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Niggers & White Trash
Who are they and what are they to you, America?
One of the most profound things I ever did in my life was to assemble my family tree. I started it when I was around 30 years old, and on a part-time basis over a couple years I found about 650 people. On my mother’s side I found people all the way back to St. Lucia and France going back about 8 generations. On my father’s side I went back 4 with a dead end at sharecropping in the late 1800s North Carolina.
When I was about 25 or thereabouts, I met a guy named John. He was smart, white and not particularly handsome. I found him admirable and we were friends. What impressed me about John was the amount of diligent and thoughtful effort he put into his everyday life. He was a true nerd. I speculated at the time that if I were an ordinary, anonymous white dude named John, I would probably do what John did. In fact I have thought of that in many dimensions. If there is such a thing as an American meritocracy, a person with zero personality, social capital, good looks or money can only depend on a life spent developing skills.
The thought was frightening. John had no style whatsoever. In a way, he was anti-style. I was clever and good looking and had a way... Let’s just say in a longitudinal study, most would agree that my girlfriends were cuter than John’s. I lived inside a bubble that privileged certain attributes that were socially based, whereas John could only be complimented socially on his choice of beer. That is not to say anything negative about John at all, I still like him, separated as we are by many years and great distances. I remember him fondly.
This morning I came across something I wrote a few years back. Someone asked me quite plainly “What is happening in society today?” I got the gist of this simple question as a specie of George Washington’s mythical question to Martha. So, being the deadpan stoic I can be, I replied.
People are stupid, and stupid people screw up everything. They don’t shutup, and they don’t go away.
People are petty. They make lots of noise over the smallest things. They’re offended and outraged all the time. When they move an inch forward they brag as if they’re god. When they fall an inch behind, they complain that the whole world is against them.
People are vengeful. They talk about things that happened 300 years ago to ancestors they claim but can’t even name, and swear they’re going to get even.
People are greedy, angry, creepy, violent, perverted, jealous, and conceited. They lie, they cheat, they steal, they betray, they corrupt and they act like they can get away with it.
IT’S NEVER GOING TO CHANGE.
Have a nice day.
We all know this but we don’t like saying it. There are innumerable reasons why we don’t like saying it, but I tend to believe the primary reason has something to do with our desire to have America be exceptionally liberal. We want a good place in that liberality, a hopeful place. We desire a friendly, open and fair society free of redlines. Except there are redlines. If I had no social capital, and I was a non-distinct and anonymous John, I would work my ass off to be somebody, anybody but a nobody.
During the time of my family tree research, I was in a place I called ‘unleashed’. The popular saying at the time was ‘off the hook’ or ‘off the chain’ which is an exuberant way of describing a party that was so extremely extra that it put you in that magical zone where uninhibited energy flows. Having studied the Tao, I managed to achieve that zone without the aid of recorded music, because I’m the shit. Or at least I was at that moment. As an unleashed bohemian, upscale progressive black man in his single prime in Brooklyn, I had a certain amount of swagger. It was something that my ex-girlfriends helped me achieve, I must say. So as the same ego you hear in whatever has provoked you in my writing up to this point, imagine it in somebody who basically considered himself only slightly less dynamic than Eddie Murphy. Yeah. I was that dude. But of course I was a black intellectual. My superpower was as a writer, a truth-teller, someone purposefully unafraid to ask embarrassing questions about the state of everything. Amongst the crowd at the Nuyorican Poet’s Cafe, it meant that I would inevitably be interesting to the New Yorker. And I had the nerve to consider that a side hustle. Now imagine that dude asking the most personal questions to his aunt Suzy.
I discovered that there were things that people did not want discovered. In the same way I am quite comfortable speaking in front of a hall full of strangers, I found some members of my family to consider me a threat and a menace. I protested that all I wanted was the truth without any consideration as to whether or not I deserved it. It seemed to me, then as now, that if one cannot be honest and forthcoming about oneself and one’s family, then certainly one’s disposition to the public could not be trusted. Of course I don’t mean to suggest that there are family confidences that should be betrayed for the sake of transparency, or most confidences for that matter. But the matter was far more complicated than that, because I was talking about America and black America in particular.
How are you going to be credible talking about black America if you can’t even speak for your own family? How are you going to be credible talking about white America if you can’t even speak for your own family?
Yes I was reading Toni Morrison’s Jazz at the time. Nevertheless what I had witnessed all through my 20s was the various ways black folks I knew, often at my provocative prompting, attached themselves to various narratives of black consciousness. In the days before even Nike used hiphop music in its own basketball shoe commercials, there was a tremendous amount of dammed up energy in my generation’s desire to have ourselves expressed righteously and accurately in major media. That’s why Michael Jackson, Eddie Murphy and Denzel Washington were more important than you’d ever think. They were expressly not what we didn’t want them to be. They were surprising and dynamic and too unleashed to be constrained to the ethnic stereotypes and conformities of the day. “So what kind of black brother or sister are you?” was a question that rang out persistently and led to a thousand and one nights of tales in a continuous loop that included Gospel, Blues, Jazz, R&B, Hiphop, Rap, Funk and Big Band. “What is your relationship to America?” is just the second stanza. Half that tale has never been told, still.
Yet I know very well, and you should know too that this A-Train loop of questions and answers, tall tales and nursery rhymes are the very rhythm of American identity. Sooner or later we all have to face such matters and come up with an elevator pitch. Did you ever ask yourself that if you were going to be on Carson, Letterman, Walters, Oprah or Fallon’s show what would be the specific song they would play as you walked over to your seat and waved at the crowd? What kind of American are you anyway? How do you represent? American society is inevitably what it is, mired in identity because we have niggers and white trash. These are the redlined people, parts of our family we would rather talk about than talk to. America can’t be America with them. America can’t be America without them.
I don’t have any relatives that came over on the Mayflower. In fact I have no idea which ships they took. I do know that those who were most recently from the South were actually never slaves, and that those who were most recently from the North were clearly just one generation out of that peculiar institution. I satisfied myself by discovering a Civil War hero on my paternal grandmother’s side whose name lives on in the middle name of my eldest daughter. As you might have guessed, we Bowens take middle names seriously. More proximate to my disposition as a writer was my own father’s interest and participation in the ferment of black identity itself. Some of the first collegiate black student unions in Southern California owe their founding to his involvement. Blackness, that neologism of Negro, of Colored of some kind of African was some fraction of his creation. I was born Negro and like millions of others, became Black. I like to think that was done right as I have never suffered any self doubt because of that crafted identity. But whatever blackness is, was or might be, I don’t need to care because I have my family and I know who they are and where they came from. It’s a one in a million story sustained by people who decided to live with each other and have babies. That’s more than any PhD thesis defense, and orders of magnitude more significant than whatever narratives are crafted in the defense of, actually, anything at all. I’m human biology, fool!
I have suffered the dissonant ignorance and the willful dismissal of others. Who is alone in that sort of suffering? No one. Yet we pretend, for the sake of our elevator pitches and walk-on music intros that we don’t know or don’t care about our redlined family. It is a sad state of affairs that more of our public discourse does not challenge us to in any authentically empathetic way that isn’t bartered for political gain. If I may beat that drum once again, our society suffers because it is illiterate and impoverished as compared to the luxury afforded in the economies of narrative construction, deconstruction, political spin and media mendacity. As Negroes decided to flip the script and take on Black with perverse pride and some dash of Marxist millenarianism so too have the Nigger and White Trash contingents. And like the new tribe of MGTOW (men going their own way) is another instantiation of the Women Haters Club (can’t live with them, can’t shoot them) the redlined are finding more and more cultural space to wallow in and find their own destinies in this, our denatured nation. Of course they suffer dissonant ignorance and willful dismissal. Moreover they accept it. They’re just keeping it real. It’s like that, and that’s the way it is.
Perhaps it is not too much of a stretch to say that Mike Judge was a prophet. The creator of Beavis and Butthead, Office Space and Idiocracy saw it all coming. All of the computers at Google can’t find the contextually original metaphor of George Washington telling Martha that America is going to pot. That script has been perversely flipped as well. ‘America going to pot’ now quite literally means weed smokers are normalized in our new secular church.
I am going to consider a recasting of three metallic rules by way of Dennis E. Taylor’s excellent new book Heaven’s River.
The Iron Rule:
Treat others less powerful than you however you like.
The Silver Rule:
Treat others as you’d like to be treated.
The Golden Rule:
Treat others as they’d like to be treated.
I should note that my current Silver Rule is the traditional Golden Rule via negativa. “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want done to you.” This makes a good deal more sense to me than all the rest, but that’s me today. Also I like it because it is libertarian and doesn’t call for moral action in any imposing, positivist way. Then again, not doing for others has consequences as well. As for Taylor’s Golden, it works quite well in the absence of standards. It’s perfectly acceptable for our new tribal diplomacy (which I find ‘problematic’). It is less moral, by Taylor’s Silver, to offer a vegetarian the absolute finest king crab legs, than it is to prepare them some tofu ramen, presumably gluten free. And while the pet non-binary minorities of the editors of the great Coastal magazines are being served in ever more diplomatic language and the public at large marks this as Progress, it comes at the expense of the niggers and white trash with whom we are ever at pains to route around. These benighted are the underserving poor and while we grant them their own culture with which we are blithely and stereotypically acquainted, we get awfully cranky about their deplorable political choices.
The new kids, including my own, have seemed to adopt to Taylor’s Golden almost instinctively. But it must be said in all candor that the context of Taylor’s philosophical debate takes place at the level of godlike power and world compute analytical capability amongst the debates of immortals in post-scarcity economy. We, on the other hand, must deal with our very human arms which are much too short to box with gods. So we have our redlines and archetypes. We have our limits to how much exposure to that side of the family we seek to allow our own children.
Perhaps, in preserving what works for us, we are being petty and stupid. Maybe we’re all still adrift in a maze of puzzles somewhere halfway down a philosophical rabbit hole beyond the event horizon of inescapable human cognition. If there are two kinds of people in the world and one half says “Who am I do judge?” I’m in the other half. I think you are too. I’m ready to live with such consequences of my judgements. I’m not going to treat niggers and white trash as if that’s they are. Even if that’s what they actually believe themselves to be and even if my every observation confirms their self-diagnosis. The hope I hold out for humanity requires a generosity of spirit that I often cannot afford but still treasure.
I’ll let you know if I get rich. I’ll throw a party and it will be off the hook. In the meantime, I bear witness to the tragedy across the tracks and work to deal with the truth.