There’s something here, in London, being here, that makes me nervous every time I start my blog. I didn’t feel like that when I was blogging in Luanda: I just wrote what I saw, pretty spontaneously. Here, I feel like I have to think so fucking hard about everything. The act of writing is so much more loaded, which is odd given you can, largely, write more freely here with much less at stake. I think. Perhaps. Anyway,
I was reading this interview with Amiri Baraka in yesterday’s The Guardian Review section. I saw Baraka performing on London’s Southbank (see the P.S. in this post) not long ago. He rattled me. His poem, Somebody Blew Up America, a series of rhythmical rhetorical questions (I thought then) had me guilty as hell. ‘It’s us,’ I was thinking, ‘I know Mr Baraka: it’s us, the fucking whites. Yes. Us.’ My friend, who was with me, disagreed. ‘The point of that poem,’ she said, ‘was that we are all guilty. We’re all guilty. We’re all responsible. Didn’t you see?’ No. I didn’t. I hope she was right, then I don’t have to feel so bad. But that’s of course a cop out, intellectually, emotionally, politically, etc etc.
Baraka – and I recommend you go see him if you ever get the chance, and if you don’t, you should read his stuff – used to hang out in Greenwich Village with ‘his white wife and Bohemian friends’. Then, in 1965, when Malcolm X was assassinated, he upped sticks and moved to Harlem – without his wife. It was around then that he changed his name to Amiri Baraka, from LeRoi Jones. A little later, on an anti-segregation march, a white woman asked Baraka what she could ‘to help’.
‘You can help by dying,’ he said.
He tells Campbell, in The Guardian, that this response says much about his own guilty feelings of being in Greenwich Village when the civil rights movement started. He had to be extra-militant to make up for this initial failure. I read this and it made me think… think about the African Americans I’ve met whilst living in various parts of Africa (I’m thinking, here, of a particular encounter in Ghana)… and how they sometimes seem to have to be extra-African to make up for their absence. So they’ll wear huge amounts of Kente cloth, more beads, larger wooden earrings and so on. And often they’ll complain a hell of a lot: it’s too hot, the service is too slow, the air-conditioners aren’t powerful enough, why does the power keep being cut, the roads are too dangerous here, can’t they mend the pot-holes? This is purely anecdotal – what I have seen – but it’s always struck me acutely, the ways in which we overstate what we are when we aren’t or fear we aren’t or would like to be but can’t or aren’t allowed to be. And questions of race and belonging are hugely complex, deeply sensitive and still, sadly, incredibly political.
I veer off. I need to think more about Baraka. At one point in this interview, he says that anti-semitism is ‘as ugly an idea and as deadly as white racism’. White racism. So presumably this is to say that there are other types of racism – and does this mean, for Baraka, they are acceptable? Or is ‘white racism’ tautology? I can only admire the man for what he’s achieved in his life, and how courageous he clearly is, but I also can’t help but draw back from him. He refers to James Baldwin – ‘I’m only black cos you think you’re white’ – to show his own belief that everyone in America is mixed (and, I would add, that distinctions of white and black are frankly, largely, inaccurate as well as unhelpful). So why does he fall back into the trap himself? White racism. I need help on this one, to work it through, because it matters.
It matters a lot. Here in the UK, I fear that my sense of a growing and very worrying liberal consensus, in which we are being encouraged to believe that we’re ‘beyond racism’ (like so many also believe that we are ‘beyond class’), seems to be gathering pace in certain powerful quarters here. This attitude I see and hear and read around me appears to follow the belief that we’re over that, we don’t do race anymore here, because we are no longer racist. We’re all just happy and equal. But it’s clearly not true. Many awfully nice people have awful racial superiority complexes still, today. The Bob Geldof concert which relegated all African musicians to a small stage in a man-made tropical garden in Cornwall for the day whilst the ‘real’ popstars kicked off in Hyde Park is a case in point. And there are many other examples in the mainstream media all the time.
But I still don’t buy into Baraka’s view that so-called ‘white racism’ should somehow be treated differently to plain racism. Racism is racism, and we won’t move forward until we all look deeper than skin colour which, anyway, is a very poor indicator of where and who we come from, let alone what and who we really are and what it is we believe in. We have to go beyond colour – surely? (This is perhaps why I’m liking Appiah’s In my Father’s house so much… it offers a new way forward from racial categorising).
P.S. Risking an overdose of adoration of The Sharp Side blog, I recommend his post on Sontag. I had just, this morning, read exactly that profile in The New York Review of Books, and as if by magic…