In the essay “The Education of a Storyteller” (which can be found in Deep Sightings and Rescue Missions, a posthumously published collection of short stories and essays by Ms. Bambara that was edited by Toni Morrison), the late Toni Cade Bambara chronicled her growth as a writer and, yes, a storyteller, beginning with lessons from school and including the responsibilities necessary for one to take on the role of speaker. What struck me most about this essay were two things, the first being a quote from philosopher Fritz Fanon: “To speak is to assume a culture and bear responsibility for a civilization.” The second – perhaps not as eloquently articulated to some – comes from one of her relatives: “Yeah, speak yo’ speak, child. For every silence you maintain will first become a lump in your throat and later become a lump in your lymphatic system.”
I mention this because I have, like many in recent weeks, been watching the details of this year’s presidential election and found myself surprised, humbled, grateful, and indeed outraged at what I have read. Of course, I have been incredibly pleased to read much of the commentary, including that by both Representative John Lewis and New York Times commentator Frank Rich, as well as both Colin Powell’s endorsement of Barack Obama and his reasons for doing so. Nevertheless, I have also been deeply disturbed by much of be unchallenged behavior going on across the land and was quite frightened – to say the least – upon hearing about the two young men who had hatched what can only be called the Election Day Massacre.
However, a recent conversation that I had with a friend – a dear friend whom I have known since starting my undergraduate studies in 1987 - has compelled me to organize my thoughts as well as possible and share them. I can only hope that both the situation and my thoughts surrounding said situation have been presented in a manner that all can understand.
During said conversation, my friend mentioned that he had recently had a conversation with a coworker who, upon speaking about the upcoming election, said “I’m still grappling with the idea of voting for a Black man.” My friend’s response to his colleague: “I disagree with you.” Their conversation of course continued, and during the course of the conversation my friend’s coworker made the point that many were still processing this “idea” by taking a random "street poll" - asking those passing by if they indeed shared his feelings.
As I write this, I think of Mr. Fanon’s words and realize that I as a human being must do what I ask of others, that being that I must fully understand – something that can only happen through asking questions – before making a pronouncement or an argument. Nevertheless, being an “African-American” (with my family having been in the United States for longer than a generation, I take some pause with using this category to describe my people) I immediately bristled – and found myself even more incensed when my friend added “I so wish that you could have been there so that you could have taken him to task.”
My response: “Did YOU take him to task?”
“No – I wouldn’t want him to speak ill of me to my coworkers.”
Before I go on, I must say that my friend – a dear friend – has not only discriminatory bone in his body. However, as OUR conversation continued I found myself becoming increasingly angered, and after a solid hour of back and forth - during which I hammered the question "Why did you not take the opportunity to speak to this man about his views, which were obviously NOT political, but based in the ignorance of prejudice?" my friend answered: “I wouldn’t want to open the can of worms and have that kind of hatred floating around.”
When pressed, my friend also asserted that “Laying into this man at that particular time would be inappropriate” and asked why I felt that it was necessary for him to do so.
It is both daring and safe to say that we in the United States have, in regards to both human rights and the eradication of prejudice, come quite far. Nevertheless, it was incredibly disheartening to see this double standard still in existence, that being the maintenance of a personal status quo while feeling somewhat hopeless about both the issues of true racial equality and the challenge of eradicating the ignorant notions of superiority and inferiority that still plague our nation surrounding the topic of ethnic relations.
I did of course press my friend about his level of commitment and accountability and of course, upon hearing the “usual arguments” (“This man has the right to think and believe what he wants”, etc. ad nauseum) my stance changed from “explain yourself” to “fire-and-be-damned-to-you.” Not only is it inappropriate to say that someone has the right to think of any group of people with disdain, as doing so shows not only a great deal of ignorance and spiritual bankruptcy – it is safe to say that the word “inappropriate” is not strong enough to describe such dark thoughts.
By now you may all be asking the question “And your point, Sam?”
During the early 1960s James Baldwin organized a meeting with then Attorney General Robert Kennedy and a group of national and international figures including Lena Horne, Harry Belafonte, Lorraine Hansberry, and Jerome Smith – the latter who had been injured in the Freedom Rides. This meeting, held to discuss how the issues of race should be handled during that time, was not an initial success, as it “crystallized a problem that was basic to the civil rights movement of the sixties,” that problem being that “the white liberals were…pledged to reform the existing system” while “the black at the meeting saw the race problem as having moral dimensions that transcended the particular concerns of the day and went to the heart of what it was to be American.”
Those who met with Attorney General Kennedy wanted to see a great moral commitment from those who supported the cause of civil rights, as opposed to talk alone.
Almost fifty years later, as we stand on the precipice of what could indeed be a great moment in our nation’s history, that being the election of our nation’s first black president, it may be safe to say that what we – “we” referring to the entire population of this country – ask for is a great moral commitment from our leaders and our peers as opposed to the status quo talk, judgmental disdain and political posturing that plagues and frustrates us on all levels, from employment problems to issues as still divisive as race relations and gay marriage.
THIS is the type of commitment that I was seeking from my friend – and I shared that with him. To take a stand, not share with me his feelings of hopelessness, and not to expect me (as "the black man") to take up the conversation with “the other”.
After having visited Africa, during which his views on the teachings of Islam changed, Malcolm X came back to the United States applauding the sincerity of all people in their quest to understand and perhaps solve the racial problems that were destroying the United States during the very turbulent 1960s: “I said that on the American racial level, we had to approach the black man’s struggle against the white man’s racism as a human problem, that we had to forget hypocritical politics and propaganda…both races, as human beings, had the obligation, the responsibility, of helping to correct America’s human problem. The well-meaning white people…had to combat, actively and directly, the racism in other white people. And the black people had to build within themselves much greater awareness that along with equal rights there had to be the bearing of equal responsibilities.”
Understanding that we as a society have indeed progressed quite far in healing the wounds of the greater part of the twentieth century, I also understand that there are still personal wounds and memories that must be excavated and healed. Having watched and listened to men like Colin Powell and Barack Obama, I do also understand that we as a people must be incredibly careful when speaking about anything – as well as the importance of bringing these issues to a human level, as it is only through that kind of understanding that dialogue and both inner and outer change can take place.
Nevertheless, in whatever direction this election goes, we will still have the day after…and I can only hope that we as a people can continue to look inside of ourselves and summon the courage to truly take the stands of which both James Baldwin and Malcolm X spoke. The responsibility to change all notions and prejudices belongs to all of us – and neither maintaining the status quo nor shrugging one’s shoulders and saying “That’s horrible” are acceptable. If this campaign has shown us anything, it has most definitely shown us that there’s no “going back to normal” if normal means being silent in the midst of divisive and hate-loaded action.
More from the road - and perhaps more on musicmaking later (This IS "Life, Musicmaking and THE WORLD", after all...),