The Search for Life in Outer Space

The Atlantic in Paris: Dispatch #8


Hieronymus Bosch, The Adoration of the Magi. (Museo Del Prado.)

Continuing our conversation around learning and understanding, one of my favorite passages on the life of the autodidact comes from the great George L. Ruffin's description of Frederick Douglass's odyssey from downtrodden American slave to premier American intellectual:

His range of reading has been wide and extensive. He has been a hard student. In every sense of the word, he is a self-made man. By dint of hard study he has educated himself, and to-day it may be said he has a well-trained intellect. He has surmounted the disadvantage of not having a university education, by application and well-directed effort.

He seems to have realized the fact, that to one who is anxious to become educated and is really in earnest, it is not positively necessary to go to college, and that information may be had outside of college walks; books may be obtained and read elsewhere. They are not chained to desks in college libraries, as they were in early times at Oxford. He seems to have realized the fact, that to one who is anxious to become educated and is really in earnest, it is not positively necessary to go to college, and that information may be had outside of college walks; books may be obtained and read elsewhere. They are not chained to desks in college libraries, as they were in early times at Oxford.

Professors' lectures may be bought already printed, learned doctors may be listened to in the lyceum, and the printing-press has made it easy and cheap to get information on every subject and topic that is discussed and taught in the university. Douglass never made the mistake (a common one) of considering that his education was finished. He has continued to study, he studies now, and is a growing man, and at this present moment he is a stronger man intellectually than ever before.

There is a wonderful, if problematic, tradition in the black community of intellectual pursuit as a "macho" activity. Book learning was something that "they" did not want us to have and in seizing it we were, somehow, claiming our manhood. The tradition is problematic--or perhaps anachronistic--because manhood doesn't have the same meaning today. In fact I am not sure if it has, or ultimately will have, any meaning at all. What happens to categories born out of power after power is dislodged? No one goes around talking about "property-owners" in relation to voting rights today.

In his autobiography, Malcolm X does not claim his manhood through an act of vengeful violence, or by sexual access to white women but through the reclamation of his intellect. Douglass becomes a "man" when he physically subdues the slave-driver Covey, but his mastery of literacy is at least as influential and ultimately more enduring.

I think we can substitute "humanity" for the word "manhood" today and see that this idea of reaching a level of consciousness makes us feel more human, more in touch with the world swirling around us. In becoming intellectually aware, Frederick Douglass began to ask questions and confront problems that never had occurred to him before. It was in following the intellectual questions that slavery and abolition raised about humanity that Douglass found himself to be a "woman's rights man." His last public act, indeed his last thoughts evidently, were not on the boundaries of color, but of gender.

I feel that expansion constantly here--new questions constantly popping up around me. The other day we sat in a very nice restaurant near the Canal St. Martin. I took courage and drank a lot of red wine. Then I ordered a blood sausage--in direct violation of every law of the black nationalist kosher code. It was incredible. It was not so much a sausage as a savory chocolate pudding. There was a party beside us. Within that party there was a woman with blond hair wearing a pink dress. She stared at us for fully half of our meal. When we left I saw the people around us staring. Perhaps it was because I'd said "Bienvenue" when we walked in the door. Or perhaps it was because we were black. I couldn't know. I didn't care.

We walked outside and there were people all along the canal. They were drinking from open bottles and eating dinner. They were seated with their legs dangling over the edge into the water. A young white girl sat on the lap of a black boy. They looked at us and yelled "BON SOIR! BON SOIR! BON SOIR!" And did not stop until I turned and yelled "BON SOIR!"

I have an experience like that at least every day. Something bizarre and incomprehensible hovering at the limits of my dim understanding. The panhandlers here are largely Roma. They sit on the streets with their children, or they humbly approach those holding forth in the outdoor cafes. And every time I see them I am shocked by their whiteness, shocked that one need not be black to be someone's nigger, and that says nothing about them and everything about me.

Are the Roma a "race?" No. I am a prisoner of my own vocabulary and addled understanding. Race is an invention of racism. I know this. I have written this. I know that Europeans interacted with Africans for hundreds of years, and only after the slave trade did they conclude that by dint of our skin, we were dumb, bestial and sexually profligate. I have known this since my days in Howard's history department. Racism without power has no actual history and no discernible meaning. I have always known the facts of this, but I have not always understood it.

It is the manner in which I come to my French class. I can drill myself on the rules of conjugation. I can force myself to remember the difference between tenses of the future and past. But to feel it like instinct, to feel it like religion, to run The French No Huddle, is somewhere beyond "knowing" and closer to understanding. I once used a particular future tense while talking to someone. It was, according to the rules, correct. But the person said to me, "We just wouldn't say it that way, it sounds ugly." That was knowledge beyond the rules; it was understanding.

How do we cultivate this in our children? How do we stress the importance of rules, and the equal importance of their irrelevance? How do we stress the necessity of rote memorization, while at the same time stressing the need to not end there? Many of us "know" geometry, but do we understand how it is actually used? Can we walk down the street and point out its effects? Should we even look to a public education system to teach such things? Or is understanding a private act, something best left to intellectual entrepreneurs, hard students and those who, for whatever reason, burn to know?

I can't call it. But I think about Frederick Douglass a lot these days. And I think that as much as he understood the import of justice, he must have also understood the import of death. Once you get the great effort it takes to go from "knowing" to "understanding" you get how little you will ever truly apprehend. Whole lives surround you. Whole ways are distant from you. Entire streets, ancient cultures , beautiful people are all shooting by. And there is sadness in this because truly we know that there is life in outer space, that there is life in the Parisian streets, that there is life in those West Baltimore streets, that there is life in these worlds around me, life in these blue worlds so close, though light years away.