When I was younger there were certain Americans authors that I just loved, while I had little patience for the others who were supposed to be so much better according to my English teachers.
Here are the ones I read the most: James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Jack Kerouac, Henry David Thoreau, Sinclair Lewis, Ntozake Shange, Noam Chomsky, Gloria Naylor, Erich Fromm, Edward Said, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Lewis Mumford.
Half are black, half are white. Two are foreign-born. But there is something that 10 of the 14 have in common: early in their lives they all lived in the same bit of America: Uptown Manhattan, Manhattan north of 110th Street in New York. Like me.
As far as I know Thoreau, Chomsky, Sinclair Lewis and Alice Walker have never lived there. But the other ten have, either in Harlem or at one of the universities next to it (or both):
- Harlem: Baldwin, Naylor, Hurston, Jordan, Baraka
- Barnard: Jordan, Shange, Hurston
- Columbia: Baraka, Kerouac, Fromm, Said
- City College: Mumford
Themes and ideas that keep coming up in these authors, whether they are black or white:
- Many of the things you hear about America are self-serving lies.
- If you are not careful, American society will make you into a soulless machine.
- Most Americans are cut off from their own true feelings.
- A hollow falseness lies at the heart of mainstream America.
- American society has injustice built right into it.
- America is split down the middle by race.
- See things as they are, not as everyone says they are or wish they were.
- Money and progress are not necessarily always good things.
- In the end it all comes down to power.
Of course, some of these are things you can know just by being black anywhere in America.
Manhattan north of 110th Street is not part of apple-pie America. The image of Harlem becomes burned into your mind forever. The poverty. The rank injustice of race. It is so overpowering that it can cut through the blindness of even white people. At least some of them.
So even if you have money, even if you have white skin, even if you have had the best that America has to offer, it is hard to live there and believe that America is anywhere near as wonderful as it seems on television or in the history books. Not if you are honest. Not if you value the truth. Not if you see with your own two eyes.
The big smile that has been pasted over America comes to seem like the big lie.
And the angry things that Michelle Obama says make complete sense to you. The Southside of Chicago seems to be the same sort of place. And you start to wonder if Barack Obama, who once went to Columbia and has lived in the Southside all these years, you wonder if he truly means everything he says or if he is just kissing up to the mainstream.
But at least you know he knows. You do not know if John McCain knows.