Friday, February 22, 2013

Relating to One Another's Souls

"Between me and the other world there is ever an unasked question: unasked by some through feelings of delicacy; by others through the difficulty of rightly framing it. All, nevertheless, flutter round it. They approach me in a half-hesitant sort of way, eye me curiously or compassionately, and then, instead of saying directly, How does it feel to be a problem? they say, I know an excellent colored man in my town; or, I fought at Mechanicsville; or, Do not these Southern outrages make your blood boil? At these I smile, or am interested, or reduce the boiling to a simmer, as the occasion may require. To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem?..."

W.E.B. DuBois

Yesterday, CitySquare's Urban Engagement Book Club was particularly interesting for me. 

For those of you who may have never attended, Randy Mayeaux, who has reviewed books for us for nearly 10 years, reads our books and provides us with hand-outs of excerpts from them. He does a phenomenal job. After Randy's review we discuss the book, sometimes with experts on the issue to which the book relates and sometimes with the author!

Yesterday's book was 'The Souls of Black Folk'. It was actually a book recommended by Facebook followers. 

William Edward Burghardt DuBois (1868-1963), for those who don't know, was the first black to earn a post-graduate degree from Harvard University, a stunning intellectual and a co-founder of the Niagra Movement - a precursor to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Peoples (NAACP). 

'The Souls of Black Folk' is a selection of essays about what it was like to be black at the turn of the 20rh century. It is a phenomenal classic. 

Randy's humble estimate of this book was interesting. He told me he felt unqualified to do this book justice. Randy, you see, is white. 

My reply was I think Randy was perfectly qualified to read and review this book for us. 


As I tried to demonstrate afterward, knowing the biography, lives, cultures and history of white leaders and events from the perspective of white people is required of all of us: blacks, Hispanics, Asian Americans. If you go to school, you will learn about their lives, families, thought processes and contributions. Rarely, and certainly to a limited extent, are whites required to learn about the heroes and contributions of blacks and other minorities. We are taught, subtly and not so subtly, to identify with and, in some cases revere them. 

For a white man to read a book like 'The Soul of Black Folk' and to learn the ways in which we have and haven't changed as a country is signficant. To his credit, he didn't read or review the book defensively, nor did he try and evade DuBois' pain and frustration by trying to emphasize how the world is different. He allowed himself to try and identify with the pain and, as difficult as it might have been, let DuBois speak to him. I think it was brave. And I have tremendous respect for Randy for allowing this book to touch him as he has with other books on other subjects with which he is more familiar. 

The point is, we have to know one another's stories in order to avoid fearing one another. We have to find common ground in those stories to avoid trying to make other people 'like us' in order for them to be acceptable to us. We have to accept the legitimacy of their pain and frustration in order to understand 'the job' that has been done on all of us. 

Willie Loman, in Arthur Miller's 'Death of a Salesman' and Walter Lee Younger in Lorainne Hansberry's 'Raisin in the Sun' are not so different. They are both frustrated by life. One by age, one by race and the limitations imposed on them by a cruel and insensitive world. They both are looking for one shot, to simply gain respect. They have families that don't quite understand them and, at some deeper level, understand them better than they realize. 

The point? We have - in spite our particulars and differences - a common humanity that should lead to a common understanding. And we shouldn't have to change or ignore our histories, no matter how painful, in order to discover and even celebrate that common humanity. 

What if we sought and valued that common humanity between races, ethnicities, the poor, the homeless? 

I think we'd have a different world. Not a perfect one. A better one. 

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