Tuesday, December 04, 2007

a timely article


Published: August 20, 1989 The New York Times

I am a black man. I am a young black man, born, let's say, between Brown v. Board of Education and the murders of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman. Or, in the years that followed the murder of Emmett Till, but before the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I am one of the young black Americans Dr. King sang of in his ''I Have A Dream'' speech: ''I have a dream that . . . the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood . . . that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. . . . I have a dream today!''

Though I have a living memory of Dr. King, I don't remember that speech. I do remember my parents, relatives, teachers and professors endlessly recounting it, exhorting me to live up to the dream, to pick up the ball of freedom, as it were, and run with it, because one day, I was assured, we would look up and the dream would be reality.

I like to think I lived up to my part of the bargain. I stayed in school and remained home many nights when I didn't have to in the interest of ''staying out of trouble.'' I endured a lonely Catholic school education because public school wasn't good enough. At Notre Dame and Brown, I endured further isolation, and burned the midnight oil, as Dr. King had urged.

I am sure that I represent one of the best efforts that Americans, black Americans particularly, have made to live up to Dr. King's dream. I have a white education, a white accent, I conform to white middle-class standards in virtually every choice, from preferring Brooks Brothers oxford cloth to religiously clutching my gold cards as the tickets to the good life. I'm not really complaining about any of that. The world, even the white world, has been, if not good, then acceptable to me. But as I get older, I feel the world closing in. I feel that I failed to notice something, or that I've been deceived. I couldn't put my finger on it until I met Willie Horton.

George Bush and his henchmen could not have invented Willie Horton. Horton, with his coal-black skin; huge, unkempt Afro, and a glare that would have given Bull Connor or Lester Maddox serious pause, had committed a brutal murder in 1974 and been sentenced to life in prison. Then, granted a weekend furlough from prison, had viciously raped a white woman in front of her fiance, who was also attacked.

Willie Horton was the perfect symbol of what happened to innocent whites when liberals (read Democrats) were on the watch, at least in the gospel according to post-Goldwater Republicans. Horton himself, in just a fuzzy mug shot, gave even the stoutest, most open, liberal heart a shiver. Even me. I thought of all the late nights I had ridden in terror on the F and A trains, while living in New York City. I thought Willie Horton must be what the wolf packs I had often heard about, but never seen, must look like. I said to myself, ''Something has got to be done about these niggers.''

Then, one night, a temporary doorman at my Greenwich Village high-rise refused to let me pass. And it occured to me that it had taken the regular doormen, black, white and Hispanic, months to adjust to my coming and going. Then a friend's landlord in Brooklyn asked if I was living in his apartment. We had been working on a screenplay under deadline and I was there several days in a row. The landlord said she didn't mind, but the neighbors. . . . Then one day, I was late for the Metroliner, heading for Harvard and a weekend with several yuppie, buppie and guppie friends. I stood, in blazer and khakis, in front of the New York University Law School for 30 minutes, unable to get a cab. As it started to rain, I realized I was not going to get a cab.

Soaking wet, I gave up on the Metroliner and trudged home. As I cleaned up, I looked in the mirror. Wet, my military haircut looked slightly unkempt. My eyes were red from the water and stress. I couldn't help thinking, ''If Willie got a haircut and cooled out. . . .'' If Willie Horton would become just a little middle-class, he would look like me.

FOR YOUNG BLACKS of my sociological cohort, racism was often an abstract thing, ancient history, at worst a stone against which to whet our combat skills as we went winging through the world proving our superiority. We were the children of the dream. Incidents in my childhood and adolescence were steadfastly, often laughingly, overcome by a combination of the fresh euphoria of the civil rights movement and the exhortations and Christian piety of my mother. Now, in retrospect, I can see that racism has always been with me, even when I was shielded by love or money, or when I chose not to see it. But I saw it in the face of Willie Horton, and I can't ignore it, because it is my face.

Willie Horton has taught me the continuing need for a skill W. E. B. DuBois outlined and perfected 100 years ago: living with the veil. I am recognizing my veil of double consciousness, my American self and my black self. I must battle, like all humans, to see myself. I must also battle, because I am black, to see myself as others see me; increasingly my life, literally, depends upon it. I might meet Bernhard Goetz on the subway; my car might break down in Howard Beach; the armed security guard might mistake me for a burglar in the lobby of my building. And they won't see a mild-mannered English major trying to get home. They will see Willie Horton.

My father was born in a tar-paper, tin-roof shack on a cotton plantation near Holly Springs, Miss. His father was a sharecropper. His father had been a slave. My father came north, and by dint of a ferocity I still find frightening, carved an economic space for himself that became a launch pad to the Ivy League, to art school, to professional school, for his children.

As the song by John Cougar Mellencamp says it, ''Ain't that America. . . .'' But a closer look reveals that each of my father's children is in some way dangerously disgruntled, perhaps irrevocably alienated from the country, their country, that 25 years ago held so much promise. And the friends of my father's children, the children of the dream Dr. King died to preserve, a collection of young people ranging from investment bankers to sidemen for Miles Davis, are, to a man and woman, actively unsatisfied.

DuBois, in ''The Souls of Black Folks,'' posed a question perhaps more painful today than in 1903: ''Training for life teaches living; but what training for the profitable living together of black men and white?''

I think we, the children of the dream, often feel as if we are holding 30-year bonds that have matured and are suddenly worthless. There is a feeling, spoken and unspoken, of having been suckered. This distaste is festering into bitterness. I know that I disregarded jeering and opposition from young blacks in adolescence as I led a ''square,'' even dreary life predicated on a coming harvest of keeping-one's-nose-clean. And now I see that I am often treated the same as a thug, that no amount of conformity, willing or unwilling, will make me the fabled American individual. I think it has something to do with Willie Horton.

BLACK YOUTH CUL-ture is increasingly an expression of alienation and disgust with any mainstream (or so-called white) values. Or notions. Cameo haircuts, rap music, outsize jewelry are merely symptoms of attitudes that are probably beyond changing. My black Ivy League friends and myself are manifesting attitudes infinitely more contemptuous and insidious; I don't know of one who is doing much more on the subject of Dr. King's dream than cynically biding his or her time, waiting for some as-yet-unidentified apocalypse that will enable us to slay the white dragon, even as we work for it, live next to it and sleep with it.

Our dissatisfaction is leading us to despise the white dragon instead of the dragon of racism, but how can we do otherwise when everywhere we look, we see Willie Horton?

And we must acknowledge progress. Even in our darkest, most paranoid moments we can acknowledge white friends and lovers. I wouldn't have survived the series of white institutions that has been my conscious life without them. But it is hard to acknowledge any progress, because whites like to use the smallest increment of change to deny what we see as the totality. And, even in the most perfect and loving interracial relationships, racism waits like a cancer, ready to wake and consume the relationship at any, even the most innocuous, time. My best friend, white and Jewish, will never understand why I was ready to start World War III over perceived slights at an American Express office. In my darker moments, I suspect he is a bit afraid of me now. In my darkest moments, I wonder if even he sees Willie Horton.

Some of you are by now, sincerely or cynically, asking yourselves, ''But what does he want?'' A friend of mine says that the complaints of today's young blacks are indeed different from those of generations ago because it is very difficult to determine whether this alienation is a clarion call for the next phase of the civil rights movement or merely the whining of spoiled and corrupted minority elites who could be placated by a larger share in the fruits of a corrupt and exploitative system that would continue to enslave the majority of their brothers and sisters.

I don't think there is any answer to that question. I also think that the very fact it can be asked points to the unique character of the American race question, and the unhealable breach that manifests itself as a result in our culture and society. I don't think, for good or bad, that in any other ethnic group the fate of an individual is so inextricably bound to that of the group, and vice-versa. To use the symbol and metaphor of Willie Horton in another way, I do not think that the lives and choices of young white males are impacted by the existence of neo-Nazi skinheads, murdering Klansmen or the ordinary thugs of Howard Beach. I also, to put it plainly, do not recall any young black man, even those who deal drugs in such places, entering a playground and spraying bullets at innocent schoolchildren as happened in Stockton, Calif. It is not my intention to place value considerations on any of these events; I want to point out that in this society it seems legitimate, from the loftiest corridors of power to the streets of New York, to imply that one black man is them all.

And I want to be extraordinarily careful not to demonize Willie Horton. He should not be a symbol or scapegoat for our sins; he is a tragically troubled man - troubled like thousands of others, black and white - who was unwittingly used by a President to further division and misunderstanding. If anything, Horton is a particularly precise example of the willingness of those in power to pit us against one another. One lately fashionable statement, about to slide from truth to truism, is that blacks have the most to fear from lawless blacks. Any clear-eyed perusal of crime statistics will prove this. But what does it avail if the media, if the President, use this ongoing tragedy merely to antagonize and further separate Americans?

I THINK THAT WHAT I am finally angry about is my realizaton of a certain hollowness at the center of American life. Earlier, I mentioned the sense of having undergone a hoax. That hoax, as I now see it, is that the American community is putatively built upon the fundamentals of liberty and justice for all, that it is to be expected that the freedom to compete will result in winners and losers, and that the goal of society is to insure fairness of opportunity. In light of the events of recent years, I begin to see that we are, competing or not, winners or not, irrevocably chained together, black and white, rich and poor. New York City is a glaring microcosm of this interrelatedness, which can be thought of as either a web of fear ensnaring and enslaving us, or as a net of mutuality that strengthens us all.

As events like the Central Park rape illustrate, the world is becoming ever smaller, and it is increasingly difficult to consign social problems to realms outside our personal arenas of concern. I see the connection between Willie Horton and me, because it affects my own liberty. It was not always an obvious connection.

Another quote from Dr. King brings the issue into focus: ''. . . most of the gains . . . were obtained at bargain rates. The desegregation of public facilities cost nothing; neither did the election and appointment of a few black public officials. . . .'' To move to the next level of progress, we must face the fact that there are going to be costs, especially economic costs. To hire two black firefighters means two white firefighters won't be hired, and this is no easy reality. Racism is ultimately based on power and greed, the twin demons of most human frailties. These demons cannot be scapegoated, as the saga of Willie Horton proves. They are more like the Hydra, and will haunt our dreams, waking and other, regardless.

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