Earlier this week, I met an old friend with whom I’ve fallen out of communication. He came to America from Jamaica some two decades ago. We met while students at OPRF and while neighbors (he lived below me in a three-story apartment building on the margins of River Forest that’s since been razed).
Some nights I’d sleep over at his unit and he would brag to me about his brash aspirations — of being a Nascar driver, a pilot, a model, of generally making the most of his time in this land of the free and doing it, whatever it was, “big” (“go big or go home” was his motto). Unlike, from his perspective, African Americans who seemed to squander our centuries here because of our laziness, our dependency, our slave mentality, etc.
My friend was a fervent believer in the American Dream. And he had reason for his optimism. His adopted mother, who also emigrated here from Jamaica, was a professor at a reputable Chicago university who earned more herself than my Black American household of four combined. She eventually bought the apartment building our families inhabited and became our landlord.
His mother’s success, and the demonstrable economic success of so many Black immigrants (contrasted with the litany of Black American pathologies so easily Googled), fueled my friend’s passionately ignorant diatribes during the heated arguments that would often erupt between us whenever I broached the American reality.
For instance, my friend was so intent on putting a wall of separation between his Jamaican pride and my “failed” Black American culture, that he adamantly refused to identify as African American; refused to believe that slavery in Jamaica even existed; argued vehemently when I told him that Jazz and the Blues, our greatest American artistic expressions, were indeed invented by the Black and Brown descendants of enslaved people; refused to indulge my own assertion that Blackness is a source of undiminished pride and not shame.
And yet, my friend was a slavish fan of the Black men’s magazines that would line the shelves of the old Borders bookstore at Harlem and Lake; was a ravish consumer of some of the least edifying Hip Hop and the crass consumerism that comes with it; and, as he aged, would increasingly appropriate Black styles and mannerisms and sayings (“What up G?”) while consolidating his contempt for those aspects of Black culture that would have fortified his mind against the amoral materialism that was feasting on his soul like a brain-eating amoeba.
If only my friend had cultivated a relationship with the work of Black men like W.E.B. Du Bois or Carter G. Woodson; rather than Dwayne “Lil Wayne” Carter.
In his 20s, my immigrant friend’s big American dreams began to deflate before transmogrifying into their present form, now that he’s in his mid-30s and is no Jay Gatsby or Jay-Z — that is, a form of loss, of slow-cooked resentment, of a clumsy striving for agency and power and logic in a world thrown into chaos.
When I met him this week, one of his few days off from his job fueling airplanes, he was proudly maskless and conspiratorial. He shot off a barrage of questions, never pausing to entertain an answer.
Did I realize I was harming myself by wearing a mask? What was the difference between the flu and COVID-19? Did I know the virus was manufactured by the Chinese? Did I care that the world was overreacting to something that may not be real?
He recommended I watch some YouTube videos by some guy who has something to say about aliens. By that point, I had tuned out of our conversation and was thinking about a passage in Masha Gessen’s book “Surviving Autocracy,” in which she quotes the political philosopher Hannah Arendt.
“We know from experience that no one can adequately grasp the objective world in its full reality all on his own, because the world always shows and reveals itself to him from only one perspective, which corresponds to his standpoint in the world and is determined by it.
“If someone wants to see and experience the world as it ‘really’ is, he can do so only by understanding it as something that is shared by many people, lies between them, separates and links them, showing itself differently to each and comprehensible only to the extent that many people can talk about it and exchange their opinions and perspectives with one another, over against one another. Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world, as that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity and visibility from all sides.”
Gessen picks up on Arendt’s insight, explaining that “the ‘freedom of our speaking with one another’ depends on a shared language.” This is why the Trumpian attack on language “is an attack on freedom itself,” Gessen argues. The assault, she writes, is no less than an “autocratic attempt, the ultimate objective of which is to obliterate politics.”
If we can’t agree on shared terms of dialogue — if, for instance, a discussion about masks devolves into an attack on the mask wearer or a discussion about slavery devolves into a denial that it even existed (“When you hear about slavery for 400 years … For 400 years? That sounds like a choice” Kanye West says) — then the space for politics, for negotiation within time and space, closes and force intervenes.
My Jamaican friend is a case in point of how we’ve arrived at our current conspiratorial moment after years of gradual missteps. We are now a nation of millions of mis-educated, misguided, misaligned and, often times, miserably employed adult men.
They are uniquely susceptible to disinformation and Trumpian appeals to toxic masculinity. They believe that the election was rigged, because they believe that the world, which in their glorious youth they believed to be theirs for the taking, is, in fact, rigged against them.
Trump embodies their sense of victimhood and resentment and their last, best hope to get even. These men are of all races and ethnicities. They come from everywhere — from rural towns like Ottawa, Ill. to tony suburbs like Oak Park.
The American system of education and a genuinely rigged economy failed them all; reorienting education (away from preparation to work and consume toward preparation to participate in citizenship and community) and righting the economy (away from an unhealthy focus on GDP and growth, and toward meeting human needs and healing the environment), may be the only means we now have to get these men back.