We Can’t Stop Talking About Race in America
But what has our 230-year national experience been but a dialogue about race?
Our earliest drama on the subject, “Metamora,” by John Stone (1829), concerns the relations between the Massachusetts settlers and Prince Philip of the Wampanoags. So does the novel “Hope Leslie” by Catherine Sedgwick (1827).
Much of the contentiousness that characterized the First Continental Congress centered on the subject of slavery. Since then the Fugitive Slave Law, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Missouri Compromise, the Dred Scott decision, the Emancipation Proclamation, the 14th Amendment and so on, down to the Voting Rights Act and theEqual Employment Opportunity Commission, the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, the internment of the Japanese, busing, affirmative action and the 2008 election, have kept the subject alive in the national discourse.
My current play, “Race,” is intended to be an addition to that dialogue.
As a Jew, I will relate that there is nothing a non-Jew can say to a Jew on the subject of Jewishness that is not patronizing, upsetting or simply wrong. I assume that the same holds true among African-Americans.
In my play a firm made up of three lawyers, two black and one white, is offered the chance to defend a white man charged with a crime against a black young woman. It is a play about lies.
All drama is about lies. When the lie is exposed, the play is over.
Race, like sex, is a subject on which it is near impossible to tell the truth. In each, desire, self-interest and self-image make the truth inconvenient to share not only with strangers (who may, legitimately or not, be viewed as opponents) but also with members of one’s own group, and, indeed, with oneself.
For just as personal advantage was derived by whites from the defense of slavery and its continuation as Jim Crow and segregation, so too personal advantage, political advantage and indeed expression of deeply held belief may lead nonwhites to defense of positions that, though they may be momentarily acceptable, will eventually be revealed as untenable.
(Though its acceptability may be understandable, the notion that a wise Latina woman is better qualified to dispense justice than a white man is no less tragic or absurd than the opposite assertion.)
Drama may be used to buttress popular beliefs (see agitprop, the Soviet apotheosis of the tractor, and issue plays generally), but tragedy, like psychoanalysis, must strive to uncover those beliefs so unacceptable that their existence has been unconsciously repressed and would be consciously denounced. Tragedy’s end is their resolution. Here, as Aristotle teaches, heroes realize their previously repressed knowledge and are, by the revelation, freed from repression and transformed.
Most contemporary debate on race is nothing but sanctimony — efforts at exploitation and efforts at restitution seeking, equally, to enlarge and prolong dissent and rancor.
The question of the poor drama is “What is the truth?” but of the better drama, and particularly of tragedy, “What are the lies?”
I have never spent much time thinking about the themes of my plays, as, I have noticed, when an audience begins to talk about the play’s theme, it means the plot was no good. But my current play does have a theme, and that theme is race and the lies we tell each other on the subject.
Chris Rock, in his last tour, addressed the subject of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright and asked, rhetorically and on behalf of the whites in the audience: Is it possible that a 70-year-old black man hates the whites? Let me enlighten you. You cannot find a 70-year-old black man who does not hate the whites.
This made sense to me. (I apologize to the esteemed Mr. Rock for what I am sure is a clunky paraphrase.)
There has always been, at the very least, a little bit of hate between blacks and whites in this country, with each side, in its turn, taking advantage of its political strength (as who does not?). But that relationship is also perhaps like a marriage. Both sides at different times are bitching, and both at different times are bailing, but we’re all in the same boat.
We are bound to each other, as are all Americans. Bound though subdivided, not only by race, but by religion, politics, age, region and culture. And we not only seem to be but areworking it out.
Contemporary considerations of diversity, multiculturalism, affirmative action, reparations and so on are, I believe, the beginning of the final wave of the exceptionalism of the black American experience.
These difficult, divisive questions, like those of abortion, gun control, gay rights and illegal immigration, are and will continue to be adjudicated in the legislatures, the courts and the public consensus — until the dialogue is done.
When will it be over? It will be over, like any marital fight, at an unforeseeable time, when it has run its natural course. The length and tenor of that course are unknown to the participants, who, as in a marital fight, are each convinced, above all things, that the fight will be prolonged until his or her own side has triumphed. But as in a marriage the dialogue will take its own course until fatigue, remorse and finally forgiveness bring resolution.