Archives for posts with tag: alienation

jamesbaldwinsketch

As some of you may know, my 2014 New Year’s Resolution has been to read at least one book without pictures every month. In January, I read Kay Larson’s Where the Heart Beats: John Cage, Zen Buddhism, and the Inner Life of Artists, which was a Christmas gift from a fellow ethnic Jew. In February, I reread Neil Postman’s Technolopoly, a book that one of my dearest friends had recommended to me back in 2003, a decade after it was written, and a book that remains relevant in 2014. In March, one of my friends from WonderRoot lent me James Baldwin’s Notes of A Native Son. I hope to continue this tradition of reading recommended books as the forces of chaos and friendship seem to putting the exact book I need to be reading into my hands.

Notes of A Native Son is largely a book about traveling. Baldwin relays his experiences exploring the United States and Europe while confronting the frustrating and rewarding struggle to understand the American identity. Baldwin’s working definition of what it means to be an American is something like an imaginary number, practical in certain cases but somewhat impossible. Unlike other noted writers who detail the American experience  like Tocqueville or Baudrillard, Baldwin is, as stated clearly in the title of the book, a native son. My own experiences as an American may appear very differently from Baldwin’s; some obvious differences relate to time, space, and race, but there is also a kinship I feel with this man from the past that stems from shared alienations as writers, expats, outsiders, and Americans. While being an American of any race in the United States can be alienating, I’d like to discuss Notes of A Native Son‘s final essay, “Stranger in the Village,” which details his experience visiting a remote Swiss village and encountering the locals who have never met a black man before. These villagers were not unaware of the existence of black people. They simply hadn’t met one before. These villagers had, however, contributed funds to “buy” some Africans- this “buy” terminology is taken from Baldwin who takes it from the villagers themselves. This practice does not involve purchasing slaves in the literal sense, but providing the monetary resources required to bring Christ into the life of an unsuspecting African. Baldwin is an eloquent critic of the church and shares his astute observations about how missionary work has impacted senses of identity for both African and African-American alike. With evangelicalism comes an unavoidable insult- before you knew me, you were hell fodder (and it’s larger implication- your entire civilization, its history and every one who lived before you, is unholy rubbish).

With this in mind, I’d like to share Baldwin’s words on the difference being the first black person that white people meet and being the first white person that black people meet. Remember that more specifically he is comparing the experience of an African-American intellectual in the 1950s visiting a rural Swiss village and a European missionary visiting a remote African village.

I thought of white men arriving for the first time in an African village, strangers there, as I am a stranger here, and tried to imagine the astounded populace touching their hair and marveling at the color of their skin. But there is a great difference between being the first white man to be seen by Africans and being the first black man to be seen by whites. The white man takes the astonishment as tribute, for he arrives to conquer and to convert the natives, whose inferiority in relation to himself is not even questioned; whereas I, without a thought of conquest, find myself among a people whose culture controls me, has even, in a sense, created me, people who have cost me more in anguish and rage than they will ever know, who yet do not even know of my existence. The astonishment with which I might have greeted them, should they have stumbled into my African village a few hundred years ago, might have rejoiced their hearts. But the astonishment with which they greet me today can only poison mine.”

I’ve never been to Africa and I don’t remember the black person I met, but there is something about this passage that relates somewhat to my own experiences. I was among the first white people that many people in China ever met and consequentially I have received the astonishment of the natives. Of course, the astonishment came with some entirely different baggage than the experience of a white missionary in Africa. Examples include the Cold War, China’s current economic status, the U.S. involvement in China’s political affairs over the past century, China’s established 5,000 years of history, the internet, John Denver, and Deng Xiaoping- the list could go on and on, but I’d rather address the similarities. As a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer drunk on the ego-swelling nectar of White Man’s Burden, I surely exhibited a sense of superiority over the Chinese people I met. Luckily my experiences offered many opportunities to embarrass myself and learn humility, but I was never free of the arrogance and elitism instilled in me by my own American background and the functioning of the larger world-system. Unlike the European missionary in Africa, I had no interest in marketing for Jesus, but I consciously desired to influence the way the people I met thought not only about the United States, but also about their own country, culture, and lives. At the invitation of the government of China, I was teaching university students, so my cultural imports were less forced than requested. Still I functioned as a propagandist for the Western ideals that I hold dear- not necessarily the ideals of the US State Department or anyone else, but the ideals that my experiences have compelled me to extoll in my daily life and as an educator. In fact, I believe my rejection of many Western ideas and acceptance of many Chinese and Marxist sentiments allowed me to make so many friends and enjoy my life there as much I did. I also arrived in China with little faith in the prejudices and condemnations by which Western society had tried to define China with during my lifetime. The irrelevance of Cold War propaganda and hefty evidence of the Chinese people’s extraordinary capabilities certainly watered down any sense of superiority that I carried with me, but I took the astonishment at tribute to rejoice my heart more often than I let the astonishment poison my heart, to borrow Baldwin’s words.

After finishing the essay, I quickly moved onto a book with pictures…

saintsss

Anxious to read Gene Luen Yang’s Boxers & Saints, I waited until my wife finished reading it as I had purchased it for her and I’d feel like a bit of heel reading it before she did. Yang made an excellent choice in choosing the Boxer Rebellion as a period in Chinese history to turn into a comic book because the Boxers believed they had magical powers and Catholics believe they are visited are saintly ghosts. In Boxers, the first volume, the Boxers have magical powers and in Saints, the second volume, stars a young girl who converts after being visited by ghost of Joan of Arc. One central theme of the text and the Boxer rebellion in general is the effect that the newly arrived European missionaries had on China. The foreigners who arrived in China at the end of the 19th century definitely arrived with a sense of superiority- not only missionaries, not only Europeans. The simultaneous import of Christianity and opium, reinforced by advanced weaponry, is a pretty strong strategy to take advantage of a trusting country and seems like an obvious plot to subjugate them. The response of local Chinese to either resist these invaders or align themselves with them is a bit of a classic dilemma- neither a particularly attractive coping mechanism, but resistance is generally regarded as more noble and collaboration is generally regarded with contempt. Yang himself is a Chinese-American Catholic, but his sympathies for the Boxers cannot be denied. By telling the story through the perspective of two different characters, Yang shows two methods to reconcile an infestation of foreigners- neither of which are ultimately successful. Yang finds subtle ways to bring perspectives to his comics, providing a noteworthy voice to women during this period both in the Red Lanterns in Boxers and in the major characters of Saints. One voice that is either absent or demonized, perhaps rightly so, is the voice of foreigner. I certainly feel more kinship with James Baldwin visiting a Swiss village in the 1950s than I do with a European soldier or American missionary arriving in late 19th Century China- it’s a bit of an apple-orange comparison, but the experience of reading both texts reminded me of two contradictory truths that fight each other to make us forget them- our experiences are similar and our experiences are different, not usually, but always at the same time- and this message, its simultaneity and inherent contradiction, is at the heart of both texts.

Post-script footnote: I think Ann Nocenti’s run on Green Arrow is one of the most under-rated chapters of DC’s New 52. She portrays Oliver Queen as one of an Ugly American while propelling the narrative and bringing our attention to misunderstandings between China and the West. I think her work is unfairly clumped in with the poor start led by Dan Jurgens and J.T. Krul. Unfortunately Jeff Lemire’s amazing work with the character will only further overshadow Nocenti’s contributions to the title.

johnandpat

Most of us dwell on the future in January, but February is a time to incorporate our past into our present challenges and future aspirations. This coming Tuesday, Wonder Root Community Arts Center will host U.S. Civil Rights pioneer Attorney John D. Due, Jr. for a discussion about why Black History is important to people of all ethnic backgrounds. I’d like to use this space to explain why Black History is important to me.

I like Black History Month and have felt compelled to celebrate it as long as I can remember. Full disclouse: I’m not black and I am an historian. From that statement, let’s look at two questions:

1) Why am I an historian? I first recognized my love of history- or to put in more Flash-like terms “my connection to the Past Force”- in fifth grade studying the U.S. War of Independence. The primary school introduction of those who founded the United States stirred a certain sympathy in me- they wanted to be free from the tyranny of King George and I wanted to be free from the tyranny of childhood. In middle school, I identified similarly with the Russian revolutionaries I learned about in my World History course at about the time their revolution was proving to fail. Like my most children in middle school, I had figured out that life would be a constant struggle to live peacefully among my peers. It is around this time that I began to take my own class consciousness seriously, placing it high among the tools with which I would understand the world. It was very popular among both black and white students to wear clothing adorned with large Xs, referring to Malcolm X, and I read Alex Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X in an attempt to understand this pop culture figure; I distinctly remember being challenged by white students for reading the book and feeling pretty surprised. It has taken much of my life to realize how polarizing historical figures like Malcolm X are in the U.S. historical discourse. Similarly many students wore t-shirts with the Red Hot Chili Peppers logo on them, so I read a biography about them too and for those of you unfamiliar with their early years, the story of the Chili Peppers is largely one of racial harmony and cooperation. Other pop culture icons that my generation was following were Nirvana and Pearl Jam, both very vocal about women’s issues, particularly rape and access to abortion. I entered high school expecting a much more liberal world than I actually encountered. How was I so naive? Well, I didn’t belong and that brings us to question 2.

2) Why am I not black and if I’m not black, what am I? Born in New York into a family that nearly all lived in New England, my family had contributed very little to local history and in turn, had very little influence on how society existed in Georgia and the U.S. South generally. My heritage did not line up with the collectively understood narrative of history. Though Jewish by blood, I had not connection to the Jewish community. I didn’t partake of the big Jewish rituals and my Jewish ancestors came to the U.S. before the Holocaust. Though raised Christian and living in an unbearably Christian society, seeds of doubt were sown early on and I felt almost no kinship to that community. My ancestors had nearly all arrived in this country after slavery had been abolished and I felt little personal guilt for the heinous crime that was the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Raised by the moderately left-wing, the worldview I’d inherited did not always match that of my peers. My “segregation consciousness” really came alive in high school as students were separated by academic performance. I’d been part of special education programs for the gifted since primary school, but the cultures of the academically advanced and the other become much more distinct from one another in high school. While I embraced a culture of learning, I felt very suspicious of this group I had been herded into and saw it as little more than another institutionalized form of tyranny with an inherent and systemic character dependent on the alienation of my ideas. I kept getting shoved into White cultures that I either felt no affinity for, had no connection to, or stood in direct conflict with my understanding of the world. My experiences in college and graduate school reinforced many of my aversions to White cultures, but more importantly helped me accept my place in a much larger historical context and realize that many of the faults that I find in the world are the products of awkward compromises made between people trying to hold onto whatever power they have and people trying to obtain greater power. Heroes, villains, victors, vanquished- people are selfish and the bounds of their selfishness have the potential to expand and become more sophisticated. By this I mean, people take care of themselves and take care of their families, but social and spiritual progress hinges on recognizing that our families are not solely defined by blood.

It’s a great paradox, achieving a sense of community depends on the achieving a sense of self. While I’m not black, my sense of self is largely understood by the forces of history and those forces have been heavily informed by the Black experience. Growing up in Georgia and living in Atlanta again, daily life is informed heavily by the experiences and contributions of black people. If I have any hope to understand my place as a citizen of Atlanta, I must actively pursue Black History as local history cannot be separated it; additionally, I feel firm in the argument that the conditions of globalization make it impossible to separate Black History and specifically the experience of blacks in the U.S. from any local history around the world. While I’m not black, My History is recklessly incomplete without Black History; since I fully believe that My History informs My Identity, My Identity is recklessly incomplete without Blackness. How I respond to and incorporate Blackness into my life responsibly is a challenge that cannot and should not be ignored.

As I finished my final requirements for my MA at Georgia State, I applied to join the US Peace Corps, intent on serving somewhere in Africa. Like most applicants to the Peace Corps, my primary motivation was self-discovery through service and I believed pursuing Blackness to be crucial to revealing truths about myself. The winds of fate and the bureaucratic pen of the Peace Corps determined that my self-discovery plans were not ambitious enough and I found myself serving in China. Let me clarify for the geographically challenged out there, China is not located in Africa and no matter what Gogol tells you, it is also a completely different country than Spain. There aren’t a lot of black people in China, especially compared to Africa.  Barely coming anywhere close to reconciling the role Blackness has played and continues to play in my life, I found myself confronted with a whole new set of challenges that would prove to further sophisticate my worldview if I had any hope of surviving in my new home. While I had studied some Chinese History, it had certainly felt more foreign than studying Black History, but now that History was becoming much less foreign not only for me personally, but for every citizen around the world- pretty exciting time to be China and sharing in the experiences of the Chinese people during that time has had irreversible effects on my worldview. As an historian, I’ve come to appreciate how different cultures approach history. The historical tradition of the Chinese corresponds in many ways with the historical tradition I’ve inherited from the Judeo-Christian tradition, the European Age of Enlightenment, and new methodologies popularized in 20th century academia such as social and economic history. My training in Marx, Hegel, Lenin, and other historically minded Western intellectuals that China has embraced also prepared me for discussions with Chinese historians as did my familiarity with opponents and critics of European and U.S. imperialism.

Upon entering China, I had no doubt that better understanding Chinese History would bring about in me a better understanding of World History. When my wife and I joined our families in marriage in 2009, we also joined our personal histories so that rather my family and its history expanded in very concrete terms as opposed to the philosophical exercise of embracing all history as essential to your own. My family had now become Chinese and though the Chinese people make it pretty clear that a 外国人 will never be 中国人, I cannot separate the history of the Chinese people with that of my family and certainly not that of my children, should my wife and I choose to reproduce. Since moving to the United States in 2012, my wife has realized that her historical understanding is incomplete without a better understanding of Black History. She’s currently reading The Black Holocaust for Beginners and is rarely shy to ask questions of people she meets. I’m regularly surprised by some of her insights into the racial dynamic of our city, the US, and the world at large as her revelations are informed by her experiences as a Chinese woman. For example, she understands the civic-minded Black Panthers much more than religious leaders such as the SCLC’s Martin Luther King, Jr. and NOI’s Malcolm X. Growing up in a society that largely views religion as dangerous superstition, the more pragmatic approach of providing clinics, food programs, and self-defense classes by the Black Panthers is much more reasonable to her than singing in a church, invoking the holy spirit, or pursuing salvation in the afterlife.

Black History is important to me because without a practical appreciation for it, I could not navigate my way in this world. Some Black History angers me, some inspires me, and some bores me terribly, but the study and discussion of it never weakens my understanding of the world and my place in it nor does it wholly satisfy me. I encourage you to explore Black History, share it with the people you know, and make it a part of your life all year round.

You are all invited to join us for a discussion about the importance of Black History on Feb. 25, 2014 at 6:30 pm at Wonder Root Community Arts Center, located at 982 Memorial Drive SE, Atlanta, GA. The event is free and John D. Due, Jr. played a pretty amazing role in the U.S. Civil Rights movement as both an activist and an attorney.

attherojohndue

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