One of my regrets about my very spotty blogging as of lately is that I didn’t blog all the way through Laura Blumenfeld’s Revenge: A Story of Hope. I did eventually finish it, and was, I must say, completely gobsmacked by the ending — it was so cinematic I’m not 100% sure it actually happened, but it’s a great read. In one of the posts I did write about it, I mentioned her discussion of the role of revenge in bonding between families and others. “In aboriginal Siberia,” she writes, “the word for kindred families is cin-yirin, meaning ‘collection of those who take part in blood revenge.’”
I can’t escape the feeling that revenge has a role in the persistence of American racial identity. By creating a common grievance among black people, white Americans created a common motivation for revenge, and therefore, a common reason to fear them. I remember during the last presidential election, a commenter on a British newspaper’s online coverage wondered if Obama was going to take advantage of his position to take revenge against white people on behalf of black people — because that’s what the commenter himself would want to do, if he were a black American. Such notions seem pretty outlandish, especially when applied to Obama, but it has, I think, been bubbling in the American subconscious for a long time.
Probably the most illustrative case is Malcolm X. Although people worried about his inciting violence in his lifetime, his main form of racial vengeance was returning slander with slander. You think we’re an inferior race? Hey, you’re the inferior race! The story about a mad scientist creating the white race wasn’t original to him, but his rhetorical gifts made it weirdly compelling even to people who didn’t literally believe it. And I can’t help suspecting that, although Malcolm’s fans like to emphasize his late conversion from racism, he would not be so interesting a character if he didn’t give voice to that irrational sense of justice. An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, and a lie for a lie. This of course goes against the idea that justice is inseparable from truth — you must first find out what really happened — but in the old reciprocity ethic, it makes perfect sense. Slander is a form of injury that isn’t quite like anything else, and you probably can’t know what it feels like to think you’re the inferior race unless you do.
I don’t know any white person that believes the Nation of Islam’s theory of racial origins, but I have known some with at least a vague idea that theirs is a genetically nasty race. A co-worker I had some years ago claimed that the reason white people conquered most of the world is that “the Cro-Magnons ate the Neanderthals.” There are a lot of problems with that theory of course, but you can see how it’s really white supremacy turned on its head. There’s that old Paleolithic ancestor again, forming those traits that redound to the present day, only in this case it’s a bad thing.
Eventually, Malcolm X realized that the world is bigger than America’s racial conflicts. In his autobiography, he describes a stopover in Egypt on his way to Mecca, where he meets a white man who “didn’t feel like a white man.” It was a clue that American whiteness is a cultural identity, not a racial one, and a rather parochial cultural identity at that. Malcolm didn’t live long enough to form a full-blown alternative to his former views, but his story has been a source of hope every since. Maybe it is possible to go through revenge and come out the other side.