Monday, March 23, 2009

I have been reading some African-American literature in bits and pieces for the past few weeks. Not that I had specially planned to educate myself about this dark underbelly of American culture in some systematic fashion, but it just happened that the books that I picked up at random in the last few weeks, among my busy APS meeting schedule, were loosely in that genre.

BTW, the APS meeting was great. It was a busy week, getting to know peers and listening to very fascinating talks. It is one of those moments, when you look up from the drudgery of everyday research, and can have a birds-eye-view of the fascinating research that is going on around you, and can feel the passion and excitement of fellow researchers, highly motivated to do good science. My talk went well, and it was especially motivating to hear words of encouragement from people in the community, having the highly reassuring feeling, that the research that I am doing is indeed important to the community, and the problem is not trivial or unimportant to people in the community.

Back to African American literature. I picked up Maya Angelou's "Heart of a Woman" from the thrift sales in the campus. I would not consider her a great literary talent. I have read better writers, definitely, but the story of her life is fascinating. She has lived through exciting times, been through the whole sixties/seventies thing, and has the uncanny ability to attract the best and the brightest, towards her. From Billie Holiday to Malcolm X, her fate has crisscrossed with the most famous of her generation. When Black America was fighting its greatest fights, Maya Angelou was at the center of the action, in Harlem. She was fighting with Martin Luther King, hobnobbing with the black intellegentsia at the Harlem Writer's Association, was sometimes living the struggling black woman's life,singing in the city's poorer night clubs, fighting the loneliness of the single middle aged black woman, or struggling to become a good mother to her son. What her story,as well as Barack's story reveals is an aspect that we often miss out on, while concentrating on the more "important aspects" of the racial question. The questions that foremost come to our mind are more stark issues, that of equality in rights, harassment in workplace or in the street etc.

But what we generally tend to miss out in these more controversial political questions, are the very deep personal struggles of a man, the more subtle problems, which go beyond the more political definition of "discrimination". When Maya sees her otherwise well behaved son threatening to resort to violence, to counter a threat given by a local teenage hoodlum, we feel the helplessness of the Black mother, fighting not only against discriminations, but against a society that has been created out of it. There is little an individual can do, to prevent her loved ones getting sucked into this vicious circle of Black crime(fortunately she manages to do something dramatic in this case).

Obama presents pictures of a more subtle form of discrimination.In his own words:
"Still the feeling that something wasn't quite right stayed with me, a warning that sounded whenever a white girl mentioned in the middle of conversation how much she liked Stevie Wonder, or when a woman in the supermarket asked me if I played basketball, or when the school principal told me I was cool.............".

One is instantly reminded of Dubois.
"Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word."

There is probably no other man who has expressed the deepst wounds of the Black man in as many words. Beyond the political struggles, beyond the questions of rights or affrimative action, it is probably these hidden spears in the most casual of smalltalks, that hurts the Black man the most.

(P.S. I am halfway through the Obama book. He again amazes me. I did not expect such powerful writing skills from such an amateur writer. He expresses himself with a passion that is unequalled by any other commentator. BTW,Dubois is next on my reading list. So,more on this next time)