Trapped in Race Narratives

 

Skip Gates's prison mug shot

Henry Louis Gates's prison mug shot

It’s not everyday that an affair involving an English professor is the hottest topic in the national news.  In this case, the Professor Henry Louis Gates/Officer James Crowley incident, where America’s leading black intellectual was mistaken for an intruder and arrested in his own home, trumped even the health care debate.  

The fact that everyone has felt a compulsive need to talk about the arrest confirms once again that race, as the saying goes, is the third rail of American politics.  Our reliance on slavery for the first 200 years of American history and the prevalence of Jim Crow laws for the next 100 are legacies that are so woven into our national DNA that talk of a postracial society are almost always premature.  As William Faulkner, a white southerner who saw race relations up close, famously said in Requiem for a Nun, “The past is never dead.  It’s not even past.”

Of course, in some ways progress has been made, as Obama’s election indicates.  But old stories die hard.   In a statement following the beer get-together at the White House, Gates talked about the incident in ways that will be familiar to readers of this blog.  As he sees it, the policeman and he were actors in a drama that had already been written: “Sergeant Crowley and I, through an accident of time and place, have been cast together, inextricably, as characters – as metaphors, really – in a thousand narratives about race over which he and I have absolutely no control.”

How do these narratives operate?  Well, we all have stories about how the world works and we see the world through the lens of these stories.  For Crowley—or at least for a number of those who have weighed in on his side and who are castigating Gates—the stories feature black intruders, obstreperous black men, black men who are arrogant and who push their success in your face (and who owe that success to unfair affirmative action), and elitist intellectuals.  These stories often are driven as much by class resentment amongst different oppressed groups as they are by race.


For Gates and many of his supporters, the story involves a long history of police racism and police abuse of power, a sense that African Americans have to watch their step in a way that whites don’t, and a feeling that even when they’ve “made it,” someone will show up and try to drag them down again.  I imagine Gates, whose academic credentials are impeccable, feeling suddenly like the narrator in the “Battle Royale” chapter of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.  

In this magnificent novel, the recent high school graduate shows up to give a speech to the white elders of the town.  He thinks they want to hear what he has to say but discovers that they regard him only as a n______ .  In fact, they regard him as worse than his fellow uneducated blacks because he has pretensions, and they devise an entertainment that puts him in his place. 

I wonder if Gates felt the same sense of shock as the invisible man—that he, a Harvard professor, was being treated like other African Americans.  I wonder if that’s one reason he kept after the cop, demanding to see his badge and get his identity.  Almost universally,liberal black newspaper columnists following the incident welcomed Gates to the “club” by describing their own encounters with abusive police.

The narrative of police racism is so strong for African Americans that it even pulled in a president famous for efforts to stand above the fray.  But no one in this country can transcend race.  If Obama used the word “stupidly” to characterize how the police acted, I suspect it was because he identified so much with Gates.  If you aren’t safe even when you have arisen to the top of your profession (as both men have), then it’s understandable why you would lose your composure.  I remember thinking that, for the first time since his inauguration, I was seeing my president as a black man.

Then Obama did what all thinking people should do, which was reflect upon his response and try to turn the crisis into a “teachable moment.”  Which is to say, help direct people to a better understanding of racial tension.

Demagogues don’t like better understanding, preferring simple black and white stories.  When their stories are turned into works of fiction, we get bad novels, with shallow wish fulfillments and revenge fantasies.  Such novels are satisfying the way a donut is satisfying: they may give us a sugar rush but they do not nurture or sustain us in a real way.  They confirm us in our unhealthy habits.

Great literature, by contrast, doesn’t allow the stories to remain simplistic.  Good authors can create three-dimensional characters on both sides of a racial divide to capture the nuances of the situation.  When we are reading a good novel, poem or play dealing with racial themes, a dialogue is set in motion between our prejudices and human complexity.

For the rest of this week I will look at literary works that deepen our understanding of race in this country.  I do this in part to illuminate the Gates/Crowley incident but also to honor the NAACP, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary.  As someone who was raised in the segregated south and saw our local NAACP bring integration to my elementary school (that story tomorrow), I am pleased to have this opportunity to voice my gratitude.

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