Thursday, March 02, 2006

Thoughts on Black History Month and Sudan: Am I My Brother's Keeper Revisited

Black History month ended last night. For some it was a month-long celebration. For most, it was a few days here and there of remembrance. Some days that remembrance was sparked by a compelling song or movie, and other days it was sparked by those images we have come to associate with the struggle: Rosa Parks sitting on a bus embodying both defiance and non-violence, Malcolm X sitting calmly on the "Les Crane Television Show" with an ardent gaze demanding a justice long overdue, and Martin Luther King Jr. standing before the Lincoln Memorial with hope in his eyes and a dream in his heart. Many of us have looked at these images with pride and February gave us an opportunity to revisit this history collectively as a people. But as important as it is for us to remember this history, I'm afraid I've found myself torn in trying to decide whether I could celebrate the triumphs of the history of blacks while another kind of history is written with the blood of the innocent over in Sudan.

I bring no solutions, only a heavy heart and an old question: Am I my brother's keeper? And I use the term brother in this circumstance to describe the Sudanese brothers and sisters who probably have no idea that I'm thinking of them. My answer, however, is a confident and certain yes. I think of them much like Martin, Malcolm, and countless others thought of me. When I think of how these African American martyrs made the ultimate sacrifice on my behalf, I'm in awe of the great love they had for the people. Putting your family and life at risk because you believe the people you love deserve more, is a sacrifice of truly divine proportions.

While we have much for which we should be thankful, I wonder if in the midst of our celebration of struggle we've become complacent with where we've arrived. I thought I might end this reflection by posing a question. But I don't want you to waste your time thinking of or writing up a response to this post. Use it to think about whether you feel a calling to do something greater for these brothers and sisters. Some of you will, others of you will not. But if upon contemplating this you should come to terms with your love for these distant siblings and your desire to manifest that love in action, know that you have at least one ally. Keep it locked for developments on the action tip. Power to the People!

14 comments:

Brother Spotless said...

This has been an issue for me for a while. Not necessarily the fact
that people in Sudan are suffering (that sounded far more cold than I
wanted it to, but it may be part of my underlying view. I haven't
decided...), but the question of whether there is or should be
solidarity between Africans and African Americans. Here's what I have
come to thus far:

I am African American, for better or for worse. My ancestors were
brought here from Africa as slaves. Through our struggle for freedom,
justice, acceptance and indivduality, a culture has formed. I mean a
real culture, filled with all of the necessary components that "legit"
cultures possess. This culture, while having roots in Africa, is very
very different from an African culture. our traditions are different. Our
language is different. our dress is different. We are "BLACK," for
better or for worse.

So, while I deeply sympathize with all that has gone wrong in Africa,
I struggle to feel any bond with them. I don't feel any more
connected, and therefore hurt, by the stories I hear in Sudan than I
feel hurt by the stories I hear of child prostitution in Indonesia, or
the way women are treated in Afghanistan. All are horrific, but I feel
a much larger connection to the 18 year old in Compton that "fit the
discription" and was shot dead by police when he was just walking home
from a party, having done nothing wrong.

I understand this is a controvertial stance. If I have missed the
point, I ask that you correct me. My ego (while large) does not bruise
easily. :)

Brother Afrocan said...

brother spotless, you raise a very good point and expose the valid issue of empathy. As an african , raised most of live life there, having first come to the US when I enrolled in Williams, I too had difficulties empathizing. I felt no greater connection to "18 year old in Compton that "fit the discription" and was shot dead by police when he was just walking home from a party, having done nothing wrong" than to the palestinian boy shot dead by Israeli soldiers for protesting the murder of his elder brother by the same soldiers. I dare say, I even feel victim to internalizing and believing stereotypes that "black" americans are lazy criminals, which explains why they are the majority of inmates.

But as I spent time and Williams, I made friends with African Americans, sat on the same "black table" in the Williams dinning hall, went to BSU events and started to learn, celebrate and share in African American culture. As time went on I began to actually feel the connection with the compton boy that fit the description, or the with the black inmate doing 25 to life due to the vagarities of the white dominated jury system. ETC........(the list goes on)
The society around me also began to view me differently. As I left Williams and joined the corporate ranks, at work, when I opened my mouth to give a presentation to supervisors or clients- an "Uppity Negro" voice came out, reflecting the corporate grooming bought by a Williams education, devoid of african, african american or any other influence. But alas, to many, I was still viewed by the color of my skin not "the content of my character".

Which brings me to your large albeit unbreakable ego brother spotless. I think the inability to empathize stems from a lack of exposure with the people and their culture. I too am poor in that regard, I know little of what the palestinians go through, I only see news clips of them dying, tainted by the ummmm.... zionist influeced media that paints them as terrorists and thugs. Over the summer I spent a considerable amount of time with a palestinian friend and got to learn alot. Unfortunately due to my physical features, I dont think I will ever be able to truly identify and connect with what they go through, because I will never be able to live life in their shoes and see things through their eyes as I have been able to do with african americans. And I think that is one of the sad things about caucasians, because as well meaning as they may be- and there is a large number of well meaning folks out there. They never get to experience what it is to be black and their empathy is limited.

Going back to the overaching question of Am I my brothers keeper, I would say- its very hard to even be brothers if you grew up in different home, raised by different parents. But if you come over and live with me for a while, its easier to be my brother and easier to decide if you wish to be my keeper.

Brother Lightness said...

Kudos on that response Brother Afrocan.

Brother Spotless said...

My Afrocan Brother, you raise good points.

I absolutley agree that exposure to different groups provides for more emathy toward them. As you said, "its very hard to even be brothers if you grew up in different home, raised by different parents."

That leads to my opinon: since we were raised in different homes and by different parents (presumably with different beliefs), we are not brothers. My Brother lives in my house, ate the same food I ate, got punished for the same bad behavior (I can go on and on...).

Individually, I can become very good friends with people of any background. But unless I have lived in that persons culture, how can I know his/her pain?

Now, if I have lived there, that is a different story. If I have lived in Sudan long enough to not only know the culture, but also live within its parameters, I can consider myself to be the Brother of those men, women and children. Right now, I love'em like play cousins. I can't identify with them like I can with my African American people because I have not been exposed. Doesn't that mean we aren't Brothers?

Brother Afrocan said...

Brother Spotless, that would appear to the conclusion. They are not your brother's. However, brother spotless, your conclusion reveals a sad truth about life. While we may continually strive to be our brothers keepers, the number of people that are our brothers continues to dwindle.

The palestinaians are not our brothers, the poor Thai 12yr old prostitues are not our brothers, the sudanese or sierra leone people are not our brothers either, etc... the list goes on.

In fact like Tupac says in I ain't mad at ya "I moved up out the hood so I aint real now" In twenty years, when your living all bourgeoisie with children named Wentworth Strafford (said with a snooty british sounding accent). When you live in a penthouse on 42nd and 5th, never going close to upper harlem, redhook bk or south bronx except in the backseat of a limo with the windows tinted to keep the outside where it is-far from sight and mind. Will your brothers still be the kid in compton that fit the profile?

Tis hard, I dont have answers, but I think, if we could see each other as brothers, the world would be a better place.

Brother Spotless said...

My friend, some would say the number of my Brothers has already dwindled.

It is hard to balance being a successful black man; the cream of the crop, if you will (did I say my ego is large??), with staying "real". It is also a fine line I look forward to walking. The only thing I can say in response to Brother Afrocan is this: I didn't choose to "divorce" from my ex-Brothers in Africa. If I divorce from my Brother in Compton, it will be my decision; what a sad decision that would be...

Lamo said...

The issues seems to stem around culture as opposed to race meaning that culture has stronger ties to brotherhood than race.

The african kid said it himself. When he came, he had a skewed view of blacks (african-americans). He started to feel a deep connection and ties to blacks in the U.S. once he had experienced and accepted the culture.

We don't connect with the palestian or the thai prositute because the culture is so different.

As americans, we all share certain similarities that come with living under American laws and jurisdiction. We can relate better to black americans 3000 miles away than we can with Africans in Sudan.

Santo Jadalla said...

I am a Sudanese and I am saddened by the comments made by brother spotless. He is entitled to his opinions though, and I respect that. We in Sudan have struggled by ourselves all these years and we shall overcome soon. Maybe when Sudan becomes stable and prosperous brother spotless can come visit us so we can establish some brotherly ties.

Brother Spotless said...

Santo Jadalla,
First I want to say that I did not mean to sadden you; I just spoke what I believe is true. I hope you understand that. Second, I think I would benefit greatly from knowing your beliefs. Could you explain your beliefs? Do you feel a brotherly bond between Africans and African Americans? If you would like, we can arrange for you to let me know outside of the blog, if you feel uncomfortable expressing your beliefs here...

Santo Jadalla said...

To brother spotless:
Yes I feel a brotherly bond between African Americans and Africans. I will give you some examples. I was in Sudan in 1992 and following the news about the LA riots and I could remember feeling angry when those police officers were initially acquited.

Most of my high school friends who I discussed that issue with, were pissed off just like me. I felt like I was from South Central and fuming with anger at how Rodney King got a beat down and the jury still thought the officers were just doing their job as normal and therefore not guilty. I remember watching the movie Roots "Kunta Kinte" while in Sudan and I remember the feeling of rage I felt afterwards and for about two days or so, not wanting to associate with the few white folks (mostly missionary teachers) in my school at that time. There were several movies that I watched while back home(Sudan) about slavery in America (Malcolm X) and others. I was a movie buff and I remember in cinemas near pandemonium/tumult when the only black guy in the film is the first to die. Even though I did not know much about African Americans back then, I still felt their pain especially when watching documentaries about rascism. I know my examples were about movies, but nevertheless they were of events that happened in this country. In my eyes, every black person is a brother or a sister, even though some might not want to associate with me.

I think we should build bridges between Africans, African Americans, and our brothers and sisters in the Caribbeans and South America. We black people are hated by almost all races in this World, so it is time we come together and work for the betterment of our race. You never know you might get tired of America one day and you will always have a home among us, you never can tell what the future holds.

Brother Spotless said...

All I can say is...wow. I would never have thought the bond just described exists in Africa. It makes me think that African Americans (or maybe just me) are the ones that have decided there is no bond, not Africans.

The few African (adults) I met before attending college didn't really look at African Americans in a positive way (similar to what Brother Afrocan thought before attending Williams College). I took that to mean most of Africa looked at me negatively.

Santo, you have given me much to think about. Thank you. While I don't agree with your entire premise, you raise points that I just did not know.

mab said...

To all PLEASE READ this article: Nytimes Magazine-- The Pressure to Cover-- by Yale Law Professor KENJI YOSHINOI. The article was in the January 15th issue and talks about American civil rights, a few cases of interest, how assimilation is overrated, and how and why civil rights should be viewed as human rights.

Brother Spotless:

You raise valid points, but your conclusion has left me FEELING ANGRY and UPSET and FRIGHTENED. When we discuss WAR and RAPE and MURDER or just INJUSTICE should we not all feel like kin?

In most cases, we can and do use identity politics to discuss and intellectualize societal issues, because off all the awful -isms present in this country and the world. But, why here? Why at this level of debate? Whether you identify with another person or understand where he is coming from because of his culture is a more advanced stage of the intimacy process than identifying with a situation, feeling or motive.


Empathizing is about using my imagination. Since I may only know the Sudanese people from a distance-- a few conversations with refugees, images in the media, radio clips, etc-- I cannot and do not identify with them as one of them. But I don't need their suffering to be their kin-- their sister. I DO, like you, sympathize with them and do my best to empathize with them on the basis of our SHARED HUMANITY. I do not do this as an American or as a mut of a "white" woman. I do not sympathize with them because they are Sudanese or African. I empathize with them through my imagination because they live my nightmare-- everyone's nightmare. They have lost their family or their home. Lost what they have worked for or dreamed of or worse never even had a chance to work or to dream for anything. I feel the same way about the crack addict I met downtown yesterday, my next door neighbor, my cousin John, and my brother Jason. I have no experience being anyone besides myself-- any empathy I feel is through my imagination.


Is my empathy limited becuase of my skin color or origin? No, I think it is limited by my experience and my person.

Stretch your imagination a little and you would be suprised what might bring you to tears.

Brother Spotless said...

There is no doubt in my mind that the horrors that are faced by those in Sudan are indeed the nightmares of all of us. Forget civil rights; their human rights are being violated beyond recognition. I've seen the pictures, heard the stories, heard the people speak in person. Horrible only begins to describe the situation. My point was not to say "the kid in Compton has it worse than the people in the Sudan, or the child prostitutes in Indonesia, or the women in Afghanistan." Attempting to rate the level of violation doesn't seem to be a valuable excercise. My point was that clearly, the stuff going on is messed up. But I didn't grow up in Sudan, within Sudanese culture; I grew up here in America. MAB, quoting you: "I...do my best to empathize with them on the basis of our SHARED HUMANITY." When you say things like "do my best," it seems to me you don't fully understand their plight either.

However, if what Santo Jadalla said is true, and he felt just as much anger watching "Roots" as he feels when he thinks of the horrific events that occur in Sudan, than it is me who is lacking, because I now see the possibility of..."Brotherhood." Honestly, it is still a possibility in my mind. It is something that I now think about more than ever before.

mab said...

thank you for the clarification.

i understand that you were not trying to quantify or qualify the happenings in one place or another or on one person or another as more or less awful. i apologize for misconstruing your argument.

first, i want to clarify why i said "i try my best to understand...". basically, i think it would be hubris to claim that i can, in the truest sense, understand anyone else's, let alone everyone else's, humanity.

second, and this is most likely controversial, i do not think BROTHERHOOD is an issue of identity politics unless you consider yourself an alien.

as you know, when you think of brotherhood in terms of identity our world would be (and is) an absolute disaster zone. for many, this definition of brotherhood excludes rather than includes blood relatives and loved ones.

while culture is essential to our lives, our happiness and the understanding of our history, intimate, and personal relationships (friend, parter, lover, etc) and it enriches our humanity, it does not define or dictate our humanity. Like Santo Jadalla and Bro Afrocan said, the sharing of cultures, drinking someone else's water, breathing someone else's air builds bridges and forges the most amazing ties in this world. BUT another important aspect of this whole issue the protection of cultural identity and the of seperation of cultural identity from humanity and human rights.

the point am poorly making is that your notion of BROTHERHOOD is different than mine. i believe we must use our humanity to bring us together-- and "understanding" is the best way to do it, but is out of most people's immediate grasp.

Like MLK, Jr said:

"I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become reality. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word."

an idealist in this dark world, who believes in community effort and fears stark individualism: i think that any and all the unconditional love you possess is what makes you your brother's keeper not your music, food, or celebrations.

honestly, with the possibility of brotherhood in/on your mind i think you are constructing positive connextions of bringing people together.