Sunday, October 23, 2011

Am I My Brother's Keeper?

Potential GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain immediately elicits in my mind the Biblical story of Cain and Abel. The sons of Adam and Eve each brought an offering to God. God accepted Abel’s gift of firstborn stock but denied Cain’s gift of produce. In anger, Cain slew Abel. When God asked him where Abel was, Cain responded, “I know not. Am I my brother’s keeper?”
Does Herman Cain have an obligation to his African-American sisters and brothers? He said, “I am an American. Black. Conservative. I don't use African-American, because I'm American, I'm black and I'm conservative. I don't like people trying to label me. African- American is socially acceptable for some people, but I am not some people.”
Yet many blacks and other ethnic minorities don’t get to enjoy being American. They are labeled, not as proud Americans from diverse descendents, but by other people with derogatory terms. They are stereotyped, denied their individuality, denied opportunity and a level playing field, and condemned to fail more often than not. They aren’t given a choice. If it were as easy as announcing that one is American, we wouldn’t experience this insidious, pervasive racism in America. We would not have class warfare, the gap between classes growing wider. And when I say class warfare, I believe it is the wealthy wielding power and waging war, taking all they can take, and leaving many Americans in destitution.
Did Cain sell himself out? Yes. Yet I struggle to accept such a singular and harsh judgment. Was it through his wealth? There are many wealthy ethnic minorities in our country. Or was it his denial of racism? There are many people, black and white, who consider themselves colorblind. They believe we are in a post-racial time in our society. I think they are delusional but I find myself arguing that an individual has a right to believe what they believe and to process one’s experiences and interpret them in the way that makes sense to that individual. It’s what I expect for myself, so why not for everyone?
When Clarence Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court, I was shocked by his conservatism and his alleged sexism. I could not wrap my brain around the thought of a black man who agreed with conservative tenets that considered blacks as less human than whites. I didn’t get it. Then I remembered that there is no white face that represents all whites and no black face that represents all blacks. Why couldn’t a black man support conservatism without being labeled a misfit? Yet I feel uncomfortable when I hear of a conservative black man who agrees with Tea Party politics. I wonder how Cain could have reached that line of thinking. Could he willingly adopt the thinking of an oppressive majority?
Cain was also quoted as saying, “African-Americans have been brainwashed into not being open minded, not even considering a conservative point of view. I have received some of that same vitriol simply because I am running for the Republican nomination as a conservative. So it's just brainwashing and people not being open minded, pure and simple.”
But the very definition of liberal is to be open-minded and tolerant. It’s a paradox that conservatives are demanding open-mindedness to the acceptance of traditional values that preclude open thinking and exclude some to the benefit of others.
Sometimes I think giving Herman Cain voice and credibility is a ruse played out by the GOP, in the same way that I think Sarah Palin was a ruse. Only that backfired. Will Herman Cain backfire on them, too?
What of the founding principle of religious freedom? Cain said, “I would have to have people totally committed to the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of this United States. And many of the Muslims, they are not totally dedicated to this country. They are not dedicated to our Constitution. Many of them are trying to force Sharia law on the people of this country.”
Really? I’ve felt more pressure to succumb to evangelical dogma. I’ve worried more that Christian religious conservatives will demand law that makes moral choices for our citizens. They want to legislate the mixing of church and state, school curriculum, women’s rights to make decisions about their bodies, and whom we can marry. Is it so farfetched to believe that if they could pass federal legislation saying marriage is between a man and a woman that they would not go on to legislate that the man and woman must be of the same race, faith, even socio-economic class?
Is Herman Cain his brother’s keeper? I say yes, because I think we are each our brother’s keeper. We have to take care of one another, and that means not judging who is or who isn’t worthy – we are all worthy by virtue of our humanity.  But in the same breath and thought, I cannot fault or condemn someone for thinking he is not.
Do I like Herman Cain? No. I think he is a pompous, wealthy man who thinks very highly of himself and who thinks he has moved from being less than to being more than, based on his personal wealth and influence. Do I hate him? No. If I believe there is room for all of us, and if I believe in tolerance and open-mindedness, I have to mean it, and I mean it. I am my brother’s keeper.
I promised my brother I would post an excerpt from my memoir about him. Here it is.

(Excerpt from Chapter 4, The Ghetto Will Follow You, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)

In August, just weeks before school would be back in session, and Ronald and I would be back together, Ronald sat in his kitchen eating a hotdog inside a folded slice of bread slathered in mustard. He drank Coke from a bottle and wiped his mouth on the corner of the paper towel he had wrapped around the bread.
“Ronnie, I think someone is outside for you,” said his dad.
Ronald got up and went to the screen door. There was a large, overweight boy with brown hair down to his shoulders, a cigarette pinched between his right thumb and forefinger, and his left hand in his jeans pocket. He stared at the house. Ronald tells me he saw the resemblance in the shape of his eyes, the way his nose sat on his face, and his mouth turned down at the corners. It was my fifteen-year-old brother Andy.
Andy has told me this same story, but only recently, chatting with me on the computer, asking if I heard it before, typing LMFAO, and telling me he stole the infamous line from Dad. He had come to Syracuse to stay a few days at Rocco’s apartment where he smoked pot and drank Southern Comfort until his mind was a dull wash of nothingness. Then one day he went and stood outside the Hagans’ house and waited until Ronald came out.
Ronald stepped outside. “Do I know you?” he asked.
“You better. I’m Dianne’s brother.”
Ronald’s oldest brother Sylvester Jr. pulled up to the curb in his burgundy Grand Prix. He got out of the car. I imagine him dressed in jeans pressed with creases at the dry cleaners and a black tee that fitted his slender body like a second skin. His hair was hot-ironed straight and combed back with a small pompadour in front. He surveyed the scene. I think Andy must have looked overgrown and older than fifteen, a stubbly beard darkening his pale skin; Ronald must have looked small in comparison, with a few soft hairs growing above his top lip, years younger than his chronological age.
“Who’s this?” Sylvester Jr. asked.
“Dianne’s brother,” Ronald said.
“What’s he doing here?”
“I think he has something to say to me,” Ronald said.
“That’s right,” Andy said, pinching his cigarette and pointing it at Ronald, postured to say the line as if creating a scene on a movie set, “If I find out you’re using my sister as a fucking trampoline, I’m going to kill you.”
“I’ll hold him down for you,” said Sylvester Jr., smiling.

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