“I didn't take my go-kart out of the house until Mr. Batt came home. He couldn't push me. It was everything for the nurse to bring him out to his porch for some sun. A few weeks before he died, he said their are no black people or white people and no really below: lynching of 16 year old, Lige Daniels in Texas
good people or really bad people. Just people. He told me about his father who'd been lynched by hateful white men, because his father chose to party with Black people. Back then I didn't understand what lynching was and by the time I did understand, I knew that black folks did things like that to black folks.
I found it hard to believe that white people did that kind of thing to other white people. Now I know that people do these kinds of things to everything and unlike many, I kind of understand why. I've spent most of my 45 years trying to figure out how. I don't mean how people commit individual acts, I mean how these things grow to such scale.”
-Ulysses [Odysseus] from "Hope: Between neglect and abuse"
It takes a humanist to expose what we do to each other. I suspect very seriously that with Ulysses, Blacklist Pub
has a humanist in our midst.
Something about the above passage I cut and pasted from Blacklist
blogger, dyed-in-the-Afro humanist, Brother and fellow Detroit native, Ulysses'
post, "Hope: Between Neglect and Abuse", says a lot about the largeness of Black manhood, and also reminded me that I teach my students that in the America of the early twentieth century the most frequently lynched ethnicity other than Black people were Italian Americans. Ulysses' writing about his childhood reminded me of my Black boyhood in Detroit, of the old J.L. Hudson building--gone now--where my grandmother would take me, on the bus, on weekends, to ride the elevator up to (or was it down to?) the floor where she could buy me a bag of fresh roasted, still-hot peanuts, and would sharply hush me to silence if I even looked
like I was going to say something to a white person ("Whitefolks can lynch you soon as look at you!" she would whisper--"What's that mean?" I'd ask. "Shut up, now," she would say, but softly, sweetly, so that it felt like being told to shut up was a caress)
My thoughts were turned by Ulysses to the complexity Ulysses speaks of; this complex identity of ours. It is a maligned identity, this identity of ours, this Black manhood, which is currently being reduced in the media to a patethique
commercial signifier for brutality, Somalian 'piracy' (the Somali coastlines have been littered with chemical and nuclear wastes dumped off Western ships, and the fishing waters ruined by the West, thus creating the very conditions that provoke 'piracy'), absent fatherhood (my father wasn’t absent from my life, and neither am I absent from my daughter's life), thuggish obnoxiousness, and saggy panted shambling monstrosity (or else bow-tied, tight-assed, reactionary bourgeois conceit; a brother talking through his nose about being an ‘entrepreneur’)...
Ulysses’ words (and his humanism) mean much more to me and elicit many more thoughts and feelings than I can express-- and, he raises in my mind some nagging questions; questions such as why we all dehumanize each other (and I mean ALL of us, Black men, white men, immigrant, cigar store Indian, blond bimbo smart-bomb shell (a girlfriend I briefly had my last year living in Ithaca, NY when I worked as a dishwasher while working on a dissertation--she came into the deli the same day my dissertation committee member, Professor Ken McClane stopped by to see me, and the same day the NY Times ran the "Unibomber Manifesto" and she was reading "Catcher in the Rye" and we had an intense conversation about it, and we agreed that the 'Unibomber' was clearly an anarchist
, not a 'mad killer,' and that his manifesto had elements, like Malatesta's writings do, of genius; and we went to dinner at Thai Cuisine
, and we started dating secretly, both of us afraid to be 'open' about it, and she haunted by an irrational fear I'd be 'lynched' even in progressive Ithaca, and one day my good friend Robin Palmer, ex Weatherman --a former bomber himself-- almost caught she and I together at the Deli, but she pretended to be a 'whitegirl' and became invisible to him, and she slept with me every night and mostly cried in my arms over a lifetime of feeling like a blond object instead of a person, and anyway it wasn't her hair I gave a damn about or her skin, --novelty never lasts-- but what was inside her head and on her bookcase, as if that mattered, because in this world it didn't, it only mattered that she was a 'whitegirl' and I was a 'nigger', so we drifted apart), or Black rapper with his pants around his knees (half my Black male students these days, even the ones who read Baraka), Pakistani cab driver, New Delhi 7-11 slurpee jockey, Puerto Rican Princess (my ex girlfriend Lillian, a Bronx girl, souldful eyes, mouth and mind like an Oxford Don's, lover of Milton's "Paradise Lost," confusing the hell out of men attracted to her beauty who cannot deal with her razor sharp wit) or Arab gas-station-Plexiglas-angel, or M-and-M loving Whiteboy Rap drag king, or Black woman dread-locked holier than thou, thee, OR we--like Detroit poet, Vievee Francis, Texas Black woman who will get a baseball bat, break your bones, but will break your heart with the sweetness tucked away inside her as a gift only to those men who deserve to see it).
Why is it that ALL of us, then, this menagerie called America, all bound inside our identities as inside prison cells, though we are all in the same prison, or an even better metaphor as aboard the same boat, why do we all nevertheless take each other not for human but as media constructs, as one dimensional screens upon which to project our insane, mediated fantasies and phobias?
And so Ulysses speaks of the touchstone of lynching, as my grandmother had often whispered of to me.
It is a great American touchstone, which at one time or another almost every American identity has been subjected to because of race, ethnicity, politics, union affiliation, economic position, and what not, although none so long nor so consistently nor as brutally as African Americans. It's a startling fact you stumble across once you begin asking questions
The graph below reflects the number of lynchings and racially motivated murders in each deacde from 1865 to 1965. Data for 1865-1869 and 1960-1965 are partial decades.
The same source gives the following statistics for the period from 1882 to 1951. 88% of victims were black, and 10% were white. 59% of the lynchings occurred in the Southern states of Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and Florida. Lynching was not uncommon in the west and Midwest, but was virtually nonexistent in the northeast. The most common reasons given for the lynchings are murder and rape, but as documented by Ida B. Wells, such charges were often pretexts for lynching blacks who violated Jim Crow etiquette, or engaged in economic competition with whites. Other common reasons given include arson, theft, assault, and robbery; sexual transgressions (miscegenation, adultery, cohabitation); "race prejudice," "race hatred," "racial disturbance;" informing on others; "threats against whites;" and violations of the color line ("attending white girl," "proposals to white woman").
Questions. Questions that expose us, will be raised by a humanist every damn time.
I've known some in my day. A young Black man named Jay, for instance, was not
a humanist. He was the negation we can measure what the thing is by measuring it against him--a fellow graduate student, so conservative was musclebound Jay writer/intellectual/bodybuilder--a conglomerated identity held together with the glue of sarcasm, that walking up East Avenue he could sarcastically cut the wind in half, offer up the ‘better’ half to the spirit of fastidious Jean Toomer (pronounced, ‘Tomb-AIR’, schizophrenic Harlem Renaissance novelist, and Jay’s bodybuilding spirit guide), and pass down the lesser half of the wind to ‘those neegrowss on north campus squatting inside their nationalist swamp’ (Ujamaa residential college where the Black undergrads took solace and refuge from a white world that Jay was determined, like Tommer, like Claude McKay, to conquer, not hide from). Jay, not a humanist, whose laconic eyes and slack voice could cut right through you and expose whatever liberal hypocrisy your Black ass was nurturing that day…
Just now I got a phone call from Yvonne Singh, an old friend, once a fellow grad student, now an actress in Atlanta. She’s back at Cornell today visiting her son, Cian, while on her way to a conference in Vermont. Cian is a first year undergrad at his mother’s and my former school…she said she was standing in front of Day Hall (administration building, where the poorest grad students who could not pay their astronomical Ivy League bills would be back-benched) and from where she was standing she could see the big metal statue of Odysseus…(!!)
This amazing coincidence, or dialectical happenstance, or hand of God, whatever you call it, sends a shock through me, because it feels like some very strange, strong fate that I am writing this blog post now, and she agreed with me (even though I think the stature—an ugly, post modern shiny iron thing, is actually Hercules, not Odysseus).
So now I’m taking very seriously the writing of this post, which started out just as a quick appreciation for Ulysses.
So back to Jay, who at the time was not a humanist. None of us took a Black conservative all that seriously…
Until one cold afternoon (they are all cold in upstate New York), everybody sitting in the basement of Willard Straight Hall dining room (old, old, men’s club style, wooden
right: inside Willard Straight Hall
paneled sitting room with an honest-to-goodness fire place, wood paneling and hardwood floors and picture windows with sills deep and wide enough to sit on four abreast, and a view of the snow outside on Libe Slope) we sat at the tables like vikings finishing up mutton and Swiss cheese wedges inside a fucking 17th century hunting lodge or something…
right: Willard Straight
but were really only a bunch of colored students on the back end of the wave of affirmative action that had lifted us all and carried us our whole lives and had taken us one last spin into graduate school to sit eating lunch in the footsteps of old Anglo wall street bankers whose lacrosse uniforms and retired team numbers from twenty years earlier had been desultorily hung on a nearby wooden wall; we sat lazily in the aftermath of a meal, empty plastic containers everywhere, and the latest issue of “Village Voice” sitting on the table...
Henri Boyi, unctuous Afrikan from Burundi was delivering a lugubrious monologue about how much he planned to 'help' his people back home in Africa once he had completed his doctorate in America, hero returning to 'the bush' to take his tribe upon his own hero's back, and Jay sat across from him listening, eyes drooping with lazy contempt, until finally Jay could tolerate no more and tossed a banana peel onto the table, cleared his throat and asked:
"So what are you are saying? That as a damn academic you plan to be the Black bwana, bringing electricity back home to the ignorant natives?"
The table erupted in laughter and Henri ground to an unfamiliar halt in mid sentence, hero's mouth still hanging open to have pronounced, had he ever finished, the next herculean labor he planned to perform once back home, and his head tilted with a jerk like a rock on a hinge, and Jay delivered the coup-de-gras
"I think all academics are just fast-talking rag-a-muffins."
And he peeled another banana.
'Ulysses' is the Latin name for Odysseus, of Homer's epic, "The Odyssey", the story of a long, long sea journey through fear and violence and heartbreak to return home from a war. 'The Iliad' was about a warrior in triumph, but 'The Odyssey' was about the wages of violence and war--the punishment--which is alienation, grief, and loneliness (all ones friends and fellows transformed by Circe into useless pigs).
Ten years at war, but then ten more years to come home. 'Ulysses the cunning,' Homer calls him, in honor of his idea of the Trojan horse, but 'Odysseus the Sad', he's called by the Roman poets, who emphasized the figure of Odysseus after
the Trojan war, in the course of his long, ruinous journey back home.
Many of my students here and in Miami over the past ten years have been Black men who were war veterans (Gulf War, second Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq...),
traumatized, alienated, haunted by guilt, feeling that they have yet to truly return home...nobody seems able to even imagine a vulnerable young Black man, let alone imagining a way to help a vulnerable young Black man to feel like a human being once again after killing a house full of Iraqi citizens with one sweep of his MP5 sub Machine assault rifle (his mother sent him the money to buy one from a corporate contractor selling them to soldiers!).
Some days, much as I hate being back home in Detroit, much as I miss Miami and my home in Coral Gables and the sun and the ocean, I end up on Wayne State's campus outside Old Main, and I can remember how excited I used to be when I was a youngman, an undergraduate at Wayne,
following my philosophy professor, Mike McKinsey, around on campus asking him questions about The Problem of Forms. Is Detroit still my home? Is my skin still home to me? Then why do I feel most at home inside airports? (Kennedy, Metro, Charles De Gual (pronounced, "char-duh-gawl'), King Kalid, Heathrow,Cairo International, Berlin Tegel, Miami International...
Once, inside Kennedy, a large German man named 'Otto' sat beside me at a gate, both of us waiting to board a Lufthansa flight, and he looked like a character out of a damn Fassbinder film, with gortex boots and leather jacket with studs.
"You know the problem with us all Mein Lieber Freund
, is that God is dead, the old fucker died of simple old age, and here we are left all alone in the universe, and we haven't fucking realized it yet!" He turned his great, dark, Gaulish head to the cieling of the terminal, and cried out, "Gott ist nicht mehr meine Freundin!" and he stared back at the fkight attendant at the gate until she looked away, and turned back to me, saying "He's gone, and we'll all just wink out of existence once the last humanist dies; and those fuckers are getting few and far between, and why not? We don't deserve humanists anymore--human beings don't fucking deserve to be loved that much."
Ulysses will love us, I strongly suspect. My daughter Lena will--she's been a compasionate person ever since she was a child. Something even tells me Otto will, despite all the leather and gortex and bile.
Ulysses will keep humanizing Black men, and every 'them' he writes about, and all those 'others', and humanize the world one 'they' by one, and one 'us' at a time, the entire human race; he'll keep on humanizing us, since$ after all that's what true humanists do, and maybe Otto' prediction of extinction is held at bay.
Otto's right about one thing: humanists are so fucking rare and far between, that one almost wants to hold one's breath and keep very still to see what a humanist will do and say next...
do we humans still even deserve to be loved that much, with our angry, bitter, hurtful, sorry asses?