Day Seventeen: A Running Diary Of My Reaction To A Claim Made By My Professor Of Racism In A Classmate’s Short Story
by Tom Noonan
On Monday, in my creative writing class, a class that seems competently dedicated to the complete destruction of words, my professor referred to a student’s writing as “racist”. The claim came in response to one character named “Mama” who, as it goes, was prescribed within the narrative as an impoverished black woman with an unrelenting moral backbone. Also, at some point in her naturally benevolent existence, she decided that it was a good idea to take in three orphan boys: one of Mexican descent and twins of what was essentially described as Aryan descent.
As the claim grew around the room and flattened us all under its weight, the professor took it further, asking the student if he had ever heard urban slang personally. This question referred to the dialogue used within his story as spoken by “Mama” and her three sons. The student said he unfortunately had never had the opportunity to inter-act with any type of urban-speaking population and had taken his cultural influences from sitcom dialogue. This was all at once a horribly disheartening and stunningly enlightening admission for multiple reasons.
The first, and most obvious, is that this student had only written about urban youth in the way American sitcoms had told him to write about urban youth. I started planning a march on CBS Studios in my head. Had “Two Broke Girls” done this to him? I began to worry about his future with any and all women.
The second, more troubling reason that this bothered me so much is that “Mama” didn’t speak like her three boys. The three boys said things like, “mayne”, and, “aw shit”, constantly, but it was “Mama” who inhabited a far more offensive stereotype. She said things like, “He gon’ hurt you naw.” Her structure of speech resembled Jim’s, and the white characters in his story were one use of “nigger” away from a complete reversion to the very dangerous pre-Lincoln-era racial departure. It was a lot to put on one, oblivious kid, but there was also a lot of risk in what was happening on the paper.
Then I though about the janitor in Rudy and how it doesn’t matter that he’s black, but it totally matters that he’s black.
And I thought about the criticism of Remember the Titans, that it simplified race-relations by boiling them down to a typical sports-training montage. And I thought about the Denzel speech (yes, that Denzel speech), and how all that criticism thrown at the movie was total bullshit. I thought about not having to worry about how simple or complicated race-relations had to be to make them meaningful. I thought about the human story of Julius and Gary. I thought about the bear hug Julius gives Gary’s not-too-sure-about-this-new-de-segregated-friendship-thing mother.
Then I thought about Woody Allen in Annie Hall momentarily appearing as a Hassidic Jewish man in front of Annie’s non-Jewish family.
And I thought about Eminem’s “White America” and Kanye rattling off, “elloelloelloello White America/assassinate my character” a few years later. I thought about that time he drunkenly stole Taylor Swift’s “aw-me?” expression at the VMAs and replaced it with one of genuine shock. I thought about what happened the next year, when he performed “Runaway” on the same stage, making the beat himself before urging anyone misguided enough to love him to literally run in the opposite direction. I thought about College Dropout. I thought about the holy union of The Throne and the most important lyric of 2011 as delivered by Jay-Z, “If you escaped what I escaped/You’d be in Paris getting fucked up too.”
Then I thought about Dave Chapelle and the pixies. I thought about his escape from fame. And I thought about who controlled that narrative.
Then I thought about that same student, and myself, and tried to come to terms with his version of events. I tried as hard as I could, giving him every opportunity to confuse pop-culture for social truth, even if his selection was unbelievably narrow in scope. But I couldn’t. I still can’t, and, honestly, I hope I’m never able to.