Sunday, July 10, 2016

Jack Kerouac and the "Bradley standard" on race relations

Given the events of the past week, I felt compelled to say something about race in America, acknowledging that I am white and can therefore never understand what it's like to be a person of color in this country. This morning I saw Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson on Meet the Press. Moderator Chuck Todd mentioned a controversial article Dyson had written this week. I read it. You can read it here: It's pretty strident, but I can't really argue with his points.
At birth, you are given a pair of binoculars that see black life from a distance, never with the texture of intimacy. Those binoculars are privilege; they are status, regardless of your class. In fact the greatest privilege that exists is for white folk to get stopped by a cop and not end up dead when the encounter is over. 
Those binoculars are also stories, bad stories, biased stories, harmful stories, about how black people are lazy, or dumb, or slick, or immoral, people who can’t be helped by the best schools or even God himself. These beliefs don’t make it into contemporary books, or into most classrooms. But they are passed down, informally, from one white mind to the next.
It is very difficult to see our own white privilege, and even more difficult to acknowledge it. White Americans who spewed hate in the comment section of Dyson's column make his case for him.

But what does this have to do with Jack Kerouac? I'm getting there. 

Also on Meet the Press this morning, they played several clips of politicians, past and present, talking about how we need to have a "national conversation" about race. What struck me was former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley who, not surprisingly, made it real. I can't find the clip, but it was along the lines of this quote attributed to Bradley: "If you haven't talked to someone of a different race about race in the last 30 days, you are part of the problem."

I think this speaks to the intimacy issue that Dyson raises. And that brings us to Kerouac. Without a doubt, Kerouac often met the Bradley standard during his road years. He often went out of his way to interact with disenfranchised groups in America: drug addicts from Times Square, bums on skid row, farm laborers in southern California, musicians and patrons at black jazz clubs. He wrote an entire novel, The Subterraneans, about his real-life love affair with a black woman, Alene Lee, in New York City (Mardou Fox, transported to San Francisco for the novel).

What did Kerouac write about race? In On the Road he describes going to Denver in the spring of 1949, thinking of settling down there. He describes walking around Denver thusly:
At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. I stopped at a little shack where a man sold hot red chili in paper containers; I bought some and ate it, strolling in the dark mysterious streets. I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a "white man" disillusioned. All my life I'd had white ambitions; that was why I'd abandoned a good woman like Terry in the San Joaquin Valley I passed the dark porches of Mexican and Negro homes; soft voices were there, occasionally the dusky knee of some mysterious sensual gal; and dark faces of the men behind rose arbors. Little children sat like sages in ancient rocking chairs. A gang of colored women came by, and one of the young ones detached herself from motherlike elders and came to me fast--"Hello Joe!"--and suddenly saw it wasn't Joe, and ran back, blushing. I wished I were Joe. I was only myself, Sal Paradise, sad, strolling in this violet dark, this unbearably sweet night, wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America. The raggedy neighborhoods reminded me of Dean and Marylou, who knew these streets so well from childhood. How I wished I could find them.
Based on this passage and others in On the Road, some have criticized Kerouac for being naive and patronizing about racial issues (we won't take issue with his use of the term, Negro, as it was the term of the times in which Kerouac lived and wrote). And perhaps he was, at least in part. Certainly, he romanticizes the life of blacks and other non-whites in America in his wish to exchange worlds with them. We must remember, though, that Kerouac was French-Canadian and knew from personal experience the plight of the "other." Nevertheless, he wrote and thought from a position of white privilege. But, at least he acknowledged it: "All my life I'd had white ambitions; that was why I'd abandoned a good woman like Terry in the San Joaquin Valley." Terry was Mexican, and Jack admits here that race was a factor in his abandoning her. How could he ever take a Mexican girl home to
Others smarter than me, with more credentials and valid points of view, can further parse this passage from On the Road. I'm going to leave it that, while Kerouac was white and fell into the same privilege traps that Dyson talks about, at least he acknowledged it and, even more importantly, he met the Bradley standard of interacting with people from a different race. Bradley specifies talking about race in that context, and I don't know if that always happened with Kerouac, but the interaction is a start.

When's the last time you talked with someone from a different race about race? For me, it's a damning question to have to answer.

1 comment:

Dr K said...

I appreciate the general idea, but at least in Maine there are some problems.
First off, it isn't your non-white friend's job to educate you about race. Especially in Maine, that would be about a 20-1 or 15-1 problem. Maybe 10-1 if you stretch for every last drop of color or difference.

If you aren't talking about other things, that person isn't your friend. And if they aren't your friend, they are your scorecard. If they are your friend, you probably know what they want to say about the issue right any case, just listen. You are probably both exhausted and saddened and what's the point.

What's more important is to talk to other people who are privileged about privilege, and being allies, and how race is a WHITE problem, not a problem of all the different (and ever-changing) people it is projected onto. The ones who are impossible to talk with about this are the ones with whom you most need to find a way to have the talk.

just my two cents.