Sunday, March 2, 2008


(Image from Stella Marrs)

Pete Seeger as a teenager toured the American South with his father, a musicologist. Charles Seeger's original intention was to bring classical and "advanced" music to the backwaters of the U.S. What he, and Pete, discovered was that every region of this country already had advanced, intensely rich musical traditions. They became instead the indoctrinated, and Pete went on to mine the traditional folk music of black and white rural Protestant culture for decades. He brought that value system, woven into every line and bar, to more than one generation of young people, creating a mythos and world view that still is the bedrock of what we call progressive ideology.

One of the themes is salvation and redemption. The forces against us may be overwhelming, but we shall not be moved. We shall overcome. We will ascend to the mountaintop, and we will find a way to all live together.

Though the cities start to crumble
And the towers fall around us
The sun is slowly fading
And it's colder than the sea
It is written "From the desert
To the mountain they shall lead us
By the hand and by the heart
They will comfort you and me
In their innocence and trusting
They will teach us to be free"

But who is the "they" in these lyrics?

Boomers were the generation who said "Don't trust anyone over 30". We WERE the Youth Generation. The sad fact is, we've not given up on that image of ourselves -- what we see when we look in the mirror is not reality. And while we still view one another as "young at heart", if we're being charitable, we do not extend that generosity to the generations who have come up after us. We do not respect or trust our descendents, so we cannot turn to "the children" for salvation. Not OUR children.

But the endemic racism of white America has another group of children we look to for innocent understanding and forgiveness: Black people. Our culture pays lip service, at least, to the full humanity of blacks, but does not grant them maturity. Part of the reason we are so uncomfortable with the idea of leadership from blacks (and women) is because their second-class citizenship is commensurate with that of children -- they may be good-hearted but you don't give them the keys to the car, right?

Yet to blacks, in particular, white America has allowed a second role, covert and profound: prophet. We expect them to be our conscience (as long as we control where that conscience focuses). Playing our Magical Negro, they are Whoopi Goldberg as maid, Queen Latifah as babysitter, Will Smith as caddy, who while cleaning up after us and our children also impart wisdom and, eventually, spiritual salvation. We revere Dr. King, now that he's dead, because he talked to us about his "dream" that included us. We didn't love him so much when he was alive, of course, leading marches and demanding real change, but he makes an acceptable prophet now.

Deep down, we want to be forgiven. We want redemption. But we want the Supernanny version, someone who comes to our house a few times, figures out how to get the kids to behave while we maybe shed a tear or two, slap a schedule up on the wall, but the basic rule of adults over children and father über alles doesn't get challenged. At the end of the hour, Mary Poppins can safely move on. A check-in a short time later shows the magic fix still in place. Nobody's returning after a year or two to a scene where the 10-year-old girl has threatened to tell her teacher about how daddy is fucking her at night and he's taken a double-aught to them all, saving the last shell for himself.

So, while we're primed to the notion of a Black Savior, someone who, if the subject of reparations came up, could be counted on to make an earnest joke of it, offending no one, still -- it has to be someone who isn't totally Black. Not the descendent of slaves, for example. We don't trust they can really forgive us, not when we've barely acknowledged four hundred years of atrocity and the shit that is still going on. I mean, our inability to deal with our racism stems in large part from our hopelessness, because we believe what happened here is not actually forgiveable, is it? And we certainly don't want to put power in the hands of blacks who are clearly the descendents of house niggers, folks who know how we operate but have chosen (after emancipation) to stay separate from us.

What we want is a Black Savior who is descended from the Mother Continent, who is part us, who talks only of hope and change but not retribution or confession. Redemption Cafe au Lait.

Let me state here, adamantly, I do NOT believe this is who Barack Obama is. I don't believe this is how most African-Americans see him, or some insightful white folks. But when you have his most ardent supporters unable to come up with a single policy or achievement of his, just that starry-eyed "He stands for change and unity", well, we're dealing with a cultural myth. I think it is likely that Obama's strategists, and the man himself, has been smart enough to play into it, to know what could be exploited. It's what politicians do, and he's no different from anyone else in that regard.

He DOES have excellent policy, a good record, and a firm stand on relevant issues. The problem is, I don't think most of the white folks who are attaching themselves to his wagon are being swayed by his concrete leadership.

(Here's a link to the issues page of his website, and for those of you already decided to be his supporter, there's a wealth of information on how to do it intelligently at Jack and Jill's How to Canvass for Obama Toolkit.)

I voted for Bill Clinton, twice. I was fortunate enough to have a friend in Arkansas, a strong liberal, who educated me about his moderate playing-for-approval tendencies in advance. Plus I know bubba-speak (the real thing, not the evil Bush version) when I hear it. Thus, I wasn't swept away by his talk of hope. He was definitely the best of the alternatives, and I'd vote the same way again, given the same alternatives, in a heartbeat. Yet it was charisma that won his elections. He was an intensely popular President, with approval ratings in the 80-90% even during the impeachment era. I'd like to remind all you white liberal boys of this, especially those of you so infected with Clinton Derangement Syndrome that Hillary makes your vision go red: Silver-tongued rhetoric of hope and redemption handed Bill the keys to the White House.

I'll be voting for Obama, it looks like. I think he will lead us out of the desert (by which I mean Baghdad) and he'll appoint a new Supreme Court Justice who is not in the tradition of Roger Taney. That alone will be radical good. And when he turns out to be primarily a politician, with flawed process and corruption within some of those his inner circle, I'll weigh that against his character and, likely, go on being his supporter as the rest of you start looking for the next quick-fix. The same holds equally true for Hillary Clinton, and I'll vote for her just as gladly.

Here's a couple of things I keep in mind.

First: The era of the 60's and 70's, against which Ronnie Raygun and the Christian Right lashed back, produced the revolutionary ideas that gender and race, like class, were not biological realities. Instead, they are cultural constructs. As such, they are open to utter revision. The Panthers proclaimed "Black is beautiful." The Redstockings announced "Biology is not destiny." And all sorts of groups began winnowing out identity with the goal of transformation, not just of themselves but of the entire culture.

The response was to attack identity politics (if it wasn't your identity being promoted) and, eventually, an economic onslaught designed to make it so hard to survive economically that most people's attention would be occupied with earning a living, not social change. Make some bucks off any popular theory or art of change, commercialize it, and render it ineffective. It worked well for over 20 years.

But Bush, the eternal fuck-up, and Cheney, the sociopath, went too far. Now people are casting about for a new way to make sense of it all without having to actually Change. Not change the way masculinity is revered, not change the hidden reality of white supremacy, not change the lockbox of religion.

The writing is on the wall, however. Peak Oil is upon us, the polar caps are melting, and no matter how much porn you flood onto the internet, no matter how many immigration laws you pass, no matter how diligently you attack strong women on websites or coopt black men into the world of drugs and woman-hating rap -- being white and being male are not going to remain at the top of the pyramid. You can either walk down of your own accord or get tossed eventually. Partial credit will not be awarded.

Moses led his people out of Egypt. But they had to wander the desert for 40 years before reaching the Promised Land. Why the delay? Because Moses, and everyone in his generation who had been enslaved, had to die first. Their conditioning, which they had through no fault of their own, must not be allowed to pollute and alter the Promised Land.

So, the next time you feel a visceral reaction to that deep voice talking of change, with the swell of music behind it, ask yourself: What change are you assuming he means? Then consider all the change that scares you down to your bones, and (if you've got the eggs), consider embarking on your own path to redemption: One where you don't get forgiven before you've done your work.

And the work involved is not ours to design. Pete Seeger suffered almost 20 years of blacklisting and severe economic hardship because he refused to testify before HUAC. He resigned from The Weavers, who had had the number one record in the country, because they decided to do a cigarette commercial. He found a way to have a good life in the desert, all the same. And his most famous song of all ends with "When will we ever learn?"

(lyrics above are from Rhymes and Reasons by John Denver; memoir from Pete Seeger is from the recent PBS American Experience documentary about his life, The Power of Song; thanks to Doc and Diamante for the editing)


letsdance said...

There you are, Maggie -- beating around the bush. Never saying what you mean.


Thanks for telling it like it is.

Liza Cowan said...

I loved this Maggie. And I can't stop thinking about The Magical Negro. I guess it started, in films and literature, with Mammy and Uncle Tom who wanted nothing more from life than the success and happiness of their owners. The myth disguises and displaces shame, I suppose. And fear of righteous anger and retaliation. Insidious methodology.

Good one. And thanks for the Obama links and the link to Jack and Jill.