I am an American, Lebanese born. I cannot like Augie March claim to have Chicago in my ancestry, or the Pennsylvania Dutch country of Rabbit Angstrom, the Yoknapatawpha County of Faulkner’s tortured characters, the urban furies of Malcolm X, the Jewish manscapes of Alexander Portnoy or the great red deserts of Edward Abbey. Yet I feel those regions in my veins as if they’ve always been part of me, the way it’s impossible to remember anything before consciousness set in.
Immigrants usually can’t get enough of their new land. I certainly couldn’t get enough of mine even as I spent my first seven years in New York City, where there’s more America in a single block than there is in entire counties of the Great Plains. So I read every American writer I could get my hands on until, about 15 years later, I got the terrible job of traveling the entire country on my own for 15 months, all expenses paid, and writing about each of the 50 states, anything I pleased as long as it was 2,500 words a week. I felt I was in a menage a trois with Jack Kerouac and Al Tocqueville for those 15 months (which is probably why my future marriage briefly shattered).
I was born once. Then I had that rare chance to be born again, of my own choice, when I took the oath of citizenship and continued what turned out to be a literal journey, taking in this enormously redemptive country. I don’t mean to be maudlin about it, as you’ll see in a moment. I’m just noting to what extent one has choices, and to what extent this country accommodates those choices–up to a point.
The accommodation is not unique to the United States. Love of country is a wonderful thing. Middle-school chauvinism that declares this the greatest country in the world and the freest and the richest in opportunities is not, especially since empirical rankings make the chest-thumping sound like the squishing of man-boobs: whether it’s press freedom, economic freedom, economic equality, gender equality, social mobility, quality of life or quality of health care, the United States barely breaks the top-10 on occasion, and often falls nearer third-world status. But this is where I have chosen to be and where I have been happy to be, changing my religion, my name, my language, my nationality, and of course my identity. Because I can, and because there’s nothing wrong with doing so. The only wrong of it is that some of us get to make those changes much more easily than others. In other words, the ability to make that change is more of a privilege than a right, when privilege ought to have nothing to do with it. Privilege implies permission, the trap-door of submission to an authority other than oneself. That’s not freedom. It’s luck.
That “authority” is America’s odious fixation on ethnicity as defining anything more than a physical or geographical triviality.
I’m an Arab, but I can pass as “white,” a deception I’ve never corrected because it’s been convenient, and because certain Americans–few really, but enough to make you reach for a security system–can be idiots when it comes to Arabs these days. I can choose to identify as American without need for hyphenation, and most people will accept that, just as they would if I chose to identify as seventh day atheist (I like to mull it over the other six days) or if I chose to change my voting registration from either of the two degenerate parties to independent.
But imagine if I chose to identify as a woman. Or as a Cherokee. Or, god forbid, as black. Then all hell would break loose, not least because blacks, who sometimes think they own their color as much as whites thought they owned blacks, would fire up the flames. That’s the abyss of post-racial America. If we don’t deny or demean others’ races, we arm them with the worst of white impulses, segregating them, endowing them with one form of chauvinistic supremacy or another in the name of autonomy or pride or purity, and we define who’s allowed in and who’s not.
I’m not suggesting that blacks don’t “own” their history and culture. They’ve certainly earned the right to take back that ownership from the holocaust they endured. As a friend told me, “If you’re black in America you’ve been shit on. It’s universal. It’s a given.” But the ownership is not exclusive, otherwise it’s merely a turning of the supremacist’s table: Norman Jewison had as much right to make “Malcolm X” as Spike Lee did, just as Martin Scorsese, who at one point had the rights to the movie, could have made as good a “Schindler’s List” as Steven Spielberg did. “Don’t tell me black writers don’t have more insight about Malcolm than white writers,” Lee said in an interview in 1992, when he was explaining why he preferred black journalists to whites to interview him about “X.” No doubt. But don’t tell me that black writers alone can offer insights into that experience. How poorer our understanding of the civil rights era would have been without the writings of Murray Kempton, David Halberstam, Tom Wicker, Lillian Smith, Howard Zinn…
They get silly, these enumerations. But they’re the bullet-points of ethnicity’s delusions, and how powerfully those delusions have brutalized our history, how powerfully they shackle us still. One’s freedom in this country has its limits, one’s personal freedoms especially. Nothing exposes that better than the hypocrisies over identity.
I am reminded of Coleman Silk, the light-skinned black character who chooses to live his life as a white man in “The Human Stain,” Philip Roth’s 2000 masterpiece: “All he’d ever wanted, from earliest childhood on, was to be free: not black, not even white–just on his own and free. He meant to insult no one by his choice, nor was he trying to imitate anyone whom he took to be his superior, nor was he staging some sort of protest against his race or hers. He recognized that to conventional people for whom everything was ready-made and rigidly unalterable what he was doing would never look correct. But to dare to be nothing more than correct had never been his aim. The objective was for his fate to be determined not by the ignorant, hate-filled intentions of a hostile world but, to whatever degree humanly possible, by his own resolve. Why accept life on any other terms?”
There are no other terms if a culture is to live up to its pretensions of freedom. Yet with race in the United States, there is no such freedom. The ignorant, hate-filled intentions of a hostile world defined by the absurd color palette of skin pigmentation determine all. Put another way, in the words of the New York Times’ Charles Blow, “changing appearance and even cross-cultural immersion doesn’t alter the architecture of race that gave birth to and reinforced those differences in the first place.” That’s prison architecture. As with white America’s obscene one-drop rule that once declared black any person who had a single drop of black ancestry, why submit to its dictates? Why not expose the dictates for the untenable absurdities they are, the way Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier supposedly once told an American journalist that 98 percent of his people were white, since the one-drop rule could just as well apply the other way around (and few blacks escaped the white man’s rapes).
When people take the oath and choose to identity as American, there’s dancing in the streets. When a white person identifies as black or vice versa, there’s ridicule, hate or worse. I don’t see the difference between the two, except those differences imposed by skin color, which ought to be as ridiculous and irrelevant as differences imposed by hair or eye color, and those differences imposed by judgments and privilege, which are less ridiculous only because those judgments and privileges have written the bloodiest chapters of our history. It doesn’t make them less absurd but more so.
Just think back to Rachel Dolezal, the white woman who pretended to be black all the way to the head of an NAACP chapter, and whose serpentine story provoked one of the most useful conversations about race in years until it was hijacked by Dylann Roof’s more traditionally American massacre of nine black parishioners in Charleston. She insulted many people with her alleged “masquarade.” “I wonder,” the writer Terry McMillan tweeted, “what race Rachel would become if she got stopped by the police?” But you can be certain that if Dolezal had identified as black all the way to that Bible study group at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church that evening in June, had she been in the neighborhood, she would have been among those massacred. Roof would have probably called her what Scout called Atticus as he was pulling the trigger, if her tan wasn’t doing the job (assuming she didn’t pull a self-saving trick like she did at Howard University, asserting her whiteness when she felt discriminated against as a white woman).
Dolezal didn’t just identify as black. She lied and deceived and cheated, which weakened her case, though at one point in our history one-fifth of blacks who passed themselves off as white (a phenomenon explored long before Roth in the 1949 movie “Pinkie”) would have had to do likewise. It wasn’t until after his death that long-time New York Times book critic Anatole Broyard, born of Creole parents, was revealed to have “passed” as white all his adult life. His own children had no idea of their black ancestry and family back in Louisiana, though any suggestions of deceptions seem to me distasteful, or at least the sort of judgment none of us, black or white, has the right to make. “Anatole Broyard wanted to be a writer — and not just a ‘Negro writer’ consigned to the back of the literary bus,” Brent Staples wrote of his colleague. There is tragedy in the decision, but tragedy brought about not by the likes of Broyard, but by America’s ethnic prison. Escaping it is taken as a transgression, when it should be understood as no less than, say, one’s decision to adopt a new nationality. Whether by desire or resignation is not for us to judge.
I’ve had the luxury of choosing my new culture without abandoning my native one, a luxury–that privilege again–I can exploit as many other immigrants to this land, voluntary and involuntary, could not. I cannot fault those who see no choice but to abandon their former culture or race–or those who simply want to change culture because they choose to. Culture, including race, is a convention, not a scientifically definable identity. We’re all mutts to one degree or another. We all started from Olduvai. Only the prejudices of convention–racism in its rawest form–have kept us from defining ourselves as we wish to be defined, as opposed to the way you or my genealogy or society or history want to define you and me and the ancestors next door.
How confining. How unfree.
Political independence is easy. It’s a museum piece now, a cause for barbecues and sales. The right to choose to be who and what we want to be down to our most basic identity, including race, religion, sex and culture: that kind of independence has been harder to secure. Yet it is also what unalienable rights are about if they’re to mean anything at all to the individual, who’ll always matter more than the state, more than history or tradition. It’s what self-evident truths and freedom about, at their most fundamental.
That independence day is a long way off for most. But Caitlyn Jenner, a black president, gay marriage, 42 million immigrants and of course Siri suggest we’re on the right road. Sporadic splatter aside, America’s human stain is fading.