reasons for a white man, raise confusing interior questions about his identity as a black man. Or so I surmise. Hence the anger. Ellis Cose wrote a book called The Rage of a Privileged Class about black executives and law partners who earn half a million dollars or more a year and feel sorry for themselves. My friend is a flashing electrical display of privileged rage.

And thus upon our lunchtime dialogue at Washington’s Jefferson Hotel (named for that numinous slave-owning paradox) there descends the ancestral “twoness,” something of the familiar racial veil W.E.B. DuBois wrote about in 1903.

But my friend and I retreat from the battlefield. We part as friends. For days I continue our conversation in my mind.

I look up DuBois’ great book The Souls of Black Folk and admire again its rolling thunder: “After the Egyptian and Indian, the Greek and Roman, the Teuton and Mongolian, the Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world–a world which yields him no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world … One ever feels his twoness,–an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings .” Will DuBois’ famous refrain–“the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line”–be just as valid in the twenty-first? I like to doubt it.

What will cure the twoness? So many of the problems remain the same. But everything is changed too, mainly because of the emergence of a black middle class. I take up Glenn Loury’s One by One from the Inside Out: Essays and Reviews on Race and Responsibility in America. Loury, a professor of economics at Boston University, is black and writes, among many other things, “No people can be genuinely free so long as they look to others for their deliverance.”

In my imaginary conversation, I echo Loury: affirmative action merely confuses the racial issue, ridiculously placing all blacks in the same category and obscuring the immense differences between the black middle class and the black poor. The need is not affirmative action for the black middle class (for whom it may turn into a moral scam and irrelevance). The imperative is massive intelligent help for the poor, whose condition is an American apocalypse–a disgrace to the nation and, although many may not accept it, a disgrace to the black middle class. That middle class preaches conservative values to its children but excuses the destructive world of the poor as a somehow “authentic” snoop-doggie gangsta-rap culture whose misery results from white racism. That continuing misery, you see, is also a form of moral capital for the black middle class.

Yet at our lunch it occurred to me that the essential problem also revolves, at a deeper level, around myths. We have the founders’ story (Washington et al.), the frontier story (endless folklore there) and the Ellis Island story (sepia-tinted immigrant myth). What is the great void in the national tale?

“What would you think,” I ask my friend, “about a museum and memorial on the Mall in Washington, something called the American Museum of Slavery and Freedom–a national acknowledgment of the history? There is still this terrible suppression of what happened–or half-suppression. There’s denial and ignorance–or else a lot of fatuous political correctness. And yet American culture has been more powerfully formed by black energies than almost anyone knows. Wouldn’t it accomplish something to lift the history into full sunshine? The Vietnam Memorial, after all, worked in a healing way.”

“Oh, it’s a good idea,” my friend says. “It wouldn’t solve anything, though.”

I think: It might be a modest start.

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