AMERICA’S NON-CONVERSATIONS ON RACE: “Our Innate Inability to Listen to Each Other”

Talking Drum: At Peace...Until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned, everywhere is war and until there are no longer first-class and second-class citizens of any nation, until the color of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the color of his eyes. And until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race, there is war. And until that day, the dream of lasting peace, world citizenship, rule of international morality, will remain but a fleeting illusion to be pursued, but never attained… now everywhere is war.  (Bob Marley) 

As Black History Month 2012 looms large on the political horizon, showcasing the 2nd-term election of our nation’s first African-American president, nothing speaks of our inability to listen to each other more than the pathetically gridlocked congress and the racially divisive and masked language demonstrated within the January-to-June Republican debate circus. 

Standing in the shadows of the current Florida Presidential Primary, another significant black history fact nearly escapes the nation’s attention: Florida’s 18th Lt. Governor, Jennifer Carroll, a Navy veteran and seasoned legislator, who happens to be the first African-American and the first female elected as Lt. Governor in Florida.

Perhaps, also flying beneath the radar is the important anniversary date of February 10, 1964. That’s the date that the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which prohibited any state or local government or public facility from denying access to anyone, due to race or ethnic origin.  

Then, there’s February 6, 1945?  What’s this? It’s the birth date of Bob Marley, the Reggae-jamming, Jamaican Rastafarian whose music influenced social movements across the globe. He died in 1981. But, many indigenous communities and cultural festivals honor his music and worship his legacy around the world, including segments of multi-cultural America. If America could just appreciate the raw blends of the expansive music quilt of our nation, from Cajun-Creole, African and Native American to Celtic, Latin and Hispanic vibes, perhaps we could begin anew our collective quest for peace, happiness and justice which seems so mockingly elusive, today. 

February is also the month when Frederick Douglass was born, in 1818. He was the eloquent champion of abolition and equality whose life works set the stage for human rights protest and the on-going battle against our nation’s number one social problem, in my opinion. It seems to me, depending on which corner of our society and the time of year you ask, the answer to the question of what’s the number one social problem, in the United States, often surfaces arguably within the landscape of race, racism and/or religion. I’ve often wondered how much more majestic and noble our nation could be if we attached no significance at all to this arena of thought. Apparently, given the horrors of our racial and religious past, we can’t. It remains significant. Or, in everyday parlance of the street: “It is what it is.” 

But, why? 

Why is it that we seem so preoccupied with our own issues or problems that we can’t listen to those of others- unless we’re paid to do so?  Why do we often jump to conclusions about the thoughts or intentions of others?  Why don’t we listen to ideas contrary to the belief system or religion we were born into? Why are we ready to do battle when our heightened negative emotions seem to prevent us from talking or reasoning further? Why do Southerners seem to get irritated by the stereotypical fast-talking rate of speech by Northerners? What’s behind Northerners’ annoyance with Southern drawl? Why do we often hear only what we want to hear? Why can’t we be open to new possibilities in politics? Why do contemporary politics seem so racially polarizing and splintered along religious lines? Why can’t we have good open-minded conversations about race in America without retreating to the traps of our own biases or getting angry or defensive? Why do we often find it difficult to hear the underlying messages behind certain music, when listening to the melodies of our various cultures or sub-cultures?   

Why?  While none of us may have all-conclusive answers, many of us might feel that we have some clue, but aren’t big enough or bold enough to make our opinions public, out of fear of being misunderstood or the various concerns associated with the consequences of misunderstanding. 

I’ve often shared with others that we need to go back to the ugly side of our nation’s development, before we can appreciate the potential raw beauty of our truthful and collective past.  Yes, this means that we somehow find a way to listen to the real message or reasoning behind the rants of various extremist groups, no matter the color or politic. It means we must seek new ways and forums of sharing our obviously different racial and religious perspectives, especially within the idea of how and what we’re teaching our children, publicly, in our nation’s hallowed classrooms or, privately, at the family dinner gatherings. It also means that we must be mindful of how our hearts and words might sound when recounting the harsh racialized incidents of ruthless slavery, brutal rapes, public lynching, slave rebellion, systemic segregation, wrongful incarcerations, medical experiments, Jim Crow Laws, church burnings, black town destructions, political misdeeds, legal malfeasance and vicious injustice.  Yet, it is important to never let the stories die.

Frankly, over the years, I’ve had to work hard at not always getting angry or fighting at the drop of certain words or deeds I found offensive, as I did within the waning ignorance of my youth. However, I’ve been able to share with my children and grandchildren, as my parents, grandparents and certain black teachers did for me, within what I felt were useful teaching moments in survival awareness, so they might avoid the mistakes of my past.  This included knowing full well that they too would need to make ‘mistakes’ of their own, in order to grow and teach their children or loved ones. Regardless of the lofty ideas that our nation has of itself, it’s been my experience that racism is alive, flowing effortlessly through its veins. Of course, the ideal is that it doesn’t; but, it does, effortlessly. 

I remember well the lesson I once learned about the views of others and the historical perspectives of the various Confederate battle banners. From childhood, and being raised in the South, I was taught within my culture that the Confederate flag was an acute icon of hate. My lessons were reinforced within what I learned and observed from the hate-filled activities of the Ku Klux Klan. While once provoked toward fisticuffs by white co-workers who knew of my feelings, I chose not to take the bait and decided to listen a little to the guy they were provoking, who later eloquently explained his family’s teaching about the legacy of various Confederate battle banners, from their historical perspectives. 

While I’d never accept the flag of our nation’s rebels as something I could respect or revere, I can better see the hearts and respect the valor of a few of those who sincerely fought and died for their beliefs, no matter how repugnant those beliefs were to me. And, it was years after my military service that I came to that conclusion. Even when things did come to fisticuffs, earlier while in the Navy, I can recall admiring the pluck of one scrappy, hard-nose bigot on the receiving end of some well-landed blows by me. Yet, I’ll admit, within the advancing years of my life journey, I still find it difficult to listen to the pea-brain rants from certain racist corners of our society. But I am more aware that listening attentively is a must. 

In my opinion, the seething rage within us all, from the collective ugliness of our nation’s past, remains an integral part of our national subconsciousness and the innate inability of Americans to really listen to each other. Yet, regardless of the January-to-June GOP political circus and the pathetic congressional gridlock we see, I’m confident that our nation will at least listen to its heartbeat when ‘We the People’ speak again with the power of the vote on November 6, 2012, electing President Barack Obama to a 2nd term- in spite of the national conversation on race, still unlikely to have taken place.

If we won’t listen to each other, perhaps we will someday at least listen to the messages– not just the melody- of the various blends to the unique music quilt of our nation- from Gospel, Blues and Jazz to Classical, Folk and Reggae.

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About William "Duke" Smither (formerly, pen name: "Backstreet Djeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at and contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy.