Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on Rev. Wright

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar places some of Rev. Wright's comments in their historical context here. His words once again illustrate the need not only for personal reconciliation on the issue of race in our country, but, just as importantly, a reconciliation of narratives. That is, much of the backlash against Rev. Wright's comments stem not only from the fact that they were taken out of their immediate textual context (that is, the words before and after them were edited out), but perhaps more importantly because they are not understood within their cultural context. The shock that many white persons feel when they first encounter prophetic black preaching and black liberation theology comes from our own ignorance concerning very different ways of narrating American history.

More on that later, no doubt. In the meantime, here's a bit of what Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has to say on the subject:

The Rev. Wright suggested in one of his sermons that AIDS was intentionally allowed to infect people because it would probably do most of its damage in the black community. White Americans see this viewpoint as racist paranoia. But black Americans remember the Tuskegee experiment, when black men who had syphilis were left untreated intentionally so the progress of the disease could be studied by government doctors. This actually happened, and its memory has caused a collective distrust of doctors in the black community for which white Americans cannot see any rational basis. Again we are stuck with dealing with the evil deeds that were done before many of us were born.


(Update: 3-25-08, 2:45pm)

I was going to make this a separate post, but I thought I'd tag it on here instead. In Blood Done Sign My Name, historian Timothy B. Tyson wrote something, immediately concerning tensions and rioting surrounding desegregation and the rise of Black Power in Wilmington, North Carolina (on of my favorite places to visit, by the way), which speaks powerfully to the problem of different ways of narrating history standing as an obstacle to reconciliation:

The power of history hung palpably over Wilmington, my father learned quickly. That history served as a terrible obstacle to progress, even though many people did not know the events that exerted such a power over their lives...

At the first meeting, which convened at our church, Daddy heard African American parents make bitter references to "what happened" and "what caused all this" - as if the causes of Wilmington's racial turmoil were self-evident. Yet the quizzical expressions and vacant nods of white parents made Daddy suspect that the white parents were oblivious to something that every black person in the room understood. "When you say, 'What caused all this,' what are you talking about?" he finally asked the black parents. At first the black parents refused to believe that he did not know what they meant. Finally, one black mother paused to point in the direction of the Cape Fear River. Flashing her mind's eye seventy years into the past to November 10, 1898, she told him, "They say that river was full of black bodies."

Tyson goes on to recount the history of the 1898 Wilmington Race Riot, and its subsequent omission from most histories of the area. The memory of it, a massacre of much of the black population, was preserved in the black community, but having been left out of the formal histories, it was entirely forgotten by the whites. Thus, when whites - to the great incredulity of their black neighbors - threw their hands up and declared, in the late 60's and early 70's, "How can this be happening here? We've never had problems between the races here before!" they were entirely honest. Their collective history didn't include that event, seared in the consciousness of the entire black community. Before any reconciliation, then, could take place, there needed to be some kind of reconciliation of narratives.

Similarly, when Kareem Abdul-Jabbar makes the connection between Rev. Wright's statements about AIDS and the Tuskegee experiment, it demonstrates that it is insufficient for whites to note that Wight's comments are factually inaccurate. We must also ask ourselves, why would someone believe them to be true? Why would a pastor revered in many black circles say something that sounds so ridiculous to our white ears?

To answer such questions with the hasty judgments that fill so much mainstream (predominantly white) media discourse is to overlook the fact that we are divided not only by the color of our skin, but also and most importantly by the content of our narratives. And there is much in the dominant white narrative that is lacking. Just as the white people in Wilmington had edited their collective memories to erase the Race Riot of 1898, so too has the dominant white culture in America more broadly edited our narrative of American history, to exclude stories that we wish weren't true. Stories preserved only in the memories of the victims. Stories like those of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment.

As Borgna Brunner writes on the "legacy" of this experiment in the black experience:

In 1990, a survey found that 10 percent of African Americans believed that the U.S. government created AIDS as a plot to exterminate blacks, and another 20 percent could not rule out the possibility that this might be true. As preposterous and paranoid as this may sound, at one time the Tuskegee experiment must have seemed equally farfetched.

Who could imagine the government, all the way up to the Surgeon General of the United States, deliberately allowing a group of its citizens to die from a terrible disease for the sake of an ill-conceived experiment? In light of this and many other shameful episodes in our history, African Americans' widespread mistrust of the government and white society in general should not be a surprise to anyone.

1 comment:

Delux said...

Great blog post.

You also might be interested in this interview with the author of Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present.