MAXWELL:  In the U.S., “history is against you’

8/17/1997 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


We Americans, like people elsewhere in the world, often need the dispassionate eyes of outsiders to help us understand our problems, especially the controversial ones that lay bare our deepest emotions. The editors of the New York Times Magazine obviously had this notion in mind as they planned the June 8 issue.

Correspondents from 18 countries were invited to share their views of the United States. For me, the most important views were those of South African writer Nadine Gordimer in an essay titled “Separate.”

Much of Gordimer’s work, for which the author won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1991, reflects a liberal approach to problems of race and repression in her native land. She states that while traveling in the United States from the 1950s until a few years ago, she mixed freely among many American blacks, both ordinary and famous, in their homes and in public places.

On visits to this country since 1994, however, she has met few American-born blacks. Her South African sensibilities _ the unique wisdom of an enlightened Caucasian opponent and survivor of apartheid _ give her an insight that we Americans, white and black, should try to comprehend.

She meets so few black Americans these days because they “do not want to mix with whites, however much potential compatibility is beckoning to be recognized,” she writes. “The old, old answer I think not only survives but seems to have grown in bitterness, for reasons (of economics and opportunity) Americans know best: When you have been so long rejected, your collective consciousness tells you that the open-door, open-arms invitation has come too late. You gain your self-respect by saying “no.’ ”

As an example of gaining self-respect by saying “no,” Gordimer points to black American playwright August Wilson, winner of two Pulitzers. He wants “black theater for blacks only _ black writers, actors, audiences.”

Gordimer sees lunacy in Wilson’s separatist crusade: “If even the doors of the arts are slammed shut, how shall people find their common humanity? And how to live, in the end, without it? The theater Wilson advocates is Greek tragedy, where wars and violence become the only means of communication, the curse of the gods on humans. Why do self-respect, identity, rest on this ancient and terrible tragedy of white rejection of black?”

Gordimer’s answers, comparing conditions in South Africa and the United States, are instructive to anyone sincere about race relations here. Race in South Africa, in fact, shines a bright light on race in America.

In her estimation, the more than three centuries of racist exploitation and oppression of black South Africans under apartheid are unequaled in human history.

But despite their perpetual suffering, Gordimer argues, South African blacks “have had their own earth under their feet. Despite neglect in official education, their languages have remained intact as mother tongues. Their names are their own ancestral names.

“Nothing _ neither cruel apartheid denigration nor liberal paternalism _ has destroyed their identity. They know who they are. In relations with whites, now that everyone is equal before the law, they do not have to say “no’ in order to assert pride of identity or self-respect. It is for the average white to discover, earn and affirm a valid identity in a society with a black majority and non-racial government.”

And despite the intransigence of many lifelong racists and the corrosive effects of lingering injustices, many black South Africans are enjoying a large measure of economic empowerment, even in businesses tied to the stock exchange.

Moreover, Gordimer writes, ethnic, political and cultural bonds are growing among blacks and whites throughout South Africa. She sees a land of vitality and hope, a place where the grand experiment of a “non-racial” society still has a chance to succeed.

Now, compared to South Africa, what about relations between blacks and whites in America? The following observations of Gordimer took on profound meaning for me as I covered the NAACP convention last month in Pittsburgh. For the first time in many years, NAACP members openly supported “separate” public schools for black children. Anger and disillusionment filled the convention center.

What is Gordimer’s assessment of black-white relations in America? “It is unfortunate to have to say it: History is against you in the U.S.A.,” she writes. “Americans cannot give back to blacks a lost identity; black Americans are reluctant to accept that that identity cannot be found in an avatar of apartheid.

“They are all Americans, and whether the whites like it or not, and whether the blacks like it or not, a common destiny has to be worked out. Alas, Martin Luther King is dead, and you have no Mandela. A common identity is not simple. It’s not simple in South Africa either, but . . . we are doing better than the U.S.A. . . .”

Unfortunately, I agree. Here in America, the wounds of resentment and hatred may be too deep, the cancer of denial may be too metastasized and our morality may be too relativistic for us to heal ourselves.

If only we, like South Africans, had a real way to start over. We do not. We have had the big moments in our social history, and the changes have been insufficient.

The Emancipation Proclamation, for example, ended slavery, but the harsh legacy of the “Peculiar Institution” endures. And affirmative action, created in modern times to remedy old wrongs, has been rejected by the very beneficiaries of our racist heritage.

Our future, therefore, is our past: a labyrinth of personal and institutionalized abuses that, either out of habit or expediency or willfulness, we will visit time and again.