MAXWELL: Absurdity is the legacy of our skin-deep differences
10/15/2006 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

My column last week, suggesting that a SWAT team had executed Angilo Freeland after he had killed Polk County sheriff’s Deputy Matt Williams, stirred outrage among legions of white readers and brought praise from dozens of black readers. Freeland was black. Williams was white.
One white man, identifying himself as a “retired Southern lawman,” challenged me to a duel, saying, “You can choose the weapons, you nigger.” Another white man said that Freeland “got Southern justice.”
A black woman wrote: “I was wondering if somebody was going to write about all those white cops shooting that black man that many times. Some white people on my job said shooting that black man 68 times wasn’t about race. Yes it was.”
I wrote back: “And it’s absurd.”
The “it” I referred to are matters of race and racism in America. In this instance, white people reacted one way to the column, and black people reacted the opposite way. When race is at issue, perceptions often trump everything else.
How to account for this difference between white and black views on race?
As a black man – a victim – who grew up in the South during Jim Crow, I have thought a lot about racism. Many years ago, I learned to turn to serious fiction when I need real truths about people and their experiences. Fiction gives the writer enough cover to say what otherwise cannot be said without dire consequences.
Black authors, most notably Chester Himes and Ralph Ellison, put racism into perspective for me. From them, I apprehended the most pernicious and enduring legacy of racism: That legacy is absurdity.
“Racism introduces absurdity into the human condition,” Himes wrote in his 1976 autobiography, My Life of Absurdity: The Later Years. “Not only does racism express the absurdity of racists, but it generates absurdity in the victims. And the absurdity of the victims intensifies the absurdity of the racists, ad infinitum. If one lives in a country where racism is held valid and practiced in all ways of life, eventually, no matter whether one is a racist or a victim, one comes to feel the absurdity of life.
“Racism generating from whites is first of all absurd. Racism creates absurdity among blacks as a defense mechanism. Absurdity to combat absurdity.”
I used to believe that racism made it impossible for blacks to ever know or experience reality because racism warped and even obliterated reality. But Himes, who expatriated to Paris and Spain to escape American racism, disabused me of that view in a comment about his rationale for his black crime fiction.
“I thought I was writing realism,” he said. “It never occurred to me I was writing absurdity. Realism and absurdity are so similar in the lives of American blacks that they cannot tell the difference.”
Although many blacks cannot formally name the phenomenon, they recognize the smudging of the line between realism and absurdity. Some see it clearly, and others sense its contours. Either way, we adopt coping mechanisms to ward off the chaos and the alienation that come with the absurdity of racism.
In addition to finding refuge in their churches and families, many older blacks long ago resigned themselves to a unique passivity.
In his novel, Invisible Man, Ellison describes how most older blacks cope with the absurdity of racism. On his deathbed, the protagonist’s grandfather advises his son on surviving in the white man’s world.
“Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight,” he says. “I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.”
Many of today’s younger blacks, especially males, reject such passivity, and they virtually have turned away the family and the church as places of refuge from the chaos and alienation of racism’s absurdity.
Most dramatically, tens of thousands of younger blacks have become citizens of the hip-hop nation. To outsiders, hip-hop appears to be chaos manifested. But it is not. It is rule-bound. It has distinct subgroups: East Coast, West Coast, Southern and more.
For still other younger black men, prison has become the absurd reality, a badge of honor and a rite of passage into manhood.
When I think of this trend, I am reminded of Malcolm X’s observation that the most dangerous person in America is the young, angry, alienated black man with “nothing to lose.” Because these young men do not fully comprehend racism’s absurdity and its power to engender absurdity, they become conscious victims and succumb to the absurdity.
And what about whites? Because they are the perpetrators of racism and are not its victims, they have the dubious honor of observing and, more often than not, creating elaborate denials for this thing they have wrought. The denial of choice is blaming the victim for his condition – the height of absurdity.
As with blacks, realism and absurdity, as they relate to race, are so similar in the lives of white Americans that they cannot tell the difference.
Racism has prevented all of us from being fully human and rational. The unfortunate result is that public engagement in which blacks and whites find genuine common ground is next to impossible. What could be more absurd?