Why It’s Time for a New Rhetoric about Race

[This will probably be the last essay I post in this particular sequence, and it makes for an appropriate conclusion. The author, who wishes to remain anonymous, is an Asian-American, a graduate of the Citadel, and a veteran who served in Afghanistan and Kosovo. From this complex cultural position he is able to expose some of the folly of racial rhetoric in the United States generally, especially highlighting the inadequacy of the black-white binarism to which racial rhetoric is all too frequently reduced in Charleston and South Carolina. Along the way he makes some very intriguing comments about the contrast between the silences and omissions surrounding the history of slavery in this place, and the psychological recognition of the need to talk about trauma in order to deal with it in a healthy way.  SKL]

Why it’s Time for a New Rhetoric About Race

Disclaimer:  In this exam essay, I will reference some of the points that I have made in my final paper – I will try to make it as self-contained as possible, so either could be read first, but as I have written the final paper first, I am somewhat operating under the assumption that some things have already been said and/or elaborated on already.  Either way, I would think they should fit together better than as necessarily independent.  Also, this essay has been written less in an “academic” format, and more in a slightly “editorial” format, though I recognize that it is an academic work for academic purposes – it may waver a bit between both. 

In approaching this class, “Representations of Slavery,” I believe that, to a certain extent, I may have come from a slightly different perspective than many other students.  I was born in the United States, serve in the United States Army, and studied, in large part, U.S. History as an undergraduate History major.  With all that being said, it does not obfuscate the fact that I am, too, a first/second (depending on how you define these terms) generation immigrant – that is, my parents were born overseas, and both immigrated to the United States after the age of puberty.  Because of this, I have a certain amount of distance and remove from the subject of African slavery in the United States – in fact, in my parents’ native continent, modern sex slavery is a much more present issue than African slavery.  I am neither descended from slaves, nor do I have the so called “white guilt” for real or imagined participation of my ancestors in the institution of African slavery.  Not only that – my parents’ culture is that of the colonized/oppressed – therefore, to a certain extent, I lack, too, the “imperialistic” guilt of Europeans/westerners when viewing the third world.

Nevertheless, conversely to that – I am a participant in many “Western” institutions of “imperialism,” as some would call it – the American Army, with which I have completed “expeditionary”[1] missions, as a part of NATO, ensuring that “Western” influences prevail in otherwise ideologically perilous situations – so perhaps, then, if I have assumed and assimilated to the Western institutions of projection, perhaps the guilt should be equally assimilated.

Where this is relevant is that academically and intellectually, some of my greatest interests have always been in “Othering” and the ways in which “Othering” is accomplished and expressed – and moreover – unconsciously expressed – this I find the most interesting.  Perhaps it is because of my location as an “other,” I am “other” to the binaristic rhetoric of the United States and other nations’ perceptions of it (again, I point to my experiences with the Afghan National Police), I am not only of immigrant stock – but also a Northerner living in the South for over a decade; I am “other” both in the military and academic communities – somewhat unfairly assumed to be a “liberal book-learnin’ hippie” by my military colleagues, and a “conservative gun nut baby killer” by my academic colleagues – perhaps my interest in “othering” stems, subconsciously in my case too, from a long lifetime of attempted assimilation, making me acutely perceptive to the ways in which people or groups are constructed as “the other” in order to exclude them so that I could counter them wherever I encountered them – heady thought for a kindergartener, I suppose – but maybe not so much when put in terms of “why does everyone else think I’m different, and how do I show them I’m not?”

Regardless of “why,” my point is that I have had a lifelong interest with mechanisms of othering and exclusion, and learning to tease out the subtleties of them, and learning to read what was in the silences and omissions – it therefore came as no surprise for me to think about and be thinking about the various reverberations of slavery and the slave trade in Charleston that are visible even in 2014 when we encountered them in class – and their presence – to that end, I believe I could even add some things.  The class illuminated certain details and histories of events that I was aware of – but didn’t necessarily “expose” the subliminal racism of many elements, some celebrated, of daily life in Charleston.

Some things to add – the obvious one, of course – The Citadel: it might be interesting to make a bit of a study about why The Citadel and other similar military institutions of which the Ashley School for Boys is the only remaining were originally opened.  The Citadel opened in 1842 …  The idea of these military schools was, in part, to assuage the anxieties of the wealthy (but by this point, if I recall correctly from your lecture – outnumbered) whites in Charleston and other parts of South Carolina.  The architecture of The Citadel, specifically the Moroccan-inspired towers, parapets, and crenelations are all based on fortresses, like those off the coasts of West Africa, where slaves were held and “softened up” for their journeys and their lives of subjugation – and the specific architecture of The Citadel, is, if I recall correctly – based on the Charleston Slave House itself – a place where “incorrigible” slaves that would not behave on the auction block were taken to be beaten, abused, and tortured into compliance before being taken back for sale.  None of this is secret – but none of it is in any of The Citadel’s official histories.

The idea was – take poor white boys, maybe lower-middle class, and offer them an education and a title – “raise them up” – and give them the potential for entrance into the upper-class by giving them commissions, and they would be beholden to the wealthy that educated them.  Trained, then, as soldiers – they would lead and form the core of the South Carolina militias that could protect the wealthy whites from slave uprisings – I am typing this in The Citadel’s library at the moment, and I look around at the cadets studying for finals, some of them African American – and I wonder how many of them know this subaltern history?  I learned it as a cadet – curious to know “the truth” of the real history behind the institution – the “official story” simply sounded a little suspicious – these beholden boys would be housed and trained and educated in buildings built – consciously, to remind every slave in Charleston (the original Citadel, as I’m sure you know, was in Marion Square) of the terror of their experiences in similar buildings – so that the moment the militia walked out the gates – uproarious, rebellious slaves would be struck with terror at the thought.  It’s actually quite brilliant when you think about it – it works on almost every level – white lower class boys who feel beholden to their wealthy masters – subliminal suggestions of horror, terror, and torture – an easy way to raise a loyal and feared army.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that The Citadel still exists to educate white boys to be the militia of the elite against the blacks; for starters, a lot of wealthy South Carolinian families now send their boys to The Citadel – the institution has taken a slightly different meaning today.  Nevertheless – I used to work during my time as a cadet, for the school’s newspaper.  The Satire section was an interesting place,where one could write essentially anything one wanted and hide behind the guise of “satirizing.”  Apparently no one in charge had ever read Swift …

Anyway, the point of all this is that for one particular article I wrote an editorial – still in the mode of “satire.”  I chose to write on “the definition of The Citadel,” something that every incoming freshman was required to memorize and be able to recite on command, I’ve reproduced it here:

The Citadel is an institution of higher learning to mold our minds, morals, and bodies so      that we may be fit officers and better civilians of our country. More than that, however, it      is a fortress of duty, a sentinel of responsibility, a bastion of antiquity, a towering                 bulwark of rigid discipline, instilling within us high ideals, honor, uprightness, loyalty,             patriotism, obedience, initiative, leadership, professional knowledge, and pride in                 achievement.

I do not know when this definition was written.  Taking into account The Citadel’s actual history – I found, even as a cadet, this “definition” kind of troubling – it really does say it all, doesn’t it?  The parts that were most troubling to me were “a bastion of antiquity” and “obedience.”

All that to say this – but the background was necessary, I suppose – that this is where I was coming from reading narratives of slavery and the legacies of slavery, not just as a Charlestonian for the majority of my adult life, but also as a Citadel alumnus, aware of the history and tradition of the institution where I had received my degree, and an Institution in Charleston.

The slave story really is there, amid all the silences and omissions, isn’t it?  Reading the slave narratives and narratives of slavery, what it meant to me was the impression about silences and omissions – going back to Hermanian methodology of trauma recovery – it struck me, if this is so pervasive and so intertwined with our lives in Charleston – why aren’t we talking about it?  And not only that – and moreover – as the course progressed from more straightforward narratives to more post-structuralist works – what struck me was – and pardon my language, but “what is this ‘unspeakable’ bullshit?”  I suppose I need to digress some more into background here – as a consequence of military service, as a rule – I’ve been subjected to many lectures and lessons about PTSD – how to recognize it, how to deal with it, how, as a leader to address it – it has been a major component of my professional life.

In those contexts, one thing that has been made abundantly clear, however (and I would assume, though until doing research, I did not know the name “Judith Herman” – that much of the military’s counter-PTSD doctrine is derived from a Hermanian methodology) is the necessity of “talking about it,” even when you can’t make sense of it – even when you think you can’t – you need to talk about it.  What was troublesome to me, therefore, was the fact that the post-structuralist narratives were becoming more sparse, not less as we tried to get to a point of remembrance and mourning.  How are we to successfully remember and mourn as a collective, as a national identity – if we’re progressively becoming more silent on the topic, not less?  As a soldier, I had been trained, had I needed it, to talk about it as much as I could, even when it didn’t make sense, even when it sounded repetitive or clichéd or “should be unspoken.”  I don’t know that I have personally been as conscientious about that – I tend not to talk about it much; it’s for me, not for anyone else, but that’s neither here nor there.

What reading narratives of slavery “meant” to me was seeming to indicate that there was something wrong with the way we talked about it … for one, we weren’t talking about it enough – that much was obvious, and that much we’ve discussed in class over and over.  But something else was bothering me, something else was tickling me.  I wasn’t sure what it was, and I still wasn’t sure when I read Cion, and when I prepared my presentation with it – and when it seemed like the two books I had enjoyed the most in the class were the ones that seemed to, overall, be the least well received by the class.  It didn’t strike me until I heard the interview with Tess Taylor and Gayle Jessup White on the TakeAway, as I have spoken many times about and written about.  I was only half listening at first – it was a fifteen-minute interview sometime between 9:00am and 9:50am – what made me perk up, however, was the way Gayle White, in particular, was talking about being black.

She was talking all about her experience of being black, what it meant to be black.  The constant and daily anxieties about how you look to other people, how you act – her anxiety about her son, a senior at MIT, but also “6’ 1”, broad shouldered, with rich colored skin.”  She was talking all about how he was a “nice boy,” how he loved his mother and helped old people with their groceries – but how she was constantly worried about a “wicked person” stereotyping him as black and something bad happening to him.  Tess Taylor chimed in at some point, talking about how “she’s not afraid to tell people, ‘this is my perspective as a black person.’”

Now here were these two women – the only reason – the ONLY reason they were on the radio together is because they shared an ancestor – one, “white” European common ancestor – who just so happened to be Thomas Jefferson.  Yet, to hear them talk about being “white” and being “black,” it was almost as if they were talking about two people who had absolutely nothing in common – the way they talked – you’d never guess, if they hadn’t told you – that there was a common, if fairly well-known, white man in their blood.  The fact that they spoke like this, the fact that there was no protest of any kind anywhere, the fact that this was all, simply “accepted,” this is what struck me.  “White and black.”  So simple, so easy to understand – so binary, so opposite – so artificial.  Being neither white nor black, I hadn’t much thought about what it meant to be white or black, I knew, of course, on an intellectual level – binaries are almost always artificial, “white” and “black” both have little actual meaning, and are inaccurate as a matter of racial or ethnic distinction, no human being’s skin color is either white or black.

I’d been searching for an approach to a term paper – and there it was right there – “black” and “white” mean so many things to so many people, and we spend so much time trying to define what they are and what they mean to us, when we talk about the binary, we talk about the negative associations with “darkness” and “blackness,” we talk about Othello.  We talk about how the binary is dangerous because it inscribes negativity on “black people.”  But we rarely talk about, and rarely talked about in class – “what the hell is a black person, anyway?”  “African?”  “African-American?”  We recognize the negative effects of the binary construction, but when we do so – we continue to think and speak of it in terms of the binary.

What we need to do, is to get rid of the binary altogether.  Practically speaking – the 2012 U.S. Census data shows that 13.1% of Americans consider themselves “Black or African American only.”  Compare that to 77.9% of “White, only.”  Of the classification “Two, or more races”? Only 2.4%.  This kind of data is a goldmine to a politician.  While it of course varies according to location – 13.1% – that’s the kind of number that, if you’re good enough?  Is a write-off.  Using the “black/white only” binary – you can simply ignore the one in favor of the other.  That’s just one practical application.  Yet – of those blacks – are we really to believe, that of that 13.1%, none, who classify themselves as “only,” none of them have any white blood in them?  From their masters, from their handlers, not to mention intermarriage, etc.  Only 2.4% of mixed ethnicity?  Is that 2.4% where all of the “passing” stories come from?  Has the “tragic mulatto” been so tragic that only 2.4% of them have survived?  And that’s ignoring all of the other mixed ethnicities like my own children might presumably one day be – 2.4%.  That is where the binary has gotten us.  Imagine instead – then something like, say – 56% mixed European (“white” only), 1.3 % (say, based on Asians, or something) African only (recent immigrants), and 35% at least two or more races – it makes it a little bit harder to “write people off,” no?  That “miscegenated class,” rapidly overtaking the “onlys” – that cannot be countered, that cannot be “accounted for” or “written off,” that growing class of uncertainty because they can’t be easily classified into structures by the powerful – what might that do to our political reality – to speak of only one practical implication?

And all that would be required is a simple change in the way we think about race – you don’t HAVE to be black or white ONLY, and you don’t have to check that block on the Census.  We all know, not all of those “black only”s are full-blooded Africans – why must we, and why do they construct themselves as such?  The black/white binary is artificially inscribed by the oppressors to make it easy for them to oppress – why do we continue to use it and embrace it – those of us who purport to want to end oppression?

I am running out of time – so a final thought – yes – many “African Americans,” through the work of the “whites” have lost their “original” ethnic and racial identities – what do we do about those people?  I would submit we need to look again not just at our classification of “black,” but our classification of “native American.”  Why should not the children of slavery be considered native to America?  They were born of an American institution, and their ethnic heritage is a direct result of the land.  I don’t have enough time to go into what we might do to distinguish them from what we now already call Native-Americans – maybe nothing?  Maybe we’re all – those of us born here, born because of this place – and not fitting into the traditional binarization, maybe that is what it means to be an American – and moreover – native to this land – for without it, we would not exist.

One way or another – something is wrong with the way we talk about race – and we need to keep looking at it, and we need to keep talking about it – only that way, not through silence – but through remembering and mourning, can we ever hope to fix it.  That is what it means to study slave narratives to me, in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2014.


4:01-7:02 PM


[1] One must admit, a curiously imperialistic expression for overseas actions.

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