A few weeks ago I had to make a somewhat rare journey out of the house to visit a construction site for work. On the ride back I pulled off the highway to fuel-up. Across the street from the gas station, I discovered a microcosm of the absurd times in which we are living: on one corner was a miniature Trump rally, in which an African American man was holding up an “All Lives Matter” sign. He was shouting through traffic at a small “Black Lives Matter” rally that was taking place on the next corner.
Wait for it.
Four or five white people, mostly young women I believe, were holding up “Black Lives Matter” signs and being shouted down by a black man old enough to be their father. They were shouting back of course. Because, yeah… Why not? If you’re not shouting after all, you’re losing. I’ve never seen a clearer demonstration of just how convoluted (and failed) our dialogue as a society has become.
In my post about Paul Beatty’s novel The Sellout, I wrote the paragraph below:
“When we look closely at it, as closely as we can, we find that the center of blackness, as of whiteness, and of every other –ness we would discern, is our tragic inability as humans to hold difference and sameness together. This failure is the essential human handicap. We’ve failed to recognize that both are part of being human, and that each is necessary to the other—that we, in all of our colors and shapes and sizes, can only truly possess our humanity when our uniqueness and our commonality are respected as treasures equally worth preserving.”
And nowhere was this failure more obvious to me than in this scene of a black Trump supporter engaged in a shouting match with these white women, across four lanes of traffic, who in theory were advocating for him. Maybe they eventually got on the same corner and had a chat. I don’t know. That would have been interesting. An actual conversation. But our entire society seems to be based on the notion that a conversation is a skirmish over territory, not a chance to be understood and to understand. So long as that continues we’re doomed.
The issue of life mattering is really not that complicated. Life matters. Period. And not just human life. Life. The life of the seas, the life of the skies, the life on the ground, and the life in the ground. And of course, black lives matter—this must be acknowledged. One fallacy is thinking that black lives mattering in a way that is unique to the experience of being black, (in the United States, which is where I am writing from), somehow subtracts from the way that any other life matters. It doesn’t. But nor can the reality of being black in this time and place be subtracted either. We can’t dismiss the uniqueness of the various vantages that live in each of us. We screw this all up when we think only one of these simultaneous truths must “trump” the other.
At the same time, if our appreciation for the uniqueness of experience stops at race, and fails to accommodate the profound diversity of individual experience, then it is utterly misguided. Because to presume that every person who shares a common physical trait is party to the same comprehensive personal experience is shallow and foolish. I am white and my adopted sister is black. (My other adopted sister is Korean by birth.) My “black” sister has suffered for being raised by white parents. She has been ostracized by some individuals in the African American community who didn’t, or don’t, see her as legitimate. Not all black people mind you. She’s been ostracized by white people, too. Again, not all of them. Did I mention that we’re all unique? Consider the black man I witnessed holding up an All Lives Matter sign amidst his chosen community of six or seven people toting Make America Great Again signs. Does he speak for black people everywhere? Clearly the roots of individual experience transcend a common trait.
Then there is the truth, which we seem to be losing sight of, that we are all human after all. We are each one another’s own. We belong to each other. The notion that a person of one race cannot understand a person of another race, should they truly desire to do so, is a caustic sentiment that defiles the sacred truth of our commonality as human beings. I have been working on a novel about a character who has a Native American mother and a Creole father, and one professional editor who I asked to review a few chapters cautioned me that it could be unfit for publication simply on the basis of the fact that I am white, and the protagonist is not. This editor wanted, conscientiously, to warn me about a potential difficulty I’d face. I appreciated the concern, but this difficulty is more of the same. I’ve been encouraged to have some black people read it before I go any further. I guess my question is: which ones?
It reminds me of the way a predominately white America sought to negotiate with the indigenous nations that preceded them on this continent. Who is in charge? this rampaging America asked. Surely a treaty signed with Red Cloud would bind all Lakota, right? Well I’m not a historian, but my understanding is that such a notion probably took many Native Americans by surprise, because their society was much more loosely organized than ours. Individuals, and bands of individuals, enjoyed a considerable autonomy within the greater structure of the nation. They didn’t have a President. (Nor, I would argue, did they need one. At least until it became necessary to become a military industrial complex with a hierarchical command structure capable of mobilizing an entire population against the might and glory of America.)
The bottom line is that uniqueness and commonality exist at every level of existence and genuine healing involves acknowledging this. Two people of the same race ought to be permitted to be unique individuals, just as two people of the same race ought to be able to share the bond of a common experience that people of another race have not had, just as all those people and anyone who wishes to join them ought to be permitted to merge hearts and share in the power, beauty, grief, and sorrow of being human, regardless of race or experience. I’m a firm believer that where the desire is sincere, we can comprehend one another, at least to our mutual satisfaction.
The loss of appreciation for any of the myriad truths that stitch our world together breeds fruitless conflict—shouting matches that are expressions of pain, not efforts at understanding. And the thing is: we’re all carriers of pain… but also of hope and love. We all need and deserve mutual respect and consideration. There are many policies we could discuss, and I think they’re all worth discussing, but without the root desire to empower, acknowledge, honor and appreciate one another—in all our idiosyncrasies and commonalities—these will be of limited value. It’s true that if you’re forced into a fight, you need a weapon. But I’d like us to end the fight. And policy won’t do it, because no policy can accomplish the work of the heart. But if the deeper work is done, the policies that express our concern for one another will arise.