20 September 2009

Black is a State of Mind

John Maxwell

Much of the Western media and the people they serve, are almost reflexively racist. No other people are as concerned with the ethnic credentials of their neighbours. At no time was this syndrome better exposed than by the murder trial of O.J. Simpson. TIME magazine apologised for picturing him on the magazine's cover as "darker than the hero he was". Newsweek opined that Simpson was trying to become white – "He even played golf."
This week, in illustrating a story about the increase in a world hunger the stock illustration has been a black Somali woman with her terminally malnourished baby. The story was not about starvation in Africa; it was about hunger worldwide:
World Food Aid At 20-Year Low, 1 Billion Hungry
Now there aren't a billion people in all Africa, so even the most boneheaded of editors should have used his imagination to illustrate the story differently.
According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation the tally of the hungered is as follows:

642 million in Asia and the Pacific
265 million in Sub-Saharan Africa
53 million in Latin America and the Caribbean        
42 million in the Near East and North Africa

If you add together those hungry in Black (sub-Saharan Africa with those in North
Africa you will get 307 million, still less than half those hungry in Asia and the Pacific. Yet, the cliche picture is of Africans.
Being black is an undefinable abstraction. A back shoemaker in Washington 50 years ago did not recognise me as 'black' because of the way I spoke and the way I walked. In the BBC's newsroom in the late '60s my colleagues ranged between those who saw me as a black outsider – nigger – and the typist who though I had the 'most wonderful tan'. There were those who said I must be from the South Seas and others who thought that Jamaicans lived in trees.
While I was at the BBC one of their commentators said on television that 'X' was the first white man to finish in the 100 metres at the Tokyo Olympics. He came sixth. When Randolph Turpin beat Sugar Ray Robinson for the world middleweight title he was transformed from a 'darkie from Leamington' to 'the Briton' by the time the fight ended. The process was reversed in the next fight when Ray Robinson beat the daylights out of Turpin.
Last weekend, at the US Open tennis championships, the world's best tennis player lost her temper and the title match after she shouted imprecations at a lineswoman who had – wrongly – called her for a foot-fault. (Nobody mentioned that fact)
Serena was in a bad mood because the American hoi polloi, who mainly patronise tennis, was rooting for Serena's opponent, a Belgian, against their own home grown champion. In tennis, with its polite hand-claps, it is much easier for the spectators to unsettle a competitor than in most other sports. Serena lost her temper not just with the lineswoman but with the whole racist cabal of tennis officialdom and the media. YouTube videos heralded the moment by speaking of 'the jungle' and similarly flattering epithets
Serena was fined 10,500 and reprimanded. While she was apologising for her behavior, another tennis star, this time white, male, Swiss and named Roger Federer, was abusing the match umpire using precisely the same language as Serena had. Abusing a lineswoman is obviously a crime. Abusing a match umpire in the same terms isn't, in the free and democratic United States of America, where Free Speech rules. Federer was not penalised and most of the media ignored his lapse.

Third World USA

The Southern United States is that country's Third World, so vividly exposed by Hurricane Katrina. Unlike the rest of the Third World, the southern USA is not noted for much apart from William Faulkner, bourbon and the continuing disaster that is Miami. Its politicians who used always to be Democrats and rabidly prejudiced are now mostly Republicans and rabidly prejudiced.
The Deep South has for some time been the intellectual – if you can call it that – powerhouse of the Republican party. It is spiritual home to such as Roger Ailes president of Fox News, David Duke, the KKKlansman, and Karl Rove, once known as George Bush's brain.
In the Deep South is where you will find the most atavistic opposition to the American president, Barack Obama, for the simple reason that he is black – or perhaps as some say – passing for Black.
There you will find the most ignorant, hysterical opposition to progressive ideas of any kind, including the attempt to craft a new, more just, health service for Americans. It is in the Deep South that you will find labourers voting against unions and where Walmart was born
One of the newest heroes of the deep south is a hitherto unknown congressman named Joe Wilson whose most memorable utterance before now was his advice to Strom Thurmond's black daughter to shut up. Thurmond – the old racist – had been Wilson's boss and mentor and the protégé was terribly vexed that any details of his scrofulous past should be revealed.
Wilson was one of the three or four hundred congressmen present when their President addressed a joint session of the Senate and the House.
In the middle of the speech Wilson shouted "You Lie!" at the President, thus achieving his flyspeck place in history.
Some journalists saw Wilson's rude eructation as harmless; others, like Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, heard in that outburst, the invisible snarl of the racist:

'… fair or not, what I heard was an unspoken word in the air: You lie, boy!
'The outburst was unexpected from a milquetoast Republican backbencher from South Carolina who had attracted little media attention. Now it has made him an overnight right-wing hero, inspiring "You lie!" bumper stickers and T-shirts.'
Dowd goes on to explain that until now she had not agreed with those who thought that much of the hate being spewed at Obama was race-inspired. She had classed it with the vituperation aimed at Roosevelt, Truman and JFK. She now admits:
"But Wilson's shocking disrespect for the office of the president — no Democrat ever shouted "liar" at W. when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq — convinced me: Some people just can't believe a black man is president and will never accept it".
Dowd may have missed a few other manifestations such as the fact that on at least two Presidential occasions men armed to the teeth have boldly paraded in the near vicinity, almost daring the Secret Service to interfere with their 'constitutional right' to bear arms. I don't believe that these men would have tried to kill the president themselves; they were merely demonstrating to others, less scrupulous, that there were other loonies like them and that it may be a good idea to go hunting a President.
The level of hatred shown to President and Mrs Obama extends into the Democratic Party itself. Obama's 'Secretary of State and her husband as well as other opponents of Obama have all made statements that black people recognise as coded messages. One does not have to do a Henry II – 'will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?'
Perhaps what Obama needs now is to recognise himself for what he is, to do what he promised and, perhaps, to seek the advice of another turbulent priest, to wit: the Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Obama is a child of the sixties and is perhaps not black enough to realise that in this sort of situation, soft answers, far from turning away wrath, encourage it, rather like not standing your ground in front of a menacing dog.




I lost two good friends on the same day this week: Wayne Brown and Trevor Rhone. Jamaica lost two good men, two stars of the arts.
Rhone was the man who proved that one could survive as a serious playwright in Jamaica writing about the Jamaican culture. The cult of slapstick to which too many Jamaican playwrights subscribe, was not his genre. Trevor proved that there were large audiences for serious theatre about Jamaica. He was a kind and gentle man.
Wayne Brown was a gifted teacher, poet and journalist. When both of us wrote for this paper, people used to ask us whether we ever consulted beforehand. The answer was no, but both of us had the same kind of news-sense and the urge to speak truth to whomever.
Early this year, when I was in Amsterdam being treated for lung cancer, Wayne sent me an email saying that he too had been diagnosed with the same disease. Unfortunately his was a more advanced case than mine, although I had started smoking when Wayne was six, more than a decade before he started. I had had hopes that both of us would have survived until, when I went to see him three weeks ago, he told me his doctors had said that he needn't think of buying Christmas presents this year.

I am just one of thousands here and abroad who will miss these two hugely gifted men _ eloquent spokesmen for our world.

Copyright 2009 © John Maxwell jankunnu@gmail.com


Paula Helm Murray said...

Sorry about your friends, that is difficult. We have a dear friend who has lung cancer that was not discovered until way late. He lives close to us and since I'm unemployed, I'm helping, cleaning, taking him to appointments, etc.

A well as helping sort out his various collections and making sure we can do an estate sale/auction of the special collectibles.

Blessings. I've book-marked this blog, like your writing and offer best wishes and prayers toward you and your family.

FSJL said...


The author of the piece is John Maxwell (jankunnu@gmail.com). He'd appreciate your comments, I'm certain. I doubt he reads this blog on a regular basis. He sends me the column, and I publish it after its original publication in the Jamaica Observer.