Sunday, December 18, 2011

If I were a poor black kid

If I were a poor black kid . . . Gene Marks wrote this advice, presumably to influence poor black kids who read Forbes. It's been thoroughly attacked, rejected, abused and refused by a large segment of the public. Lots of not-poor not-black and not-kids have commented. Some formerly poor black kids have added their opinions. So why not me too.

If I were a poor black kid . . . I'd be very amazed and puzzled. How'd that happen? Unlike Navin P. Johnson, (Steve Martin's character in The Jerk) I was born a middle class white kid. My dad was the sole breadwinner in the family, and his paycheck was just enough to pay all the bills and put a little aside.

No matter how well my imagination works – and sometimes it works pretty well – it would take a monumental effort to imagine myself “a poor black kid.” I'd also need lots of solid data about the actual existence of actual poor black kids to inform that imagination.

It might also be useful to have a whole lot more information about brains and the differences among brains. It seems to me that there are profound differences among brains.

For example, some of us “get” literature and metaphor and allusion. Others of us don't get it, never will get it, no matter how much training we receive in reading metaphor. Those who don't get it can learn to see that there is something they don't get and even appreciate what it is that they don't get, but they'll never be great at reading metaphor and understanding and commenting on art – and therefore they shouldn't plan on making a living as a playwright or poet.

In the same way there are people for whom numbers have a reality, even a personality that they lack for me. I think of Mark Ahlseen, member of Bethany's faculty, who has an amazing facility with numbers. They clearly mean something to him that they don't mean to me. He understands numbers in a way I never will. I can barely keep my checkbook. Mark makes sense of where his money goes as if that paycheck were his good friend. I am convinced that it isn't just training – I can be better at understanding numbers, Mark likely can be better at understanding metaphor – but there is something inherent in each of us that is quite different. No matter how I try I could never be an accountant. No matter how hard Mark tries, I doubt that he'd ever be a poet.

So, if I were trying to imagine myself being something other than what I am I'd need to feed my imagination with lots of clear data about actual social conditions, about actual brains and their workings, about actual beings actually existing in a life that isn't mine.

Where Gene Marks goes off the rails is in his presumptions about the life of other people and how they would, could, and most importantly should behave in order to succeed in this world. Because his writing does not reflect his having invested himself in coming to understand how poor black kids actually live, the piece seems shallow and condescending.

It also seems like a call to behave, to willingly cooperate in being co-opted by “the system.” Behave, get good grades, learn technology – not so you can rule rather than be ruled – but so you can get a good job and be a good cog in the machine. Marks' call is not unlike Gingrich's desire to replace adult janitors with child janitors in training (which makes no sense, because you're going to be fired as soon as you become a competent adult janitor and earn a living wage).

For me, this raises the question of the purpose of education. Is education supposed to prepare us to be better workers or is education supposed to prepare us to think independently – independent of our job and the will of the state? In my view education should prepare us to resist the imposition of the will of the hegemon. But that's not my main point in this post.

My main point is that offering advice to others requires an empathic imagination. I need to see myself in others' circumstances.

What would I have been had my father not emigrated in the 1920's, lived through the depression by farming in Minnesota and the war by serving in the Army Air Corps? What would I have been had my father not left the family farm some twenty miles outside Haparanda, Sweden? I look at my cousins' lives in Sweden and realize that it is entirely possible that I would have become a child of the middle class. I might still have been a priest and a believer. I might have a darker, less optimistic view of the world if I had grown up in the “city in darkness” (that's the title of a prize winning novel about life in Haparanda).

I can sort of imagine what my life might have been like if I had grown up in the forests of the far north of Sweden. I can sort of imagine it because I've been there, seen the house, used the privy, walked the roads, slept in the summer night. But even then it is difficult to imagine.

How difficult is it then to cross the major lines of race, culture, religion and imagine ourselves members of another race, living in another culture believing in god in another set of thoughts with another revelation. Yes, I might imagine myself aspiring to a materially and even spiritually better life – but I don't think I could give advice to that alternative me, much less advise those who are actually living that life.

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