Saturday, April 30, 2011

"Black Like Me" - Distraction

The music consumed in its blatant rhythm all other rhythms, even that of the heartbeat.  I wondered how all of this would look to the casual observer, or to the whites in their homes. "The n------ are whooping it up over on Mobile Street tonight," they might say. "They're happy." Or, as one scholar put it, "Despite their lowly status, they are capable of living jubilantly." Would they see the immense melancholy that hung over the quarter, so oppressive that men had to dull their sensibilities in noise or wine or sex or gluttony in order to escape it? The laughter had to be gross or it would turn to sobs, and to sob would be to realize, and to realize would be to despair. So the noise poured forth like a jazzed-up fugue, louder and louder to cover the whisper in every man's soul. "You are black. You are condemned."  This is what the white man mistook for "jubilant living" and called "whooping it up." This is how the white man can say, "They live like dogs," never realizing why they must, to save themselves, shout, get drunk, shake the hip, pour pleasures into bellies deprived of happiness.  Otherwise, the sounds from the quarter would lose order and rhythm and become wails.    From "Black Like Me" by John Howard Griffin (p. 69-70)

This passage spoke to me.  I had never really looked at the African American's plight in the '50s and '60s from this angle before... Never really saw what this lifestyle ("shout, get drunk, shake the hip, pour pleasures") was covering up, what it was distracting them from.  Honestly, in my great ignorance I thought, "That's just how they were; it was their culture."  Oh, how ignorant and naive... 

But, I wonder, is it oh so different nowadays, even in 2011?  Maybe it is, but maybe it isn't.  I do know that, in a way, that kind of living, the life of self-indulgence--white or black, poor or rich, accepted or alienated--is a mask, is a distraction from the void that can only be filled One Way. 

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