Thursday, January 19, 2006

Heart of Whiteness

Courtesy of the inimitable Teju Cole, an excerpt from a letter Italo Calvino sent to his publishers in 1960:

Montgomery, Alabama, 6 March

This is a day I will never forget as long as I live. I have seen what racism is, mass racism, accepted as one of society’s fundamental rules. I was present at one of the first episodes of mass struggle by the Southern blacks: it ended in defeat. I don’t know if you are aware that after decades of total immobility black protests began right here, in the worst segregationist State in the country: some were even successful, under the leadership of Martin Luther King, a Baptist minister, advocate of non-violent protest. That is why I came here to Montgomery, the day before yesterday, but I did not expect to find myself right in the middle of these crucial days of struggle.


The Capitol was already ringed by policemen with truncheons and Highway Police in their cowboy hats, turquoise jerkins and khaki trousers. The pavements are swarming with whites, mostly poor whites who are the worst racists, ready to use their fists, young hooligans working in teams (their organization, which is only barely clandestine, is the Ku Klux Klan), but also comfortable middle-class people, families with children, all there to watch and shout slogans and obscenities against the blacks locked inside the church, plus of course dozens of amateur photographers taking shots of such unusual Sunday events. The crowd’s attitude varied between derision, as though they were watching monkeys asking for civil rights (genuine derision, from people who never thought the blacks could get such ideas in their heads), to hatred, cries of provocation, crow-like sounds made by the young thugs. Here and there, along the pavement, there are also a few small groups of blacks, standing aside, men and women, dressed in their best clothes, watching silently and still, in an attitude of composure. The waiting becomes more and more unbearable, the blacks must by now have finished their service and must be ready to come out; the Capitol steps are blocked by the police, all the pavements are blocked by the crowd of whites who are now angry and shouting “Come out niggers!” The blacks start to appear on the steps of their church and begin singing a hymn; the whites begin to make a racket, howling and insulting them. The fire-fighters arrive with their hoses and position themselves all around.


Then begins the most painful part to watch: the blacks come out of the church a few at a time, some head down a side street that I cannot see, but which I think the police have cleared of whites, but others go down Dexter Avenue in small groups along the pavements where the white thugs have gathered, walking away silently with their heads held high amid choruses of threatening and obscene sneers, insults and gestures. At every insult or witticism made by a white, the other whites, men and women, burst out laughing, sometimes with almost hysterical insistence, but sometimes also just like that, affably, and these people, as far as I’m concerned, are the most awful, this all-out racism combined with affability.


The first battle was the one about buses, last year. The boycotting of the buses following an incident (the arrest of a black girl who had wanted to sit on a seat reserved for whites) was the first mass protest by the blacks and it was successful. Then they tried to mount a legal action to have the whites’ park open to blacks, but the town council ordered all parks to be closed, and so the city was for the whole summer, and still today, without a public park, a swimming pool, etc. These protests were organized by this young black political activist, Luther King (who like all the others is officially a Baptist Church minister), who has no particular social or political program except equal rights for blacks.


Last week, the whole city went into a state of tension like in a civil war, the KKK put bombs in several houses (I visited some of the people who had been bombed) and a few days ago they clubbed a black woman over the head with a baseball bat and the judge did not find the KKK person accused guilty despite witnesses, photographs, etc. The thing that is difficult for a European to understand is how these things can happen in a nation which is 75 per cent non-segregationist, and how they can take place without the involvement of the rest of the country. But the autonomy of the individual states is such that here they are even more outside Washington’s jurisdiction or New York public opinion, than if they were, say, in the Middle East. And there is no possibility (or perhaps they lack the ability?) for the black movement here to find allies, neither for King nor for the more left-wing activists who maintain (correctly) that the crucial point is that of being allowed to vote. King now has allies in the colonial peoples’ movement, but they can only provide moral support; he was recently in Ghana, Egypt, and India; he was also invited to Russia but refused because otherwise, etc.

So the minute I arrived in Montgomery, into the hottest part of this situation, I learnt that King was in town and I got them to take me to him. He is a very stout and capable person, physically resembling Bourghiba a bit, with a little mustache: the fact that he is a pastor has nothing to do with his physical appearance (his second-in-command and successor, Abernathy, a young rather fat man who also has a small moustache, looks like a jazz-player), these are politicians whose only weapon is the pulpit and even their non-violence does not really have a mystical aura about it: it is the only form of struggle possible and they use it with controlled political skill which the extreme harshness of their conditions has taught them. These black leaders- I’ve approached several of them in the last few days, of different tendencies- are lucid, decisive people, totally devoid of black self-pity, not terribly kind (though of course I was an unknown foreigner who had turned up to nose around in days which were very eventful for them). The race question is a damnable thing: for a century a huge country like the South has not spoken or thought about anything else, just this problem, whether they are progressives or reactionaries.

So I arrive escorted by blacks in the sacristy of Abernathy’s church and King is there along with another black minister who is also a leader, and I am present at a council-of-war meeting where they decide on this Sunday’s course of action which I have just described to you; then we go to another church where the students have gathered, in order to give them this instruction, and then I stay for this dramatic moving meeting, I the sole white among three thousand black students, perhaps the first white to do so in the whole history of the South.


I have ten minutes of peace to calm down after all the emotion, then a high-society lady comes to collect me and shows me, as we drive along, their factory of gherkins in vinegar, and hints vaguely at the day’s “troubles” caused by that agitator Luther King. This famous Southern aristocracy gives me the impression of being uniquely stupid in its continual harking back to the glories of the Confederacy; this Confederate patriotism which survives intact after a century, as though they were talking about things from their youth, in the tone of someone who is confident you share their emotions, is something which is more unbearable than ridiculous. (Italo Calvino, letter published in the autobiographical book A Hermit in Paris. Teju Cole posted this on his blog, Teju Cole, January 16, 2006).


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