Two years ago, during my first year of teaching at Wabash College, I was invited to give a “Chapel Talk,” a weekly lecture on the speaker’s choice. Since I have a natural aversion to controversy, I wrote and delivered the following talk on a bland and safe topic: Black History Month and the notion of race.
Since it’s February again, I share it here in video and text. I have not done much more work in the philosophy of race since writing this talk, but I do hope to return to it sooner than later. Feel free to reply and, of course, to share.
(The following transcript is also included in my book of essays, Things and Stuff.)
No tengo madre ni padre,
Ni mando a la escuela hijos,
Hombre no soy, pero tengo…
¡Tengo nombre y apellido!
-Juan Antonio Corretjer, Yierba Bruja
Reclamo el derecho simple de ser lo que somos.
-Manuel Zapata Olivella, Chambacú, “Corral de Negros”
I have no mother or father,
Nor do I send children to school,
Man I am not, but I have…
I have a first and last name.
I reclaim the simple right to be who we are.
-A mixed translation of the above
I reject the popular and self-righteous paranoia that requires our speech to be politically correct; and I am equally dismissive of the reckless, self-indulgent, and often dangerous attitude that revels in being politically incorrect. My distaste for this unimaginative binary begins with the fact that I have no idea, no clue at all, what “political” adds to “correctness” (or “incorrectness”). What does “political” add to being “correct” or “incorrect”? Is there a difference between being “correct” and being “politically correct”? And why would anyone want to be incorrect in the first place?
I don’t care for correctness much either. I want more than that. I don’t desire to merely be “correct.” I don’t want to settle for the sanity of correctness, nor the insanity of its converse. Give me Truth instead: the elusive, excessive, overwhelmingly beautiful Truth. Correctness abounds in this age of constant information and innovation, but Truth seems awfully scarce. I’ve even heard it said, “Never has there been so much knowledge and so little Truth.” There is noise, but no music.
In other words, I don’t give a damn about the narrow assumption that our speech has to be either politically correct or politically incorrect. And I am offended by the idea that, even beyond my words, I am required to exist as one thing or the other. If you want to understand me today, you will have to disabuse yourself of these destructive mirror images and begin to imagine something bigger and better—something True. To be painfully clear: this is not a conservative or a liberal chapel talk just as I am not a conservative or a liberal, those terms do not begin to define or contain me. I am more than that. Like Walt Whitman, “I contain multitudes” and so do you. We all do, really.
In a way, this opening clarification gets right to my point; and my point is this: the timid and mendicant ways in which race and ethnicity—and identity in general—are discussed today are not because we lack intelligence, insight, or experience. It is because we lack imagination. Lacking imagination, things become small and simplistic and demand ideological positions that are equally as small. With an impoverished imagination we settle for junk food instead of real food and malnutrition becomes the norm, not the exception. We settle for getting as rich as possible and, in the process, live our lives poorly. As Tolstoy warns us (in The Death of Ivan Ilych) we settle within the ordinary and terrible fate of the living dead, and the person who refuses to settle often feels like “a loner in a world of clones” as The Roots’ recent album (How I Got Over) laments.
Just think about it: Eating healthy today is considered to be exceptional; plain, organic food is a specialty item at the grocery store; Wendy’s is running a special ad to tell us that it makes “natural-cut fries” (as though there were “unnatural cut fries somewhere) with ordinary potatoes; the pixilated image of Beyoncé has replaced her sensuous body and VIZIO is bragging about it in their television commercials. No wonder things so often feel counterfeit: the inauthentic is what we are accustomed to. We are all too familiar with eating fake food and watching disembodied images of clones like ourselves. Without a robust, curious, and inventive imagination this absurd way of living appears normal and becomes acceptable. But this is an illusion and we are in need of dis-illusionment, which is impossible without a healthy imagination. As our bodies need real food and vigorous exercise, so too with our imaginations. How can we nurse our personal and social imaginations into better health?—This is what my talk is about.
Fostering a healthy imagination is not only about making things up for the future; it is also about remembering old things, things from the past. We can find new images and novel ways of thinking by recovering the archives of memory that live in the stories of history. In this way, the study of history is a rigorous exercise of the imagination. It is precisely this sense of history that motivated Carter G. Woodson to initiate Negro History Week in 1926 during the second week of February (so as to coincide with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Friedrich Douglas). This initiative would lead to the institution of Black History Month in 1976, during the U.S. sesquicentennial.
Carter G. Woodson knew very well that oppression was not primarily a matter of physical intimidation or legal compulsion—oppression, for Woodson, was most violent when it became psychological, when it got into your head. We all know that control over someone’s body is one thing; but control over their mind is something quite different. In The Mis-Education of the Negro, Woodson notes that the lynching of the mind, mind-lynching, is more effective, dangerous, and destructive than the lynching of the body. For Woodson, the study of history, the recovery of collective memory, was a way towards freedom of the mind. History was a call to, as Bob Marley would later put it in his final composition (Redemption Song), “emancipate yourself from mental slavery.”
The institution of Black History Month, then, was not a matter of celebrating a holiday—it was a serious, sober, and urgent call to study history as a way to imagine oneself anew and free one’s mind, again and again, from the bondage of mental slavery, from the shackles of a hidden, forgotten identity. History, for Woodson, was not something to be celebrated, it was something to be studied, pondered, struggled with, and, ultimately, empowered by with a restless sense of one’s place in the world, with a sense of who one is and might be. Black History Month was more about existence than equality. It was a response to Malcolm X when he said, “Who are you? You don’t know. Don’t tell me Negro, that’s nothing. What were you before the white man named you ‘Negro’? And where were you?” History, for Woodson and Malcolm X, was a lethal weapon in the fight for justice, not a cheap noisemaker in the party of politics.
The fact that many people who claim to celebrate Black History Month have little to no idea of its history and are unfamiliar with the thought of Woodson, Malcolm X, and others is itself proof of why celebrating history is a bad idea—too many people celebrating it don’t know what they are doing, they have no reply to the interrogations of Malcolm X. Everybody knows this: too much celebration makes you complacent, lazy, and unmotivated.
After Saturday’s basketball game I saw a fine example of this: Coach Petty gracefully refused to celebrate at his own celebration out of true love for his family, team, and the game of basketball; he was grateful, but he reminded Wabash that we still have “unfinished business.” He surely knows that too much celebration is as toxic for life as it is for sports. This example shows what G.K. Chesterton meant when he wrote, “The two sins against hope are presumption and despair.” Since there are no eternal victories, then there should be no eternal celebrations, just as since there are no eternal defeats, there shouldn’t be eternal mourning. By celebrating history we de-historicize it; celebrating history is at cross-purposes with what history is.
Because of this view I hold, I am glad that we didn’t take Martin Luther King Day off from school. You see, I have no interest whatsoever in celebrating Martin Luther King Day. I do, however, have a great deal of interest in the life and legacy of Dr. King. But by celebrating Martin Luther King Day as a “holiday,” we actually disfigure the Truth of the life and legacy of Dr. King. For example, the so-called “I Have a Dream” speech isn’t really about a dream. It’s about a trying to cash a bad check—anyone who has heard or read the speech knows this (and those who haven’t shouldn’t pretend to be so enamored with it).
In order to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr.—the man—has to be distorted into a Black Santa Claus: an idolotrous personality we no longer take seriously, much like Santa Claus allows people to celebrate Christmas regardless of what they think about the Christian mystery of the Incarnation. Make no mistake: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is neither Santa Claus nor the Easter Bunny; he is not a soft, fuzzy, generic caricature to make it easy for people to pretend like they care about King’s life and legacy or about the disenfranchised and the poor; as Ralph Ellison puts it, King is “not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allen Poe.” Yet, by making him into a national celebrity, we have made King invisible in all the ways celebrities are invisible: we no longer see him as anything other than “one of your Hollywood movie ectoplasms.”
Celebrations are numbing ointments that dull the Truth of history. In the case of Dr. King, celebrating Martin Luther King Day desensitizes people to the fact that King’s check still goes unpaid and the bank of justice is still compromised by racial supremacy, hatred, transnational capitalism and more. Slavery in the United States may be over in the generic legal sense, but it has not gone extinct in many other places; slavery is alive and well, especially in the mind, the heart, and the soul.
And, to those who confuse the election of Barack Obama with a partial repayment of Dr. King’s bad check: Dr. King would have been more impressed had we elected a poor president than a Black one, and, since we didn’t elect Cynthia McKinney or Alan Keyes, we have yet to see a Black president from the genealogical line of Carter G. Woodson, Malcolm X, and Dr. King—a Black woman or man with ancestral ties to slavery and the civil rights movement has never been elected president in this country. And surely Dr. King would have rejected the idea that Obama’s election marks the beginning of a “post-racial” era.
How do we save Martin Luther King Jr.—“the man of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids”—how do we preserve him from this frightfully invisible fate? Moreover, how do we emancipate our minds from the soft, popular impressions of him that our generation has been weaned on? How do we remain faithful to the Truth of his biography, his life story? Here is my recommendation: We need to stop celebrating him as some kind of hero or celebrity and begin to study him as a real person. We need to read his writings and listen to his speeches. We must struggle to understand the context that shaped his worldview, and more.
The larger point is this: if we take history seriously, then we shouldn’t celebrate it; we should study it instead. Otherwise, our celebrations become empty, dangerous, and oftentimes dogmatic, rituals that distort real lives and bodies into comfortable delusions that weaken our sense of the Truth, invert reality, and leave us psychologically weak and unimaginative.
For all these reasons, and more, we should stop celebrating history. If you really care about Black History, then stop celebrating and start studying. If you find that task too demanding, then, frankly, I doubt whether you cared about Black History in the first place. As Friedrich Nietzsche put it: “The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies but also to hate his friends.”
Now, don’t get me wrong: I like to celebrate. Anyone who knows me at all knows that I love to party. And precisely because I love to party I also know that no one really wants to celebrate history. I’ve never been to a raging “History Party.”—Have you? In many ways, just as celebrations de-historicize history, history ruins a good celebration. I am not discouraging playing, partying, or having fun; but we do need to know when to play and when to study.
At this point you might be wondering: What happened to White History Month?
“White History Month” is not just a provocative title. It is also a proposal. I don’t simply want to talk today; I also want to suggest things we might actually do. “White History Month” is a way to apply and put into practice the implications of the view I have begun to set forth. If we abandon the celebration of Black History—and any history for that matter, including Wabash history—and begin to study it in earnest, to take it more (not less) seriously, then we will soon find that Black History takes White History for granted. In other words, like the relationship between shape and color, there is a necessary connection between the center and the margin. Eating a donut takes the donut hole for granted, but without a donut hole a donut is not a donut.
In the past, when all history was primarily European, it took this so-called whiteness for granted and treated it as normative and natural. Higher education nowadays often spends a lot of effort promoting the racial and ethnic histories of people considered non-whites, but in similar fashion, it rarely asks questions about where so-called “white people” and White History came from—it leaves whiteness unquestioned and, in doing so, makes it just as normal and natural as before. In other words: leaving whiteness uninterrogated inverts the reality of what it is and leaves so-called white people exempt from self-reflexivity, from asking themselves the questions of Malcolm X.
One reason for this is because whiteness is often considered an absence of identity. I often hear so-called white people say that they have no culture or that they are not ethnic or diverse. This is strange for many reasons. First of all, unlike the study of masculinity, where we cannot ignore the temporal flesh of the body, there is no such thing as a white body. Let me put it physiologically: the physical site where we find “color” is on the largest organ of the human body: the skin. The surface of the skin is called the epidermis, and the epidermis is “colored” by melanin. When we refer to someone by color, we often think we are speaking descriptively about what we observe, what we are actually looking at, when we see another person’s epidermis. But if we were actually doing this we would never use the color “white” to describe anyone because that color never exists in the epidermis at all, there is no melanin pigmentation that remotely resembles the color “white,” even in albinos who lack pigmentation altogether. To put it another way: A painter would never reach for the color “white” to paint anyone’s body. Look around at these chapel paintings. None of the bodies of these so-called white men surrounding us today were painted with white paint; while their bodies suggest masculinity they say nothing about literal, pictorial whiteness. As a descriptive, empirical matter: white people do not exist. The exact same thing can be said about black people, by the way. That’s why so-called black people make a big deal about being light- or dark-skinned and often refer to themselves as “chocolate” or “brown”—just visit “Chocolate City” or listen to the song Brown Sugar.
Since I’ve never seen a white- or black-colored person in my entire life, and since this is more than just my experience, it is a physiological fact, then the history of how these came to be named “black” or “white” will offer some reply to the question raised by Malcolm X. This time, the question becomes a bigger issue for all people who identify themselves using language that they don’t understand and didn’t come up with—all of us, in other words. For the so-called white person, just as the so-called Negro before, the question would go as follows: “Who are you? You don’t know. Don’t tell me White, that’s nothing. What were you before the rich man, or the man you cannot even imagine, named you ‘White’? And where were you?”
How many of you are of some kind of Irish ancestry? How many of you have Italian, Scottish, Greek, Polish, or German heritage? How many of you so-called white people are Catholic, Jewish, Mormon, or Atheist?
For those with Irish ancestry, the historical record is clear: you were not always considered “white” in this country; you somehow became “white.” In fact, you were once Black in America. The same goes for Italians, Scots, Greeks, Poles, Germans, and many other people of European descent. Albeit in a different and more complicated way, there are also important historical overlaps here for Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and Atheists.
Consider the questions again: Who are you? You don’t know. Don’t tell me White, that’s nothing. What were you before the rich man, the Whig, the Protestant, the Theist, named you ‘White’?—and who were they before whoever named them that named them that?—Who invented you in this way? How did you move from the margin into the center? And when did you decide to have more in common with this rather than that person? When did you lose your culture, your ethnicity? Are you invisible?
As a Mexican and a Texican—and I don’t called myself a “Mexican-American” because that would be redundant; after all, on the last map I checked Mexico and Texas were both in North America; just as the last time I checked English was a modern language—, as a Tejano and a Latino, I am quite familiar with the historical transformation from margin to center in this country, the move from this or that to white. After all, Latinos in the United States have tried to become white at different times and were legally classified—albeit not socially treated—that way until the Hernandez vs. Texas Supreme Court decision in 1954. Plus: Latinos make the light- and dark-skinned distinction too you know, it is the basis for the difference between a criollo and a mextizo. I also know that becoming “white” is for strategic and political purposes, not existential ones.
Anyone with darker tones of melanin in their epidermis who spends time with people of lighter tones of melanin in their epidermis knows how to “act white”—I sure do. I am also used to getting called a “coconut” for doing it—“brown on the outside and white on the inside.” I admit it: I can be a coconut at times, when it suits me—after all, Latinos come in all stripes: European, African, indigenous, and more; so “acting white” shouldn’t be a threat to being a genuine Latino, whatever that is exactly—but I can also be a chocolate cake with light brown frosting when I play and sing the blues, and I am unquestionably Mexicano when I sing a corrido, play a requinto, or let loose a long, passionate grito. I am all these things and more. Their plurality does not threaten or enrich my identity; it is just who I am. To be more transparent about this: I never knew about many of these possible selves until I studied history—literally—and realized that my narrow assumptions about Latino identity, about my own identity, needed to be expanded to account for the vast geography and variety of Latinos and the multiplicities of my self. As the prophetic Black tradition and the Rastafarian movement saw and read themselves into the plight of the Hebrew slaves in Egypt and Babylon, I read my own self into the lives of others and realized that no one—not so-called black or white people, not Latinos—no one has a monopoly over suffering and the desire to intimately know who one is.
I often mourn for those who have been fooled into thinking of themselves as white, and therefore flavorless, culturally irrelevant, and on the margin of questions about alienation and existential pain. I even feel bad, from time to time, for those who react to this in the opposite way: by becoming white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Klu Klux Klan members—they are mind-lynched too you know; they are slaves to their own self-hatred, to their own racial and existential insecurity, impotence, and ignorance. Malcolm X’s questions apply to them too.
Now, some people who are frustrated with—or afraid of—the conflicts embedded in this thorny subject of race propose that, in the United States, people refer to themselves as “Americans” and be done with it. This seemingly easy suggestion reminds me of a scene in The Great Debaters where the character, Henry Lowe, recalls Tacitus: “Once, a Roman General brought peace to a rebellious province—by killing all its citizens. Even his fellow Romans were shocked. One of them wrote, ‘[Ubi] solitudinem faciunt pacem appellant’—which means, ‘They create desolation and call it peace.’” Those who would erase race and ethnicity for the sake of nationality, threaten to bring racial and ethnic peace by means of nationalistic cultural genocide. Furthermore, unlike Australia and Australians—where the nomenclature of the continent and the nation coincide—calling oneself an “American” makes about as much sense as the French claiming the term ‘European’ for their own specific use, the Chinese monopolizing the term ‘Asian,’ or the Egyptians taking total control over the word ‘African.’
There are other ways to appeal to larger categories and leave the smaller ones behind, and they are not all genocidal or poorly named. Humanists who reject any race but the “human race” are not spouting dangerous nonsense like the previous suggestion, but they are wrong nonetheless. The truth is this: whiteness and blackness are historical inventions, socially constructed labels that are empirically false and non-essential. In short, they are myths. Race is a myth. But the myth of race is itself a powerful, productive, and intimate reality. Racial myths don’t go away overnight, nor should they. The mythos of whiteness and blackness contains all kinds of things: the good, the bad, and the ugly. We cannot confuse these myths with natural reality, but we can, and often must, operate within their real legacy, shadow, and structure. Race is a myth and, as such a thing, a powerful reality.
To understand this point better, consider this example: we all know that our house, the physical structure, has no essential or natural reason for being what we call “home.” Someone made our house at some point and time; it is not eternal or fixed; we can move, it can burn, and the world will continue to exist. A house is not the same thing as a home. Calling it “home” instead of a “house” is based on a domestic myth: the myth of home. At the same time, the feeling of “being-at-home” or “not-at-home” when you are either close-to or far-from your house reveals the power of this myth and the way it operates in your real life. Last year, my grandfather wanted to die at home, in his house instead of at the hospital, and he did. I could never disrespect, or fail to understand his desire to be home just because it was based on an arbitrary, constructed house. There is a real difference between the magic and mystery of his house and a sterile, cold hospital room. Correctness might dictate that we have to have it one way or the other, but the Truth of the matter is both: we need myth without superstition; we need magic without incantations; we need mystery without deception; we need race without racism.
In order to answer Malcolm X’s existential challenge we must see things in both ways. We need to recognize that there are no white or black people in one sense, and, in another sense, we need to find out where these names came from and how they operate and become powerful. I know that being Latino, Mexican, Tejano, Hispanic, Chicano, and the rest is a myth, the myth of race. But, at the very same time, many things about that mythology make me who I am—it is a house that helps me feel at home. And while I hold many of these racial and ethnic myths dear, I must never forget that they come with real, serious, and even dangerous, limitations. Let me be clear: We should not abolish race for being a myth, nor should we essentialize race in order to preserve its mythos. We should treat it like Cordelia’s love for her father: “according to my bond, no more and no less.”
This is why we need to have White History Month at Wabash: not to celebrate it, but to use it to thicken-up our thin, cracking discussions on race, culture, and the rest; White History can deepen our imaginative abilities in order to avoid the impoverished options offered by the two-headed monster we call the Democrats and the Republicans, the conservatives and the liberals.
If all the food at a buffet looks and tastes like shit, then don’t eat it; make your own food instead or, perhaps, starve with dignity. If someone asks you “What do you want to be when you grow up?” say, “yes” or “beautiful;” or reply, “being is sufficient for me at the moment;” or “I think I’ll be a human person;” or give Bartleby’s reply, “I would prefer not to answer your (stupid) question.” Don’t fall prey to the limited options that have put a straightjacket on our imagination and impede us from dwelling in authentic communion with each other in love. To do this, we will need the imaginary health to know that we have this option to begin with, and then we will need the additional mental and spiritual resources to create something different, even if that different “something” is very old. If there ever were a place where we might, just might, be able to do this, it would be Wabash. I truly and whole-heartedly believe this. As I said before (at the MXI Sunday dinner): this is an enchanting place. It is why I am so honored and excited to accept the college’s generous invitation to extend my time here into next year.
So here it is, this is my official, twofold proposition: I propose first that Wabash stop celebrating history—Black History, White History, and even Wabash History—and that, in its place, we promote the serious study of history in and out of class. This is not to suggest that we abolish the months dedicated to these histories, instead it is a call to take these months seriously and add to their number, which leads to the next part: Secondly, I propose that Wabash add “White History Month” to the official college calendar, and investigate questions of whiteness and white identity throughout the entire year, alongside other questions, across the College and the curriculum.
As with Woodson’s 1926 proposal of Negro History Week, my own proposal today is not about equality, it is about existence—it is about seeking authenticity in a world where artificiality has become quite normal, a disenchanted, secular world of inversions and posers: where the News is old; where the rich are bankrupt; where the schooled are miseducated: the world of the living dead. Without White History Month, without the careful study of the invention of white identity, we will only imagine parts at the expense of the whole, which would fail to imagine anything at all. In perilous times such as these, we cannot afford to willfully commit another failure of the imagination. We cannot sin against hope by becoming presumptuous or despairing.
In that hopeful, imaginary spirit, I end as I began—with translation and poetry:
I have no mother or father,
Nor do I send children to school,
Man I am not, but I have…
I have a first and last name.
I reclaim the simple right to be who we are.
-A mixed translation