It’s Martin Luther King’s birthday so I’ve been thinking about racial politics.
For the past couple of years I have been exploring public domain music via archives of sheet music online, and this has turned into an extended dumpster dive into American history. I spend a lot of time with primary historical sources, and whenever I find anything to do with the ethnicity we currently call “black” it is almost guaranteed to be nasty. “Whites” were cruel on a staggering scale.
The cruelty was casual and ubiquitous. Comedy and blackface were inseparable. Artwork virtually always shows “blacks” as caricatures of stupidity and laziness. Song lyrics dipped into nigger and coon references and moved on without noticing.
And at the same time, I can’t believe that “whites” were unaware. The only adults who don’t know that people are people are sociopaths. I think that there were hundreds of millions of people — “whites” — who knew of their complicity in evil.
And many “whites” did become aware. The abolitionist movement was a revolt of conscience. Some artwork by “whites” depicting “blacks” is not caricature. Some writing is not racist. The “whites” involved surely did things that would make our jaws drop, but they deserve credit for doing the right thing.
In a way I have stopped feeling like I belong to a distinct ethnicity which is either “white” or “black.” The ethnicities have lived together as neighbors, workmates, friends, enemies, lovers, business partners, customers, and family for hundreds of years. Our current culture has long since become a hybrid. Most of us are in a subculture which clearly identifies with one ethnicity or the other, but this is an illusion. Our music, art, and language are unified.
That’s why I have been putting “black” and “white” in scare quotes. I’m going to stop doing that now, though, because it’s annoying.
However there is also evidence of a big divide — our continuing physical differences. Blacks and whites look different. For that to be true there must be pressures against interbreeding which have remained intact throughout our long history together. These pressures are still there. They mean that we don’t hang out together, so we don’t mate, so we don’t make interracial babies.
I despair. I can’t stand to be part of yet another generation which accomplished nothing, but I can’t imagine anything I could do.
The civil rights movement was recent. It did made a big difference. I just don’t think that there has been progress since then. We have a new plateau that is slightly better. What will happen in the long run? Historical-scale changes are too slow to see.