Sunday, July 24, 2011

On Being Human

It has all the makings of a bad joke – a vampire, a werewolf, and a ghost walk into a bar… Being Human, my most recent TV addiction.  While the BBC version is far superior to the American, I have to admit that I watched both this past year. I found something so poignant about the story of these three friends, none of whom have chosen their current condition, finding each other and trying to live as normally and “humanly” as possible. Longing to be human is a common theme in literature and modern sci fi/horror stories; Pinocchio, the Frankenstein monster, Data, the Cylons, and Neo’s enemy “machines” are just a few examples of non-human entities wanting to be human, or at least wanting to emulate certain human qualities, such as love.  Even the Borg, in their quest for automaton perfection, relied on a very human-like queen to keep the collective running.  In many of these stories, it’s the humans that actually caused all the problems between themselves and the artificial intelligence they created, by maintaining their dominance through oppression.  (Trek fans will remember that even Data narrowly escaped becoming the progenitor of a new slave population in the episode titled, “The Measure of a Man.”)

Maybe you see where I’m going with this. Sadly, the world of fiction is not the only place wherein human status was sought by some and denied by others.  Historically, one did not have to be a cyborg, or a machine, or supernatural in any way to be denied human status. For example, the Atlantic slave trade was justified, and slavery was allowed to persist for centuries, based on the supposed belief by whites that slaves weren’t really human. An essay I read the other day reminded me of a scene from the miniseries, Roots, where the captain of the slave ship weakly suggests that the slaves be treated a bit better, since, they are, after all, human beings.  The first mate, responds, “Of course they’re human beings…and if we’re to profit from this enterprise we’d best convince them and everyone else that they’re dogs or mules, anything but human beings.”  (I searched youtube for a clip of this scene to no avail – if anyone can find it, or can post it, let me know.)  It was necessary for whites to convince themselves that slaves were some sort of subhuman species, that they didn’t have the same feelings, desires, needs, hopes, etc., that we normal white human beings had, in order to justify the horrors of slavery.

Once again we can shake our heads and say, how sad.  Boy, those people were crazy back then.  I’m so happy that I’m part of the enlightened 21st century.  I think it’s interesting, though, that the being human theme persists in literature about race.  I see it in two of the most prevalent “antiracist” texts still used in classrooms today: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.  Both are still read in my kids’ high school.  I’ve written before about the continuing debate about Huck – whether or not to leave the racial slur “nigger” in the text.  But what’s interesting to me is Huck’s gradual realization that Jim, the runaway slave, is actually a human being, with human emotions.  It’s this realization that prompts Huck to help Jim (albeit ineffectually) in the end. Mind you, never once does Huck view Jim as an equal, or as an adult, but at least he admits that he’s human. Of course, for Huck human meant white, and in order to justify saving Jim from slavery Huck tells himself that Jim is “white on the inside.”  I guess that was big stuff back in 1884.

Then there’s To Kill a Mockingbird.  Everybody loves that book/movie, and many would argue that Lee’s work has led many whites to realize the pain and devastation caused by racism. But what does the title mean? “It’s a sin to kill a mockingbird,” Atticus tells his son, because, a white neighbor explains, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”  Obviously there’s a metaphor at work here.  Who are the mockingbirds in the story, the innocents that “don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us”?  African Americans, of course!  Inexplicably, Lee chooses to compare African Americans to the little birdie that sings in the tree, not very bright, not good for much, but so entertaining with its sweet little song.  It’s enough to make Archie Bunker join the NAACP.

These two examples are from texts written by whites (and still, arguably, the most popular “multicultural” texts out there…hmm…coincidence?). I could give lots of literary examples of how the withholding of human status has wounded the psyche of people of color.  The theme permeates the realistic and fictional slave narrative, both historical and present day. Bigger Thomas, the main character in Richard Wright’s Native Son, is viewed by himself and others more as a monster than a real human being. Walter Dean Myers follows up on this theme in Monster, the story of an African American teen on trial for murder.  Sherman Alexie’s protagonist in The Absolute True Diary of a Part Time Indian has 42 teeth, “ten teeth past human.”  And for a really devastating read about a teenage girl fighting for humanness, there’s Push: A Novel, by Sapphire. 

So, I’m not sure where all this leaves us.  I guess what I want to stress is that when we think about race and racism, it’s important to remember that recognizing people as human, both legally and emotionally, is something that whites gave themselves the authority to do centuries ago.  It’s part of white privilege. And, like all aspects of racism, it can’t be changed until it is faced.  It’s the human thing to do.

1 comment:

  1. Always enjoy your reflections on these important issues -- my concern moving forward is the drive for some to transcend humanity to move to something else (post-human). Evolution isn't occurring quick enough for these folks, so the quicker we jettison the human the better :(