From its very beginning, after all, America was a profoundly black country as well.
This took a while for an Englishman to grasp upon arriving here, because it's so easy to carry with you all the subconscious cultural baggage you grew up with. England, after all, is deeply Anglo-Saxon. It makes some sense to refer to England's roots and ethnic identity as white, its language as English, its inheritance as a deep mixture of Northern European peoples - the Angles and the Saxons and the Normans and the Celts. And superficially, English-speaking white Americans might seem in the same cultural boat as white English people, dealing with a relatively new multiculturalism in an increasingly diverse and multi-racial society. And at first blush, you almost sink into that lazy and stupid assumption, especially if you arrive in Boston, as I did, and carried all the usual European prejudices, as I did.
The English, lulled by their marination in American pop culture from infancy, and beguiled by the same language, can live out their days in this country never actually noting that it is an alien land - stranger than you might have ever imagined, crueler than you realized, but somehow also more inspiring than you ever thought possible. This is the America I am trying to make my home, after 25 years. It is not the America of Pat Buchanan's or John Derbyshire's fantasies.
It struck me almost at once, if only in the music I heard all around me - and then in so many other linguistic, cultural, rhetorical, spiritual ways: white Americans do not realize how black they are. Even their whiteness is partly scavenged from the fear of - and attraction to - its opposite. Even something as stereotypically white as American Catholicism, I discovered to my amazement, was also black from the very start. (Yes, those Maryland slaves. If you've never been to a Gospel Mass in an ancient black Catholic parish, try it some time.)
From the beginning, in its very marrow, this country was forged out of that racial and cultural interaction. It fought a brutalizing, bloody, defining civil war over that interaction. Any European student of Tocqueville swiftly opens his eyes at the three races that defined America in the classic text. Has Buchanan read Tocqueville? And that's why it seems so odd to me that the election of the son of a white mother and a black father is seen as somehow a threat to American identity for some, when, in fact, Obama is the final iteration of the American identity - the oldest one and the deepest one. This newness is, in fact, ancient - or as ancient as America can be. The very names - Ann Dunham and Barack Obama. Is not their union in some ways a faint echo of the union that actually made this country what it is?
That some cannot see Buchanan's cartoon as a travesty of history remains America's tragedy of self-forgetting.
Sorry for the lengthy quote, but I thought it necessary. Andrew said this to me over dinner in Provincetown, and I've been thinking about it ever since. There is a part of me that wants to disagree with it, I think because so much of my work is delineating "What black is." But I deeply suspect that he's right. It's the sort of observation that someone makes about your marriage, but that you can't see because you're caught up in the day to day.
It's true that this point has been made, in some iterations, before. Still, there's something striking about seeing from the point of view of someone who is white and brought up in England. My history professors used to make a similar point. But I had my own prejudices then (just as I have them now) and couldn't see it.
I need to read some damn Tocqueville.
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