Wednesday, May 8, 2024

A Black Boy, in a Black Sea, on a Black Night

"See how elastic our prejudices grow when love comes to bend them." -- from Moby Dick, Herman Melville

I'm going to get posters and T-shirts made that say: SPREAD AWARENESS, NOT PARANOIA. Catchy, eh?

We have already convinced our young people that a moment of sadness is reason for concern -- a reason to seek help and to fear a mental health crisis. As a high school teacher, I see evidence of this every day. 

[Usual disclaimer: Mental health issues are real and people should seek help for them, but crying for days because your dog died is not a mental health crisis; it's a healthy reaction to grief and it is something you should be able recover from in time. Knowing the difference is the key. If you can't recover from it -- or if your sadness is caused by nothing discernable -- then you are having a crisis. In the end: better safe than sorry.]

I think we have made people so "aware" of mental health issues that they are paranoid every time they feel a bit of ennui and every time they don't feel like getting out of bed to go to work. 

We have done this with race, too, I think. When I teach American literature, I usually show the Patrick Stewart Moby Dick film. And, every time I do, my kids lose their proverbial feces every time Starbuck delivers a particular line. 

Pip, the cabin boy, has stowed away on one of the whaling boats and is thrown overboard. They search for him into the night and, after an apparently fruitless search, Starbuck says: "We must be mad, lookin' for a black boy on a black night in a black sea."

At that point, invariably, ripples of shock run through my classroom. When I ask them why they reacted to that line, they usually make some reference to racism. 

Fascinating, isn't it? The facts are these: It is dark on the ocean; the sea appears to be roiling black silk and the boy they are looking for is Black. Therefore, he is hard if not impossible to see. He'd be hard enough to find in broad daylight. A white boy would be hard to find in broad the vastness of the ocean. Take away the sun, paint the sea black and add darker skin, and it is a fact: It would be nearly impossible to find poor Pip. 

(They find him, miraculously.)

Racism? I think not. The students' reaction is one of fear -- of being paranoid as to what is okay and what is not okay to say. 

We want our kids to respect each other as humans, regardless of ethnicity, for sure. But have we drawn thicker lines between them with well-inteneded lessons of political correctness? Have our commercials and TV shows -- which paint a world of racial harmony that just does not exist in our society -- led kids to think that any acknowledgement of physical differences amounts to racism? 

I think so. 

Some might argue that if we are going to be paranoid, racism is the thing to be paranoid about. I understand that sentiment, but if it leads to more division, more distance between us, then that reasoning sort of backfires. 

Maybe it's another problem that lies within professing to be "color blind." When one person picks another to marry, I think the understanding is that the significant other is simply the best person one has ever known. This person is so incredible that one has chosen to spend the rest of one's life with him or her. Even under those circumstances, when people of different ethnicities marry (even when they are in the deep fathoms of love and respect) I woudl argue that the two are conscious of their physical differences. The key is that those differences are not part of any evaluative formula. 

Pip, my friends, was a fine lad. He was simply harder to see on a dark ocean than an Irish kid would have been. Nothing in that is prejudiced or racist. It's all about how we literally see color. 

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