A British friend called me three years ago from London.
One of her young co-workers, a woman of British nationality who had been born an African on the Cameroonian/Nigerian border, was living and working now in New York. She had lived and worked for some years in London.
My friend wanted me to talk through American racism with her because she was confused. It was unlike anything the young woman had ever experienced.
I refused and referred the young woman to an African working at the UN in New York going through the same confused anguish.
My friend was taken aback. What could be so difficult? Was it that different from England or France or Holland?
I told her: yes.
Not once in any country but this, not on any continent, has anyone made the slightest reference, overtly, covertly, subliminally or in any way to the colour of my skin.
The one exception was in Ahmedabad, India. Are you a Siddhi, I was asked? No and I explained. Nor were my questioners being hostile. They wanted simply to incorporate me in their vast universe because, unlike Jaipur, for instance, Ahmedabad is not a tourist city and few foreigners live there.
To try to explain how American racism works at its myriad levels is beyond my capability, I explained, because, beyond the normative definition of this prejudice, like all others, as a spiritual dysfunction, it appears that North American racism has from the beginning permitted behaviours related to this: at its heart is a historical reality, an original sin: the reduction of people with black skin to subhuman category.
In how many cultures do men have to keep on insisting that they be recognized as men, as human beings?
Untitled (I am a Man), 1988, oil and enamel on canvas. Glenn Ligon, American, born 1960. National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC
Attitudes and behaviours no longer operating on the surface of our lives here, I told my friend. But habits die hard.
To speak about it is to live it again and again and why would anyone want to speak about experiences which are multiple little deaths? I asked her.
A very peculiar institution: American slavery. And its consequences.
North American racism is strange because white and black Americans are also intimately connected by blood, by love, by hate, in work, on the sports field. In every way in which people relate to other people. They know each other intimately. That is what Faith Ringgold shows in this painting.
But then perhaps it is this very intimacy which lends this racism, also, its horrible potency.
And then periodically, blood is flowing everywhere. And Faith Ringgold’s painting shows affluent, business people. Not desperadoes and gang members. Just to make a point.
And here we are: post-presidential elections, 2016 and there is this stillness. Everyone wondering if the shoe is going to drop.
The same old shoe, 500 years old and stinking to high heaven of everyone’s encrusted blood.
Die. American People Series #20, oil on canvas, 1967. Faith Ringgold, born 1930, American. MOMA, NY