Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Race Car

I don't profess
To be no teacher
But these are my latest outlooks
- "Licking Stick-Licking Stick"
by James Brown

For many years now, I've been receiving a subscription to National Geographic as a Christmas present from my parents. Regardless of whether I give an issue the full read or just flip through to check out the photography, time spent with the venerable mag (and being reminded what an enormous and complicated and beautiful planet we live on) is usually a bright spot in the day.

When the February 2008 issue arrived, however, I wasn't sure what to make of the cover when I first saw it. The feature article is titled "The Black Pharaohs: Conquerors of Ancient Egypt," and my first reaction was "Race issues seem to be almost inescapable lately." Of course, I quickly remembered that February is Black History Month and that the timing of this article has absolutely nothing to do with the ongoing Kelly Tilghman "Lynch (Tiger Woods) in a back alley" imbroglio that has dominated the airwaves of late.

I read the article and found it fascinating and thought provoking in all the best ways. The article basically tells the story of a period beginning in 750 B.C. when Piye, the ruler of Nubia, invaded Egypt to expel the ruling warlords who had abandoned the "true pharoanic customs" and spirtual traditions. For 75 years, Piye, and then his son Taharqua, restored Egypt to its former glory, all under the rule of the dark-skinned Nubians.

Some good trivia for you- Sudan has more pyramids than Egypt.

I had never really known specifically where (or when) "Nubia" was (despite listening to a fair amount of Brand Nubian in college).

Nubia (or "Kush," as it was called in the Bible) was the name for the region to the south of Egypt, along the Nile and in what is now northern Sudan. Most of Nubia was situated in Sudan with about a quarter of its territory in Egypt. Around 350 AD the area was invaded by the Ethiopian kingdom of Aksum and the kingdom collapsed. (culled from wikipedia)

This quote from the article (written by Robert Draper and photographed by Kenneth Garrett) jumped off the page at me:

The ancient world was devoid of racism. At the time of Piye’s historic conquest, the fact that his skin was dark was irrelevant. Artwork from ancient Egypt, Greece, and Rome shows a clear awareness of racial features and skin tone, but there is little evidence that darker skin was seen as a sign of inferiority. Only after the European powers colonized Africa in the 19th century did Western scholars pay attention to the color of the Nubians’ skin, to uncharitable effect.

The stark way that opening sentence reads just blew me away. Can that REALLY be true? And if it's a historical fact, as it appears to be, why isn't it common knowledge?

More interesting words on the topic from an unlikely source- the new, souped up version of Dictionary found in Mac OSX's Leopard, found when looking up the word "race":

Although ideas of race are centuries old, it was not until the 19th century that attempts to systematize racial divisions were made. Ideas of supposed racial superiority and social Darwinism reached their culmination in Nazi ideology of the 1930s and gave pseudoscientific justification to policies and attitudes of discrimination, exploitation, slavery, and extermination. Theories of race asserting a link between racial type and intelligence are now discredited. Scientifically it is accepted as obvious that there are subdivisions of the human species, but it is also clear that genetic variation between individuals of the same race can be as great as that between members of different races

Once we know there was a time when racism was simply not an issue, does it give us hope that one day we can recapture that collective state of mind?

This record came out 40 years ago: are race relations better or worse now?

I would love to feel that hope, but based on the evidence all around me it sure ain't looking good. I see so many people perpetually preoccupied with matters of race, often to the point that it appears to become debilitating. Not because of racism applied by exterior forces, but by the inner turmoil caused when stoking the fires of anger and resentment no longer seems to be a conscious choice. It is certainly not my place to tell anyone how to feel, but still I sometimes wish that it was possible to let those fires burn out instead of constantly adding new fuel.

In surfing around reading about Nubia, I came across this page describing an episode from the 1990s PBS series "Wonders of the African World." This pullquote from the end says some of the things I've been feeling more eloqently than I can:

It is to be hoped that in the new millennium all Americans will come to grasp -- what neither Reisner and his contemporaries, on the one hand, understood nor the modern Afrocentrists, on the other, understand -- that proper study of the past is not attainable unless we can identify and transcend our own biases. At some point we will all need to recognize that "the race to which we belong" -- to use Bayard Taylor's phrase -- is neither black nor white, but simply human, with all its extraordinary creative abilities and all its eternal failings.

it seems the only way to win is not to race at all

It's interesting to me that the word race means "a group of people sharing the same culture, history, language, etc.; an ethnic group," but it also describes a type of competition. As we all know, in competitions there must be a winner and a loser, and in many races, no matter who wins or loses, everyone eventually ends up at the starting line where they began because the race has been conducted by running in circles.

Eliminating racism is a daunting goal, but it would seem than an excellent place to start is eliminating the competition between races over who is right and who is wrong. The unwinnable competition over the moral high ground only serves to bring everybody down.

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