Not too long ago, here in Wuhan, on a day whose weather I do not remember, as I passed a short row of grocery stores and restaurants on one of the main drags at the university, I recognized a woman I had met briefly here in Wuhan. Like me, she is from America. My spirits raised a slight bit at the sight of her face and the opportunity to simply say hi, to notice and acknowledge another human's presence and be acknowledged in return. Familiarity is a subtle human pleasure and more common than true intimacy, and here I am often distant from both. There is the language spoken by most people here to blame for the distance, but there is also my newness on the scene, amplified by my distinction as a foreigner.
The recognition alone was powerful enough to give me a boost in my step. Even though she is a white woman, and I am a black man we share our Americaness as culture and language. Neither of us are in abundance here, though outside the foreigner's dorms, near where we stay, there are plenty of black men. Most of them are from Chad, the Congo, Zimbabwe, and other countries on the continent. Oddly enough, many of the Africans I have seen could pass for African American men, though I've only met one from the States. Dress, and in some cases swagger, reveal the nationality of origin, at least in broad strokes; but then again, it gets tricky until someone opens their mouth. At a local club a dude walked in one night with baby dreads and Jamaican style colors from head to toe, then said he was from Madagascar.
In my little spot there are fewer white women than black men, though that's probably not the case in China. African American men yes, black men no. Probably doesn't mean much, though I could theorize. We are all a long way from home and the commonness seems to be the point. At the dorm, there are a few white women who look French, maybe German. I'm just guessing; but white women and black men are both minorities, as are Americans.
I packed light to get here, and if you read Free Black Space, you know I am close to fed up with the shape, nature, and confines of race. Some may think FBS is talking about race, but writing the codes that describe the precise nature of the black and the binary as a construct is different. Free Black Space has always been outside the framework of the race experts who seem to grow themselves in Academia and the liberal left. We are more like the Trump supporters who don't get our views articulated in public. We pick and choose, sample, concede, and juice pride out of the debate because it is about the black, but usually have a different discussion among ourselves. As consumers of the public debate we are given symbols, black firsts, and things to be proud of, as substitute for a transformed society. Rarely do we get policy or life changing solutions. It's mostly intellectual entertainment, engineered often by people who make a living mining the fields of race for gold to exchange at the market rate. Rarely do the race experts control or dramatically influence the distribution of race ideas with the exception of celebrity intellectual personae.
Most of what the Right says I disagree with, but when they say Black folks are used by a liberal establishment to influence a larger agenda, I buy it. Black people don't run the presses or exert the appropriate influence in the larger society through institutions of power. We are celebrities and blips on the screen. We are an idea cast by directors with Black writers and readers gaining a sense of "race pride" as we are picked and chosen to the top. A Trump vote is an action of the counter witness. Granted, I didn't vote for Trump, but have consistently asked the question to what degree is the spotlight, discussion, and promotion of race ideas beneficial for the majority of black folks?
Over the last two years, my insight into business has given me a reading of the success of race ideas that may differ from others. There's good money in race, and the last two years proves it. Business is doing well, and is literally the opposite of the Trump vote. The questions must be like some of the ones Trump voters asked themselves, and one of the answers to why they voted the way they did. We can be clear moving forward the cheap polemics will yield similar if not worse results. In other words, if you think being on T.V. and talking about race was helping the problem, you gotta bigger problem now.
Race is played out, but the people who play the race game and are winning will never say that. It's not post racial, but the codes used to discuss race are like background music on an elevator in a skyscraper in a Colson Whitehead novel with a lowest common denominator that sounds a lot like Horatio Alger with discipline, craft, and pedigree sampled into the tract. Blacks make the music, but don't own the elevator or the building. Black folks usually have to take the stairs. Race folks take the elevator, and they always going up and down.
China is a a long way from home and my luggage isn't big enough to pack all of the weird and strange contortions of race up for the trip. Most of my clothes are home. I wear the same shit everyday. Black folks would be joaning on my limited rotation of clothes like I ain't got no home training. Confession, sometimes I wear my favorite jeans three days in a row. But I was leaving for a long time. I couldn't bring all that shit with me.
Truth is it feels good to be without the extra weight and far away from the consumer codes and rules of etiquette, and, people are people. It sounds cliche, but there's a lot of truth in it; but (double but) everybody imports/exports a little bit of home in their luggage.
Part of what I carry with me everywhere is the warm free black space atmosphere that is Karibu and HBCU. It's what I'm used to. Clever whatsups, hand daps, and quick chats. I haven't got a lot of that here, though I now call Gao my man from time to time, and say whatsup man when I walk into the room. Emily is my homegirl and keeps me laughing, and John, who is from the States, probably never going home, is guide, poet, and organizer of the foreign teachers. I got friends I've found here and they look me out.
So when I look for the acknowledgement in the eyes of the woman I've just met it is simple expression of unity and community a long way from home. My desire is simple and human, but what I find is something I hadn't seen in a while. It is distance bordering on horror. It is dead-in-the-eye I know you, but you don't know me. It is a look that literally asks why would you even look me in the eye? It flashes for an instance and then disappears into a big smile I remember from our first meeting.
A look after all is just a look. Who knows what consciousness is behind it? Race relations is mostly theory, bigger than looks, but there is always a look. People are people. We are human beings. We elevate our concerns to systems, codes, and ideas, thesis, and narrative, but in the moment it is just a look.
I had been in China for a few months and had forgotten that look. For me that distance is the essence of what is elevated to race. I'm back to the beginning. I think it has something to do with me being black, but that doesn't really matter. I mean who gives a shit. It's just fake ass bullshit and harmless.
Shit's sorta funny. I mean ain't no white privilege here.
I attend a lecture on Claudia Rankine's Citizen at the University I am teaching at. I've also seen lectures on Coates and Kevin Powell, Langston Hughes and Derrick Walcott, the idea of American Literature as the construct of the American Imagination, and, my all time favorite, Functional Sentence Grammar. It's been good so far, and I'm getting it in six thousand miles from home.
The academic environment has hosted a range of scholars from across the globe with most of the visitors presenting in English. It is a bit overwhelming. I am a foreigner, but within the University granted access through English, even though we are in China. I am trying to imagine if that ever happens in America. Even my Yale and Harvard friends don't speak a lick of Chinese.
And it is strange to witness a discussion of a book that is fundamentally about race in another country, without blacks or whites in the room, and the experience helps me understand why folks love Rankine so much. For the elevation of race to craft is the appeal to the transcendent whites use to bolster the concept of white supremacy. Implicit in an award winning discussion of race is the idea that people who are afflicted by the misconceptions of race also have the capacity to recognize the remedy. From now on, I think all transcendent craftful ideas about race should be applied to Trump supporters. If they change their views let it be considered transcendent. If not, perhaps we should develop alternative strategies.
Our discussion about Citizen here, ironically discussed race as more of a symbolic minority. Coincidentally, that is the Free Black Space approach, minus white handlers, distribution, pedigree, and isolation in predominantly white environments. The difference is the place the discussion is directed towards. We don't imagine pure argument changes consciousness. We document the debate from a different position. We search for the code with an understanding the larger educational structure prevents it from truly being written and properly rendered. There is nothing for the African American mind to prove, rather, it needs to articulate what it already knows. It is not that those who manage the system of codes harbor malicious intent. In fact, they often have good intentions. It is simply that they cannot. White supremacy is a deficiency after all.
Much of the focus on our discussion on Citizen here addressed the use of the pronoun "you" throughout the work, along with the notions of the divided self, and a rather schizophrenic black personality hollowed out and plagued by how it is seen, and splintered by the thoughts of that outside world. One could call it a double consciousness that fails to account for a divided self that says "freedom" all day everyday, but does not free its slaves. The focus is on the black.
Yet, for me, the "you" and second person is somehow related to "them" and "they." Here Rankine's construction allows whites to enter the text with intimacy, minus the indictment. Them and they indicts and leaves fixed poles. Dem white people is offensive to many whites because it implies you are a witness to a conversation where you are discussed but cannot enter. It is Post Black Arts binary opposition material refined with less offense for a white audience. The "you" here seems to be black and white, both, two selves, and whatever else. If it is confusing. It is by design,
In my own reading of Citizen I focused more on the testimonial narrative and portrayals of intimate racial offense. They, like my small section above, nuance their way into the interactions of people on opposite sides of the binary. These are places where a look in the eye, or measure of speech, clarifies you are more abstraction than real. Like Coates, one can only imagine how intoxicating the idea is for those who interact with our "best and brightest." For one imagines the power to hurt and torment. One can imagine they have produced tragic individuals. One can imagine a terrible power even when wrong. As I read Citizen, I imagined how intoxicating that high must be. The text seems to reek of it like a spliff.
Yet, in my own life, and many others, we forget those intimacies because they are not intimate. We escape rather easily by realizing there was no connection in the first place, and that white people, even those in superior positions, are not gods. We move on rather quickly. They are weather, rain storms, haints and traumas, that are sometimes easily decoded. The trick of course is to focus on them as people, and not as white, to imagine their pain and current circumstances as explanation as compared to white supremacy. The solution is an often practical spiritual sophistication that defies narrative. Indeed, when one tells the story or even "refines it", chances are they may not have learned it.
In other instances a fair amount of folks in the black deal with the dem on site in ways that may make us appear as shadows. Some of the things I have done in response to bullshit may make you think I am a crazy nigger, or at the least a shadow of the typical hell raising black man. At this point, I have no interests in telling the story, along with many of my fellow black folks. Most of those situations were handled in their own place and time, and whatever adverse circumstances I encountered as a result were ultimately worth it. The point here is some smart negroes want to win and get something else. After they win in those tight circles, a revisionist approach suggests they endured, but life demands endurance in order to survive mistreatment. The black knows good and craft don't own that, life does. Part of the black predicament in the eyes of the white is a suffering that needs to be refined to acceptable levels.
Many Black intellectuals are experts in such matters, and defacto guardians of the ghetto of ideas, performing for a white audience who already knows everything. The trick is to be good enough by finding the pivot where argument and convincing become a strange form of entertainment with the idea of a black code for intellectualism as the prize.
And so it trends like a T.V. show with the white audience in tow.
But these reports from behind the veil are a bit annoying. I discovered what is so enthralling about race and craft, is that it brings race into the domain of the empire as though the empire is capable of understanding it.
But truth is, the empire has to be taught about it by its most negated subjects. Note I did not say citizens. Hip hop is there in plain view, avoiding the obvious lesson with often outlandish content, but hidden in its mix an alternative process. Rankine is innovative approach to a traditional way of writing a book for a white audience. It is the opposite of hip-hop. On the most intimate level, Rankine's book makes whites feel like blacks do when we see Justin Timberlake dance, or Eminem rap. Even though we may not be into them, we know they respect us on the most fundamental level, because they bear the imprint of our culture.
In this light, I mention race narrative and testimony as I talk about the woman I saw here in China walking down the street, because there was something pitiful about it. No doubt she is as pitiful as I am sometimes in my own anger, rage , or ego trip, but when niggers get buck we know the emotion is emotion. When white folks show horror, we produce argument and narrative, but imagine there is some rationale or rational thought behind it. The essence of black negation is that you have no reason or explanation for certain actions, while for whites, it follows almost anything can be explained.
The great white myth is that we are not witness on this personal and intimate level to the way in which whites themselves show signs of trauma everytime they commit acts of treachery we label as racist. They imagine a rather everyday occurrence to be so subtle and nuanced because they are doing it. Rankine helps justify such nonsense by suggesting nuance is needed to show that people are trifling. It's not really all that deep. We portray it as race related and miss the gut emotional root that contradicts all theories of white supremacy. Activism tells the lie better than anything when its spectacle claims to fight against the true nature of race, while at the same time becoming symbol of that in the market.
Homegirl's look here in Wuhan said she brought with her the ridiculous baggage of America. The look was the horror of seeing a black man you don't know and imagining some special relationship doused in an intimate fear of the unknown. What's funny is it can occur even here in a country full of Chinese people and with almost no African Americans on-site.
I mean, the look isn't about me, truth is I don't know what it is about. It could be some immigrant or war story of horror that comes from being a cog wheel in the empire. All I know about the look is that in America a coded system gives agency to it and supports it, and makes it something Negroes have to spend time dealing with. Even if it is not real, America seems to say we should be concerned. It is the place where all race really begins. Stupid ass shit that can escalate based on how America has justified and refined white fear, frustration, and hostility to use the black as an outlet. None of that is simply a look, but it begins with one.
But here in Wuhan it is just a look. There's no linguistic framework to support it. There's no white man in charge to go with it. In fact there is no mythic structure run by individuals in the most individualistic country in the world that investigates it. There's no way here for the horror to occur and and someone explain it as an accident, though it seems to bear the mark of intention. In other words, it is harmless and just a shadow of something back home that doesn't fly with me.
My response is fake ass mofos, though I still respond with the surface etiquette my mama taught me. Most chilling is the fear or whatever emotion is beyond it. In a situation without white supremacy and privilege to back you up, not seeing clearly is a disadvantage. It is my belief that is how the Chinese view white supremacy, a dangerous fallacy of great tactical importance.
Race scholars are so busy stepping through their minefield institutions they can't reduce race to this. In fact, given their isolation and comeuppism, they inflate it.
Both Coates and Rankine as examples fail to focus the energy on whites. They direct the energy to them, but do not focus on them. White supremacy renders much of white collective and personal history a myth. Granted the larger society tells the story, but we cannot connect the dots. In many ways their texts speak to whites, and whites find it complementary. The internal focus seems to hint at the whites being unassuming and rather normal as though there is no internal suffering attached. Perhaps they are not as intimate and behind the veil as we imagine. It seems the essence of writing about such incidents would be to show ultimately unhappy people are who engage such measures. That's the intimacy that seems to evade us. African Americans need to continue to explore such shadows with something more than inherent complements.
Back home such a look is not quite as fascinating or comical, because I have to run inventory on who knows who, where I am at, map interactions, try and figure out if there is some place where I imagined a smile ruled the interactions but really it was that look. Real niggas know this about white people or the shadow of white people, or the image of white people, or the ghost of white people past, whatever it is. How else do you think we have survived?
White people wear the mask too, that's what the smile was after the fact, and (double and again) that's what white supremacy really is- a mask.
If you doubt what I'm saying, it is probably because you too are managing that craziness when it pops up. You think it is superhuman cuz you read so many books, but it is just flesh and blood like you. If I approached her, she would most likely deny my reading, but how could she know it? It is the point where the brain whites out.
And though we live in age with award winning critics of the white, white privilege always indicts its critiques, with the suggestion that the intellectual quality of the critique itself is full of ovesights, the absence of craft, or false ideas. It could be this is why we imagine awards are so important. We desire the designation of the transcendent even from those we suggest have serious transcending problems.
As for the Chinese, some days for white folks it must feel like being in a black neighborhood where our language is on the walls, an the internet runs pretty well, with subways and shit. You can also add in the idea of a continuous civilization so old, that it makes the idea of Western Civilization seem to be a young child's birthday party. Here the devastating destruction of colonialism and imperialism is not the major consideration. There are no Black History Month firsts carrying the connotation of invention even while the thing we call white privilege remains in tact.
And I'm used to the outside the culture predicament here. Minority, check; another language, check; having to learn a lot, check; outside the systems and codes that fundamentally run the country, check. I have agency and room to operate at home that exceeds that here, and I should, my folks paid for that; but I am not so easily convinced that America is really my home. Cuz some of what I experience here, I experience there.
Not hatred, no reason to hate America, more to accept it for what is. I accept it all, including white privilege.
Truth is I wouldn't write no narrative about the tragic, trauma, black I know you, but don't know you if the context was the same. It's just a joke here. It's not going to hurt me, because there is no system that uploads that ghost trauma into an unwritten policy and a twisted sense of law and order. It seems the real approach to white privilege is to render it harmless, and strip it to its roots. To build institutions that render it powerless. I can understand how impossible that seems to the black intellectual mind in America, and if it's true we might want to shut up.
White privilege is a myth. There are places it doesn't exist. Without it, many of the stories are almost laughable. Next time somebody black starts tripping, imagine they refined a system to explain that as superiority. That seems like a pretty scary thought. But in the black smog of our lives, negroes simply don't have that type of agency, unless of course they want to be break laws.
Free Black Space