22 October, 2009

"White Americans do not realize how black they are"

Andrew Sullivan has a moving little riposte from a Briton's perspective to Pat Buchanan's assertion that white Americans are right to feel that they are losing their country (I write "they" because it sickens me to think that Buchanan is imputing this feeling of loss to me):

From its very beginning, after all, America was a profoundly black country as well.

This took a while for an Englishman to grasp upon arriving here, because it's so easy to carry with you all the subconscious cultural baggage you grew up with. England, after all, is deeply Anglo-Saxon. It makes some sense to refer to England's roots and ethnic identity as white, its language as English, its inheritance as a deep mixture of Northern European peoples - the Angles and the Saxons and the Normans and the Celts. And superficially, English-speaking white Americans might seem in the same cultural boat as white English people, dealing with a relatively new multiculturalism in an increasingly diverse and multi-racial society. And at first blush, you almost sink into that lazy and stupid assumption, especially if you arrive in Boston, as I did, and carried all the usual European prejudices, as I did.


The English, lulled by their marination in American pop culture from infancy, and beguiled by the same language, can live out their days in this country never actually noting that it is an alien land - stranger than you might have ever imagined, crueler than you realized, but somehow also more inspiring than you ever thought possible. This is the America I am trying to make my home, after 25 years. It is not the America of Pat Buchanan's or John Derbyshire's fantasies.


It struck me almost at once, if only in the music I heard all around me - and then in so many other linguistic, cultural, rhetorical, spiritual ways: white Americans do not realize how black they are. Even their whiteness is partly scavenged from the fear of - and attraction to - its opposite. Even something as stereotypically white as American Catholicism, I discovered to my amazement, was also black from the very start. (Yes, those Maryland slaves. If you've never been to a Gospel Mass in an ancient black Catholic parish, try it some time.)

I was surprised to see Ta-Nehisi, who is usually so dismissive of any kind of racial generalizations, nod his head at this. I think this is such an insightful, and a bit startling, observation because it approaches our racial heterogeneity from a rather different angle than most pontificating on the idea of our "melting pot". Instead of "whiteness" serving as the default cultural setting which then magnanimously "lets in" other, alien, immigrating peoples, in this view "whiteness" has never been dominant, let alone pure. Indeed, it has never been "white". It flips us from living in a white country with problems incorporating black people to living in a country of black people, some of whom continue strenuously pretending that they are white. Or simply continue assuming it.


It takes an outsider to point out what should be obvious - our music(s), our food(s), our language(s) have come a long, long way from this cartoon version of anglo-saxonism that Buchanan asserts is "traditional" culture. But more than that, that version was never traditional American culture. Its a fantasy cooked up and peddled by sad reactionaries who are too insecure to realize and embrace that our fundamental "blackness" - code for "otherness" - is brilliant, vital and beautiful. And it is - American culture's magnetism speaks for itself.

1 comment:

Cassady said...

This is exactly why the "losing their country" line always seems so ridiculous to me. The simple fact is that most people are ignorant cads with no true sense of nationality excepting when it's convenient and they are told it's because of some threatening.

Most of these people have NEVER known what America is truly like, or was. Hell, I don't even pretend to know what the entire country is or holds dear. I've travelled to a lot of different places, excepting only 9 nine states, and nothing I've seen has ever led me to believe that there is a great, unifying ANYTHING (let alone "whiteness") holding things together.

That they're angry now just highlights their ignorance of their own country and immense self-centeredness.