Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Listening to the news about Henry Louis Gates

This is a picture of me at my first book event--last Thursday at the Oak Park (IL) Public Library. At the moment this photo was taken, I was listening to my friend Richard read a passage from my book to the very, very wonderful audience that had gathered. You can probably see the tension in my hands as they grasp onto each other for dear life. Richard has a beautiful voice for reading, which is why I asked him to help me out, and he did a beautiful job. If I do say so myself, the passage he read (bottom of p. 54-57, for those of you who have a copy of my novel) sounded damn good.

But to get back to the theme of this blog--the discomforts of diversity--in that photo, I might as well be listening to the recent news about Henry Louis Gates's arrest in Cambridge, Mass. I know that people who are far more rhetorically savvy and adroit than I am (likely, including Gates himself) will be writing about this incident, but in this, my little corner of the universe, I want to say a few things about it anyway.

The first thing, as we all now know, is that he was in his own home. The second thing is that he had just returned from a trip to China, so he was likely somewhat strung out and jet lagged. The main thing, at least for me anyway, is the assumption in the story that one cannot raise one's voice with a police officer, or lose control in any way, regardless of circumstance. That one is not allowed to be indignant or stressed out or incredulous or uncooperative with a police officer under any circumstances. Now, I know that some of the order that reigns in our society has to do with the authority we give to police. I know the police have certain rights that no one else has. I know that the police officer in the Gates incident was likely just doing his job. But, come on. What if HL Gates lost it under these circumstances--even if he refused at first to show his ID, refused to step outside, talked back, acted out? Shouldn't he be able to say to the media, "Of course I lost it. Wouldn't you?"

Next point: We can never know how this incident would have played out if the homeowner had been white. But no one can seriously claim that race didn't figure in here somehow. Can they?


Anonymous said...

Probably, Gates has had similar experiences with the police, such as being stopped for "driving while black", and on that night, at that time, he'd finally had ENOUGH.

Susan Messer said...

Good point, anon. I've also heard the term "angry while black." Another possible crime.