Monday, October 14, 2002

When I stumble upon something - whether it a thing or an idea - three times in a week, it gets registered as a 'trend' or 'something worth noting'. Hence this entry.

Today, I read two articles from the latest Harper's Magazine: "The Age of White Guilt: And the Disappearance of the Black Individual" by Shelby Steele and "The Unbearable Slightness: Why do we love Milan Kundera Again" by Christina Nebring. I'm not sure whether it is to due to deft editorial direction and decision-making or whether it is due to sheer coincidence, but these two articles are beautifully interlated as they both examine the fundamental tension between "the individual" and "the group".

In her stinging review of Kundera's new book Ignorance, Nehring spends some time covering Kundera's relationship with his home country of Czechoslovakia. Kundera left Czechoslovakia for France in 1975. "Milan Kundera has always had it both ways" begins Nehring. "He has cashed in on this tragic emigre status and mocked those who paid".

The freedom and constraints of the emigre is also covered by Steele's article when he writes about the freedom that black American writer James Balwin experienced when he went to Paris in the 50s. Unlike Kundera, Balwin returned to America in 1957 and "soon, in blantant contradiction of his own powerful arguments against protest writing, he became a protest writer." But that's not the most serious charge. Steele goes on to say that :

His fame was out of proportion to his work, and if all this had been limited to Baldwin himself, it might be called the Balwin phenomenon. But, in fact, his ascendancy established a pattern that would broadly define, and in many ways, corrupt, an entire generation of black intellectuals, writers and academics. And so it must be called the Baldin model.

Steele's article is great. I don't agree with all he's that written but he covers the subject of black identify politics with history and personal insight that illuminates nuance. I'm tempted to share some of his ideas of white guilt especially as it plays out on university campuses nowadays but instead, I'll bring up the third instance I read of today that complements Steele's article perfectly. From today's editorial page of The Globe and Mail:

Freedom to be oneself
Monday, October 14, 2002 – Page A12

There goes life, imitating art again. Colin Powell is apparently not the sort of black man he should be, at least by the standards of Harry Belafonte, the self-appointed arbiter of proper behaviour for black people. No, Mr. Powell, the son of working-class Jamaican immigrants who is now the U.S. Secretary of State, is a homeboy...

This is an insidious form of racism. It is the flip side of the long-discredited statement, "he's a credit to his race" -- an insistence that each black person carries the burden of his people. White people do not carry such a burden. They are judged as individuals and their behaviour does not rebound on others. In Mr. Belafonte's worldview, black people must behave in a prescribed way (i.e. not join the Republican Party) or else they are, in essence, traitors to their people. That is a suffocating box for anyone...

Did I mention that Steele's article quotes Kundera?

The Franco-Czech writer Milan Kundera says that every totalitarianism is "also the dream of paradise." And when people seem to stand in its way, the rulers "build a little gulag on the other side of Eden."

A suffocating box. A little gulag for the black individual. A sad trend for today.

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