What does it mean to be black?
In discussing Black America, on whatever level, be it politics, economics, music, food, I often use the word "we." Aside from the necessity of sometimes making broad generalizations about broad groups, the more I think about African America, the more I cannot help but question what I mean by "we." I'm not the only black person who does this. All through my growing up my relatives did it, my teachers, my ministers; in school, at work, whenever or wherever I encountered black folk talking about black folk--even when speaking to nonblack folk--the word "we" was used.
Do we mean race? Do we mean culture? Do we mean skin color? The more I thought of it, the more problematic the idea became--even as I persisted in using the word, becoming ever more uncertain of what I--what "we"--meant.
Did I mean race? If I did I was a hypocrite, because I don't believe in "race" as a fact of nature. Biologically speaking there is only one human species, and though tremendous amounts of time and money have been spent on the classification and subdivision of human beings, classifications that go beyond mere skin color, no one has succeeded, scientifically, in demonstrating any significant difference among people who look different from others. Consider cats: A Siamese, a calico, and a tabby are actually of different genera--that is, they have specific genetic codes (even though they can mate); whereas Koreans, Botswanans, Apaches, and Swedes are all within the same genus. We humans are all calicos, despite visual persuasions to the contrary. But as a rule, human beings don't think that way. Since the time the noted anthropologist Franz Boas wrote:
Where is the proof of the development of specialized hereditary capacities? Where is the proof that such capacities, if they exist, are recessive? How can it be shown that such specialized characteristics in selected mating will be bred out? Not a single one of these statements can be accepted.
No one has presented any compelling evidence to the contrary. Where race is concerned I feel very much like Henry Adams when he wrote: "And yet no one could tell the patient tourist what race was, or how it should be known. History offered a feeble and delusive smile at the sound of the word; evolutionists and ethnologists disputed its very existence; no one knew what to make of it; yet without the clue, history was a nursery tale."
Race is better explained by what historian Barbara Jeanne Fields calls "an ideological construct and thus, above all, a historical product." As a great many historians have noted, "race" is far more a mythology than a reality, brought about first by the proponents of slavery as a way to create a caste system in the United States. It is a melding of class with pseudobiology in such a way as to make and maintain an inferior, unequal group of people, a people both socially and economically on the lowest rung of the ladder. "During the revolutionary era," Fields writes, "people who favored slavery and people who opposed it collaborated in identifying the racial incapacity of African Americans as the explanation for enslavement."
For two centuries "race" has become more and more deeply ingrained in the American imagination, and in some cases has taken on a life apart from its original intentions. Today the word "race" has profound currency. Be it in politics or mass culture, the buzzword elicits for the American ear a panoply of meanings or "realities." Polls are tallied in terms of "race"; the U.S. Census Bureau divides people by "race"; on television talk shows and news broadcasts, on the front pages of newspapers and on the covers of magazines, the word "race" is used with great surety and finality, as if it were a scientifically quantifiable trait. Americans know what they think they know, and in that knowing lies tremendous power.
As Lorraine Hansberry has a character in her play Les Blancs,
Race--racism--is a device. No more. No less. It explains nothing at all. . . . I am simply saying that a device is a device, but that it also has consequences: once invented it takes on a life, a reality of its own. So in one century, men invoke the device of religion to cloak their conquests. In another, race. Now, in both cases you and I may recognize the fraudulence of the device, but the fact remains that a man who has a sword run through him because he refused to become a Moslem or a Christian--or who is shot in Zatembe or Mississippi because he is black--is suffering the utter reality
of the device. And it is pointless to pretend that it doesn't exist
--merely because it is a lie!
In that same way, to be an American is to be shaped by the "device" of "race." Whether one believes it to be reality or mythology, whether one is white or black or something entirely other, to live in the United States is to be shaped on some level by "race."
Yet race is only one element of being black, only one side of the multisided rubric of understanding who "we" are.
My initial reaction to Burlington was: clean, clean, clean. Alpine and remote. Green and villagelike. Technology encroached in the form of excellent highways and the nearby industrial park, but the timbre and the lay of the land were fresh and inviting. (One night I saw a deer amble down Main Street.) I felt almost as if I were in Canada, rather than still in America--most signs are in French and English, and the television picks up the CBC and CTV--the nearest "big city" is Montreal.
But as I drove around, I realized that Burlington had two very distinct faces, like every other place: one of pristine opulence and one of squalor. I passed through a poorer section and realized that the booming economy had not touched every hovel and den. The sight of scruffy teens in black leather and boots and bandanas contrasted mightily with the evergreen splendor, and I remembered graffiti, on a concrete wall down by the lake, telling me: "Don't shed tears for the Children of Hell."
From downtown, Lake Champlain, on whose shores Burlington is situated, seemed deceptively minor, appearing smallish and long, though nonetheless gorgeous. The mountains in the background receded row by majestic row, disappearing in the distance as steely purple-blue phantoms.
I wandered around downtown Burlington, falling into conversation every now and again with a shopkeeper or a waiter, and I was struck by how everyone seemed to find the absence of black folk humorous, and the fact that I had come to the "Whitest State in the Union" to investigate black life a curiosity.
Later that night I happened to catch a PBS documentary on the late, great Millicent Fenwick, congresswoman from New Jersey, with her corncob pipe and firebrand ways. One thing she said in an interview stuck with me my entire time in Vermont: "I don't believe in tolerance," she said. "Who am I to tolerate
anybody? No, it's not about tolerance, it's about respect and understanding."
Vermont's total population was a little over 500,000 souls, and the number of African Americans was less than 2,000--less than one third of 1 percent, with the largest concentration found in Burlington. Overall, the smallest percentage of any state, thence the curious moniker "Whitest State in the Union." I wondered if this fact happened by design or by some other happenstance. I found many articles enumerating the results of such a situation--the blatant acts of racism, intolerance, indifference--but few gave me insight into the larger question: Why? Moreover, Vermont's history had been one of tremendous "tolerance," to say the least. In 1776 Vermonters elected the first black person in any state legislature, and Vermont was the first state to outlaw slavery. I found a number of essays that suggested answers. Robert Mitchell sums it up best: "Perhaps the best explanation for the state's tiny . . . black population is its rural character, since 75 percent of the national population of blacks live in urban areas and 97 percent of those in the Northeast are city dwellers." Indeed the presence of people of African descent went back to Vermont's beginnings--a great many black folk escaped to Vermont on the Underground Railroad. One scholar, Marion Metivier-Redd, suggests that many of those former slaves settled and intermingled with the white folk, in effect "bleaching" themselves out of existence, but leaving their legacy.
I wondered, in truth, how white Vermont actually was.
The day I got lost on the University of Vermont campus on the way to church, I met Jack Guilles at the University of Diversity.
The university campus looks like the quintessence of an American land grant school, all red brick and malls, statues and tall steps leading to the halls of higher learning. That morning, already fifteen minutes late for church, I walked around the campus hoping to inquire as to the whereabouts of New Alpha. The few people I did encounter looked at me as if I were a Venusian--but were nice enough. They had no idea what I was talking about.
Then I spotted this mess on the mall. The university mall is a series of grassy lawns, descending, terrace by terrace, from the pillared main buildings. On the lowermost plain, off to the side, squatted these huddled tents and chairs and blankets and what appeared to be garbage--like a hobo camp in the midst of this ivory tower setting. I went to investigate and found a brochure tacked to a tree that read:
Diversity UniversityStatement of Purpose
When the "Waterman 22" took over the UVM president's office, many of us gathered together to support the occupation and the demands for a university free of racism. During the three weeks of the occupation, our support group developed into a democratic body: in nightly assemblies, we discussed ideas, planned strategies, and made decisions together. One decision was to expand and develop our educational and political ideas by building a shantytown on the UVM green and opening a free school, called Diversity University. We make no demands on UVM. By working in cooperation with the people of Burlington, our free school will do the work that UVM should have done long ago.
The liberal ideal of education divorced from politics is elitist, cynical, and inevitably corrupt. Education is political no matter what ideals we hold . . .
The manifesto went on to explain how UVM behaved more like a corporation than a place of "high ideals." The school refused to offer classes in "Native American History, Radical Sexuality, Visionary Art, and Gender Politics." The school engendered an atmosphere of "Do your work, don't ask questions." "DU has no president and no peons: it has as many teachers as students, as many bodies as heads." It ended:
We are not here just to educate ourselves. We are a cooperative part of the Burlington community, and we invite everyone to participate in our educational and political meetings. If there is something you want to learn or teach, then write it down and post it in Malcolm X Lounge, and you can arrange to work with others. Even if you don't have a clear plan, come and see what other people are offering: you might be amazed. If you have a contribution or question or disagreement with our school, then come and talk with us and join our nightly (7 p.m.) meeting. Diversity University is free and open to all.
I felt silly right off, not recognizing the place instantly as a shantytown, seeing as how students at Vassar and Sarah Lawrence where I had taught had done similar things. Political action seemed to be in the air on college campuses in 1991. I certainly wanted to talk to these students, but there were no signs of life and I was late, so I turned to go--and beheld this six-foot-one, thin but muscular blond man in green camouflage army fatigues and a T-shirt and great big black boots, stomping in my direction.
"Yo, homie, what's up?" He looked enormously happy to see me.
I gave a halfhearted smile, annoyed, yet again, to be addressed as what my friends in Washington describe as a "Yo": as if to be a youngish black man meant you spoke and identified with the slang of the street. Moreover, here I stood in my Sunday-go-to-meeting best, with my bright new tie of which I was particularly proud, my mind set churchward.
"You looking sharp, homie. Where you heading?"
That comment saved him from my wrath. I told him what I was searching for, and to my utter surprise, he told me how to find the church. I thanked him and prepared to leave--writing him off straightaway as a young liberal/radical/progressive wannabe who had no real knowledge of black folk, but who meant no harm.
"Yeah," he said, "I usually like to go, but I was out late last night. Got to hang with the folk. And I'm a Muslim anyway."
"I miss my brothers and sisters, man. I'm from the city."
"Yeah, man. I grew up in Brooklyn and shit."
"Ain't many of us here, man."
He kept talking, but I had stopped listening, latching onto that word--"us" --with his unmistakably yellow hair and reddish white translucent skin and profoundly Teutonic features, he could have been a Viking.
I interrupted him, trying hard not to sound offended. "Waitwaitwait--What do you mean 'us'?"
Without a pause, he said, "I'm black, man."
"Oh, really? Do tell."
He told me his name was Jack Guilles. He had been born in Toronto and his parents had moved to New York when he was very young. He described his parents as "problems." He ran away from home when he was five and stayed with a friend in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of Brooklyn, and his friend's parents allowed him to stay, and eventually made him their son. The family was black and also members of the Nation of Islam. Growing up in Brooklyn, according to Jack, looking as he did, was no cakewalk. He told me of being chased and of even being shot when he was seven, and that sometime around the age of twelve, the people in the "hood" just accepted him, "forgot," and treated him like a black person.
I must say, in all honesty, initially, I did not believe one word of this Americanized neo-Dickensian tale of reverse Oliver Twist-hood. Yet for the life of me I could not shake this feeling that he spoke the truth. And his body language--which, for lack of a better word, I can only describe as black--was strangely well executed, seemingly effortless, a part of him, and perhaps most important, he really sounded
like a "black person," which is not to say that only his vocabulary and sentence structure were African American; no, the very marrow of the sound, the timbre, where the utterances emerged, how the color of the language married emotion and fluidity, had a depth of culture I had never encountered in one who looked like this man. If I had closed my eyes I would have sworn he was as dark as I.
My mystification turned to fascination, and I wound up spending a good deal of time with Jack. We had supper, and he showed me the town. On two nights he took me to the university radio station where he was working on a jazz demo tape--at the end of the summer he intended to move to Chicago to join his girlfriend (a black woman), who had just graduated from UVM, and his plan was to get a job as a disc jockey.
The more time I spent with Jack, the more I came to believe his unusual story, to believe that he was not trying to put one over on me. And, indeed, if he were, his acting alone was of the utmost skill and penetration, and his motivation, in and of itself, a profound curiosity. All of which, inevitably, led me to all sorts of questions about the nature of blackness.
Was Jack black?
Excerpted from Walking on Water by Randall Kenan. Copyright © 2000 by Randall Kenan. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.