My Experience as an African American Man

There are very few African American men in this country who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me. There are very few African American men who haven’t had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars.

That happens to me – at least before I was a senator. There are very few African Americans who haven’t had the experience of getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get off. That happens often.

It seems hardly worth noting that some matters are deemed more worthy of scholarship than others. If there is any one idea on which the present currents of thought are agreed it is that at any given moment of time the state of received knowledge is backgrounded by a clutter of suppressed information.

It is also agreed that the information is not suppressed by reason of its inherent worthlessness, nor by any passive process of forgetting: it is actively thrust out of the way because of difficulties in making it fit whatever happens to be in hand. The process of ‘foregrounding’ or ‘relevating’ now receives attention from many different quarters. But for obvious reasons the process of ‘backgrounding’ is less accessible. The chapters in this section focus on ‘backgrounding’

In its most ambitious formulation, the aim of this article is to stretch the limits of constructivist criticism to accommodate notions of psychic agency and enablement, inner renewal and restoration, metamorphosis and transformation, existential potentiality and self-actualization, as well as creativity and imaginative capacity. I begin from the premise that the fact that the subject is socially constructed does not mean that it is therefore empty, or that it does not experience its existence as entirely real and compelling.

After all, the whole point of socialization is that cultural norms are internalized in such a way that they become an integral component of the subject’s psychic life; our identities may be constructed, but we certainly live them as our “reality.” That is, while the directives that we live by may originate in the larger socio-symbolic order within which we exist and evolve, over time we come to experience these directives as nuggets of wisdom that emanate from within our own being.

With humor, it is possible to analyze and criticize without utterly destroying the subject being analyzed. Humor can also be like a drop of oil that makes hard surfaces more manageable. From his lofty viewpoint, the author with a fine-tuned sense of humor sees the characters he is creating evolve in a situation where their weaknesses will be revealed.

They will be able to go on acting and feeling since the critical blows that rain on them are not lethal. Ideally, the characters should learn from their mistakes. This seldom occurs, but the possibility of going on with their lives, their hopes, their dreams, is still offered to them. Humor is universal, and at the same time it is conditioned by culture and by history. Humor in Cervantes’s time was undoubtedly more rough and cruel toward its victims than it would become in the literature of later centuries.

I picked up a small volume of poems at the old Yale Co-op, The Homecoming Singer, by Jay Wright. I was caught instantly by the title poem. The transfiguration of the girl into an angelic singer—a homecoming singer in the fullest sense—is the first of many transfigurations that mark and make glorious the poetry of Jay Wright. “The Homecoming Singer” delays its meanings, though they are accumulated by the inflections of the narrating voice.

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