Sunday, February 8, 2015

American Dreams

It's Black History Month in the USA. I didn't know that until yesterday morning, but I'd already been observing it since I started watching American Dreams, every night after M falls asleep, a week or so ago. It's an early 2000s show set in Philadelphia in the early '60s - Kennedy is assassinated in the first episode - based around the Irish Catholic Pryor family, and in particular, fifteen-year-old Meg Pryor, who becomes a regular dancer on American Bandstand. At first, watching it was like revisiting my youth; not my late teens and early twenties, when I would occasionally watch the show, but the imaginary youth I built around the music when I began to listen to '60s soul and pop as an eight-year-old, watching The Parent Trap over and over, and then when I studied Black Civil Rights and the Vietnam War as a fifteen/sixteen-year-old at secondary school, crying over my textbook (from which I photocopied pictures to go with my notes, like a big ol' nerd), and then later when I fell in love with Bob Dylan. As the show has progressed, though, and I'm prompted to research names and events which are familiar but the details of which have faded, I begin to feel like I'm uncovering repressed memories; I see the entire, harrowing picture, without a neatish tying up of ends ready for the exam. And I see the picture that will come later. I read about James Chaney, Andy Goodman, and Micky Schwerner, and then the bodies of other boys found during the search for them, and bawl, knowing that fifty years on (which is not a long time), Eric Garner will be choked to death, and Tamir Rice shot, and nothing much will happen to the men  - the policemen - who killed them, either. I cry, and it's not only for the past - it's for the present, and for the future. I don't know if I have enough tears.

When I studied Black Civil Rights in History in fifth form, wide-eyed and so excited to be learning things I really cared about, I couldn't help romanticising it. I couldn't understand Malcolm X, for whatever reason; my youth and lack of experience; my untried idealism; fear; my own oppression (and denial of its existence). I took Martin Luther King's infidelity personally. While I cried over the pictures of students being set on with fire hoses, and was set alight by King's Letter From A Birmingham Jail, I was still separate from it; from them. I don't know what was between me and the people I read about; if it was my reluctance/inability to see the bonds between all people oppressed (and specifically people oppressed by white people) and my fear of what might happen to me if I admitted I was one, or that the story has not ended and we are all a part of it, but it's gone now, I think. I hope. When I read again about those three boys, buried in a dam in Mississippi, the tears hurt, and pain in my chest didn't go away for a long time. My feeling isn't that of someone who wants desperately to understand, or who compares their own experiences, reaching for a connection. It's just there. I'm just there, even if it might be better for me if I wasn't.

This has become a theme song of sorts to my Black History Month; every time I look up something, like the Birmingham Church Bombing, or I hear about what happened at the Oscars, or I picture the face of one of the Walkers from the show, or James Chaney, it floats into my mind, painlessly at first, so I don't really notice it, and then I realise it's there, but it's too late, and I know that deep down I want it there. I didn't even know it before it featured in an episode I watched last week. Now it's like a painful memory, but one which I never want to dilute; if it was a scab, I would want to pick it - if it was a cut, I would keep it open. Since M was born, I've made a habit of trying to protect myself from things that will hurt, even if they are important, because they consume me, and fill me with a fear and a dread and an undirected, helpless anger, which I feel as if I can't take. But some things matter too much. Some things are so tightly wrapped around my heart that my heart can't beat without them; cutting myself off from them would mean losing a part of myself. Some things don't give you a choice. This is one of those things.

Since Wednesday, I've been listening to Black Messiah every day. I love how it sounds; I can listen to it over and over, and it matters to me that D'Angelo wanted to write about the experience of a black man living in America right now, but it's not the powerful political statement I had heard it was, and hoped it would be (although The Charade tries; I can't help feeling like those reviews were relieved pats on the head). The fact it's being touted as the big response to Ferguson, and We Can't Breathe, is a horrible example of the position (and silencing) of black people in America. I wanted to post a song by Killer Mike, or one by Muja Messiah, but I can't decide how I feel about them, and I can't find anyone else. That's crazy shit; that all of these things that are going down, and there's only one mainstream(ish) artist saying anything about it. Actually, what it is, is bullshit. It's one of the reasons I just can't get behind the Beyonce phenomenon (other than the fact that she married a misogynist/pseudo-misogynist idiot). Just thinking about her makes me angrier.

One of the best and worst things about becoming an adult is understanding that things, people, are not just good or bad. It's something I struggle with sometimes. I believe that there are things that tip a person beyond the point where they can be redeemed; there are things that define, and things that can't be forgiven. I also believe that all people are, or at least can be, connected. Which might be why remembering things that happened fifty years ago, and further back, and more recently, hurt so much. I thought that history meant that certain things were behind us; that all of us had changed, and progressed, even just a little bit - that things really were better... but they're not; not really. Not fifty years' worth of better. Not fifty years of learning, and remembering, and talking, and trying. Some people criticise Black History Month. Some people say that it means that every other month is White History Month, and that nobody even has to say it. I think that every month would be White History Month if we didn't have Black History Month. I think that we shouldn't need Black History Month, but we do, and while we do, we should have it. I hate both phrases, but these have popped into my head, and they won't leave. Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Lest we forget.

Lest we never even knew. Lest we don't even give a fuck. Those who are oppressed by those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Every little bit hurts.

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