Black and White
I was desultorily clearing off the top of my desk today* and unexpectedly turned up a page I’d torn out of TIME magazine a few weeks ago, that I was going to use as part of my Obama Run around the inauguration. The page disappeared that weekend, of course, and I couldn’t remember enough about it to try and find the link–indeed I thought I’d pulled it out of THE WEEK and as Maren calmly and intelligently** pointed out to me a few weeks ago about something else, you don’t want to be looking for something in THE WEEK’s on line archive but in the archive of the periodical they reprinted it from. Oh. Duh. Yes. So I was obviously damned in this instance.
But no. It was in TIME. And here’s the link.
And this is the bit I particularly wanted to say yessssss about:
‘. . . The point is not just that Obama will bring globalism to America; in his name, his face and his issues, he’ll bring America back to the globe.
You could, in fact, say it is the questions that he draws from his experience that are as important as any answers he may come up with. How to make a peace between the black and the white inside him (or inside our cities and our country)? How to do right by our relatives in Africa without dishonoring the grandparents from Kansas who raised us? How to bring the modest Muslim school in Java together with Harvard Law School? The questions Obama has been thinking about all his life are the very ones that dominate the world today. . . .’
Here is the thing that I hope for the most in an Obama presidency–not a grand turnaround for the economy, not a cure for cancer, not a cheap and globally responsible alternative to fossil fuels . . . there are a lot of miracles to choose from. What I want is what I personally would see as the greatest miracle of all: that he can, on account of both who and what he is, a man of mixed race and heritage, pull us all together a bit more: Americans and British, Iraqis and Afghans, Israelis and Palestinians, Indians and Pakistanis, North and South Koreans, Patagonians and New Guineans, Tuvaluns and Liechtensteiners. Because we’re all people first, and when the ozone, the polar ice, and the rainforests go, we’ll all go together.
This is what worries me about the focus on ‘the first African-American president’: it’s not that he’s not half black, of course he is, it’s that he’s also half white–or half something other than black, if you prefer. He’s BOTH. He is MORE THAN ONE THING. He belongs to more than one tribe. And you, me, Obama, the world, we can all be BOTH. We can all be more than one thing, belong to more than one tribe. In fact we should.
I have a major thing about what I call ‘Othering’. I’ve talked about it before in the far less dramatic terms of being a professional writer, some of whose readers more or less, or consciously or unconsciously, or worshipfully or hostilely, Other her: make her something Other than what they are themselves, merely because she has written a book or books that the readers respond to in some way they find disturbing or inspiring. I don’t like being Othered. You can admire (or despise) someone without losing sight of the fact that they’re human just like you. Excessive admiration makes me twitchy . . . and you wouldn’t believe some of the things that people who haven’t liked one or another of my books give themselves permission to say or write to me. If they got it that I was a person just like them they wouldn’t do it. They couldn’t.
I’m neither a politician nor a philosopher, and it’s late*** and I’m tired†, but I wanted to show you the TIME article before I lose it again. So pardon the plodding lack of a subtle development of my theme. An awful lot of what goes wrong among human beings is that we think in terms of us and them. We are apparently hardwired to do this: and we badly need to short this system out permanently. When all people of colour–or almost anyone who isn’t a WASP††–claim Obama as their own I sooo don’t want it to become another us and them situation–even if everyone-who-isn’t-a-WASP has been waiting a very, very long time for this moment and can hardly be faulted for wanting to revel in it. And I understand us and them, although mine tends to run along gender lines: did I want Hillary to be president partly just because she was a woman? ††† You bet I did. I’m frelling sick to frelling death of the gender wars: of the particular imbalances and abuses of that Us and Them. But I also know that the only way forward for men and women, just as for black, white, brown, yellow, red, chartreuse and plaid, is together. And, you know, acknowledging who we all are: different but the same.
And no, I haven’t read DREAMS FROM MY FATHER yet. But it’s on the pile.‡
PS: Aren’t they ever going to get that dog? What’s the hold up?
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* Actually ‘desultorily’ is highly inaccurate. Clearing off the top of my desk requires a flak suit and serious back up: I put the spiked collars on the hellhounds, and the face plates with the horns. And then they get these little pelvic numbers like chastity belts, to balance the weight of the horns. It’s all pretty complicated, which is why I don’t clear off the top of my desk very often.
** These librarians, you know. I bet she knows how to change a flat tyre, build a bookcase that doesn’t explode^, and create a distillery out of bits of lifeboat when she’s washed up on the shore of a barren island in the middle of the salty ocean. And make fishhooks out of the paperclips she happens to have in her pocket.
^ I know I’ve referred to McKinley’s Exploding Bookcase before. I seem to do explosions. I’ve mentioned McKinley’s Exploding Chocolate Cake too.
*** as usual
† Aggravated in this case by the fact that there was a knock on the door this morning at eight–I had gone to bed at mmmphrty . . . uh . . . I wasn’t planning on getting up till nine or so–and it was my builder.
†† There’s never been an overtly Jewish president either, although I believe there are quite a few semi-secret Jewish bloodlines that have put their feet up on the desk in the Oval Office. And old people like me will remember the furore over John Kennedy being Catholic.
††† Please note crucial presence of adverb partly in this sentence.
‡ Peter got it first.
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