Wednesday, June 09, 2010

A CHILLING EXPOSE ON RACIAL PREJUDICE plus vaguely relevant special guest star CHARLIE KAUFMAN

Okay, okay. I mentioned to Edgar Hopper (@edgarhopper on Twitter) that I was thinking about writing an essay on racism, but was so weary of the subject, I didn't feel like it. Edgar, a retired Episcopal Deacon, pal of jazz giant Miles Davis and publisher of the legendary music magazine STEREO REVIEW, requested I write it anyhow. I haven’t and it’s weighed on my conscience.

Then Rodge wrote one, timely and topical, so I put in a few posts under his. Edgar said that wasn’t good enough. His friendly suggestion still weighed on my conscience, and I’m not a liberal or conservative or nuthin’. So here ya go, Ed.

Yup, here we go. Also, I must work Charlie Kaufman in somehow or let a perfectly good name-drop go to waste. I'm not like that. Current successful movie genius and enfant terrible Charlie Kaufman mentioned his next script will be about a superhero, but he hadn’t yet decided what kind of superhero.

SO you think I'm LYING? You say I’m not COOL enough to talk to THE Charlie Kaufman? Do I have to pull out that photo of Charlie and me having a thoughtful chat? I hope I don’t. It makes me look old and fat and twice his size, which I am. So just believe me, all right? Plus, short people get all the breaks.

Charlie has more hair than I have. So does Roger Ebert, I noticed. People who have rich, fulfilling lives always have rich, full heads of hair. They get all the breaks too. I have noticed, also, that people who are taller than I am get far more breaks than I ever have.

What we were talking about as Roger snapped that photo there in that free breakfast get-together room, was how come people weren’t crowding around Charlie going “Please, please, please, read my script! Pretty please! You’ll love it! And I am needy for your love.” At that snap-moment Charlie was replying how people did keep shoving scripts into his face “just for his opinion,” when he knew all they really wanted was his agent’s home phone number.

The next moment we spoke of jealousy in the biz; I told Charlie the story of Joey and Jake, and how after 30 years, Jake’s still bitching that Joey was a big success and he wasn’t. Yet. Still isn't. Any day now.

Joey had a slew of pop music hits thirty years before I met Jake. They were songs called "Yummy Yummy Yummy" and "Chewy Chewy Chewy" and I forget what else. Maybe "Zooma Zooma Zooma." Joey spawned an industry of lighthearted pop songs that came to be called "Bubblegum Music" and even a made-up band called "1910 Fruitgum Company."

After all that galling success and fame, Joey moved on to yet another incredibly successful business in which he was still deeply happy thirty years later. That same thirty years later, Jake was still slogging along on marijuana, coffee, living off a gullible Sugar Mama, guitar lessons, some daydreams bloated with formaldehyde and disdaining long-forgotten Bubblegum Music with admirable persistence. Every single time Jake called me, which was daily for too long, he’d complain about how much better and smarter and everything else he was than that pathetic Joey and his raft of big hit songs and successful business.

For those of you who don’t hate Jews, Jake was what you’d call “a noodge.” He felt so inferior to his former friend, he’d been carrying on like this for thirty years. That’s a serious inferiority complex, which brings us to racial prejudice.

Racial prejudice is borne of chronic feelings of personal inferiority, projected upon races other than one’s own to eschew blaming reality on one's own lily-white ass. Sorry, "oneself."

Good lord, Ed, isn’t that enough said? Or am I gonna hafta write timeless things, which nobody will understand until after I’m dead, dead, dead and unappreciated for another few centuries, when a significant, if minute, portion of humanity begins to approach the astonishing level of psychological latitude which is presently mine?

Right there, above, is a “superiority complex” for ya, which may hide feelings of inferiority, however unlikely. I once aced a Scientology test first time through, so I couldn't possibly be inferior, not even to the diminutive Tom Cruise, who is also a lot shorter than I am. And not as smart, since he didn't ace it and was dumb enough to pay for the program. So I am indeed superior to Tom Cruise. I otherwise routinely inspect myself for traces of hyperbole.

"My daddy said 'son, if yew ain't no better than a nigger, who ARE ya better than?" -- Gene Hackman in "Mississippi Burning"

I can’t write about racial prejudice here in America without using the word “nigger.” The truth is, being neither liberal nor conservative, I will anyway, with the abandonment of somebody who means what he's saying. God dammit, I’ve used it with black friends just like they do with each other. I get it. When you’ve got friends who don't get nervous about anything you say, you’ve got friends indeed.

I've been treated like a nigger and I've felt like a nigger and even my dad once called me no better than a nigger. My real dad, psychologically speaking, was a nigger, not by character, but by skin color. He remains one of the best men I've ever known. We all admired Hamp Johnson, but I adopted him. I still move and think like Johnson.

He was head cook in a 24-hour 7-day diner in Saratoga Springs, New York. He worked for mimimum wage, $1.25 an hour. He worked a minimum of 12 hours a day. Greyhound busloads of hungry, irritable people avalanched into that diner at a rate of 128 busloads a day. Waitresses broke down routinely under the pressure. They had fifteen minutes to half an hour to feed these cranky people. I once helped pick a broken waitress up off the floor.

Once, when Johnson wasn't there to settle him down, second cook Kenny pulled a stove out from the wall. He threw a sink across the room. Kenny was an active emotional volcano. I watched how Johnson could tell when Kenny was ready to blow and calm him down with a few words, while speeding through the hourly tidal waves of orders, screaming waitresses and a screaming Greek boss. Johnson, very calmly, kept the raft of ne'er-do-well kitchen help working. Drug addicts and rootless wanderers, special-ed cooks and Greek immigrants who lived in the basement, not infrequent fights behind the steam table, Johnson kept the place going and the wild people functioning, cool and dignified as a statue.

At home, Mister J had six children, most of whom had sickle-cell anemia. His wife couldn't afford to work as a nurse, as tending their sick kids took all her time. The two of them believed in God. The kids lived. These people were saintly with patience and forbearance and strength drawn from God-knew-where. They were also tall and enviably good-looking.

This was the Hamp Johnson I knew:

This too:

Those are the niggers I'm talking about. Say. Did you just now notice that your estimation of these people I've described, jiggled? "Oh, niggers? Never mind then." Did you know that when it came clear the Civil Rights Act was going to be law, the good people of the town of New Lexington, Ohio, passed a statute that all niggers were to get out of town by that date? A cousin who grew up there told me that.

Johnson was an extraordinary man in any race. In any case, in my relationships with blacks from childhood to workinghood to musicianhood to intellectual discussionhood, I've only ever seen that the proportion of screw-ups among them matches that among my white peers.

So how does this happen? Let us consider the vast plains of my white herdmates, the generic shitkickers, among whom I also grew up, moreso than among kids bound for fancy colleges, drunk with privilege and half-crocked ideologies.

Whattaya Gonna Do, White Boy?

Whattaya gonna do, white boy? All your young life you were kicked around by your dad – if you had one – for whatever reasons. Half the time it was at your mom’s behest. If no dad, they suspected your mom was a slut. You feel like shit, you’re told you deserve it, it's good for your soul, don’t get uppity, nobody’s better than anybody else and so on. It’s an entrenched and chronic mood.

I know whereof I speak. A couple of my brothers and their pals were teen nigger-haters, and would drive up to Saratoga to get into fights with the niggers. At the same time, I heard from the other side through Hamp Johnson, Junior, at the restaurant. "So he's got a pancake flipper in his hand. 'Whatchoo gonna do wid'a pancake flipper?' Then he smacks me with it, whap! Whap! God damn, that hurt!" News from the other side said all you had to do was land a punch on a nigger's nose and they were out. Being a fan of Mohammad Ali, I doubted the sure-fire reliability of that wisdom. Anyhow I restricted my testosteronal experiments to boxing and never did have a black partner from whom to find out.

Pappy may still be kicking you around inside even if he’s long gone. You’re scared of a world where you're never good enough and looking for excuses and somebody to blame. You might “hate niggers,” but you trust your own kind even less, particularly family. You’re afraid because everybody else might be better than you are. They'll laugh.

You make friends by inventing mutual enemies. Their faults get magnified in your mind, in your talks, in your jokes, in your encounters, should you ever even have the courage to get up close to the subjects of your projected fear. If your life devolves to the especially shiftless, the niggers get worse in your imagination. So do the kikes, spics, micks, beaners, dagos, slants, the gooks, whoever isn’t you.

When your daily life feels chronically meaningless, it’s good at least to have imaginary enemies to comfort your butt-kicked soul. Your life has meaning to somebody, or so you imagine, even if negative.

"I got nothing against Jews, they just don't like me," a friend of mine fantasized out loud once. He had just abused a Jewish woman twice his age with vicious foul language in an endlessly corrosive e-mail. She had asked for a little time away from his pointless round of e-mails to tend to her daughter, who was in the hospital in serious condition. He had never met her -- she escaped Nazi Germany with her family as a child -- but he needed to let her know what a "problem" she and Jews still are. I apologize again to Doris Colmes for ever introducing Pete to her. He is crazy with feelings of personal inferiority. He doesn't really know any Jews to speak of.

You create a counterfeit self and conduct it like a pro wrestler’s act. You can dress your fake self up with dopey facts any way you want to. “Science” proved the superiority of the masses of honkies and the inferiority of the niggers ‘way back when.

According to the Bible, blacks are being punished even thousands of years later for their ancestor Ham making fun of his dad Noah, who was drunk, naked, and snoring. They’ll do it again if God turns them white again.

Oh, c’mon, I’m tired of all this, it’s been repeated millions of times, pro, con and guilt mongering. I've got a choice between preaching to the converted or writing to myself. I'm not sure Ed has even read this.

One idea I haven’t read enough of is that mankind, sprout by sprout, grows. Once upon a time, we suppose, human ego could go only as far as recognizing tribal members as a part of himself: man wear funny clothes, me suspicious, draw sword. Roast body for village feast. But now, at least, there are white spiritual types from solid middle class backgrounds and above who have come to believe all African-Americans should be equal after all. Then the few like me, who have stood in court to testify on behalf of a pal and watched a judge's face telegraphing "nigger" and ruling me out.

Whatever your spiritual granfalloon: you feel habitually inferior, you’ll look for somebody to be better than. You’ll gussy yourself up in a tangle of rationalizations hoping nobody notices it's because you feel inferior. This clearly goes beyond the negative events of racial prejudice, with results at least as damaging, but Ed asked me to write about the racial aspect.

True Personal Stories of Racial Inferiority

Edgar just told me he’s got too many personal stories that he’s still too angry to write down. Deacon Hopper is a good man, a long-suffering man long in reflections who always looks at the inner sides of things. He’s lived a life of forbearance. I’ll let him tell his own stories – in fact, I told him that he should pay me for this essay with some of these stories of his. People need to know.

They don’t need big puffy speeches about goodness, they need to know.

I’ve got lotsa stories of racial prejudice, but only as a listener or observer, and ever so rarely, for my race. Those incidents were sort of amusing. But I didn’t watch my mom get killed by an iceball to the temple thrown by a nasty white teenager, nor see her get a couple ribs broken by a big fat cocksucker whose “nigger hating” kid had just pulled some childish crap on me. I’ve been discriminated against in various ways, but have usually been satisfied that the wrongdoer was suitably brought to justice -- particularly when I was clever enough to engineer this justice myself.

Belonging to a race or breed or tribe should be fun. You’ve got ancestors from thousands of years back who felt things back then the way you do now, and you’ve got family mysteries to sort out and learn from. It’s no fun when you’re surrounded by homogenous morons who have institutionalized their inferiority complexes against you, whatever their rationale. Feelings of unworth are no respecters of intellectual capacity.

And Now, Back to Charlie Kaufman

I’ll bet you thought I was just name-dropping when I typed the name CHARLIE KAUFMAN, FAMOUS MOVIE MAKER. PERSONAL FRIEND O’ MINE! I prob’ly was. Some of you people won’t read anything that isn’t about somebody loudly successful, rich and well loved. You frequently read it because you hope this wonderful person has teetered off his throne and splashed into the boring smelly loveless flotsam that you have to forbear every empty day of your teensy little lives, admit it.

Caveat, it didn’t sound to me like Charlie’s rich, and it did sound to me like a lot of people didn’t understand “Synechdoche, New York” very much. On the other hand, he’s the only person whom I’ve ever told this movie idea, and I don’t even care what his agent’s phone number is. Nor do I care whether he ever makes this movie. He wanted a new kind of superhero, he said. Here’s what I suggested:



(No matter how you try.)

I see actor Kelsey Grammer in this role, with his east coast preppy vocabulary and deep mellifluous voice; he'll make the male audience feel small and squeaky. Too bad he’s too old. I’d match that voice to Tom Cruise, if he weren’t so damn short. I’d cast Laurence Fishburne, but... well... he’s not our kind, even if he is taller than most of us.

What about Liam Neeson? Naw, his nose is too big. Leonardo DiCaprio? Little guy, no. Then maybe Johnny Depp? I don’t know what’s the matter with him for sure, but he’s just not good enough.

Come to think of it, maybe Charlie Kaufman wouldn’t be good enough to make a movie about a superhero who is hands down better than you the public. No fantasy stuff like leaping tall buildings in a single bound; just getting ahead of you in traffic or in the grocery line; getting that raise you hoped for; doing accurate math in his head; always having money for anything he wants; witty, suave, friendly to all; never having a flat tire or shit streaks in his Jockey briefs; never angry at anything politically correct; eating AND enjoying all the right foods; no cavities; has even saved a life or two; better than you at hiking, camping, tennis, handball; picks the winning team and stocks with uncanny accuracy; won the Powerball lottery, buying a ticket as a lark; is never stuck in the past mooning for good old music, romances, prices, this or that; in other words, a horrifying unfolding of perfection in all the areas you just might have the opportunity to fail at one day if you’re lucky.

To top it off, Superiorman doesn’t commit suicide out of ennui at the end of the story. No, he’s the real thing, and if he were off this planet, people could stop feeling like perennial schmucks most of their days. They wanted Jesus off the planet for the same reason.

Charlie chuffled thoughtfully at my idea. I just made “chuffle” up. Anyway, I’m taller than he is. I really am. Then again, Laurence Fishburne is taller than I and that’s okay too. I ain’t prejudiced. You be same.


Blogger Caro said...

Brilliant as usual. Damn it, Tom! Stop being so much better than I am!

2:10 PM  
Blogger Tom Dark said...

Who is this really?

7:24 AM  
Anonymous JDay said...

Scene from "MallCop"
Swarthy Middle Eastern Type: You're racist!
MallCop: I'm not racist, you just happen to fit the profile!

Years ago I remember watching "Blood in the Face" and these KKK types said they didn't trust black people because you "couldn't tell when they were blushing". How can you tell if someone is blushing when they are wearing a big KKK white sheet over their face? The depths of human self-delusion never cease to surprise.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Tom Dark said...

Screamin' for attention, are ya?

7:48 PM  
Anonymous Ronak M Soni said...

Superiorman has already been written: it's called Atlas Shrugged.
Of course that also has one of the world's greatest dollops of misanthropy and inferiority complex-ness.

8:27 PM  
Anonymous Michael Petruzzi said...

A pleasure to read. You display a truly creative mind and style in your writing. I look forward to reading more of your posts.

10:42 PM  
Anonymous S M Rana said...

What prose and insight!

2:56 AM  
Blogger tjay said...

Tom, I won't wait 'till you're dead, dead, dead. I'll comment now. I have always treated my own inferiority complex by imagining myself winning over, not defeating, the individual and particular nemesis of the moment. There have been many. Maybe that's what keeps me from being prejudiced. My psychological enemies have varied. The multi-cultural assortment who have aspired to leave me feeling inferior have never been thought of as "them". Each is separate and special. Still, it is shocking to realize that others do not, even will not, afford me the same courtesy. Love me or leave me or let me be lonely but for GAWD's sake, make up your mind about ME. Not about women in general, or blacks in general or people with locks in general, or artists in general or . . . Dammit, I've worked hard to be who I am. Please pay attention to me — before I'm dead, dead, dead.

With the most humble regards


11:07 PM  
Blogger Tom Dark said...

tjay, I'm sorry I haven't checked in sooner. Beautiful, highly intelligent thoughts from a beautiful, highly intelligent artist. I KNEW I was right about you!

Of course I agree. Those who could not agree tend to do as I've described, hopefully with high humor and frankness.

1:17 PM  

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