12 July 2010: An Evening with Damali Ayo
Damali Ayo, artist and comedian as well as author, delighted a decidedly heterogeneous audience at Busboys and Poets last Friday evening. To watch her perform, you would conclude that comedy is her calling, performance comedy. Such is her talent at absorbing and amusing, spontaneous and witty, with an underlying seriousness that mingles a spoonful of sugar with some very exigent medicine, removing the pestilence of racism from our society, as tough a challenge as cleaning up our environment before global warming removes this opportunity forever.
A graduate of Sidwell Friends School flanked to her right by a crowded tableful of "radical Quakers," Ayo was there to sell her new book Obamistan! Land Without Racism. Subtitled Your Guide to the NEW America, in the guise of glorifying the new, post-racism society Obama supposedly ushered in in 2008 (in our dreams), the book describes in detail the horrors of attempting to coexist with whites in a society dominated by their elitism, of which they are most of the time unaware. Ayo, for example, quotes Joe Biden's praise of his boss as "clean and articulate." What other U.S. president has ever been described that way? I agree that the words are coated with a deep-seated racism Biden isn't aware of. Evidently he didn't try to modify his assessment, as many whites do when, for example, conversing with an African American, they want to describe another African American as black and stumble over the words, unsure whether the other conversant will be insulted. If we're white, then they're black, even though we are flesh-colored and they are various shades of brown.
I once asked a black co-worker why we used the term "black" to describe people colored various shades of brown. She sarcastically referred the question to a Latino who was her boss. The Latino told me that Latinos were brown, while blacks in many cases, though certainly not always, were darker-hued. For that reason we should opt for a shortened form of African American, eliminating Afro, of course. Our society is used to neologisms in every category, so I pose this challenge to the word makers, wherever they are. In the guise of describing the new, enlightened society all non-whites probably dream of (probably?), Damali suggests "light skinned," "brown skinned," or "dark skinned." Better than anything I can think of. I do believe you have to have "been there," so to speak. If my forebears were butchered in concentration camps, that is not happening now. My experience of discrimination is an albatross of a past like a hump on my back. The problem of racism, though no longer slavery, has miles to go before a dark-hued person can walk down the street as invisibly as I can--at least in certain sections of town.I can of course relate to such horrific experiences, but as if I have one foot in white society and the other among the rainbow people.
The book sometimes evokes belly laughs, sometimes chuckles, and sometimes revulsion, as when Damali describes the ridicule experienced by other "people of color," including Asians: the words "ching chang" along with slanting one's eyes upward, which the author offers as an example.
Obamistan is "A," not "B." "B" describes "Old America." "A" describes the way things ought to be in a post-racism society. But to quote Alexander Hamilton as an enlightened founding father, as she does, is to miss the point that he inhabited a decidedly Old American society, which condoned slavery and, worse, the decimation of Native Americans, right within the hallowed lines of the Declaration of Independence.
"Race is a complicated, growing, evolving, and, well, diversified thing," she writes. People in Obamistan "know that a Tamil looks different from a Punjabi, and a Peruvian from a Guyanese."
Obama has arguably released at least as much racism as his elevation to the most powerful position in the world has demoted it. But if Damali agrees, I have yet to get to that ideation. I'm in the middle of the book. I once said that to be black is a fate worse than death, trying to put myself in the place of a black living in white society. Not so. Theirs is a rich and vibrant culture, becoming more and more of a foreign country as each racist day of their life comes and goes. Two black repairmen came to work on my high-speed cable router. They spoke Ebonics. I couldn't understand a word. A black co-worker asked me one day if I was "hangin' in." I had to ask her to repeat herself several times. I loved the phrase and wished she would teach me more. All I knew was "hanging in there" and appreciated her variation. Another day I asked another black coworker whether she liked my new frames--I was unsure whether to keep them or choose others. She said that they were ok but not really "wow." I have kept that in my vocabulary also. Blacks come into the office wearing styles I admire and can't find at Macy's or Lord and Taylor. I'm sure that if I went clothes shopping in a black neighborhood I would be treated politely.
Even the off-Broadway play Crowns depicts a very special world we don't relate to closely enough. What occurs to me is that if we don't transcend the linen, bamboo, or black curtains soon we will be more different than alike and alienation, instead of assimilation, will victimize our ailing society even more than it does now. The motto "E pluribus unum" has never seemed more illusive. What of the Civil War? Did it ever really end?
I am in the midst of this riveting text, anxious to get the word out because I am a week away from Damali's book signing, far more "colorful" and vibrant than 90 percent of the others I've attended. It was an experience in itself, the book an expression of my wish to extend the performanced of this multiply talented young woman fully up to the challenges of a society in flux. It is her generationher who will find the solution, if there is one, and with people like Damali at the helm, to inspire with her charisma as well as intellect, I am cautiously optimistic. I hope she can reach out much farther. The day she makes Dick Cheney laugh might be the first day of the real Obamistan, who knows? Our society is in as bad health as he is, but I like to think that there's more time left to us than a few years. If he can become tolerant of gays, forceably immersed in an experience he would normally shun, there is hope. Obama was right. "Yes we can!!" "Que si, sse puede!!"
Obamistan, the new Erewhon, is there for the taking. We must share the experience as fully as Cheney did, with one persecuted sector anyway. He, of all people, shows us what Obamistan can be: "wooden clogs, kilts, cheongsams, Afros, bindis, and turbans" peacefully and harmoniously coexisting.
I know there is more. As a middle-class white, I will read on and, even advantaged by my own family history and progressive politics, grow and learn.
I probably haven't written my last words about this book. Obamistan! is the best, most painless way to experience discrimination yourself from a native informant, so to speak. How would Cheney describe racism as opposed to homophobia? He certainly can justify one even as he opposes the other, though passively.