December 21, 2006

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Aesthetic Unrealistic
Answer to Racism

By Usavior

n my experiences as an activist and a champion against racism, I have learned how important it is for analytical and critical thinkers to bring to light any organizations, doctrines or philosophies that would seek to "pimp" Black peoples’ struggle for racial justice and reparations. It is the moral duty of conscious individuals to expose anyone that would prey upon people’s desperate hopes for an end to their oppression. In keeping with that, I would like to discuss a recent book that disturbs me greatly because the authors are guilty of the above. The title of the book:

Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism

This book of articles by Alice Bernstein and others claims to have the answer to racism. Such an improbable claim is akin to hearing someone announce they have discovered the cure for cancer, only to find that they are presenting you with a nicely packaged placebo.

In brief, Aesthetic Realism is a philosophy, founded by Eli Siegel in 1941, which is based on, among others, this premise:

The first victory of contempt is the feeling in people that they have the right to see other people and things pretty much as they please.  For this reason, the viewpoint of Aesthetic Realism that we have an obligation to see everything as well as we can, is a critical matter.

The fact that most people have felt there is no such obligation, that they had the right to see other people and other objects in a way that seemed to go with comfort—this fact is the beginning of the injustice and pain of the world.  It is contempt in its first universal, hideous form.

At first glance, there isn’t a whole lot to disagree with here. However….

When you delve into the collection of articles that make up the book, the predominantly white voices speaking out in favor of Aesthetic Realism, sprinkled here and there with a few token Blacks, suggests the same dynamic that exists in our society. How can you have the answer to racism when the voices of those who suffer most from it are so vastly under-represented?

Aesthetic Realism’s allegorical approach put forth in this book is flawed as well. There are too many references to inanimate objects in an attempt to explain human beings and racism. People are not rugs, statues, poems, quilts or museum exhibits. As one author attempts to do, you cannot equate mere skin color, or cellular structure and function with live flesh and blood people and their experiences with racism. The so-called answer to racism presented in this book is not dealing with the effects of racism at all. It doesn’t take into account the pain and suffering of real individuals. Instead, it deals with some of the character flaws that make for mean people. I liken these writings to the early white abolitionists who spoke out against slavery only in the privacy of their own living rooms and who saw their slave owning brethren as poor misguided fools who were behaving like spoiled children that didn’t know how to play fair and who would hopefully come around after a gentle chiding.

A lot of the Aesthetic Realism rhetoric is disseminated on a childlike level. The approach seems to be focused on dealing with children. But children learn racism from their parents and their immediate surroundings. As for adults, it would seem to me that unless a person is easily duped, you aren’t going to be able to convince them to cease and desist with racist attitudes and behaviors by telling them a story, as another article does, about the green brush stroke who didn’t like brush strokes that were other colors. Nor can this one story combat rhetoric that is repeated in the home. So this information only works for those who’ve bought into Aesthetic Realism. What about the rest of the world?

In Alice Bernstein’s article "Words, Truth and the Confederate Flag," she quotes the leader of Aesthetic Realism, Ellen Reiss, speaking about the racism that the confederate flag represents. However, dealing with symbols is one thing. Dealing with the realities upon which those symbols are based is something else entirely.

In his article "Contempt: the Cause of Racism," Edward Green cites Ellen Reiss’ statement that people who set fire to Black churches feel, "Black persons have no right to see themselves as related to the biggest thing there is: the cause of the world, or God….worship of God should not be for them because they are so much less valuable than oneself is."

First of all, Black people were bought over to this country from Africa and told that they were savages because they did not practice Christianity. Second, Christianity was used as a justification to enslave Black people. So Christianity was literally forced down the African’s throat to begin with.

Second, Black churches in the South were bombed and attacked because they were usually the site for planning actions against oppression. Since their enslavement, Black people have long used churches as safe houses, or strategy bunkers to develop ways in which they could fight for their freedom. They weren’t just happy Negroes content to rejoice in the Lord. This statement by Reiss is once again the voice of a disconnected white person attempting to oversimplify Black people’s experience and ability to comprehend and deal with the racism they live with every day.

There are some very good, noble people who have within themselves varying levels of contempt. They have contempt for racism, for violence, contempt for those who practice and preach hatred. But do these same individuals engage in the systematic brutalization of people of color? The behavior of the white man extends beyond contempt. This is the mindset of a rabid conqueror and suggests that the white man’s deepest desire is not to know, love and respect the world around him, but to conquer and subjugate it, thereby securing his own future and feeding his greed.

Subjugated people desire to survive and to be free.

The pictures throughout this book of happy darkies who have been set free by the teachings of Aesthetic Realism, or who unwittingly practice them without being taught, belies the inherent racism of the authors. Bernstein even commends a Black man with well-founded reasons for mistrusting whites for "putting aside his misgivings" and entering into a contract with a white man.

I almost didn’t comment on (yes, because it filled me with contempt) the fact that Bernstein actually idolizes Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and the way he just tap danced his happy self through life, and that his dancing feet and smiling Black face filled her with hope. For what I wonder?

Nowhere in this book did I read one article that dealt with the issue of reparations. No one talks about righting the wrongs that have been committed against people of color. So how do we combat the effects of racism? Do we simply try to prevent it from happening in the future? What about the millions of people who are victims every day? What hope can they have for their own futures? Aesthetic Realism hasn’t answered any of these questions.

The truth is that it is Black people who have the answer to racism because only Black people will be able to hold white people accountable in the way that they need to be held accountablein ways that they can see and touch and feel. Only Black people can define what they are owed and convey the suffering they’ve had at white hands. It is arrogant for white people, such as the ones authoring this book, to even suggest that they have any such answers. What they are saying is merely that somehow a wrong was done, not necessarily that they are accountable, but that they will define racism, define the victim’s experience of racism, and define and dictate the ways in which it ought to be dealt with. The only thing that white people must do is renounce all the things that allow for their privilege. They must stop saying the things that perpetuate an imbalanced society; they must stop assuming that poor colored folk need to be enlightened by them and rescued by them. They must stop subjugating, objectifying, rationalizing, brutalizing and oversimplifying.

Our value as human beings lies in what we can do to help the next man, what we can do with our two handsnot only our lips or our pento make the world better.

Only then will racism truly end.


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