Saturday, October 11, 2008

Part Two: Death...and Life

As a social activist and analyst, death has taught me other lessons that I truly believe are the answers to many of the ills that plague our societies. Death has shown me what we all have in common: reality and humanity. Too often we let ideology inform our understanding of the world instead of looking beyond ideology to see the reality that affects us all and the humanity that defines us all.

I have a number of people that I do not agree with at all ideologically or politically, but I know they are good people that had a different upbringing, socialization, media training than I did. And I can like them….and do. Their humanity is what I see and what I trust. People are more alike and all want the same…to live, love, and be happy.

I’ve heard a few over the last few days repeat a quotation that rings true: what they (elites) know you can learn, what you know (working class), they’ll never learn. Real people living real lives are the answer. In truth, I know I can trust my conservative white neighbor to be there to help us if we need something more than I can trust some of my liberal white and black academic colleagues. I think for ideologues on the left and the right, it is hard to tell these truths although I know all live them. I think that is what people saw in Tim Russert, his humanity that came from his working class background. He was real. And because of that, he made others real. So for example, even the most ardent ideologue like Bill O’Reilly (that I can honestly rarely tolerate), I was able to learn something about when he interviewed Tim Russert. They talked about fathers. Tim talked about how his father’s dedication and hard work showed him he loved him although his father was not one to ever express those emotions verbally. O’Reilly commented that he was impressed that Russert could see his dad’s love under the tough exterior because he (O’Reilly) never could see his dad’s love (another Irish tough father). Now I understand O’Reilly a little better. I will probably never agree with him ideologically or politically, but I have seen his humanity, and Tim Russert brought it out…a regular person talking about real life struggles…family, life, and love, things we all have in common.

When we can be honest about the ideologies that inform us, we can tell the truth more clearly, in all its complexities. Another example that is relevant to my life (as well as the news lately with Tim Russert’s death) is Catholicism. I can be honest that my family faith in Catholicism comes from colonization. The Catholic Church’s empire of history was at times evil and sanctioned slavery and should be condemned for all it has done wrong. I can disagree with its anti-contraception stance and I am personally pro-choice, but I can still applaud it for being one of the only large faith institutions that is more consistent in its pro-life position, not only being against abortion but also war and the death penalty. But Catholicism also nurtured my grandmother, the most peaceful spirit I’ve known on earth. She would walk to church daily and sing or hum all day after. She was not an activist in the way many define it, but she lived her humanity and our family and the world was better for having her bless it. So we miss her but we feel blessed that we loved her and were loved by her. Catholic school taught me and Tim respect for others and life, discipline and sacrifice. But it also had textbooks in schools and statues in churches that falsely depicted Jesus with European features. This is being able to tell the truth about your reality and seeing it as not all good or all bad but all real. Reality would do us all justice. Reality would bring us all justice.

The real problem is lived experiences are too different to effectively address social problems intellectually or ideologically. People must understand on a personal level. It must be made personal. When people speak of black anger with dismay or disgust, we can tell a history that has never actually been told outside of ethnic studies classes…a story of double consciousness…of being sons/daughters of a country that never loved us but is what it is from our labor…and our morality… of soldiers fighting for freedom abroad to come home to lynching...or Japanese interned while sons fighting…or 98% of FHA loans to whites…and all our sociological data…we can tell contemporary stories of the brother just released from jail yesterday after doing 20+ years for a crime he was railroaded on….of schools, and prisons, etc… we can say what was so poignantly said at the end of the "Great Debaters" film when debating civil disobedience. The young man recalled the lynch mob they came up on, seeing the black body (strange fruit) hanging and having to run away before they were next, powerless to help that brother..."AMERICA SHOULD BE GRATEFUL THAT WE CHOOSE CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE AS OUR MEANS OF PROTEST"...that's the truth no one is ready for...but the reality of our morality shines.

Once I show students a history they never learned and they hear horror stories like that of a 9 month pregnant woman being lynched and her full term baby being stomped they no longer can say what are black people complaining about…now they know…and knowing really is half the battle…our problem like James Baldwin says is that the innocence constitutes the crime. When we embrace reality but do so from our humanity and not ideology, we will achieve what we so desperately want and need: PEACE.

We are capable of bearing a great burden, once we discover that the burden is reality and arrive where reality is. – James Baldwin

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