12/11/12

Thanksgiving in Retrospect


One afternoon, my friend and I walked fifty odd blocks through Manhattan to reach the home of an old friend who had been gracious enough to invite us over for thanksgiving dinner. The guests of the evening included: Two elderly white gay men, an elderly black German actress, one Jewish male neighbor, One black middle aged insurance executive and my friend and I, both of whom are straight, middle class and white. It was a relatively diverse gathering of people who weren’t particularly intertwined in their lives or familiar with one another as a group. And yet, despite our differences, as miniscule and irrelevant as they were, we came together to celebrate the occasion and share one of the strangest thanksgivings I’ve ever had.

            Obama had just won his re-election campaign and the country was either beside itself with joy, devastated to it’s very core, or fully aware of the fact that the political process within the US is just a puppet show to perpetuate the illusion of democracy. Of those present, myself, my friend, the Jewish neighbor and the two elderly gay men, we were all, more or less, of the same political exasperation regarding the recent pointless-election. However, both the elderly black actress and the middle aged black insurance executive were extremely happy that Obama had won. I asked why? What has Obama ever done for the black community while he’s been in office? And, apart from an ‘anything but Romney’ mentality, how could anyone condone his betrayals over the past four years? I too had once foolishly believed in and voted for the man. But, despite my naivety and false hope, the reality of his corruption and lapdog nature to corporate and financial interests, had since left me disillusioned—had since left me aware of what’s really happening.

            And, so, it was on that note of ‘what’s really happening’ that I had posed my question of ‘What has Obama done for the black community?’ A question clearly targeted at race. For, prior to that point, and for much of the earlier evening, a debate had erupted between the Jewish Neighbor and the middle aged black executive about the contemporary state, and continued practice, of racism in America. About the fact that Romney had, suggestively run on the idea of ‘what America used to be’ of ‘bringing back the good old days’ of ‘with or without expressly saying it: telling white voters to vote for the white guy’. A deplorable and pathetic notion, not unlike the entirely of the man’s campaign. It failed. As it should have. And, for that, both the middle aged black executive and the elderly black actress, felt proud of their country—for being more multicultural—for evolving. That, ultimately, is what Obama had done for the black community, they said: “He managed to be black and get into the white house. That’s what he did for the black community.”

            The discussion continued and branched off. At various points people took some offense to what was being said, based on the various known differences between us. In a room full of the young and old, of Jewish, of gays, of blacks, whites, Europeans, Canadians, American’s, and nearly every variety of prejudice that exists in our world, we engaged in a serious discussion and debate about the matter. Because, as many of us emphasized, and as slowly became apparent through the progression of the subject, it is our prejudices and emotional strings that determine the electoral process nowadays, and, in doing so, obscures the very point of those elections—to nominate a leader, not a mascot.

            The elderly black actress told a beautiful story of being back in Germany in the seventies. She was walking down the street one day and noticed a little white German girl approaching her. The little girl seemed apprehensive for some reason, and, in response to her apprehension so too did the, then, young black actress. The two stopped before one another, sensing something was to be said. Then, to her surprise, the little white German girl leaned forward and stated in a slightly whispered tone: “Nigger”.

The black actress stood stunned, neither particularly offended nor provoked by the little girls statement. Just stunned. She took a moment and, eventually, responded: “Deutsche.”

The little girl recoiled, surprised and confused by what had just been said to her. She took another moment before responding again, slightly louder than before: “Nigger.”

The black actress maintained her composure, staring into the eyes of the belligerent little white German girl. She responded, as she had before: “Deutsche.”

The little girl clenched her fists and became noticeably upset. She leaned forward and once more, used the only tool at her disposal, her hatred: “Nigger!”

The black actress smiled, refusing to indulge the little girl’s emotional demands. She responded, once more, just as she had before: “Deutsche.”

At this the little girl deflated. Her anger melted from her eyes and she stood bewildered, slowly crumbling to tears. She covered her face and ran away, crying for her mother, scorned and embarrassed by her own contempt for those unlike her that she did not know, nor whom did she dare to introduce herself to.

                The elderly black woman finished her story and I smiled, sitting on the couch, appreciating her reenactment. Her point was well heard—racism only survives if you let it—if you feed it or foster it. Pass it through the generations or use it as a political tool for good or bad. Racism is a part of this countries history, one buried by half assed attempts to amend the damage it’s done, or, to pretend that it still doesn’t exist. But it does.

The middle aged black executive told a story too. During hurricane Sandy he had gotten lost in his girlfriends apartment complex, navigating the underbelly with a flashlight in complete darkness. In doing so, he had come across two black women, also lost from the confusion of the storm, and asked a question: “Excuse me. Do you know if there’s a stairwell around down here?”

The two black woman scowled at the middle aged black executive. They responded to his amazement: “Well, if you lived in the damn building you’d know, wouldn’t you?!”

The middle aged black executive was stunned, utterly stunned. He looked at the hatred in their eyes, listened to the contempt in their voices, and realized that despite the fact they were both black too, despite the fact that they were all in the same boat trying to navigate the storm together, he had just been labeled and discriminated against—he recognized their racism.

The Jewish neighbor told a story—an account of Martin Luther King Jr. being punched in the face by a racist white man. In the middle of his followers, in the middle of a heated racial era, a white man had walked up to Dr. King and punched him square in the face. To this, Dr. King, briefly tended his wound, took a breath and instructed his enraged and livid friends and followers to unhand the man and let him go free. For, after all, he is as much a victim of his hatred and racism as we are.

               By the end of the night, we had all either managed to mildly offend, inspire, or be mildly offended and inspired by one another’s words. We had all told stories, shared wounds, broken bread and enjoyed our thanksgiving discussing something genuinely important. At times, I was worried people wouldn’t keep their composure, or, that they might disagree so much as to consider one another enemies. At times, it got heated. At times, it got tense. But, despite that uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty that accompanies any substantial and honest debate, by the end of the night, our embraces and heartfelt goodbye’s were not marked with scorn or malice but rather a deep appreciation and love for having listened to one another—for understanding and valuing one another’s opinions. Because, although we may not like to admit it, racism is still very much alive in the United States and in the lives of it’s citizens.

              Ironically, that night made me reflect on the mythology of thanksgiving—of, long ago, a similar bringing together of divided people’s, through culture, custom, language and, race. To share a meal, break bread and, in doing so, mend wounds born from the differences between us by giving thanks to the ties that bind.