June 29, 2008

Enchanted Evenings -- and Days, and Lives, in Hell (II)

Shortly after I was born in 1948, my family moved from Manhattan to suburban New Jersey. I grew up in Leonia, just down the hill from Fort Lee, a 45 minute commute to midtown New York. Leonia was a "nice" town, filled with people as "nice" as all those in South Pacific. Some of those people were professors at Columbia or otherwise employed in "intellectual" professions, and a fair number of them were good liberals. My parents and their closest friends fell into a somewhat different category: they were very hard leftwingers. Some of them, like my father, had been members of the Communist Party in the 1930s. Most of the Leonia residents weren't like my parents and their closest friends in terms of their politics, as most Americans weren't; most were typical Democrats and Republicans of the time, safely mainstream and thoroughly embodying the most common current ideas.

One of the significant advantages conferred on me by virtue of my parents' political beliefs was the complete absence of racism in the ideas they viewed as at all legitimate, or decent. It truly never occurred to me as I was growing up that anyone should be viewed as different from me and all the people I knew because of the color of their skin, or their nationality, or on the basis of any of the surface signals that are employed to differentiate "us" from "them."

I began studying the piano when I was about 10. My teacher's students gave an annual recital at the local Presbyterian church, in the social hall. One weekend in the late 1950s or very early 1960s, I was in the church social hall practicing for the big day that would soon be upon us. A black man and a very young girl, his daughter I supposed, came into the hall, and asked me a question the subject of which I can't even recall today. I told them I was sorry, but I didn't have the information they needed and was unable to help them. As I was speaking with the father, two boys who were neighbors of mine came into the hall. After the man and his daughter left, one of the boys, Roger I think it was, who lived just down the street from my house, looked at me, contempt tightening his face and anger forcing his words out in ugly little jerks, and demanded: "Who let the niggers in here?"

I've never forgotten that moment. I know I had read the word "nigger" in books, probably many times, for I read a great deal. But I don't think I had ever it heard it spoken aloud before, certainly not in that manner. I remember thinking: "My God. These kids are my neighbors and my schoolmates. They're just like a lot of people around here. But who are they? Who thinks like this? What does this mean?" And I remember feeling very frightened. I sensed, in the way that an eleven or twelve-year old would sense it, that there was nothing I could say on this subject that would reach them, that they were beyond all facts and all arguments. That was terrifying to me.

I left out an important aspect of life in Leonia, a geographic detail with significant overtones and meaning. Leonia sat, as I assume it still does today, on the side of a hill. In those days, the racial and economic strata of the town flowed downhill, following the land. Above Broad Avenue, which wasn't very broad but wide enough for a small town, were well-to-do, upper middle class whites. That's where my family lived. Below Broad Avenue, there were first less well-to-do whites, with blacks living farthest away from the "nice" part of town, in that part of Leonia that was closest to the flatland and the meadows that led to Hackensack. In "Enchanted Evenings -- and Days, and Lives, in Hell," I discussed some of the racial content of South Pacific. Among many other elements, I questioned the stark unreality of the ending (following Nellie's overnight transformation from a "born" racist, as she herself describes it, to a fully Enlightened Individual proclaiming Equality for All), with its false promise of a happy ending in defiance of the racial realities that the show studiously ignores:
Nellie, of course, comes from Little Rock, Arkansas. In the opening scene of South Pacific, she shows de Becque a society column in a hometown newspaper that talks of Nellie's military service. It thus appears that Nellie comes from a family that is somewhat well-connected and probably well-to-do. The final tableau of Nellie, de Becque and those two "colored" children sitting down to eat together promises a happy future, one where questions about the children and their mother will not lead to rocks hurled through windows, social shunning, and even worse. But South Pacific premiered in 1949. The terrible civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s still lay in the future, and much (if not most) of America remained strictly segregated: "legally" in the South, and by stringently enforced social agreement elsewhere. Nellie, de Becque and the children will certainly not find happiness back in Little Rock.
I should more accurately have said that segregation in the North resulted from not only rigid social agreement (and pressure), but complex economic factors arising from the white racism endemic to American society, pace Mr. Obama. Life in Leonia in the 1950s and 1960s was a perfect, and typically awful, example of part of what I was referring to.

Again, this was in the North, in a "nice" town populated with "nice" people. No one in Leonia was going to throw rocks through windows, or lead a lynching party. But the blacks lived and stayed well below Broad Avenue, never venturing into the "nice" white neighborhoods. As I look back on it, it seems to me there must have been some black students in elementary and high school, but I'm ashamed to admit that I can't remember even one. Isn't that terrible? I think it is. I can't remember even one. And if blacks dared to go into the white enclaves, like the Presbyterian social hall, the young white kids had already learned that a line had been crossed that must never be crossed: "Who let the niggers in here?" This was obviously not a perspective that the kids in my neighborhood had arrived at after study and thought; it was a vicious idea they had undoubtedly learned in the first instance from their parents, and from the people their parents knew socially.

I was reminded of this not only by South Pacific, but because I recently watched Todd Haynes' unusually fine (if flawed) film, Far From Heaven, again. The film is also set in the North, in well-to-do Hartford, Connecticut, also in the late 1950s. The film details the destruction inflicted on two disfavored, despised groups by the ignorance and hatred so common then, blacks and homosexuals. Nellie had her write-up in a local society column, and the wife in Far From Heaven is similarly the subject of an article written by her local society reporter. In the course of her interview with the wife, the reporter sees the wife treat a black man with sympathy and compassion upon learning that the man's father had recently died. In her article, the reporter praises both the wife's invaluable aid in her husband's business success and her admirable maintenance of a beautiful, (apparently) happy home, and she then praises the wife's "kindness to Negroes."

Consider the phrase, which very accurately captures a foundational element of the cultural atmosphere of the time. Note the unspeakable, axiomatic arrogance and condescension and the sense of entitlement. Whites ran America then, as they still do in every significant respect. If a member of a disfavored group was treated well, it was because he was fortunate enough to be smiled upon by a white person's "kindness" -- not because the black was entitled to a minimal degree of respect and decency due to the fact that he was a human being, but because the white person decided to extend himself in a manner that was far from obligatory. The white person decided to be "nice." Damn that American "niceness," which has to rank among the most vicious lies ever told.

Of course, the praise for the wife's "kindness to Negroes" carries an edge, laden with serious warning. You don't want to be too familiar with those people, after all. As the wife in Far From Heaven becomes friendly with the black man, the white women in town have a field day spreading ugly rumors and doing everything in their power to make the wife's existence in their "nice" city a bleak misery. One of the film's truest, and ugliest, moments comes when the husband hears the rumors about his wife and the black man. This is the husband who views his own homosexuality as something "despicable," who is desperately (and unsuccessfully) trying to change it, and who knows that public disclosure of his terrible secret will destroy his standing in both his company and his city. Yet when he hears the rumors, he is enraged: How could his wife so endanger everything he had worked so hard for, by behaving in such a criminally careless, stupid manner, by allowing herself to be seen in the company of a black man? Being the victim of discriminatory hatred ourselves is hardly a guarantee that we will be more sympathetic, or sympathetic at all, to the same kind of hatred directed at members of another group. All too often, we will take out our anger and resentment on someone who is even more disfavored than we are.

I offer these small examples, and they are exceedingly small examples of the viciousness, hatred and destructiveness directed at blacks during even this recent period of our history, to try to provide a sense of how common and how deeply engrained these attitudes were. (With regard to similar attitudes concerning gays, see "Gay History -- Some Personal Notes," about my teenage years in the 1960s.) I emphasize again that these incidents and attitudes did not arise in the deep South. We're not talking about Little Rock, but about the New York City suburbs. Blacks were alien, the "other," "them." Even though my parents were very leftwing, they didn't have any black friends. With the exception of our family maid (a complicated story of its own for another time, although I note again with profound gratitude and love that I owe my life in a significant sense to Lannie Earle, as I discussed here), I didn't start to know any blacks until I transferred to a private school in New York City for the last two years of high school, and until I began living at the Metropolitan Opera. I became very good friends with several blacks (and whites) on the Old Met standee line. They loved opera (and ballet) as much as I did, they were very knowledgeable, they were good and generous people, and they took me under their wing. God, but we had fun.

But on this issue, my upbringing and my own experiences as a teenager were very unusual. With rare exceptions, White and Black America occupied entirely different spaces, geographically, culturally, economically and psychologically. One of the results of these different spaces is the profoundly opposed views of America and of American history discussed by Tim Wise, excerpted in "Obama's Whitewash." The violence unleashed in the civil rights upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s was inevitable; in retrospect (and for perceptive observers at the time), it was remarkable only for its restraint. One of the primary reasons for the violence, and a large part of the explanation as to why a sustained, massive movement encompassing millions of people was required to achieve those changes that resulted, lies in the nature of that white "kindness to Negroes." Whites in America, including those whites who exclusively made up the ruling class, were prepared to be "kind" -- but only to the extent they absolutely had to. Equality was not granted, to the extent it was, primarily in recognition of an unspeakable, deadly injustice that whites had committed, although a few whites were aware of that. For the most part, equality was granted, to the extent it was, because the cost for failing to do so had become prohibitive.

The Obama campaign is a major piece of evidence supporting the truth of these observations, and it tragically reveals how short is the distance we have traveled, and how far we have yet to go. I have written in many essays about how Obama has adopted every attitude, every argument, every cultural signifier of the white ruling class; see "Obama's Whitewash," "The Triumph of the White, Male Ruling Class," "Moving on Up, to the White Side," and the essays linked therein for much more on that. But I confess I find it immensely difficult to describe accurately or completely the surreal quality of the Obama campaign. Everyone comments on the historic significance of a Black American who may be the next president. On the most superficial level, it is certainly historic, and I would not argue that it is entirely unimportant. At the same time, it is astonishing that almost no one notes the myriad ways in which Obama has transformed himself into a white candidate in everything but skin color. Yet on a deeper level, none of this is surprising: it is only another of thousands of examples of the superficiality and triviality of what passes for our national discussion, a subject I've discussed here and here. Still, I had not expected to see "passing for white" dramatized in exactly this manner, or on this scale.

This background is longer than I had anticipated, so I will return to South Pacific in particular in the next installment. There is still more to be said about South Pacific with regard to racism, although this provides further evidence concerning the superficiality of the show's treatment of this subject; and there is much, much more to be said about the show's fundamentally dishonest depiction of war. On that last point, see the first installment of this series for some important background and an indication of the grievous ways in which South Pacific fails in this respect.

Once again, to be continued.