(In March 2009, we presented a reading of Wrestling the Alligator in anticipation of its June production. This article was included in the program.)
In an interview with Deborah Solomon for the New York Times Magazine promoting her new book, The Hemingses of Monticello, Annette Gordon-Reed responded to Solomon’s assertion that “Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings were pioneers of our increasingly mixed-race society”:
I don’t think we are increasingly mixed-race. We’ve always been a mixed-race society.In his seminal work Against Race: Imagining Political Culture Beyond the Color Line, Paul Gilroy outlines how “the modern times that W.E.B. Du Bois once identified as the century of the color line have now passed.” He encourages us to be brave as we face the abyss, since “the demise of ‘race’ is not something to be feared”:
People who have been subordinated by race-thinking and its distinctive social structures (not all of which come tidily color-coded) have for centuries employed the concepts and categories of their rulers, owners, and persecutors to resist the destiny that “race” has allocated to them and to dissent from the lowly value it placed upon their lives. Under the most difficult of conditions and from imperfect materials that they surely would not have selected if they have been able to choose, these oppressed groups have built complex traditions of politics, ethics, identity, and culture. The currency of “race” has marginalized these traditions from official histories of modernity and relegated them to the backwaters of the primitive and the prepolitical. They have involved elaborate, improvised constructions that have the primary function of absorbing and deflecting abuse. But they have gone far beyond merely affording protection and reversed the polarities of insult, brutality, and contempt, which are unexpectedly turned into important sources of solidarity, joy, and collective strength. When ideas of racial peculiarity are inverted in this defensive manner to that they provide sources of pride rather than shame and humiliation, they become difficult to relinquish.Gilroy’s subsequent argument, that these populations must be “persuaded very carefully” to relinquish these identities bears little weight: rather, the former subjects of institutionalized racism must be shocked and awed into a new post-racial consciousness.
This upheaval can be initiated very simply: with a moderate dosage of truth. Reveal to “black” Americans that their fought-for identity is, in truth, a lie: they have, in fact, shared a bloodline with “the other” this whole time. The family crest forged from scraps and shards is revealed—through its internally fuzzy logic—to be a serpent.
After all, if the duality of us and them holds any weight, if we and they are so immutable (if, indeed, we are better than they are), the obliteration of this concept of two inviolable camps cannot be achieved through gradually relinquishing its precepts: they must be obliterated. “Our” fate must be inextricably and instantaneously bound with “theirs” by no other means than eliminating the illusion of meaningful difference between identities.
The color line between the descendants of African slaves and European colonists is not the cultural rift that defines this century—the line itself is blurry almost beyond recognition; the flimsiness of the evidence upon which the descendants of slaves and descendants of their owners is, however, all too apparent.
In addition to the President of the United States, the recently appointed president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Benjamin Jealous, has a white parent and black parent. Such pairings are not remarkable; they have only been remarkable in how stridently slave states (and some “free” states) worked to legislate against them (as comedian Dave Attell once noted, no one writes laws against things people don’t want to do).
Instead, what is remarkable is that two institutions significant for their symbolic power are led by individuals of nebulous racial ancestry. The color line to which Du Bois (a founding member of the NAACP) referred now runs, it would seem, right through the man who runs the organization he founded to address it. The presidency, constructed by the framers of the Constitution to present America’s face to the world (a task in modern times assigned to the Secretary of State, a position occupied twice by the descendants of slaves and three times to women) is now occupied by a man who would have been counted as three-fifths of a person by the constitution as originally written.
At what point do the symbols erected by society to reflect as well as guide that society’s development need to be updated and, if necessary, discarded when they have outlived their usefulness? Why, then, do we cling to a racial arithmetic that fails to add up?
It would be one thing if the stakes were lower; unfortunately, at issue is more complex than a leaky faucet or an inefficient tax code—it is no less than the very prism with which we view ourselves, and consequently the world around us. We allocate resources (funds for college education, employment opportunities, artistic legitimacy) based on models of guilt and racial camps that no longer apply. We resemble Civil War re-enactors, playing out roles in a society that no longer exists, gleefully ignorant of advances or changes made in the meantime, for the comfort of playing out a script, the end of which we already know.
That’s acceptable for a car salesman from Fairfax who wants to while away the weekend outdoors wearing scratchy wool; it’s dangerous when we live entire lives under false assumptions. There are some (David Duke, 50 Cent, Al Sharpton) who live comfortable lives based on these assumptions. They cannot be blamed for exploiting a marketplace they had no part in creating, but we have a larger responsibility—as consumers—to alter that marketplace. Just as car drivers in the seventies embraced the catalytic converter, as hairspray and refrigerator consumers in the eighties abandoned CFCs, we need to stop consuming outdated racial categorization. Like the toxins that have come before, they are killing us.
Stephen Vittoria’s 2005 documentary One Bright Shining Moment chronicles the 1972 presidential campaign of George McGovern. Dick Gregory recalls the visceral hatred McGovern engendered on the part of the political establishment, and explained it succinctly: when one has been in darkness for so long, it’s only natural for the slightest bit of light to hurt.
This is the dilemma Americans face today: a flash of pain as we acknowledge the singularity of race in this country, or over dependence on an outdated racial model that promises to hurt less simply because we’ve lived with the pain so long it’s been reduced to a dull throb.
We’re surrounded by examples on either side of yesterday’s racial divide who embrace old categories, chauvinisms, and hatreds because they’ve chosen the devil they know over the devil they don’t.
It’s on the rest of us to choose differently.