“Bad things happened…”

Black drop (Pictorial envelope) published by S.H. Zahm & Co. Civil War era (Source: New York Historical Society via Library of Congress American Memory)

“…and then everyone was happy and went to the seashore,” That’s how Melina Mercouri’s character Illya always ended the ancient Greek tragedies she retold in Never on Sunday.

One of our own great national tragedies is chattel slavery, based on race. (The other is the genocide of native peoples, but that’s a topic for a different post.) I’m not a fan of Condoleezza Rice, but I think she was right about our historical (and continuing) problems with race.

“It is a birth defect with which this country was born out of slavery; we’re never really going to be race blind,” she said.

In the ancient world, slavery could be viewed as a case of bad luck–your side lost the war or you were captured by pirates, bad things happened and there you were. If your luck changed, there was the possibility of merging back into free society. The condition of being enslaved was terrible but it wasn’t automatically based on the color of your skin.

In the new world, it came to be so. Naturally there was a lot of anxiety about how to define race–how to differentiate between “us” and “them” and the infamous one-drop rule is part of its history. That anxiety continues today to the point that it’s hard to find people who are comfortable talking race.

While I don’t think we’ll all be heading for the seashore anytime soon, Jay Smooth’s talk at Hampshire College last fall titled “How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Discussing Race.”  (where he suggests the dental hygiene approach to racism) just might start us on our way.

Here’s a sample:

I want to talk a little bit about race tonight. Or to be more precise, I want to talk about how we talk about race. How we engage in race conversations, and how we might get a little bit better at it in some ways. It’s a topic I’ve always enjoyed–most Americans avoid race conversations like the plague, and we often take our ability to avoid it and use that as a measure of our progress and enlightenment, which I think is kind of telling in and of itself. But I’ve always been drawn to those conversations and fascinated by them.

This is in part because growing up as a very light-skinned black man of mixed descent I often find myself in sort of peculiar race-based conversations. Often when I’m meeting someone for the first time, rather than making small talk they will immediately present me with a philosophical conundrum. They will ask, “What are you?” And I’ll have to explain, “I’m not a philosophy major, you know, my father’s black, my mother’s white… [but] what are we…?” [shrugging]

What are we? It’s a topic that we’ve never honestly discussed as a nation in the same way that South Africa attempted to face its history of apartheid with its Truth and Reconciliation Commission.