Yesterday in New Orleans I had a long lunch with the actor Wendell Pierce, whom you’ll remember from The Wire, and more recently, Treme. That’s a clip of him above, giving a tour of his hometown. I was with him to talk about the work he’s been doing since Katrina to help restore Pontchartrain Park, the historically black New Orleans neighborhood in which he was raised, and where his father still lives (his mother died not long ago). I may be writing something about it soon.
For me, this was one of the most extraordinary meals I’ve ever had. Wendell is so easy to talk to, and he opened some doors for me, more on which in a moment. I could have talked to him all afternoon. He told me the story of his neighborhood, which was built as a middle-class black enclave during segregation. In those days, black New Orleanians were only allowed to use public parks on one day a week: “Negro Day.” As part of a settlement to quell protests, the city set aside the green area that became Pontchartrain Park for development as an all-black neighborhood.
“Negro Day”? Really? Really. Turns out New Orleans public parks weren’t fully integrated until 1958. I did not know that.
Wendell’s folks moved in. His father, Amos, was a World War II vet. You might have seen the elder Pierce in the news a few years back. Here’s why:
On Armed Forces Day, the World War II Museum was a busy place, but the center of attention was 84-year-old Amos Pierce, proud and solemn as he sat on the stage.
His son, actor Wendell Pierce was fought back tears.
“He is so excited and happy,” Pierce said of his father, “and I’ve just been emotional all day.”
Army Corporal Amos Pierce served on the island of Saipan during World War II and knew his unit had earned medals, but was astounded and infuriated when a white military clerk, who did not have his records, dismissed his claim.
“We won the citation,” Amos Pierce said, “and she said, ‘oh yeah, yeah, yeah,’ and she didn’t believe me.”
Amos felt that bitterness for six decades, so angry he ignored a letter from the military about the medals, until Wendell stepped in, and the result was a special ceremony at the World War II museum, with the second in command of the Louisiana National Guard making the presentation.
“For those of us who are serving, we owe a debt of gratitude to the greatest generation,” said Maj. Gen. Hunt Downer.
You know things like this went on, but when you’re sitting across the table from a man whose father put his life on the line for this country every damn day — a country that later denied him the medals he was due — it becomes more real.
Wendell, who is a little bit older than I am, talked at length about how much his parents’ generation sacrificed and suffered for the things his generation and their children take for granted. The thing that was so striking to me about this conversation was how gentle Wendell was in discussing racist acts that was so disgusting it takes your breath away, even if you know things were bad back in the day. He talked about it in context of deep honor and appreciation for what they endured, and a sense of responsibility he feels to give back to them, to honor their legacy. The actor also talked about it philosophically in terms of an inquiry into human nature — why people do the things they do, and fail to do other things they should do. It occurred to me that this capacity for detachment, for setting aside one’s emotions to try to see the world through the eyes of another, is surely one thing that makes him such a great actor and artist.
I have to tell you that I sat there listening to his stories, thinking, “Why is this guy not angry all the time?” God knows I would be. Then I thought: Ah. I get it now.
Here’s what I mean by that. Wendell is Catholic, and we talked about what the Church means in Louisiana. I told him that I had come to Catholicism as an adult, and had loved the Church hard. Then came the Scandal, and staring into that abyss fried me. What happened, I explained, is that I allowed the righteous anger I felt over the terrible injustices committed against Catholic children and families, and the increasingly obvious fact that the US bishops were going to get away with it, to overwhelm me. I was, toward the end of my years as a Catholic, deeply angry all the time at the injustice — and it flat-out unhorsed me.
Wendell said that he had been raised never to think of the clergy as the whole of the Church, and always to remember that the Church is more than what is apparent. I understood him to be saying that his parents taught him to develop an inner detachment — and this helped him to hold on to his faith in the face of priests who failed to treat black Catholics with the dignity they deserved.
My “ah, I see” moment came when I reflected on how anger at injustice dissolved my Catholic faith and unmade me spiritually, and then analogized that to black Americans and their response to racism. Somehow, something clicked inside me, listening to Wendell talk. Again, he is only a few years older than I am; if I had grown up as he did, and had the same reaction to racial injustice that I had towards the Church’s failure to bring justice to abuse victims, where would I be today? The truth is that I would be in despair, and angry all the time, and may have fallen into all kinds of destructive behavior, including chronic self-pity.
I allayed the pain I had by leaving the Catholic Church, itself the most painful thing I’d ever done, but necessary in the sense that if you don’t amputate a gangrenous limb, the patient will die. But black people cannot leave America.
But this is the thing: Wendell Pierce is a man of hope. Sit with him for five minutes and it becomes obvious. He is profoundly conscious of the injustices his people have suffered, but he has not let that overtake him. In fact, he has taken that passion and channeled it into the creation of art, and in helping to rebuild the neighborhood Katrina stole from his folks. He is defying despair. To become an artist, and to refuse to let passion cloud your vision of the essence of what it means to be human, that’s a real achievement. This really made an impression on me. And it made me determined to learn more about the black experience in Louisiana, to learn in more detail what they suffered, how those who overcame managed to do so, and how those who did not fell into ruin.
On the long drive home, I thought about how that was the first time I had ever spoken so frankly and at such length with a black person about race. And I’ll be honest with you, it was such a gift; in fact, I have tears in my eyes just thinking about it right now. It’s so hard to talk about these things. Even white people have trouble talking about it among ourselves, because everybody is so afraid of saying the wrong thing and being judged, or hearing the wrong thing said and feeling compelled to stand up for what’s right by rebuking the other. I reflected on how rarely I ever talk about race with any white person who doesn’t already agree with me. Race in America is so complex; I don’t want to hear white conservatives carry on as if there were no problem with it, that all that went away after 1964 (see TAC’s Samuel Goldman writing about this phenomenon on the Right); and I don’t want to hear white liberals jumping down the throats of anybody who is to the right of what you hear in the faculty lounge. Many white conservatives want absolution, and many white liberals want to judge without mercy. What both have in common is the inability or refusal to see black people as they are, in all their complexity, as opposed to pawns in a status war between whites.
Mostly, I find, we whites don’t talk about race because we want to avoid conflict among ourselves. If whites can’t even talk about it among ourselves without getting our backs up, how much more difficult is it to talk about it across racial lines? To be honest, it reminds me of how lots of engaged Catholics I encountered were in the first year or so of the scandal. Liberals had their theories and their enemies list, and so did conservatives. Partisans of both sides were so emotionally invested in the total guilt of the Other, and so anxious over the whole ugly thing, that they could not or would not imagine that the history that led to this catastrophe did not allow for anyone involved to be fully absolved of guilt — or responsibility.
My guess, though — and it’s only a guess — is that there are a lot of people, black and white, who would like to talk about our shared history, but who don’t do it because that conversation is too fraught with land mines. Again, I go back to the Catholic abuse situation, which is the only template I have for trying to understand the emotional dynamics of situations so suffused with pain and injustice. For a couple of years there, before I left the Catholic Church, you really couldn’t talk with me about it. Anybody who would have tried to discuss the complexity of the situation would have risked setting me off, with me thinking that they were trying to downplay reality, and let the bad guys get away with it. Maybe some of them were, but maybe some of them had some good points that complicated the emotional narrative that I had committed to. I really can’t say, because that was a long time ago, and my emotions were so strong then that I don’t trust my memories. But I’m pretty sure I would have heard most anything that contradicted my belief in the total horror show of the scandal as somebody saying, “It wasn’t as bad as you think.” Again, some might have been saying this (in fact, some were), but the point I’m making here is that I was incapable of discerning between people who were trying to talk themselves out of facing up to the moral reality of what happened, and people who were in good faith trying to understand how something as bad as the scandal came to happen.
In a way, it’s like my reaction to 9/11: anybody who didn’t agree that we ought to go to war, I thought, was either a fool or a coward, and in either case was breaking faith with the 9/11 dead. Anybody who talked as if the scandal narrative was more complicated than I thought, and required a more nuanced response, struck me as having broken faith with the victims. Is it that hard for me to understand, then, why black Americans who don’t talk, or talk as much as I would like them to, about crime, the breakdown of the black family, and so forth, as contributing to chronic problems of inner-city blacks — is it that hard for me to understand why they may feel that, in light of history, yielding any ground is to risk breaking faith with their ancestors who suffered terribly at the hands of whites?
Actually no, it’s not hard for me to understand, now that I think about it. And it’s not hard for me to understand why a black person would feel that white success came at the cost of blacks, given historical realities. And come to think of it, it’s not that hard for me to understand why the Trayvon Martin killing affected black people in the way it did. And so on.
To be sure, I would hope that a black person could also see why a working-class white person who struggles to hold on to a job fails to see why a middle-class black person should receive favored treatment in hiring. I would hope that that black person could see how chronic poverty has a lot to do with choices that have caused the family to break down (as the white working class is now learning about itself), and how fear of black crime is a real thing. On that last point, the black linguist John McWhorter has some sharp words, related to the thrill killing of a white Australian, allegedly by two black Oklahoma teenagers, and one white one, who told police they were “bored”:
The numbers don’t lie: young black men do commit about 50% of the murders in the U.S. We don’t yet know whether the attack on Lane was racially motivated, nor can we know whether the three black boys who attacked a white boy on a Florida school bus recently would not have done the same to a black kid. (Critics took Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to task for not condemning the violence.) But hardly uncommon are cases such as the two black guys who doused a white 13-year-old with gasoline and lit him on fire, saying “You get what you deserve, white boy” (Kansas City, Mo.) or 20 black kids who beat up white Matthew Owens on his porch “for Trayvon” (Mobile, Ala.).
So, it’s just fake to pretend that the association of young black men with violence comes out of thin air. Young black men murder 14 times more than young white men. If the kinds of things I just mentioned were regularly done by whites, it’d be trumpeted as justification for being scared to death of them.
Yes, it would. A lot of white defensiveness, at least on the right, is a view that there are double standards at work here. And you know what? They’re often right. Many whites believe that in cases like this, they aren’t heard, that their legitimate anger is denied, that their legitimate fear and disgust is dismissed. Similarly, I know that black people feel the same way about their anger, fear, and disgust. It seems to me that we, whether we are black or white, react too quickly to what we imagine will be the other side’s attempt to blame us, and far too rarely try to look at the facts as objectively as possible.
I’m reading Dante’s Inferno right now, and a basic theme that’s emerging is how dangerous are the passions when unbridled from reason. Dante did not believe that we are nothing but mind; we also have bodies. As he makes his pilgrimage through Hell, Dante sees what happens to people who do not moderate their passions with their reason. Francesca, the adulterous lover, finds herself in Hell because, having read love poetry (including Dante’s!) and captivating accounts of romantic love, she got carried away, and came to believe that her passion was the same thing as love — and that it was overwhelming. This won her and her lover a place in Hell, blown about for eternity by their passion. Over and over, you see how souls put themselves in Hell by yielding to their passions, and not subjecting them to reason. They lost the “straight path” through life by sinful indulgence of their passions, and created for themselves (and others) a kind of Hell in life, which earned them Hell after death.
Driving through the swamps home to St. Francisville yesterday, I thought about how often I’ve lost the straight path because I believed I was thinking when I was actually merely feeling. Our culture, Alasdair MacIntyre has taught us, is emotivist; having been raised in this culture, and in a Christianity that is more about comfort than challenge, it’s harder to balance our passions with our reason, and more difficult to subject ourselves to self-critique — especially when to do so may be to give one’s opponent, who is not similarly inclined, an unfair advantage. Tempering our passions with reason requires the humility to recognize that no matter who we are, we are not God, nor are we the center of the world.
The challenge to all of us, no matter what our ethnic or class background, is to strive to overcome our passions, and to see others not like us as real people — and, equally as important, to see ourselves as capable of error. This is what it means to repent. That’s an old-fashioned church word meaning turning away from sin. The time I spent with Wendell yesterday was for me an occasion of repentance, in this sense: it made me understand how limited my own perspective is, and how often I allow my emotions to direct my responses, just like every other person in the world. There’s an old song by a New Orleans band called The Subdudes, “The Ballad Of Gunther Johnson.” It’s about seeing through racial fear and resentment on both sides to recognize our common humanity. Here’s the chorus:
Did you really think we’ve got it so good
She believed, we live on the high side of town
They said, chill out, brother, I’m just like you
Always wanting to be satisfied (Just like you)
See dreams disappear before your eyes (Just like you)
You think that the world don’t care (Just like you)
Brother, I’m just like you.
You readers know that I don’t often agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates’s cultural politics, but we share a love for France, and I have been impressed for a long time with his willingness to open himself up intellectually to perspectives he doesn’t naturally share, to read books that at one point in his life he wouldn’t have cared for. The other day, his post on “The White Man’s Continent” made a real impression on me. Excerpt:
Shout-out to whoever it was that told me to check out Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolution. I am really digging it. For people like me–black dudes who like European history–one of the really unfortunate things is the inability to consider Europe on its own human terms. European history was always presented to us in the manner of a victorious football team spiking the ball in your face. If you accept the logic of racism–that skin color really does correspond to something deep and meaningful–and you are black and care about history, you wind up spending much of your time searching for reasons why white people are savages and you are not. This is especially true if you don’t actually know much about African history.
In that way, Europe becomes “white people’s property.” You only look at the continent and its history in the hopes of mining ammo to lob at your enemy. You don’t really find World War II interesting for the story, so much as you find the Nazis the logical apex of the White Man’s Civilization. You can’t really think about, say, Garibaldi or Descartes or Hobbes or Marx. Basically all you want to know is did they hate black people, or not.
This is why (again) Ralph Wiley’s “Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus” meant so much to me and my intellectual development. It was the liberation of humanism. (It’s so interesting to me that the Russians themselves have long only barely qualified as civilized and “European.”) It’s not so much that culture doesn’t exist or that Newton’s country is irrelevant to understanding him. It’s that culture is not mystical. Culture is not a euphemism for “I am innately more awesome than you.”
I can say this: for conservative white Southern dudes like me, one of the really unfortunate thing is the inability to consider our shared history with black Southerners on its own terms. We’re always trying to find a defensible emotional stance, one that acknowledges in some way the evil that was done but also doesn’t make us vulnerable to unfair accusations of racism, or open to manipulation. What it does — what our political culture does — is to encourage us all not to think but rather to feel.
It feels so good to blame the Other, and to fail to see our own responsibilities toward ourselves and the Other. It feels so good to imagine that history is a blank slate, and what happened then has little or nothing to do with what’s happening now. It frees you from the burden of the past, when yes, your ancestors did despicable things to black people, and crushed them systematically. A stone’s throw from where I sit writing this, a brave black man, the Rev. Joseph Carter, walked into the courthouse in the teeth of a racist white mob and demanded his right to register to vote. Wendell Pierce was one year old when that happened; I would be born three years later. This is almost yesterday. How can any conservative, who is supposed to have a particular appreciation for history, seriously believe that all could be made right so soon?
It feels so good to imagine that it’s always Selma 1965, and that any bad thing that happens to you is because of white racism. It frees you from the burden of the present, in which you are responsible for making something out of the freedom your ancestors bought you through countless acts of bravery, like Rev. Joseph Carter’s.
We all crave absolution, but as every good Catholic and Orthodox knows, there can be no real absolution without true repentance — and no communion, either. By repentance, I don’t mean making statements of regret, apology, and amendment, though these things may be required. I’m talking more about changing the way we think, turning away from ways of seeing the world that diminish or refuse empathy, and from approaches to life that allow us to ignore our own individual or communal consciences. Being fully human is painful; is there any wonder we turn from it at every opportunity?
In talking with Wendell Pierce yesterday, I saw a man who is drawn to the experience of being human, and, in turn, to humanism, in the sense TNC describes. Wendell quoted the recently departed Albert Murray, a man Wendell called a mentor to him, as saying that art is the intersection of life and how people deal with it. I’ve been thinking about Murray this morning, and looked him up to figure out which of his books I should read first. I found that Murray is known for having stood up in the early 1970s to black separatists, and insisting that black American art and culture is inseparable from white American art and culture, and vice versa. Whether we like it or not, we stand together. After looking online for a good Murray book to start with, I chose South To A Very Old Place, the Alabama native’s 1971 reflection on where the South was, and where it had gone. This paragraph in the opening was the clincher:
None of which is to suggest — not even for one sentimental flicker of an instant — that being back is always the same as being where you wish to be. For such is the definitive nature of all homes, hometowns, and hometown people that even the most joyous of homecoming festivities are always interwoven with a return to that very old sometimes almost forgotten but ever so easily alerted trouble spot deep inside your innermost being, whoever you are and wherever you are back from.
For where else if not the old home place, despite all its prototypical comforts, is the original of all haunted houses and abodes of the booger man?
I ordered the Murray book. Race and history and our Louisiana home: that is a pretty frightening boogey man to most of us who grew up here. How do we face him down? What would that even mean? How do we hope in the face of fear? How do we redeem the time? How do we make our trouble spot less troubled?
I want to know. And I want to know stories. I want to know how it was that two middle-aged guys from Louisiana could sit down over lunch in New Orleans, and talk about these things, and talk about the pleasure of eating greens and vegetables out of country gardens, and home, and our people. Our people. What a gift yesterday was.