Awaken The Dead

Awaken The Dead

In my youth, we did not have cable television.  When insomnia struck and I wanted to watch Star Trek I would have to endure “classic television” like I Love Lucy or The Honeymooners.  Seemingly, both programs had one plot with many variations: Someone tells a lie.  This lie then causes a chain-reaction of coverups, more falsehoods, and chaos.  Eventually, the crisis would come to a dramatic conclusion with someone getting their head stuck in a taxidermied deer’s head or something equally absurd. I hated these programs.  They filled me with anxiety, caused me to walk out of the room and peer at the TV through the doorway — Why couldn’t someone just confess?  Apologize?  Couldn’t they see that piling lies upon lies was making everything worse?

This is a preface to a conversation I had with my children the other day.  I am here in Japan and over there in America a police officer calmly, and fully aware of being filmed, spent almost ten minutes murdering George Floyd as he begged for his life.  His three fellow officers looked on, ignoring the voices of bystanders, ignoring the reality that was before them.  This act, righteously, sparked nationwide protests that continue to build in strength.  Like so much over the past couple of months, I felt like I was living in some sort of calm, alternate reality.  My reactions were both thankful to not be in America, yet helpless as regards “action”.  So, I decided that the one thing I could do is sit my children (aged 8 and 13) down and teach them about racism in America.  I am not a good teacher.  I am not even an “okay” teacher.  My biggest problem is that I cannot limit either the information I share or the complexity of what I am sharing — my poor son still bears the scars of me teaching him the classical methods of essay writing that I myself did not fully comprehend until I was in my twenties. He was nine.

So, American Racism.  Where do you start?  I rambled.  We went back to the very beginnings of America and the absolute failures of British efforts to populate and commercially exploit the new land (please read the fantastic book The Barbarous Years: The Peopling of British North America: The Conflict of Civilizations, 1600-1675 ); how this failure eventually led to importing African Slaves; and how race and racism was developed as a construct to aid in the commercial exploitation of black bodies.  We examined the myths of slavery and how slaves were not just bodies, but people from great civilizations who were stolen precisely for the knowledge they owned (Iron workers from Benin; rice cultivators from West Africa; master carpenters, masons, agriculturists, etc.) We went over the contradictions in a Constitution, written by men that owned other men,  that guaranteed “All Men Are Created Equal”. We covered the Civil War.  Reconstruction. Jim Crow.  The prison system. Malcom X. Martin Luther King Jr..  Education (trust me, kids are smart.  They understand instinctively that having a “Black History Month” means that Black History is not considered American History.) Police brutality.  Economics.  Redlining. White privilege. We went from the wide scope of general history to the intimate scope of the personal: how racism manifests from bold hatred to subtle microaggressions; the contradictions of racism; the confusing fact that one of our friend’s with the most problematic politics in terms of racism also has the most black friends while another of our friend’s with the most liberal political attitudes towards racism seems totally awkward and uncomfortable around black people.  We spoke of our own racism, our own prejudices, our own stereotyping.  We touched on our own experiences in America as Jews, as Asians in dealing with a majority culture that made its suprematism clear on a day-to-day basis.  We discussed anger, riots, looting, guilt, fear, rage, impotence, hypocrisy and crocodile tears.  I reflected on the moral ambiguities of being a white guy making a living playing, buying and selling Jamaican music.  To add some positivity to the narrative we also examined how despite all the shit, black people have thrived at the highest levels in every aspect of American life from the Military to the Government to the Corporate world; in medicine, in engineering, in athletics, in poetry, in criticism, in writing, in dance, in painting, in sculpture and beyond. How black culture created almost every uniquely American art form from Jazz to break-dancing to Hip Hop; and finally that the culinary traditions that we consider to be “American” are almost solely based on African-American cooking.

All that and we didn’t even touch on the genocide of Native People and the wholesale theft of their land.

It was a lot to cover, even superficially. A lot of information and complexity for an 8-year-old and a 13-year-old.  There were lots of questions, some that I could answer, some that I could not; some that confounded me — from my daughter: “Wait…is “race” related to, like, a running ‘race’ ?” (hmmm…as a metaphor, this is kind of interesting.) But, basically everything came down to the startling lack of honesty inherent in American history; how the country has created myths, lied to others, lied to itself, and how those lies perpetuate other lies creating a pustulant sore that is never healed.  In I Love Lucy terms, America, at this historic moment, has a vase stuck on its head and is running around the edge of a cliff with the abyss looming on all sides.

It is hard to believe, but the government of the United States has never officially apologized for slavery.  To apologize is to admit responsibility; and to admit responsibility is to allow a legal precedent for financial repatriations.  How do you assign a dollar amount when the entire financial underpinning of the USA is based on the enforced labor of generation after generation of black slaves?  There is literally no industry that has not benefitted from that blood money and to pay it back would require bankrupting the country.  I personally don’t mind that at all, but I suspect I am in the minority.  Something concrete has to happen because you cannot steal a people from their place of origin, cut them off from their history,  language, culture and ancestral legacy, forcing them to build the richest country on earth; then turn around and deny the generations that followed them even the minor dignity of even acknowledging their effort. You can’t continue along that path of lies without risking the collapse of the country. I feel hopeful that this might be the moment when that vase gets smashed, when America, as teary-eyed as Lucille Ball, starts to honestly confront its past and the insidious racism of the present.  There is no other way forward.

Walter Benjamin famously wrote: ” This is how one pictures the angel of history His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.”

So, my friends, from all the way across the oceans I hear your voices. You are awakening the dead and I send my love.

4 Replies to “Awaken The Dead”

  1. Beautifully expressed. You are a good dad. If thy didn’t understand all the words, they totally got
    your heart in the effort and will never forget it. We do what we can.

  2. Very nice Jeremy, an important conversation to have with your kids who I suspect understand more than you might imagine.

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