Coming through the Fire: Surviving Race and Place in America

Coming through the Fire: Surviving Race and Place in America

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by C. Eric Lincoln
     
 

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In Coming through the Fire, prominent scholar and writer C. Eric Lincoln addresses the most important issue of our time with insights forged by a lifetime of confronting racial oppression in America. Born in a small rural town in northern Alabama, raised by his grandparents, Lincoln portrays in rich detail the nuances of racial conflict and control thatSee more details below

Overview


In Coming through the Fire, prominent scholar and writer C. Eric Lincoln addresses the most important issue of our time with insights forged by a lifetime of confronting racial oppression in America. Born in a small rural town in northern Alabama, raised by his grandparents, Lincoln portrays in rich detail the nuances of racial conflict and control that characterized the community of Athens, personal experiences which would lead him to dedicate his life to illuminating issues of race and social identity. The contradictions and calamities of being black and poor in the United States become a purifying fire for his searing analyses of the contemporary meanings of race and color.
Coming through the Fire, with its fiercely intelligent, passionate, and clear-eyed view of race and class conflict, makes a major contribution to understanding—and thereby healing—the terrible rift that has opened up in the heart of America. Lincoln explores the nature of biracial relationships, the issue of transracial adoption, violence—particularly black-on-black violence—the “endangered” black male, racism as power, the relationship between Blacks and Jews, our multicultural melting pot, and Minister Louis Farrakhan.Without sidestepping painful issues, or sacrificing a righteous anger, the author argues for “no-fault reconciliation,” for mutual recognition of the human endowment we share regardless of race, preparing us as a nation for the true multiculture tomorrow will demand.
Readers familiar with Lincoln’s earlier groundbreaking work on the Black Muslims and on the black church will be eagerly awaiting the publication of Coming through the Fire. Others will simply find C. Eric Lincoln’s personal story and his exploration of survival and race in America to be absorbing and compelling reading.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“The first consciousness of race comes early. It is not something you learn in the same way you learn about stinging caterpillars or poison ivy. You do not have to learn it from some overt experience. It is a pervasive awareness, an insidious thing that seeps into the soil of consciousness, sending its toxic tendrils deep into the walls of the mind. It is like a mold, a blight. If you scrape it away here, you find it mockingly virulent there. Once the concept of race takes root in the mind, it is there to stay. You cannot run away from it because it is inside you. . . . In the South, where I was raised, the pervasive awareness of race was helped along by a series of ‘lessons’ learned in the process of growing up. These lessons were sometimes impromptu, and often impersonal, but they were never unplanned or unintended. They were always there in the arsenal of race and place waiting for the most effective moment for inculcation.”—From Coming through the Fire
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Noted scholar Lincoln (The Black Church in the African-American Experience) mixes reminiscence with commentary in a textured, wise meditation on race. He learned lifelong lessons in Jim Crow Alabama, beaten at 13 by a white cotton gin owner. He reflects on his stimulating high school education, thanks to Yankee schoolmarms and how W. J. Cash's famous The Mind of the South insultingly left out black folk. He attempts to untangle the tensions between blacks and Jews and muses on the evolution of the black church and group identity. Lincoln warns that black violence is part of historical American violence; only a reclamation of values and a recognition of Americans' joint future will solve our racial dilemmas. Some of his prescription may be vague, but he also includes savvy advice, suggesting that transracial adoption offers the chance to "start undoing the racial mischief at its source." (Apr.)
Publishers Weekly - Cahners\\Publishers_Weekly
Noted scholar Lincoln (The Black Church in the African-American Experience) mixes reminiscence with commentary in a textured, wise meditation on race. He learned lifelong lessons in Jim Crow Alabama, beaten at 13 by a white cotton gin owner. He reflects on his stimulating high school education, thanks to Yankee schoolmarms and how W. J. Cash's famous The Mind of the South insultingly left out black folk. He attempts to untangle the tensions between blacks and Jews and muses on the evolution of the black church and group identity. Lincoln warns that black violence is part of historical American violence; only a reclamation of values and a recognition of Americans' joint future will solve our racial dilemmas. Some of his prescription may be vague, but he also includes savvy advice, suggesting that transracial adoption offers the chance to 'start undoing the racial mischief at its source.'

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780822317364
Publisher:
Duke University Press Books
Publication date:
03/28/1996
Pages:
168
Product dimensions:
5.81(w) x 9.60(h) x 0.86(d)
Lexile:
1390L (what's this?)

Read an Excerpt

Coming Through the Fire

Surviving Race and Place in America


By C. Eric Lincoln

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7843-3



CHAPTER 1

NOTES ON RACE

America My native land How long this road since freedom.

— C. ERIC LINCOLN,

This Road since Freedom


Coming through the Fire began as "Notes on Race" in the series of journals I kept from 1941 until they were destroyed by fire fifty years later. I am not exactly certain of what I intended to do with the thousands of entries made under "Race," but I found the whole matter of racist behavior fascinating and spent many, many hours over the decades detached from my own involuntary participation in the phenomenon, trying to understand its logic and account for its pervasiveness.

Some of my "Notes on Race" found their way into other writings, such as my novel (The Avenue, Clayton City), my poetry (This Road since Freedom), and a book of essays called Race, Religion, and the Continuing American Dilemma. But the sheer volume and variety of my racial experience, personal and vicarious, would require the innocence of uninhibited imagination to accept as true. Such an innocence is hard to come by in this age of hypersophistication, even though my experiences are scarcely unique. In fact, they were routine and even normative in the settings in which they occurred. Many of the racial encounters I remember most vividly seem especially cruel for what they did to the children who were so generously misendowed with the legacies of hatred and denigration endemic to the culture.

Once, I was on a train going from Chicago to St. Louis when "Dinner in the diner!" was announced. I joined the line of passengers moving slowly into the dining car and found myself directly behind a well-dressed young matron with a child of five or six clinging possessively to her mother's skirts as she discovered me looming above her.

"Mommie," the little girl announced in a confidential stage whisper: "Mommie, there is a 'zigaboo' behind you!" The mother turned and looked squarely into my eyes. Did she see a "zigaboo?" I wondered. She gave no hint.

"Shut up!" the mommie said, turning a bit rosy, "just shut up!"

"But Mom-mee," the little tyke insisted, and this time with more exasperation than confidentiality, "Well there is so an old black you-know-what on this train, and he's standing ...!"

"Penny will you just please shut up?" the mother snapped above the cacophony of snickers that rippled down the dinner line. She then dragged the very frustrated and bewildered young child back into the lounge car. I worried that the little girl would miss her dinner because nobody had yet told her when to just think "zigaboo" (whatever that is!) without announcing it to all creation. You don't have to make announcements to people whose racial receptors have already made the determinations for themselves.


Some experiences are so bizarre as to defy all reason.

In the wake of the television presentation of Alex Haley's classic Roots, many Americans journeyed to Africa in search of their own ancestral moorings, while some others just went to see what the noise was all about. On one occasion I found myself in the airport at Accra, Ghana, whiling away the time until my plane would leave for New York. The airport was teeming with black faces as far as the eye could see: Ghanians, Nigerians, Ivoreans, Senegalese, Christians, Muslims, etc., in European dress or distinctive tribal costumes. Suddenly my eyes met those of a tall, bronzed, gray-haired Westerner sporting a ten-gallon Stetson hat, hand-decorated western boots, a string tie, and, as it turned out, a very sonorous Texas drawl. The "Texan" was the only "white" person in sight, and he was headed directly toward me. He strode over to where I was standing, pushed his Stetson back a bit, and stared down at me, his gray eyes twinkling with uninhibited pleasure as they squinted through the crow's-feet etched by a thousand Texas dust storms. Touching my arm with a gesture of camaraderie, he asked in a friendly, almost confidential voice: "You wouldn't be from the United States, would you, Pardner?" I confirmed that I was.

"Well, by Gawd, I-just-be-dawg-bite!" he exclaimed joyously "Well I'm from there, too. Texas! That's where I'm from! You just come on with me! I-jest-be-dawg!"

Grasping my arm he enthusiastically escorted me through the crowd to where his wife sat intensely watching the hordes of black Africans passing to and fro.

"Mother!" the Texas man exulted, "Why, Mother, this here man is one of us! Dawg-bite-if-he-ain't!" He was almost dancing with satisfaction as he thrust me toward the startled white woman who seemed already overwhelmed by the blackness surrounding her. She looked pleadingly into her husband's eyes as if to remind him that this was not his first rumpling of her sense of self.

Finally she said, "Well, I don't know, Albert," carefully folding her hands and shrinking deeper into the security of her plastic chair. "When will our plane be leaving?"

The bubble of euphoria burst. Dog-bite if it didn't!

During World War II, when all travel below the Mason-Dixon Line was still rigidly segregated, I had another dining-car experience that was considerably less innocuous. Proudly wearing the uniform of the United States Navy I traveled from the East Coast to San Diego on a train carrying German prisoners of war into the western interior of the country. The Germans had the run of the diner, but because I was black, whenever I went there to eat I had to be seated behind a curtain lest my presence, even in the military uniform of my country, offend the honor and spoil the appetites of our Caucasian guests from Nazi Germany, whose mission and whose intention was to destroy us.

Racial presumption is such a powerful cultural residuum that long after social and moral reforms have taken place, it sometimes triggers quixotic expressions or behavior which would be humorous were it not for their tragic implications. After the war I returned to school and eventually wound up in graduate school at Boston University, where once again I encountered the tender innocence of a racist child who had been taught to despise and hate black people, but with a dignified show of courtesy and good manners. I lived at the time in a university apartment complex for graduate students at 14 Buswell Street. One Saturday morning I returned from the grocery store to find a little blonde-haired girl straining valiantly to reach the button on the elevator. "Would you like me to push it for you?" I asked.

"No!" she protested. "No! I want to do it for myself. Lift me up and I will do it." I set my groceries down and did as I was asked.

"Thank you very much," she said sweetly as the elevator rumbled toward the ground floor. Then she added as a sort of afterthought, "But I don't like you 'cause you're black!"

"Oh, I don't think you mean that," I said and offered her an apple from my bag of groceries.

"Thank you very much," she said with the graciousness of a little cherub. "But I still don't like you because you're black! You're black all over! And your hands are black!" With that she threw the unbitten apple on the floor and ran up the stairs, leaving the elevator to me and my blackness. All over.

In the summer of 1986 Duke University Dean of the Chapel Robert "Bob" Young and I went on a fishing trip in rural South Carolina. Just before dark in the midst of a rainstorm we were deposited by friends at a remote cabin on a remote lake deep in a forest in an area unfamiliar to either of us. Late that same night, at the height of the storm, Dr. Young had a heart attack. I was faced with the necessity of getting emergency attention for a very sick white man in rural South Carolina in the middle of a very dark and stormy night. It turned out to be quite an adventure.

It took three hours to find our way out of the woods and into a town where there was a hospital. Everybody we approached regarded us with suspicion, and at one isolated farmhouse the dogs were released and I was waved off with a shotgun. We finally found a small hospital and Bob was admitted there about three o'clock in the morning. I went up to his floor and asked to see him before calling his wife back in Durham.

"Now what might you want?" the elderly white nurse on duty asked testily when I approached the nurse's station.

"I'd like to see Reverend Robert Young," I said. "I'd like to speak with him for a moment if that is possible."

"Well, now, you can't do that," the nurse said. "Why, if you talking about the preacher they brought in here, well he's done been placed in intensive care, and can't nobody see him but a member of his family"

"Well, that's me, I'm a member of his family," I said, letting myself in under the generic wire. "I'm the only member of his family here."

"Well Lord-a-mercy!" she exclaimed looking intently at my face. "Just how in the world could that be?" she wondered aloud. "Why no wonder he's so sick. Why that there preacher, he's done been sick a long, long time, and I reckon the doctor's gonna be sick too when he finds out what room I put him in. My-Lord-a-mercy!"


Many of the behaviors I encountered coming through the fire are no longer in vogue, of course, but the spirit that gave those behaviors currency lives on and continues to express itself in ways that are as destructive of character and community as ever. The notion of race and place remains deeply embedded in the American psyche and is an inevitable concomitant to every aspect of American life. This book begins by relating a spectrum of the racial experiences that plowed the ground of my personal consciousness and planted there the seeds of a conventional interpretation of reality by which I was expected to live. Or die. I did not, could not, and do not accept that interpretation as either final or creditable, and the remainder of the book is a series of selective responses to those conventional realities across a lifetime of unremitting challenge.

However, this book does not intend to be an autobiography—certainly not in the conventional sense. While the selected experiences shared here are quite real and are intrinsic to my personal sense of identity and significance as a human being, they are not the sum of my life. There is a great deal more to the privilege of matriculating reality than the underside of the human predicament. Throughout the centuries-long rape of Africa, somewhere flowers bloomed, music played, and the awesome majesty of Kilimanjaro bore compelling testimony of the judiciousness of survival. When the savagery of Aryanism eclipsed a thousand years of German civilization in a spasm of unspeakable horror, neither the Jews in the death camps nor the directing Nazi Germans were ready to raze the cathedrals or the synagogues and capitulate to the inevitable triumph of evil. The triumph of evil is never inevitable until the resuscitation of good has been abandoned. Life is episodic, and it encompasses multiple planes of experience. The trick is to coordinate and integrate the diversity so as to produce maximum clarity and meaning, or living is reduced to mere existence—a concatenation of spasms in the flux. There is an aspect of the human spirit which recognizes something beyond the exigency of the moment; something beyond the rape of Africa; beyond the holocaust of Nazi chauvinism and genocide. And there is something beyond the agony and the ignominy, the destructiveness and the sheer inconvenience of race and place in the United States. And while I do indeed commit myself irrevocably to the search for the realization of the promise of what must be beyond what has been and what now is, what I say here is hardly biography because it is addressed essentially to but a single syndrome of the human predicament. True biography searches out the integrality of a significant life, and from the sum, the total experience reflected through the prism of history, we may derive new insights for other lives in the process of becoming. I have no such ambitions, and the commentary which follows is but another dimension of my response to the presumptions that would hold me hostage in my own camp.

There may be an element of catharsis, and sometimes even humor, in the retelling of the racial slurs that have been transcended and the slights that have been overcome, for twice-told tales that end in "success" have a way of trivializing the horror that made them worth telling. Nevertheless, the catharsis is fleeting, and the humor shared under the most benign circumstances does not always narcotize the dismay that begins deep in the recesses of the soul, beyond the acquittal of the intellect or the healing erosions that chasten the memory. The pain often endures, despite the best intentions of social lobotomy for the scars are still there, and sometimes the flesh beneath them festers.

What lies ahead is an attempt to add perspective to raw experience. The practice of racism is not an abstraction; it produces patterns of behavior which involve real people in highly stressful conflicts of interests and expectation. Nor can one "stand outside the self," as it were, and learn very much about what is going on. The individual self is too involved. The self is a part of the problem—a critical component in the maintenance of an ethos that shapes the society the way it is. The stakes—the investments in the game—are high, so high that serious, constructive, open-minded dialogue between the parties of disparate interests is seldom attempted. Transsocial conversation in America is either trivial and inane or vengeful and vindictive. It is done primarily in the courts or in other areas of adversarial association. In consequence, nobody knows what it's like to be socially confined except those who are, and that is the way the strategy of confinement is ordered. Perhaps Americans would change our ways if we could see a little more clearly in juxtaposition to each other, and if we could bring ourselves to speak candidly about what we see.

Just the other day the Honorable Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, leaked the information that all African Americans have to do to be accepted is be successful. "Nobody would object if General Colin Powell moved next door," Mr. Gingrich opined. One wonders how a man smart enough and "successful" enough to have serious aspirations for the American presidency could be so droll, except that Mr. Gingrich's selective naivete is strictly in keeping with the need not to know that keeps the system intact. Such political pundits need fear no enlightenment from the universities, where "learning" is even more selective than what the politicians know; nor yet from the churches, where an "apology for the racism of our fathers" is somehow expected to exonerate this generation from the consequences of its behavior. Nevertheless, the Southern Baptists who made that gesture by public resolution have at least put themselves on the record for thinking about the problem, and that suggests that they just may have caught a vision of what must lie beyond our present intransigence. If there is such a vision, it is a vision I share, and the essays which follow are addressed to its realization.

Because the notion of race and place saturates American life, every serious human response is ultimately a racial response because the problem to which it is addressed is almost certain to be rooted in the infrastructure of the American commitment to a pervasive doctrine of race and place. Hence, whether one is concerned about the plight of young black males, the responsibilities of thinking, the possibilities of justice, or the meaning of identity, that concern will be shaped and conditioned in the peculiar mix of conventions which structure our values and dictate the politics of our response. The specter of race will out! And if it is not determinative, it will be the critical factor in the process of determination.

CHAPTER 2

THE FIRE IN ALABAMA

What is black What is white What does it mean To be American?

— C. ERIC LINCOLN,

This Road since Freedom


THE NOTION OF RACE

I don't know precisely when it was that I was first aware of race as a factor in all of the meaningful experiences in my life. Race as a matter of physical differentiation I knew and understood, of course, almost from the moment of self-awareness. People were physiologically different, even in my own family. Some were tall, some short; some fat, some lean; some had pronounced cheekbones, others had more rounded faces. Some were box-ankled, pigeon-toed, slew-footed, or bowlegged; some were light-skinned, some were dark, but all were family. Family to love and be loved by. If I thought about race at all, I'm sure I thought about it as an extension of "family." I saw people on the street who were taller and shorter, lighter and darker than the folks at home, but it never occurred to me that because they were not the precise clones of the people I played with and ate with and went to church with, they were, or wanted to be considered a totally different order of beings, a people apart. That didn't make sense. People are just people—no more, no less. How can there be a people apart from people?


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Coming Through the Fire by C. Eric Lincoln. Copyright © 1996 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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