Monday, February 7, 2011

Puritans, Cannibals & Goree Island

The island of Goree sits two miles off the coast of Senegal, West Africa. On a warm winter morning, the greying cloud cover shades it in a shimmering mist. The stone walls of its fort become little more than a quiet hulking chimera. The dungeons of Goree represented a slave-holding warehouse, where the African men, women and children were held until they could be shipped across the Atlantic to the Americas. For many years the imagery of Goree tore at my heart.
I made my first trip in Goree Island in 1970 and have returned several times since. This island was not the principal entrepot of the West African slave trade. But as Professor Philip Curtin of the University of Wisconsin has noted, Goree has certainly become “an emotional shrine” if not a “true museum” to this sordid period in our history. As the anger seeped through my being like a toxic gas, I sought companionship for the deep and stabbing pain of victimization I was suffering, in an evolving political consciousness.

Upon returning to America after the first trip to Goree, I began to sense a gangrenous lesion seeping into the muscles of my soul, every time a white store clerk monitored my every move for fear that as a black woman, I could harbor no identity other than that of a shoplifter, or a matron might politely accost me on the street, in a neighborhood where I apparently did not belong, assuming that I was a domestic and thus inquiring whether I did “day’s work.” In nursing this deep spiritual wound, a haunting question began to formulate itself in my mind.  How had my slave ancestors survived with their souls intact?
 In time, I began to understand how different must have been the reality of my slave ancestors.  It was an understanding that gave me a new intimacy into their lives and feelings.  I also saw their dilemma of enslavement with new eyes, a view that I now realize came closer to the way they must have viewed their own plight.

The Culture of Entitlements

However, the first order of business was that I reframe my understanding of early American history.  Racism  I had come to realize was not marginal.  It was an ideology essential to the maintenance of the slave labor system, which underpinned America’s prosperity. The implications of this fact are far more disturbing than they may appear at first glance. For, in the light of this knowledge I cannot help but re-assess the wellspring of my own racial anger. What does it mean for me to denounce and reject the twisted racialist ideology by which American prosperity was gained, but in the same breath demand my fair share of the take?

The racial delusions of white America throughout history are fairly easy to discern. My own self-deceptions have been more resistant to conscious examination. But in the stillness of contemplation, I began to see through them too. As I worked through my emotional pain and resentments, what slowly emerged was a new understanding. The true nature of my angst was not what it appeared to be. It was not that I was a second class citizen. It was rather that I was an unwilling accomplice to piracy. The spoils, that is, the booty, was not being distributed equally. And it was that fact that had fueled so much of my rage.

This painful insight did not come easily. It was at first blocked by an especially tragic fact of history, namely the fact that my ancestors had worked as slaves, creating an American prosperity that they could not share. Surely I deserved compensation for my ancestors’ forced labor.

But, what are we humans really entitled to? As an American I can quote the promises inscribed in the “Declaration of Independence,” namely “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” But the founding fathers could surely not have foreseen that our society would become so relentlessly acquisitive, that even in consuming 80% of the earth’s irreplenishable resources, we would still find ourselves unfulfilled, resentful, and demanding more and more. This, I dare say, is a spiritual wound in material disguise of the deepest gravity.

The culture of entitlements is a very seductive one. It is difficult to see the pylons that hold it in place. We create socially convenient reward structures, which we then convince ourselves are divinely transmitted. We embrace the same Protestant ethic that when it was convenient to do so endorsed slavery. And so we convince ourselves that hard work pays, or if not menial hard labor, at least mental exertions. But in truth, society not God, or the universal laws of nature and the cosmos creates entitlement formulas, that is, the reward system employed to delineate who should get how much for what efforts.

Where might the Protestant ethic reside today, had Europe not eased its l7th and 18th century population pressures, by sending some 70 million victims of class oppression, religious persecution and inequitable land distribution to the Americas? Or for that matter, what would their attitudes regarding the rewards of hard work be were Europe’s own standard of living to plummet to that of Bangladesh, when the 210 million Americans of European origin were suddenly forced to return to their already dense homeland?

Indeed, my West African ancestors emanated from an ecologically challenging environment, where hard work does not pay. In subsistence agricultural societies neither hard work nor “smart work” pays. It merely insures one’s survival. These African societies were not operating at a subsistence level because of laziness or ignorance. It was rather because of the ecological conditions of the environment in which they lived. Unlike Europe and America, West African soils exhibit exceedingly lowest nitrogen concentrations, which is the natural fertilizing agent. Additionally, because of the tsetse fly and other tropical diseases, it has been impossible to breed beasts of burden, thus farming societies are deprived of the fertilizing properties of manure and also limited to the strength of human muscle power. The lush imagery of African rainforests notwithstanding, this region possesses some of the thinnest topsoil in the inhabited world. It was precisely in meeting the singular challenges of farming in so ecologically fragile an environment, that West African peasants became so exceptionally skilled as plantation slave field hands.

I used to believe the popular wisdom, namely that the rips and tears in the social fabric of our society was caused by the diversity of America’s multiethnic society. Differing values generated almost explosive tensions at times. But I have come to know a deeper secret. I now believe that the real reason for America’s lingering  racial problems is not our ethnic differences but rather our unacknowledged cultural sameness. All immigrant groups, whether arriving on our shores voluntarily or in chains, within a proscribed number of generations become acculturated into our values of entitlement. It is the battle for entitlements, which creates the tension, since all groups have absorbed the precise same values and are therefore competing for a larger slice of the same apple pie. As an African-American, the precise nature of my racial anger emanates from the irritating gap between acculturation and assimilation. The more acculturated I become into American values, the more I perceive myself entitled to. But being a minority, who remains unassimilated into the full benefit package of the American dream, I compare my material conditions with the mainstream and become outraged. It roils around in my psyche, raises my blood pressure, intensifying far beyond any anger my ancestors might have felt at far more egregious social wrongs.

My Harvard education, the opportunities I have enjoyed to travel abroad, my professional training and jobs, are all products of affirmative action. Like most entitlements it is neither better nor worse than others. I used to view with irritation, but now something more akin to silent amusement, my own emotional impulses and those of others, who might attempt to rationalize their entitlement, while denouncing that of another group, whether it be social security, welfare, affirmative action, white skin privilege, corporate bailouts, veterans benefits. What I have come to realize about myself in this regard is simply that moralizing is for me the beginning of self-deception. That is, my irritation at the entitlements of others invariably led back to my own conflicting emotions regarding the unacknowledged entitlements I enjoy. As I have over the years struggled to process painful feelings of rage, especially over the entitlement of white skin privilege enjoyed by America’s mainstream, that anger has become transformed into something surprising, perhaps even shocking. And that is gratitude. I am grateful to God, my ancestors, my family, the prosperous country in which I live, the Reverend Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement he so skillfully led, Malcolm X and the ideology of black self-esteem he so effectively espoused, to whites who supported affirmative action. But I am also grateful to those who continue to fight against affirmative action, equal opportunity and even racial equality. It helps to remind me of the fragility and impermanence of any structure of entitlements, and the deep wounds we humans nurse emanating from any and all entitlements. That includes affirmative action, which I enjoy or white skin privilege which it was instituted to counterbalance. This recognition simply helps me to strive to make the most of a fleeting and man-made not God-given opportunity, which is the true nature of all entitlements.

However much we struggle to convince ourselves that the founding principle of our society is “all men are created equal,” we know at the deepest level of our being that America’s true modus operandi is “to the victor belong the spoils.”

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