Sunday, December 3, 2006

Mother wit - n. Innate intelligence; common sense.

I'll begin on a personal note. As you may have noticed, I've been away for a few days. During my absence, I was shepherding my mother as she visited her two sisters in Mississippi. At 91 years old, my mother's eldest sibling has been diagnosed with terminal colon cancer. She is receiving hospice care in the home that she shares with her youngest sister, and - except for the wear that her advanced disease has inflicted - seems to be in good spirits. My aunt received her guests as well as she was able, before she retired to her room, leaving my aunts to exchange remembrances from their lives.

As I observed my mother and her baby sister from respectful distance, I began to understand why we prefer our history in the form of pictures as opposed to words, or worse still, oral histories. While they were recalling past experiences, I spent a great deal of time looking at my aunt's collection of portraits going back to the early 1900s.
It occurred to me that while pictures are fairly easy to assimilate, stories have at least five dimensions. Besides describing an event that had its own space, an oral history - at least as rendered by my mother and her sister - has its own time and its own cultural contexts. There is simply too much information in a story to be processed completely; I do not gain new knowledge from their conversations as much as I have longstanding impressions confirmed.

But I do recall being struck by the fact that at no point in their reminiscing did they acknowledge the power of individual whites in particular, or the impact white supremacy more generally. These women, who in their formative years were subject to a legendary sort of Jim Crow-Strom Thurmond-George Wallace-Bull Conner race-based hegemony, saw no need whatever to account for the power of race in their past lives. To be fair, perhaps their memories have mellowed with the passage of time, or maybe they were distracted by their present concerns. Or more likely, they are possessed of a wisdom that says that their life stories are not histories of white peoples' treatment of them.

Contrast this with the "wisdom" of today's civil rights leadership, which assumes that the story of black people in America is entirely a recounting of white peoples' power over and maltreatment of African Americans. Compared to these women of the pre-Civil Rights era, black leadership often seems weak, petty and ultimately consumed by relatively trivial matters. By way of their obsession with corralling the twin chimeras of absence: namely, the absence of racial disparity and racist behaviors, the civil rights community expends its waning energies in pursuit of unachievable goals. In so doing, they neglect the more worthwhile ends of improving educational outcomes for black children and rehabilitating what currently passes for black "culture," particularly among the underclass.

No comments: