Tuesday, November 15, 2005

I Aim to Misbehave

I've noticed lately that I've been annoying the fuck out of people, especially on the issues of politics and race. Just about anything I've said on those subjects, whether it's been a thought-out argument or some tossed-off comment has pushed buttons. I thought about that last night. Why? Why is this happening? They're not different. Something must be different. I must be different. What's different about me? 

Much has my adult life has been a search for love in one form or another. I can confidently say that search consumed me from my 20's until recently. It permeated my friendships, my art, my career, everything. Now that search is largely over. Not the search, but the obsession. I was obsessed with love. 

Thanks in no small part to the efforts of my therapist, I've been able to put love in a relationship with other things I need: beauty, truth, art. I need to speak. I need to live life with the blinders off. I need to take more chances. All of this brings me back to pissing people off.

Journalists take heat all the time. They get accused of printing lies. I want to be accused of printing the truth. I'm not going to measure my artistic effectiveness by the number of people who throw things at me, but I have come to a few conclusions on why I write, why me, why now, and what I have to say.

My parents represent the last generation of American non-citizens of African descent. They were born in Arkansas, but they were not citizens. They could not vote, could not openly assemble, were not guaranteed fair nor speedy trials, and so on. Some blacks held these rights in some places; some did not - I call it the "as long as..." syndrome. "As long as we live here and mind our manners, everything will be all right…" "As long as you don't whistle at a white woman in that town nothing bad will happen..." 

During the Civil Rights movement, Americans of African descent went from non-citizenry or partial citizenry to a sort of mass negotiated citizenship. These negotiations largely, but not entirely, concluded with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This legislation effectively ended the Civil War, nearly one hundred years after open hostilities had ceased. The Act also guaranteed citizenship under the law to all Americans of African descent. 

My parents and their generation cannot forget their years of struggle and negotiation. They remember the shootings, the lynchings, the firebombs through the windows at night, women raped on the streets in broad daylight, and wonder when they will hear a tromp of boots outside their suburban door. They often still think in "us vs. them" terms and reared my generation in "us vs. them" terms. We must Stay Black. 

When my generation - the post-1964 generation - was born, we were born into a worldview where race and citizenship were matters of increasingly settled law. I personally have suffered mistreatment and discrimination due to race, but I have never, not once, questioned my status as a citizen of the United States of America. Despite my parents’ warnings and misgivings, no one - not one single person I can think of - has ever betrayed me because of race. I remember a few random strangers who had problems with blacks, negroes, African-American, and a bunch of other people, but their generalized issues were expressed upon my random presence. (Exception: I once tried to overturn a Ku Klux Klan bus outside the Astrodome at the '92 GOP rally. Ah, happy memories.)

I found my compatriots far more willing to judge the people around them as individuals than their predecessors. However, we all learned messages of group identity from our parents. Between our learned experience and our taught values lurks a vast darkness, a silent foggy subconscious.

Our parents raised us on stories of the "old country" - the Jim Crow South in my case, other places for other folks. Growing up, that land of chopping cotton and segregated drinking fountains seemed about as real as a Narnia novel. Hearing oft-repeated stories of grueling work, faith, occasional revenge, even voodoo, I wondered how I would fare in that world. My world of snow and mountains, baseball, picnics, and legal citizenship was so breath-takingly different I had no words to express the depth of my ignorance. My parents had difficulty relating to me, just as most immigrant parents have trouble relating to their native-born children; we came from such vastly different experiences a stranger on the street might hear us and wonder how we met.

My parents are immigrants and I am not. I am a native born American citizen; they are native born Americans, but they were not citizens until they were nearly adults. Physically, they did not move. Legally, they did move. Mentally and emotionally, they needed to move, they should have moved. They didn’t. The old country grasps them, perhaps forever.

Non-citizens reared my generation of citizens. While we believe in citizenship, our thinking runs into dark spots and patches, leftovers from our immigrant upbringing. We now raise a new generation of citizens. This new generation is likely the first generation of African-Americans, children raised to believe in themselves and their citizenship, in a country that believes in their citizenship. Whatever future discussion occurs around race will be defined by grade school children of today; this discussion is already underway.

My generation hangs in a precarious position. We could easily become lost. We are the bridge between the unconscious immigrants and the fully invested citizen children. Often in discussions of politics and race we fall into inexplicable silences. As we first-generation citizens negotiate the hopes of our parents against the needs of our children, we far too often fall into the yawning darkness between. Perhaps we have already become lost.

I write to talk about my immigrant/non-immigrant experience. Some of it is funny, some of it is awful, some of it is terrifying, some of it is sad, some of it is beautiful and wrenching, but as a great man once said, "A time comes when silence is betrayal. Some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak out with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak."