Those who read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me might find it easier to understand the outrage expressed about a law professor’s wearing blackface to a party at home than those who have yet to share this common reading. Without the compelling experience of walking a mile in Coates’ shoes, through his prize-winning prose, we might be tempted to fall back on excuses. No matter how pure our hearts and virtuous our intentions, we have all probably erred by failing to display what we would call “sensitivity” if it were attached to our own interests, but because it seems not to be we call “persnicketiness” or “political correctness” or worse.
A friend once scolded me about using the term “rule of thumb” because that was the measure of how big a stick a man could use to beat his wife without being in trouble with the law. Ouch! That term was instantly deleted from my active vocabulary.
We grow ever more conscious of the ways our word choices or assumptions have been unconsciously supporting ideas and practices long since eschewed. What once we viewed as acceptable, we now often view as oppressive or at the very least thoughtless. These shifting opinions show that we are maturing as a community as well as individually.
Those who read Coates’ book and join in City Club’s book chats come to appreciate the deep painfulness of some historic and contemporary events experienced by subgroups of our society. The lynchings of the bad old days in the South map only too closely onto the shootings in traffic stops and parks, the vigilante actions of well-armed citizens. One of City Club’s Civic Associates reminded us that we need to appreciate the struggles of minorities not so we feel sorry for them or try to rescue them, but so we see where our responsibility lies, how our own behavior needs to change.
In the context of the world Coates describes, a real world if not ours personally, news stories about this blackface incident show us how easily our behavior can arouse the memory of pain. Whether that’s a crime others will decide, but all of us can identify with a situation in which we blunder accidentally into the territory of real offense. In our book chats about Between the World and Me, we explore ideas about race and racism, about oppression and the American Dream. And we help each other see paths to the changes we’d like to make part of the legacy for our children and grandchildren.
A million years ago, when some of us were rowdy kids, Eldridge Cleaver said, “You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.” Some have learned lately that blackface is not part of the solution. Perhaps together we can figure out what is.
City Club of Eugene’s next Book Chat about “Between the World and Me” occurs on Nov. 9 and Nov. 19, 2016, from 3:30-5 p.m.