African-Americanism and Me
I’ve been thinking. A dangerous pastime. I know.
No, I’m not talking to myself, I’m actually thinking. And I’ve been thinking about race and my relationship to one in particular. I’ve been examining my feelings for African Americans.
In a recent conversation with a friend, I said that I felt more affinity for African Americans than whites, and certainly gays, even though I am both white and gay. He asked me why I felt that way. I explained that I had done a great deal of research on African American history, that I listened almost exclusively to their music, and that I felt more black sometimes than white. I didn’t mention how at one point my boss, who was from Missouri, saw my library and asked how long I had wanted to be black. Or the brief delusion during one psychotic break that my mother had slept with a black man shortly before she married my father and that I was secretly half-black. A delusion, after all, rarely has much to do with reality.
Needless to say, for some reason I find myself drawn to African Americans. For a long time, I’ve felt that black music is the only legitimate music and that the plight of African Americans (as they are in a plight, or so my white privilege judges) is more important to me than the plight of homosexuals or other communities to which I belong. Last year I was convinced that I needed to give up my US citizenship based on the twin crimes of slavery and genocide of the Indians. And the racism that ran rampant under President Trump pained me tremendously.
Yet I have really only known two or three African Americans in my life. My primary contact with them, even when I lived in North Carolina, was with my barber. I have never really had any black friends or any close relationships with black people. Yet I feel more for them than I do for my own kind.
I’m currently on a road trip. Escaping Covid lockdown in the city to go to the beach for a week. I’m not the driver and the music I’m listening to isn’t necessarily the music I would normally choose. It’s primarily white artists singing black music. Blues-rock played by pale brethren. And as I listened to it, and the occasional repast from a black singer, I realized they were not as different as I have learned to consider them.
I long thought that black artists were different, more genuine, more real. That their experiences were more visceral and true because they were poor and their talent was abused by white record executives and their struggle was somehow more legitimate than white artists. But there are two primary motivations for black artists to go into music, to make money and because they have a dream to do so.
Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, et al., all started singing the blues because they wanted to get off of the farm. They wanted to stop picking cotton and to make a life that mimicked the fat cats they saw rolling around with white skin and big cars. That they started a little lower on the totem pole than white artists adds to their veracity, but shouldn’t detract from white artist’s contribution to the art.
Early rock artists, rockabilly, country, the men who recorded on the Sun label in Memphis in the fifties all wanted to make it big. They either wanted the cash and the life or they had a dream. No different from the black artists who preceded them or the Motown singers, funk rockers, or hip hop DJs and MCs that followed them. Music was a way to escape hard lives or a dream that they pursued, for both white and black. Why should I dismiss white music just because it doesn’t have the cachet of black music?
And then I expanded my thoughts. I began to examine my relationship with African Americans. Why was I obsessed with their history and their struggles? Why did they interest me more than my white ancestors or my gay brothers and sisters or the Asian cultures where I live and work? Why, if I had practically no exposure to actual African Americans, did I idolize it.
And then I began to think of the concept of Orientalism. I don’t remember the name of the author who wrote the book and I don’t have the internet to look at the moment, but the idea was that Europeans saw the Orient as a distinct other, and through their holding it on a pedestal of exoticness, prevented it from standing equal to the European cultures. It was a nifty way of Imperialistic ethnocentrism and dominance of a foreign people.
I thought of the British, and Americans of the Nineteenth Century and early Twentieth who dressed like Chinese and who displayed fine China, figurines, bought Ming vases, held Chinese and Asian culture up as something exciting and new, something to be idolized and mimicked, but only insomuch as it didn’t interfere with their white superiority.
In my worship of African Americans, had I done the same thing? Had I focused on a race that was foreign and exotic because they were distant and removed, a people that I could idolize from afar without having to invest in actual relationships or actual effort on their behalf? Was I homesick for a people and an ideal that I had never actually known in practice?
Was my obsession with African Americans, and their life experiences, keeping me from integrating into my own life? Was I ignoring equally legitimate and important cultures and peoples simply because I held African Americans as being more important due to their exoticness and their struggles that seemed to give them life in my imagination?
I live in Vietnam. I am still considering becoming a Vietnamese citizen in three years once I’ve established residency long enough to qualify. The Vietnamese culture is older than the African American culture and filled with struggles. They have distinctive music and food and history. Why don’t I develop an interest in that? Or the homosexual community? It has a history that stretched back beyond David and Saul’s son, a history that is entwined with world history from Japan and China to the third sex of some Indian tribes to Eighteenth-Century Muslim princes in northern Africa. A rich and interesting culture that is also older than African Americans and that has involved equally harsh oppression. For centuries in the British Empire being gay warranted death, a punishment that was not meted to African Americans simply because they were black.
These are cultures and peoples that I should not ignore, that are part of me and around me and make up the actual core of my identity. By focusing on a people who are foreign and exotic I am removing myself from the responsibility of participating in my own community and in my own life. I am distancing myself from experiences that can enrich and enlighten and bring joy.
I continued my thoughts. I began to realize how content I was before I started work, not necessarily because of the work, but because the only books I could afford were Vietnamese books, and I was reading about Vietnamese history and culture. Before I started full-time work I was spending four or five or six hours a day reading about Vietnam in Vietnamese. Admittedly, my reading comprehension wasn’t the greatest at the time, but I was immersing myself in the culture of my adopted home, a home I have thought about making a permanent establishment.
But lately, I’ve been focused on American history and African American history in particular. I have been able to purchase books that deal with America’s past and with peoples that have no relationship to me. I have been focused on a part of the world that does not touch me in reality and that is as far away from me as China was from Massachusetts in the Nineteenth Century.
Why not adjust my focus?
Instead of obsessing about an exotic race that do not concern me and my life, why not focus on the people around me, the culture in which I live, the community of which I should be a part? Would this not bring a level of reality and connection that I have been missing, a touch of actual human contact with life? Wouldn’t it open up an entire level of experience that I have missed by retreating into my computer and my history books? Why not immerse myself in the cultures that surround me and get to know them, learn how they affect me and what I can do to affect them? To live my life where I am instead of in the past of a people who are foreign and exotic.
All this I realized while listening to white people singing. And I’ve come up with some ideas for moving forward, but I’ve already waxed verbose and so I won’t share them now, but needless to say, I think this is a cultural turning point for me, a place where I might adopt new behaviors and new interests. Not to forsake my old interests, but to participate in life more fully, to be not just in the now, but in the here. And I’m hopeful that this will spread throughout my life and help me come to new roads and make new friends and expand my sphere of influence, here, rather than trying to project myself into a world of which I am not a part and of which I have no connections. Better to touch those I know than to try to touch strangers on the other side of the world.