Sometimes, I let down my guard and forget how deeply entrenched the distorted story of African Americans is in this country. As Chimamanda Adichie says in her TED talk, a single story about anything is dangerous.
And the election of our first black president hasn't altered that single story a bit for many Americans, even those who voted for President Obama. Twice. I got an unexpected reminder of that yesterday which disturbed me and my sleep last night.
A sweet, friendly, older white woman (I'll call her Ingrid), whom I run into periodically and we occasionally chat, stopped me yesterday. She had bought a copy of my essay collection, Not All Poor People, Are Black and read it! She wanted to talk about my book. Then this woman whom I don't know well, but do know that she's a fan of President Obama and is supportive of him and many of his policies, reminded me of that pervasive single story about blacks.
Ingrid is a pleasant, seemingly intelligent woman; I've never felt a whiff of condescension from her. She appears to be healthy and happy with her life. So when she wanted to talk about my book, I anticipated an interesting discussion.
Ingrid wanted me to know how sad the book made her. This startled me a bit because I've received several comments about the book, but had never heard that one. However, the book includes a variety of essays and, of course, each person brings her/his own experiences to what they read.
Then she told me a bit about herself: she grew up without knowing or ever seeing a black person. She first laid eyes on one of us when she was 17. Ingrid further explained that she's lived in several cities in different parts of the country, and she named them for me. The ones I remember are Austin, TX; Madison, WI; Ann Arbor, MI and she now lives in Bloomington, IN. (I believe all the places she named were college towns.) And she said, indicating that suddenly things have gotten worse, not once in any of these places did she ever hear of any racial upheavals.
I sighed and responded, "Because you didn't hear of them doesn't mean they didn't happen." She nodded her head, but I doubt that she "heard" what I said. Ingrid also wanted to know why blacks are so angry and react "so violently" when something happens. (I thought I had spelled that out several times and in a variety of ways in my book.) The thought of trying to explain what was wrong with her question so thoroughly exhausted me that I simply reminded her that the violence usually begins with the police killing a black person. I also pointed out that after hundreds of years of being enslaved and oppressed, people reach a point of not being able to take any more without fighting back as best they can.
Then she asked, "But don't you think that the Africans who came here are better off...aren't you better off than you would be if you were still in Africa where things are so bad?"
Somehow, I remained calm. First I reminded her that we did not come here like her ancestors had. (I thought this was common knowledge, but decided not to let it go uncorrected.) I reminded her that we were captured and brought over in chains, except for those whose bones are now scattered at the bottom of the Atlantic.
I also needed to refute her single story about Africa. I asked her, "Who knows what the continent of Africa would be like today if 60 million people and much of their natural resources had not been drained off to build and enrich Europe and America?"
"Sixty million? Really? I had no idea it was that many."
"Nobody knows the exact number, but the Slave Trade went on for about 500 years, and scholars have estimated that 12 million Africans were removed each year."
Ingrid would never wave a Confederate flag, or be less
than polite to any person, no matter their color. She undoubtedly would
adamantly deny that she's ever had a racist thought. Yet she thinks that I should be grateful my ancestors were captured and enslaved; otherwise I would still (horror of horrors) be in AFRICA!
I was restless as I tried to sleep last night because I realized how absolutely weary I am of trying to get American whites not to accept the story they are told repeatedly about Africa and African Americans. It feels like a Sisyphean punishment. Why would whites (and many blacks) believe me when throughout their lives everything they read, see on television and are taught keeps telling them the opposite of what I have to say? Besides, how could I possibly be "objective"?
And yes, I recognize that not all whites subscribe to the single story, but more of them do than not. For examples, see David Brooks on Ta-Nehisi Coates' book, Between the World and Me. See an Iraq War veteran killed by jail guards in Texas. Also see people waving Confederate flags--a historic symbol of treason and a recent symbol of hatred for blacks--to greet the President of the United States.
I'm trying to cling to my optimism and keep my heart open, but when will it end? I am really tired of this.