Saturday, March 05, 2011

Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: A Review

I no longer call you slaves, because a master doesn't confide in his slaves. Now you are my friends, since I have told you everything the Father told me. John 15:15, NLT.

For white liberals of a certain generation, the Civil Rights Movement will always be front and center. A struggle for racial equality made significant progress regarding relations between whites and blacks. Though a success, though by no means was it a landslide victory. Nonetheless, many apply a coat or two of heavy gloss, choosing to remember the successes alone, while overlooking the multitude of eyesores that still tarnish our cultural landscape. Every gathering and, indeed, every person must continually resist and overcome. A famous passage, also in the Gospel of John, proclaims that it is Truth that will set us free, not nostalgia.

The Religious Society of Friends, usually known as Quakers, owe their name to the biblical verse above. Among the first groups, religious or otherwise, to champion emancipation and embrace abolition, Quakers did nonetheless far short of full equality. Accordingly, a recent book entitled, Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship: Quakers, African-Americans, and the Myth of Racial Justice explores the gaps between best intentions and subtle, lingering prejudices. The book's authors are Donna McDaniel and Vanessa Julye. Scholarship of this nature is needed from now going forward if we are to have honest conversation with each other. As the saying goes, one is entitled to one’s own opinion, but not to one’s own “facts”.

The Civil War was not merely a destructive force to the United States, it was a particularly injurious one to Friends. Their staunchly pacifist stance often put them in between a rock and a hard place as both North and South prepared for war. Some reluctantly agreed that the moral evil of slavery could only be brought to a conclusion through war. Many disagreed. But even those who did not fight were actively involved in the clean-up efforts, so to speak.

Friends were harassed for their refusal to support war, yet their spiritual and emotional resources were called upon soon after the fighting began, and Quakers became involved in efforts to provide for the immediate needs of newly freed people. By the end of the war, the steady stream of relief goods and teachers to open schools had become a river, if not a flood. Inadequate and sometimes misguided government assistance, coupled with European Americans’ unrealistic expectations of formerly enslaved people, combined to hamper the benevolent postwar efforts of Quakers and others who offered aid.

Over a century and a half later, I could well be talking about Hurricane Katrina or the destructive Haitian earthquake of last year. Now, as then, Friends were among the first to mobilize, to offer their time and open their checkbook. But it’s one thing to know about basic need on a purely cerebral level. It’s quite another to be on the ground, observing significant challenges and devising strategies to best harness the altruism of others. Both are needed, but neither can function without its complement.

About the time when the Civil Rights Movement was beginning to a take a radical direction, noted historian C. Vann Woodward wrote an essay he titled "What Happened to the Civil Rights Movement". In an excerpt, Woodward explains that

[t]he picture was further complicated by the exalted roles white romantics assigned their black partners. In effect, they turned the tables of racial dogma and opted for Negro supremacy. But it was a dubious brand of supremacy, and the flattery, as Robert Penn Warren has pointed out, was shot through with the condescension implicit in the Eighteenth Century adoration of the Noble Savage. The savage was extravagantly praised and admired, but admired for very particular kinds of virtues. These were the virtues attributed to the natural man, the simple child of nature, untainted by the malaise of civilization, and untrammeled by its inhibitions, its compromises, and its intellectual deprivations. The Modern Negro, like the Noble Savage, was endowed with the compensatory graces of simplicity, naturalness, and an uninhibited sexuality.

Even allies are not immune from projecting their desires, fears, ambitions, and hopes onto those they mean to help. Many people I come in contact with on a daily basis have worked overseas for a time, particularly in countries with underdeveloped economies and galling poverty. They have done so intending to help and to broaden their understanding of the world. But at times I do see a kind of modern day, smiley-faced adoration of the Noble Savage that makes me uncomfortable. 150 years ago, in Northern, pre-war literature, Quakers are often portrayed as well-intentioned but naïve, peace-loving, but toothless. The comparison may be unfair, but beyond caricature, its stinging critique is not entirely false.

The entirely opposite view of the Adoration of the Savage is best expressed by Charles Dickens in an 1854 essay.

To come to the point at once, I beg to say that I have not the least belief in the Noble Savage. I consider him a prodigious nuisance and an enormous superstition. ... I don't care what he calls me. I call him a savage, and I call a savage a something highly desirable to be civilized off the face of the earth.... The noble savage sets a king to reign over him, to whom he submits his life and limbs without a murmur or question and whose whole life is passed chin deep in a lake of blood; but who, after killing incessantly, is in his turn killed by his relations and friends the moment a gray hair appears on his head. All the noble savage's wars with his fellow-savages (and he takes no pleasure in anything else) are wars of extermination – which is the best thing I know of him, and the most comfortable to my mind when I look at him. He has no moral feelings of any kind, sort, or description; and his "mission" may be summed up as simply diabolical.

It is this strain of racism and fear which informs everything from racial profiling by police to the current trend of Islamophobia. But it should be noted that neither view is correct, nor inoffensive, nor unselfish. Believers and non-believers in the Noble Savage are speaking only about themselves. What passes for dialogue does not extend beyond the ego and the id. A conversation centered around real equality pushes aside such preconceived notions. Both views, in this instance, are inconsistent with the truth, except that one is less culturally offensive. And, as I conclude, freedom from bondage and the whip is merely one step towards authentic equality. We are caught halfway between where we have been and where we need to be. Until we stop projecting our images and begin actively listening, many more will be Fit for Freedom, Not for Friendship.

No comments: