• The wrong part of town

    (Photo by Patrick Hendry)

    A week before the death of George Floyd, I re-watched two classic 80s American comedies – National Lampoon’s Vacation and Coming to America. Two scenes struck me even then. 

    In the first, Chevy Chase’s Clark W. Griswold plays it cool after driving the family into an African-American city neighbourhood, and nonchalantly asks someone for directions back to the highway while his car’s tyres are quietly removed. 

    In the second, Eddie Murphy’s Prince Akeem and his aide, Arsenio Hall’s Semmi, rock up outside a tenement in Queens and go in search of a bedsit to rent as their luggage is pilfered from behind their backs by the locals. 

    Why did audiences laugh?

    Neither scene would probably be made today, and yet either would still resonate. The only difference might be the addition of Hispanic Americans alongside the African-Americans. 

    And the argument would probably go that the joke is not on the poor African-Americans in either case. It’s on the bumbling white guy and the African prince. As long as they’re the butt of the joke, it’s ok. Right?

    We all get the joke. It’s about deprived urban neighbourhoods. The same jokes are directed at Liverpudlians or Glaswegians in Britain, with possible undertones of anti-Irish sentiment. In Greece, theft is invariably blamed on Albanians. 

    A version of these jokes could probably be found everywhere in the world: poverty and its associations with crime and potential violence. The popular imagination will always be inclined to put a name and a face to that threat. 

    Of course, nothing confers an inferior social status like state-sanctioned slavery. That is a level of dispossession of which America – and many other societies – are still grappling with the consequences. 

    On the subject of popular imaginations, Britain Isn’t What It Used To Be

  • Love your opposite

    Consolations of the Forest book by Sylvain Tesson
    What we think about when we think about love

    Watching people in airports is a great pastime. During a session in Copenhagen this week, I noted, not for the first time, how sibling-like many couples are. 

    They say opposites attract, but it’s amazing how often we choose a mirror image of ourselves. We choose self-love, in effect. 

    My polar opposite on Earth

    Which made me wonder whether it wasn’t a very well adjusted, secure person who is able to find the capacity to love one entirely different from them. That would be love. 

    The thought then chimed with something I read in the novel I took with me on my flight: Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin in the Middle Taiga by Sylvain Tesson – a wonderful mix of raw backwoods simplicity and highfalutin intellectualism. 

    Here’s what he had to say after a few months alone by Lake Baikal:

    Wouldn’t real love be the love of what is irremediably different from us? 

    Loving a Papuan, a child or one’s neighbour is hardly a challenge. But a sea sponge! 

    Considering how quick we are to love the comfortable and the familiar, it’s a good exercise to put yourself in the headspace of loving that which is weird and unfamiliar. 

    Love thy stranger

    On the human level, this is a case not so much of Love Thy Neighbour as Love The Person You’ve Never Seen Before In Your Life. Feel love for someone truly from another place, climate, race, culture, age. 

    Beyond the human, as Tesson himself goes on to suggest, it’s about getting as uncomfortably far away from mammals as possible. Dogs, cats, rabbits, bears – they’re easy to love. Ants, reptiles, sharks, spiders? 

    Then comes the real test

    What Tesson doesn’t extend it to, but which is perhaps still pertinent, is the love for anything, however repellent. Could you feel tenderness for carrion? Could you love a cancerous cell? Ultimately, could you as a living thing feel love for death and decay?

    One way to feel what an animal feels is to move like an animal. Find out more in my blog Ever Wanted To Be A Bear?

  • Why is race so black and white?

    Why is Barack Obama more black than white? The question of race and the ownership of different racial and therefore cultural spaces is a vexed one. As someone most people would look at and identify as ‘white’, I feel the exclusivity of the discourse. 

    The American banjo player and roots singer Rhiannon Giddens – talking about her latest project Songs of our Native Daughters in Songlines magazine – spoke about the slavery of “my ancestors”. She is the daughter of a European American father and an African American mother. 

    I’ve never taken a DIY DNA test

    If I did, I might discover some unforeseen racial mix. We’re all African if you go back far enough. So why the segregation? And why, when that segregation is defined, is the black identity so wide, and the white identity so stunted?

    For a clue, consider what V. S. Naipaul had to say about ex-slavery societies in the Caribbean, such as Martinique, where he travelled before writing his book The Middle Passage in 1961:

    “Pedigrees are so carefully watched that there is no possibility whatsoever of anyone with the least tincture of Negro blood, however unapparent, passing as white.” 

    This fear of miscegenation runs deep in all American ex-slavery societies, as it does elsewhere in the world. Even in black or Indian communities, an instinctive preference for a lighter shade of skin in pervasive. 

    Perhaps this is at the root of the keen divide in US society today, where anyone with any amount of black ancestry therefore becomes designated, and self-identifies, as black?

    Where does this leave me?

    If my DNA showed up traces of African blood, what then? Could I claim the slaves of the Americas as my ancestors? Or am I condemned to forever be the descendant of oppressors? 

    And can I ever claim fraternity with Barack Obama? He is a politician I hugely admire. He stands for what I stand for. He is culturally my brother. Yet by current social mores, he is ‘black’ and I am ‘white’. We are divided. 

    Read this post for more of my musings on V. S. Naipaul’s The Middle Passage