Friday, February 08, 2008

Obstacles and catalysts

I started reading "Uncle Tom's Cabin" last night for my current English Honors class (bragging, just a little). I don't remember ever having read it before, but the story is very familiar. Maybe because I've read so many stories of slavery and suffering. About the time I got through the second chapter, where Eliza's husband, George, gets taken out of a factory where he was respected and treated with some compassion and put back to drudgery and misery, I started watching the second series in Henry Louis Gates, Jr's "African-American Lives 2." The first series aired last year about this time, and traced certain prominent black American's DNA back to Africa. In the current series he traces the family trees of some other prominent black American's back as far into our country's history.

Chris Rock's great-great-grandfather was born into slavery, fought in the civil war, became a state Senator during the reconstruction, was tossed out and left with nothing the Republicans sold the blacks out in favor of control of the White House, but eventually became landed and bequeathed considerable acreage to his offspring. Don Cheadle's great-great-grandparents were owned by Indians in Oklahoma, before it became a state. After emancipation, and after another decade and a half of having neither a country nor a livelihood, they were each given 40 acres and formed an all black town.

As each of the featured personalities are given these pieces of history, they visibly go through a range of emotions, from disbelief to pride to resentment to grief. Chris Rock said something like, "If I had known that my great-great-grandfather had achieved so much, I wouldn't have just assumed I wouldn't ever achieve anything." As they are learning these details of their family history, how they not only survived but were greatly successful, I, too am choked up and wiping away tears. My tears come from compassion, self-loathing and self-pity. I'm sorry for the prejudiced attitudes I sometimes have to chase out of my head; I'm at a loss for the lack of empathy between people. How can a person claim to believe in god -- because American was founded on Christian ideals -- and justify such treatment of another being, human or animal?

What is it that makes some people excel and accomplish great things despite unfathomable adversity? Black Americans today don't have nearly the obstacles that their forefathers did, and yet disparity exists at levels and across so many areas of life that people who study such things are at a loss to explain. And why, then, is someone like me not more successful, if I have nothing like that excuse? No one can argue that racism isn't alive and well, but that only explains part of the problem.

The level of a person's ambition varies so much from person to person. Some people have it, and adversity feeds it. Others, myself included, suffer a dearth. One of the reasons I continue to take classes and pursue degrees is to keep goals and deadlines for accomplishment in front of me,
to keep me from being a total bum, to divert my otherwise lazy instincts away from sloth, to keep the self-loathing at bay.

I don't have the type of success I expected I would, back when I was learning to express my self-awareness and forming my world view in my early-mid 20s. And it is a matter of definition, I know. A friend of mine has been living in a Buddhist monastery in Burma for the last 5 years or so, following a path of love and asceticism. I will ask him what his motivation is. Does he believe his life is serving a purpose, is he helping the world? Or is that a matter of interpretation? Am I too attached to the worldly idea of good works? And what will it matter anyway when I go off to the next dimension?

Is this my mid-life crises?

1 comment:

gregory said...

I look forward to talking about this in person.

Monique, When I first met you, your writing impressed me. And it does now, 30 years later.

I am happy that we will be talking soon.