Monday, February 6, 2012

The Innocents Abroad

We haven't learned this move yet
I went to my second salsa class. It’s such incredible fun; both silly as we all step on each other’s feet and bang elbows, and exhilarating to actually get the movements right. Somehow just sliding my legs in the right direction manages to feel sexy. Whirling around the room as we "dame!" from one partner to the next gives me an unfamiliar yet not unpleasant sensation of lack of control. Rarely do I cede power to anyone and say, “sure, just spin me in whatever direction you will, I’ll follow.” But there’s a rush that comes with this sort of dancing surrender, a heady capitulation to music and partner. It’s also fun to make snap-second judgments as I twirl from one partner to the next—is he on beat? Does he make eye contact? Can I make a joke, or does this one take it too seriously? Accent German or Austrian? Swiss or French? Where are that guy’s hands heading? And so on.

The master’s seminar I’m meant to be TAing is currently turning into a processing session for my American-identity crisis. Today, as we crunched through Absalom, Absalom!, the students stupidly silent in the face of Faulkner’s big fat F-the-reader attitude, I epiphanized for a moment.

Faulkner blabbers on about how Sutpen, his hero born in the mountains of West Virginia, was a blessed innocent, pure as the mountain stream of any knowledge of how wealth and caste operates in America, and even once he discovers it by having a door slammed in his face, his innocence teaches him not to subvert the system but to join it and create a wealthy dynasty himself, to support the whole money-grubbing people-as-property (both women and men) endeavor. I’ve been to the mountains of West Virginia. We backpack there every summer. And yet we manage to avoid all knowledge of the inhabitants (my parents’ view of a successful backpacking vacation is one in which we meet no people), so I can’t tell you whether they avoid all knowledge of the world. But I can tell you that almost all of the people we see there are white and the region is not overly gifted with the material things of this world (besides incredible measures of natural beauty), and could possibly have grown up without needing to ask themselves the questions other parts of America must.

Match that to Melville’s Benito Cereno, which we read last week, and in which the American captain of the ship is so convinced of black servility and natural docile cheeriness that he can’t comprehend for a moment that they’ve actually staged a mutiny on the ship, and innocence begins to seem not just wrong, but willfully evil. A sort of assumed innocence, an American project to pretend that everything’s fine when in fact it isn’t.

I remember sitting in a Ho-Hum class at UMD, listening to the one black girl talk about racism in America, and thinking that I grew up in an upper-middle class Jewish-and black neighborhood and didn’t even know that racism had survived into this decade until I left for college. We had all been minorities, all comfortable. What a nice thought! I wished I could return to that. Since, as my knowledge grew and I learned racism, not to practice but to understand the baggage we were carrying around, it complicated my relationships with people. I began to yearn for the innocence when I didn’t know that skin color gave one any kind of history, when I joked with my mom’s medical assistant about how her skin was purple (as a five year old, I saw colors I can’t today).

When I was out with a friend last week, she mentioned the way a group of kids hanging out at night in her neighborhood had been viewed with suspicion by her friends. I thought I’d take their part. It would make me nervous to walk past a group of youth at night. Just as I am faced with flurries of nerves when I pass a cleaning person; should I say hi? To prove their personhood in my eyes? Or do they not want to be used as a tool by which I can prove my humanity by acknowledging theirs? Would I say hi to them if they were just another person passing? As I mulled it over, I realized that, though born free of the intricacies of racism (it was taught me later in a multitude of complicated ways that don’t dictate active oppression so much as acknowledgement which is yet fraught), I am most definitely classist to the core. Or, as I express it to my sisters, odorist. Same difference. I feel a strong knee-jerk reaction against poverty or anything which threatens comfort. A sort of guilty blaming of the guy sleeping in the doorway for reminding me of his existence, a feeling I try to tear down constantly and that yet springs up anew.

The way I try to escape is to remember childhood. Innocence. Back when the only classification I made of people was either big, or my size. When I didn’t pay attention to other humans, didn’t notice smells. And yet, as I listened to Lene attempt to extricate Sutpen’s story from the rest of the wilderness of Absalom, Absalom!, and link it back to Melville’s arrogantly innocent American captain, I began to appreciate the evils of such innocence.

I think Americans prize their innocence even as they consider themselves to know more about these issues. Europe is supposed to be contaminated, prejudiced, filled with a disgusting history it can’t escape, and Americans seek their solace in naivete, in saying “but I see no difference in you, I don’t even see you as black/Muslim/gay/blond.” Trying not to acknowledge the stereotypes, not to confound a person with one part of their identity as token. But it doesn’t work. It makes us worse than them—at least the Europeans aren’t subtly hiding their prejudices (well, okay, the Norwegians are, but I think they got that from us). Innocence, in this case, is akin to ignorance. Which can be just as damaging, if not more, than blatant prejudice. I have used my innocence as a shield against understanding.

So where to from here? I’m not sure. I’m not sure how to move from trying to actively backpedal from the things I wish I didn’t know, into accepting them and working through them into a prejudice-free world in which difference means dignity and yet the history is not extirpated from the human as though it didn’t matter. How to both remember slavery and not make any person bear its brunt, to smell homeless men on the bus without flinching, to greet the house cleaner without needing a session with a shrink. It’s going to require a whole new level of sophistication instead of that desperate naivete. It's going to require processing ideas like this without worrying about the fact that I'm embroiled in first-world issues while elsewhere, people would laugh at me for my privileged white girl problems. That's still no reason not to try to solve them. But I think I’m beginning to understand the way this course will develop me as a person. Moving from Rowlandson’s view of the Indians to Delano’s of Africans and Spaniards to Faulkner on the whole twisted mess of the South, and the ways those writers buried and layered and nuanced their meanings, forces my understanding to expand, forces an unpacking of all that innocence until by the time we reach Tripmaster Monkey I’ll be way beyond the point I’m at now. Maybe even ready to come home and rewrite America. 

In case anyone thinks the word "innocent" still means anything other than manipulative, willful ignorance

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