Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Strange Taboos of Racial Identity:

About a month ago Robb sent me a care package of some tight jeans, a couple of high fashion shirts, and a book about Kara Walker's art. I'd seen some of her prints in the 21c collection, but the broader look into what she's doing struck a deeper chord, and started me thinking about the beginnings of my experience of race and history.

My Dad sang a couple of songs that offer a glimpse into the minds of the Dutton family in the Antebellum & the first part of the 20th Century; "My Darling Nelly Gray" and "Ole Zip Coon." I learned to sing both as a child, before I was 5 years old, and before I had any idea what, really, they were about. My childhood interpretation, or is it a misinterpretation?, of the lyrics reveal the strange ways that personal, artistic, and social history can intersect.

My Darling Nelly Gray ~ by Benjamin Hanby (my dad's lyrics are a little different from Hanby's)

"In a long green valley on the old Kentucky shore
Sure I've whiled many happy hours away,
Just a sitting and a singing by the little cabin door
Where lived my darling Nellie Gray

(chorus:) Oh, my darling Nellie Gray, they have taken you away
& I'll never see my darling anymore
They have taken you to Georgia for to work your life away
Far from that old Kentucky shore.

When the moon had climbed the mountain, and the stars were shining bright
I'd take my darling Nellie Gray
And we'd float down the river in my little red canoe
While my banjo so sweetly I would play


One night I went to see her, but she's gone the neighbors say
the white man bound her with his chain
They have taken her to Georgia for to wear her life away
As she toils in the cotton and the cane


Now my canoe is under water, and my banjo is unstrung
I am tired of living anymore
My eyes shall be cast downward, and my songs will be unsung
While I stay on the old Kentucky shore.

Now my eyes are getting dimmer and I cannot see the light
Hark there’s someone a-knocking at my door
Oh I hear the angels coming and I see my Nellie Gray
So farewell to the old Kentucky shore.

Oh, my darling Nellie Gray, up in heaven, so they say
And they'll never take you from me, anymore
Oh I'm coming, coming, coming, as the angels clear the way
So farewell to the old Kentucky shore."

When I first learned "My Darling Nelly Gray" all that I knew was that the tune and words were sad. Perhaps by the time I was 7 or 8 I realized that the line "master bound her with his chain" had to do with slavery, and the enslavement of one race (the other race) by my own, but this recognition only deepened the sentimental poignance for me. I had already identified the characters in the song with myself, before the concept of racial difference was added on, a secondary and thereby superficial addition. The emotion of the song was my own before the characters were racially identified. I had little experience of racial differences anyway ~ my friend Amanda was the only African American child in our elementary school. I could see that she was different from me ~ but so was everyone, and in ways that could not be easily seen. I was aware of being sexually "different" by then, and knowing that needed to be hidden for safety's sake.

The perception of the suffering of the characters in "My Darling Nelly Gray" remained a personal identification. I was sad as they were sad, and I easily projected myself into their plight. The description of their ordeal could only be recognized by what I knew of my own ~ singers identify with their songs, and child singers even more so ~ songs are learned and remembered because they are familiar realities, recognized realities. My solidarity was (and remains) with the oppressed and put upon, the enslaved at the mercy of merciless powers, because I was a small person in a world controlled by big, and sometimes dangerous people. That my parents were not at all oppressive, and that, as a child, I had extraordinary freedom and protection mattered not a bit to my imagination. The imagination inhabits the conditions of its own exaggerations. The sorrow of the slaves in "My Darling Nelly Gray" was the same sorrow I felt, for no other reason than I felt sorry for them, and at the same time for myself!

That our current culture, on both sides of the created "racial divide" ~ a culture that we are apparently deeply invested in maintaining ~ stiffens at the idea of a "white" child (or even more especially, adult) imagining with the deepest sense of identification (what deeper level than the emotions do we possess?) being "black" is a testament to our continuing pathology.
And, as Kara Walker's work shows, a sign of how much we prefer the history of our ideas, even enslavement in them, to a real freedom of the imagination. Walker's work reveals how the seemingly perpetual cycle, and frisson, of boundary crossing and punishment utilizes the signifiers of race to satisfy desires we may all be afraid to admit to.

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