In 1903, WEB DuBois wrote in The Souls of Black Folk that “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” He had his own solution to that problem—a traditional liberal arts college education—but plenty of other people, black and white, also offered suggestions. Booker T. Washington preferred technical education as a route to equality. For Marcus Garvey, the solution was for all those of African descent to return to Africa. For the members of the Niagara Movement, who included DuBois, the key to uniting the country was to “claim for ourselves every single right that belongs to a freeborn American, political, civil, and social” (“An Address to the Country” from the 2nd Annual Niagara Meeting, 1906). There was not a single solution to racial strife in America at the beginning of the century. Similarly, during the Civil Rights Movement, many important leaders, including Martin Luther King, Jr, had as their goal the abolition of segregationist laws and practices throughout the nation. Other African-Americans, such as Malcolm X, preferred to advocate for civil rights, but to keep African-American communities separated from whites. In both these periods, certain views predominated in White America—generally, the less violent, the more acceptable to middle-class white people, and the more likely that legislation would be passed in favor of African-American rights. But nothing came quickly or easily.
Last week, Hillary Clinton raised eyebrows—and hackles—by suggesting that the members of Black Lives Matter are “going to have to come together as a movement and say here’s what we want done about it” (you can find an account of this and her later exchanges with members of the movement here, among other places: http://www.cbsnews.com/news/hillary-clinton-to-black-lives-matter-what-do-we-do-next/). Clinton, who lived through the 1960s, prefers a traditional, legislative route to equality because, as she puts it, “I don’t believe you can change hearts.” The exchange between Clinton and Black Lives Matters members garnered both positive and negative comments for Clinton; on the one hand, she was praised for being practical; on the other, she was criticized for being patronizing. I would argue that both praise and criticism miss the point, which is surely increasing racial harmony and/or decreasing racial tension.
People involved in this discussion might do well to take a step back from it. While they are taking this step back, they might pick up a book; I can recommend Thanhhà Lại’s Listen, Slowly (New York: HarperCollins, 2015). This is not a book about racial tension, but cultural tension—and middle school drama. Mai is a twelve-year-old Southern Californian with highlighted hair and a friend named Montana who is forced to give up her summer at the beach for a trip to help her grandmother discover what happened to her grandfather in “THE WAR”—which is how Mai thinks of the Vietnam War. Mai loves her grandmother, but hates Vietnam with its heat and its lack of privacy and its difficult language. She would rather be in California, making sure that Montana is not stealing the boy that she likes, and at first she does her best to sabotage her time in Vietnam (even to the point of claiming that all American women wear thongs, and teaching her aunties and cousins to cut up their underwear to be more “fashionable”).
Listen, Slowly is an excellent book, not least because it does not make Mai (too much) more noble than the average tween (though perhaps she is a bit more erudite, thanks to her SAT-obsessed mother). And the lessons it offers about cross-cultural interaction and dealing with the past are both poignant and pertinent, and not just to Vietnamese-Americans. Early on in the book, Mai, eager to return as quickly as possible to her comfortable life, asks her teenage translator, “Exactly how long does it take to accept something?” (86). Anh Minh replies only, “That is the billion-dollar question.” Mai wants her grandmother to accept that her grandfather was killed during THE WAR so that they can go home; but the reader knows that Mai is taking her own time to accept that she is not just a California girl. Her mother tells her on the second page of the book “about roots and blood and then continued ad nauseam about accepting what’s embedded inside one’s soul” (2), but it is not until the last page of the book—over two hundred pages later—that Mai decides to stay in Vietnam long enough to learn the difficult language and see some of the land of her heritage.
She can make this decision because she no longer feels as isolated and out of place as when she arrived in Vietnam. Her ability to understand the language—something she could do as a young child but shed upon entering American schools—has grown, and she learns she can communicate on a basic level in Vietnamese, and help her cousin to do the same in English. Her success at listening has made her eager to learn more. Therefore, she is ripe for her grandmother’s proclamation that, “I tell you of loss, my child, so you will listen, slowly, and know that in life every emotion is fated to rear itself within your being. Don’t judge it proper or ugly. It’s simply there and yours” (254-255; italics in original). Mai can translate her grandmother’s speech, but still does not understand it yet: “I nod even though I’m just as confused by her talk as I was by Dad’s,” she says. She only understands on one level at this point—but she’s willing to keep trying.
So: the past is sometimes ugly, sometimes sad. The past and the present are impossible to separate from each other. Language is difficult. Understanding is difficult. Everything takes time. These are lessons that can apply to all Americans, from those who are privileged enough to take legislative justice for granted to those who have not found any kind of justice in hundreds of years. Maybe if we can begin—all of us—to listen, slowly, we may be able to do the impossible, Hillary: we may even be able to change some hearts.