Sunday, November 9, 2008

Why Me? Finding Common Ground: The Gay and African-American Communities in Obama's America

I have been struggling to craft a statement about the ongoing discussion of the role of the African-American vote in this election's initiatives targeting the gay community.

It is a struggle to address this topic because 1) the data are shifting and emerging slowly, with constantly changing interpretations; 2) the topic is volatile and sensitive, with recrimination on all sides, and the need for care before one pontificates; 3) though I have strong experiential reasons for addressing this topic, there are groups on both right and left that resist hearing voices such as mine, and that makes speaking laborious and painful

I have decided to write in a series of aperçus, loosely connected flashes of inspiration that come to my mind as I gather my thoughts about the issue. I am using this format for two reasons: 1) I have not yet made up my mind about a "final" statement, and writing in this format is a way of writing for ideas; 2) the debate is continuing in the media, on blogs, in various communities, and needs to remain open-ended.

I will be offering several such series of aperçus, which build towards a sketch of a statement that I may later (or I may not . . .) try to craft into a whole, "final" statement.

Here goes:

§ We are told not to write what is close to us. And yet what is close is all we have to write about, in the end.

§ There is a power in narrative. There is a power in first-hand testimony that emerges out of the painful places in our experience. If our life journeys are to have any meaning at all, we have to speak from our own places.

§ Whether I like it, or whether anyone else likes it, I am a white person raised in a racist culture, whose life has intersected with those of African Americans from the beginning of my life journey.

§ As my blog has stated repeatedly, I have made repeated decisions to engage my own racism and that of my culture through acts of solidarity with the African-American community: during my coming of age in the Civil Rights movement; through my writings, which constantly reference the work of African-American thinkers as canonical within mainstream cultural frameworks that still combat the canonical status of such work; through my choice to work in HBCUs.

§ I chose my field of theology—social ethics, with a focus on the contributions of the social gospel movement to American culture—primarily out of my lifelong search to make solidarity with marginalized communities, a choice rooted in my formative experiences with the struggle of people of color to overcome marginalization.

§ As my blog also notes, in choosing to work in HBCUs, I also made a conscious decision to work in that context as an invited guest, someone learning as much as I was teaching, someone receiving as much as I was offering gifts.

§ There is a particular kind of pain when one gives, when the gift is taken and acknowledged, and one is then shoved roughly away.

§ It is the pain of betrayal, of breached solidarity. It is the pain of discovering that one’s humanity is regarded as beneath that of those who breach solidarity.

§ I have felt that pain for some time in my connection to the African-American community. I have felt it, quite specifically, as an openly gay man who (along with his life partner) has offered gifts to specific African-American communities, who has seen those gifts accepted and used, and who has then been shoved away from the table. By the same communities that were willing to accept the gifts and use them, until the time came when making solidarity with us as openly gay persons came at a cost . . . .

§ Perhaps these experiences disqualify me from writing about what is now a national political dialogue: the role the African-American vote played in passing proposition 8 in California, and the reaction of the gay community, our families, and friends to that vote.

§ And this is part of a national conversation about the relationship between the African-American community in general and the gay community in general—the nationwide relationship between the two communities. There are indicators that the African-American vote for amendment 2 in Florida was also disproportionately high, in relation to that of other ethnic groups.

§ So, perhaps I am so close to my subject that am not qualified to write about this about this conversation.

§ But on the other hand, precisely because I am close to the subject—because I care passionately, from an existential vantage point—I surely have something to contribute. And that perspective, albeit a singular perspective that is unique to me and my experience, surely has something to offer to this national dialogue.

§ When one writes in a way that seeks to give meaning to one’s experience—when one writes in a way that seeks to find the meaning of one’s life journey—one will necessarily write with passion. There is no other choice, since ultimate meaning is at stake.

§ As Audre Lorde noted when she wrote out of her painful experience of struggling with terminal cancer, there is no other way to write except with fire when the truth we seek is the ultimate truth of our own experience—and when we offer what we learn from that experience to others, as one prism among many through which they may view their own lives.

§ Writing in first-person voice and out of personal experience can become a trap. It can cause us to extend our unique experience onto other communities as a distorting paradigm, one that unconsciously superimposes our experience as a perfect fit for those communities.

§ On the other hand, if we do not learn to tell our unique stories and create room for all of them to count as we tell them together in democratic society, then there is no way for us to build bridges between various communities that suffer oppression.

§ There is, after all, commonality in the experience of oppression and marginalization, even when the circumstances are radically different, community to community. Politically savvy (and humane) societies and marginal communities seek the commonality and combat the tendency to pit group against group.

§ They do not play particularity against particularity, in a way that entraps each community inside its own particular narratives of oppression. That plays the game of the oppressor by allowing us to view those with whom we have everything in common as the enemy—rather than the oppressor, who is our shared enemy.

§ They do not play the game of my-suffering-is-more-than-yours, to invalidate the experiences and narratives of other communities of suffering. That is a self-defeating game. There is, after all, suffering aplenty to go around.

§ Those who experience oppression/marginalization must learn ways to tell their stories of oppression/marginalization that do not succumb to self-pity. They must seek, within their own unique narratives, the metaphoric prism that illuminates the commonality between their stories and the narratives of other communities of unmerited suffering imposed by unjust social structures.

§ If we are to achieve solidarity that makes a more humane society for all communities experiencing such imposed, unmerited suffering, we also have to learn to hear the metaphors inside the stories of other communities.

§ That is what being human is about. That is what building a humane society is all about. That is what participatory democracy is all about, when it is achieved.