Books I’ve Known and Loved

51HDcX+wyqL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_I sat across from a handsome and earnest white college classmate in an artsy cafe near NYU after our Minorities in the Media class listening to him struggle with his “white guilt” for if he didn’t struggle with this and express how terribly sorry he was for happenings hundreds of years ago or last year that he had nothing to do with the class would erupt as a mob to shut up anything else he had to say. We’d both witnessed the shout-downs when another braver student (also white and male) questioned the historical accuracy or the basic logic of some of the theories put forth by the professor and other students. We noted the almost gleeful look on the professor’s face when things turned ugly. So much for a safe place to explore ideas.

My friend actually said something like this: “You’re so lucky you’re a woman because you have an in with everyone else who feels victimized. None of my struggles matter because they’re not race or gender based.”

I probably agreed with him. I’d found the path to good grades–stick in the race and gender classes and avoid the history classes (too hard and lots of reading). At the time I will confess  my only real interest in college was to avoid work and meet handsome guys.

I’m glad I’m not a slave. Who isn’t? I watched the movie adaptation of Solomon Northrup’s memoir 12 Years a Slave through jaundiced eyes–it was Hollywood after all. I’d heard people rave about a certain whipping scene, but when it arrived on the screen I was already so uneasy about the movie that Patsey’s pain (and Solomon’s) barely fazed me and here’s why: the movie felt like nothing more than a dressed up “torture porn” extravaganza. There was not a single penetrating insight, not a single honest glimpse into the complexities of the characters or the time in which they lived. The actors tried very hard and I appreciated that but there was no soul. Watch Glory for soul and beauty. Anyone remember the mixed feelings, the horror and the humanity of that whipping scene?

But this is not a debate about whipping scenes in movies.

I don’t believe in collective generational guilt. If body shaming and gender shaming are bad then so is white shaming. Sorry MTV but I see through your transparent attempt at race baiting. It’s actually kind of pathetic and a distraction–as was 12 Years a Slave the movie. Should we still hold Jews and Romans accountable for the death of Jesus? Should we hold a young black girl from Harlem accountable for atrocities during the Rwandan genocide based on skin color? Have we Americans fallen under such easy manipulation?

Here’s why we need to look at heroes and read memoirs instead of watching corporate productions which rarely get things right:

Solomon Northrup’s memoir is alive with contradiction, nuance and humanity. He’s honest enough and sure enough of the wrong that has been done to him to not need to embellish. He doesn’t have to make broad generalizations. Solomon can allow for loving one master and hating  another. Solomon struggles with mixed emotions and shares even feelings we find almost impossible to understand today: “During my residence with Master Ford I had seen only the bright side of slavery. His was no heavy hand crushing us to the earth. He pointed upwards, and with benign and cheering words addressed us as fellow mortals, accountable, like himself, to the Maker of us all. I think of him with affection, and had my family been with me, could have borne his gentle servitude, without murmuring, all my days.”

In no way am I saying I condone slavery. What Solomon offers in his book is more than a laundry list of bad men doing bad things. He manages to capture the evil of a system without losing his ability to judge people as individuals caught in that system–some are basically decent  and some are horrible.

For centuries Jews were persecuted for killing Jesus. What did that persecution achieve? Gas chambers. What does white shaming achieve? Picking at old wounds leads only to infections not cures.

As we watch young white boys and girls worry about how their lives offend everyone, real slavery goes on. Men are abducted and kept as slaves on fishing boats for decades, women and children are taken as sex slaves. THEIR STORIES are so similar to Solomon’s it’s shocking. 

220px-Robert_Gould_ShawI question the timing of a movie like 12 Years a Slave. Where GLORY offered an inspiring (and true) story about overcoming prejudice and sacrificing even life for higher ideals, 12 Years seeks to inflame indignation and hatred.

Wounds and pain exist for everyone on this planet. Only the rare person (and I’ve never met one) escapes suffering and struggle. Slavery is not a black issue only. It’s a human issue. Life and death, love and hate, forgiveness and whatever–we are human–even white kids.

“‘torture porn’ made for arthouse moviegoers.”

11 thoughts on “Books I’ve Known and Loved

  1. The way systems – “the world system” or Paul or “the black iron prison” of PKD – force people to compromise is a theme that haunts me. It shows up a bit in Mstislav but more so in Psalm of Hate. (Oddly enough, I’m going to be re-posting Psalm of Hate. Not sure if you’ll like it or not. A lot of it was written while I was very angry!) I think all the systems are bad – or at least potentially bad. They may start of strong and good but they are always teetering on the edge of evil. (Just part of living in a broken world.) That’s why I suspect Jesus made his mission and ministry about people, not institutions.

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    • Exactly. The shooting in Atlanta was a story about an individual with obvious mental problems and a congregation reflecting the perfect love of Jesus. The “system” made it a story about a flag. It’s funny that if we really wanted to ban all flags that flew while injustice and oppression reigned at some point in history every flag in the world would be banned. Where is there a perfect system on earth? (not saying I love the “confederate” flag).

      Didn’t John say the anti-Christ spirit had already invaded the early church in one of his letters? I forget.

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      • 1 John 2:18 – paraphrase – There are many Anti-christs all around you and the Big Anti-Christ is on his way

        1 John 4:3 – paraphrase – The spirit of the Anti-Christ is coming and hey! He’s already here!

        So, yeah, it looks like one of those: “already, not yet” kind of things you see all over the bible that frustrate the hell out of me.

        Yes, the flag thing is pretty much going to help no one. It’s a way of making Yankees feel better about themselves and make Southerners make themselves feel sensitive. The whole thing is more about buying into the system and building up the system than it is about making real change.

        Real change would scare people. I know sure as hell it scares me. Think about how risky it is to be more loving, more giving, more understanding… Scary stuff.

        Like that song I blogged about a while back:
        You call me out upon the waters
        The great unknown where feet may fail
        And there I find You in the mystery
        In oceans deep
        My faith will stand

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      • I get along better with Jonahs. Wish it weren’t so. (Well, not really!)

        It should post in about 15 minutes.

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  2. Eloquently stated. I avoid the slave movies due to “porn” affect. Having watched Roots so long ago, I felt I couldn’t suffer the guilt of watching even more of the same. I’ve often wondered why there is no literary or film focus on the atrocities against the Chinese who came to America. The railroads should give them free ride passes for the treatment they received building the rails.

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    • Imagine that China was worse for them! Most immigrants had to go through hell–but then most working people back then had no easy life.

      Most immigrant groups have generational scars that have healed over to some extent, while our culture (or the powers that be) loves to open the slavery wound every five minutes to make sure they can manipulate us at the ballot box (and in other ways).

      We like blaming slavery so we don’t have to talk about the uncomfortable realities of today–one being the total destruction of the family–especially in black communities.

      Solomon Northrup was an amazing person. If we all were half as forgiving, hard-working and smart we’d be doing okay.

      I always think of couples counseling–if the couple insists on bringing the past into every argument the couple is doomed.

      As a kid I watched Roots but didn’t feel guilty because I wasn’t a southerner and no one in my family ever had slaves. I thought it was sad but didn’t have the ability yet to see myself as part of a larger group outside my family (maybe I’m still like that–haha).

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