In the third decade of the 20th century, Jean Toomer published a book called “Cane.” It was critically acclaimed and considered visionary—for a “Negro.” This upset Toomer. He felt betrayed by his White publishers who introduced him to the public as a “Negro” writer against his wishes. Baffled by Toomer’s anger and his preference to be known as an “American” writer the publishers asked Toomer why he rejected his race. Toomer replied he didn’t reject it, he rejected their version of it.
Toomer explained social strife caused by racial/ethnic/and religious tension would evaporate once different groups embraced a common identity, and Toomer wanted to be a pioneer in promoting our common bond. Toomer’s vision of the future was beyond the publisher’s comprehension.
A decade later, James Weldon Johnson, lyric writer of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” wanted to include some of Toomer’s poetry in an anthology of Negro literature. Toomer reiterated his vision of the future. Johnson acknowledged Toomer’s individual position as an American but expressed the time wasn’t ripe for a general movement toward the Americanization of all people in the United States and Toomer was left out of the anthology.
Let’s fast forward to the second decade of the 21st century.
Recently, in Pittsburgh, an armed man entered a synagogue and executed 11 worshippers and wounded six others. This was the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history. During the aftermath’s press conference, the mayor of Pittsburgh fielded questions about getting rid of the gun in American society and the massacre’s impact on the midterm elections, but the mayor concluded by stating, there is an outpouring being heard through the people of Pittsburgh, right now, of where people want to see society move toward, and it’s not about finding ways to divide us, it’s about finding ways to unite us through our commonalty as humans. Let this horrific episode be another mark in the march of humanity toward recognizing we are all one.
The mayor’s words were poetic like Robert Kennedy’s words after MLK Jr.’s assassination. (Let’s dedicate ourselves to what the Greeks wrote so many years ago, to tame the savageness of man and make gentle the life of this world.) The mayor echoed Jean Toomer’s vision of the future, except the mayor suggested we are still marching toward this goal of commonality, the time still isn’t ripe. But the time was ripe a quarter of a century ago and the nation is tragically behind schedule.
What’s the hold up?
Most will answer because hate is taught, but there’s something else being taught that subtle. Suppose the mayor of Pittsburgh was invited to give a speech at the University of California on a regular day, and the mayor said the same poetic words to encourage the next generation to join the march toward recognizing we are all human beings. The mayor would have been shouted down and ran off campus for being offensive.
In 2015 the University of California produced a list of over 50 statements their administration classified as microaggressions. They defined microaggressions as everyday verbal and nonverbal slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.
And under the section marked colorblindness the statement, “There is only one race, the human race” is listed as a microaggression that shouldn’t be said in public.
Apparently, we can only proclaim our oneness as human beings after a tragedy, that’s the only time the idea will be tolerated by those taught to reject it on a regular basis, and the march toward recognizing our common bond is prevented for another century.
(J. Pharaoh Doss is a contributor to the New Pittsburgh Courier.)
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