American Pictures - reviews

The Daily Illini 
University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana Student Paper 
Friday, April 1986 


In my racist America,
I hate myself 

by Joel Hamburger 
The Daily Illini's Graphics editor 


If only life were black and white, like the people who run our country tell us. Communists are evil, godless, war-mongering Huns who would topple our whole way of life if given the opportunity. Capitalist democracy stands for truth, justice and the American way. 

The blonde-haired, blue-eyed, square-jawed, white male who is projected at me from the media and psyches of my white peers is the classic ideal of beauty. Naturally, the counterpart (secondary to the male) is the white female with the same features and adding baby-soft skin and shaved body. 

I could go on and on, but to do so would be to overstep the language with which I can speak to my white, middle class brothers. Do my words sound acidic. Chalk it up to the rot that hounds my mind each moment I look at my surroundings with any sort of critical eye. When one decides that it is no longer possible to tolerate a narrow view of one's surroundings, in which the world is seen thigh the eyes at one's racist brethren. a queasy sensation invades one's body. 

Four weeks ago, I reached an important plateau in my evolution as a thoughtful (I hope) human being. Jacob Holdt, a Danish man, showed his five-hour multi-media presentation, "American Pictures," describing his travels in the vast strata of America's underclass. 

The first half of the presentation assaulted me with slide images of shanties in the South. The wage slavery that many of us sheltered white, suburban folk read about in John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (incidently starring an all-white cast) is alive and sickening. Holdt escorted me to a Ku Klux Klan meeting with the aid of a minimal number of slides and a secretly recorded speech by the grand poobah, or whatever those slime call their head racist. 

He discussed the frustration of "white trash," who are told that they could and should be living like the wealthy whites they see in the media, yet find themselves sharing equal status with a people whose skin color supposedly indicates inferiority. Isn't it interesting that blacks and "white trash" are given equal status, yet blacks are not called "black trash?" 

After a half hour escape, which Holdt called Intermission, we descended into his presentation about traveling in the industrial North. Perhaps because I'm more familiar with the appearance of our black and Hispanic ghettos, I concentrated on his discussion of the anatomy of racist thought. For the first time I saw and contemplated the foundations of a society that preaches morality and sells products through the "ideal" imagery of Cheryl Tiegs, Farrah Fawcett Majors and Don Johnson. 

Can you imagine -- I mean really imagine -- being a black woman in America and identifying with some skinny white woman shaking her tits and telling you that men will be attracted to you if you wear this perfume or drive this car? 

Try to imagine being anything but a white male and identifying with the "beautiful people" that are driven into our psyches as role models. Imagine a world where everything beautiful does not look like you. A world where most people look at you as though you are a film negative that needs to be slipped into the overhead projector and shot as positive to be liked and understood. 

I'm sorry, but as much as I want to understand, I can't relate to that I'm a white, middle class male. My understanding ends where the race and gender barrier begins. The presentation was five hours in hell. I left my friends to be alone. Fortunately, I'm a white male from Chicago's lily suburbs, so I could retreat to my corner of this University and stare at the walls. 

Not a single day has passed without "American Pictures" oppressing my outlook. All I did was scratch the surface of awareness, with miles of understanding to go, and now my stomach is always queasy and people constantly ask me if I'm tired. Admittedly, I'm playing the martyr, in a loveable liberal, masochistic kind of way. "Oh, Joel, chill out." "Hey Joel, why don't you take it into the next room? I'm, trying to work." 

I went to Washington, D.C., over break. Lucky me. Four days after having seen "American Pictures" I was being treated to lunch at a nice Georgetown restaurant. The passers-by were almost exclusively white. A black man close in age and appearance to my dad was asking for money. 

According to Let's Go USA, 85 percent of the population in our nation's capital live in black "ghettos." Yet, unless one ventures away from the northwest quadrant, contaminating such notable monuments as the Lincoln Memorial, from whose steps Martin Luther King Jr shared his dreams so long ago, the Archives, wherein lies the Constitution; and the Capitol itself, the existence of that vast minority is absent. 

Maybe that's a little exaggerated. A closer look reveals that the people cleaning the giant area where all of these monuments to "the land  of the free" rest are of a darker hue and sterner face. It was as though a little bit of our brethrens' Johannesburg could be experienced right here at home. 

Still, I felt comfortable. Who wouldn't? Except for the lack of originality in clothing, I was vacationing among people who looked and acted just like me. What a nice feeling. I didn't want to deal with those blacks, and actually felt relieved if that the ones I had to see didn't want to talk to me. Although sometimes I wonder why, when I try to make eye contact with one of those blacks, I can't get them to look at me. 

New York City was even more oppressive than Washington. Harlem, situated a few blocks from the geographically and architecturally isolated (iron bars and Neo-colossical buildings), largely white Columbian University, was a fitting end to my Spring Break frolic across the great land of ours. 

The third of my travel-buddies was killing time with me by adventuring into The Ghetto before he had to tour Columbia law school. One block into the fringe, I swore that I overheard one of the four black guys we were walking past mumble, "It's pretty risky walking around here." We continued 30 yards in silence, and then I whispered, "Did he say what I thought I  heard?" We agreed and, thankful for the friendly (?) advice, made a sharp left out of there back into the land of the white and the free. 

On the way out, I noticed a billboard, hovering  over the ghetto, which said that smoking Gold Cigarettes (or some name close to that) was as good as having gold. 

Included in all of this revelation is the revue- ciao I feel when I look at our own University. As I  plod through the mire of my own racism, I can't  help feeling sickened by the majority of people I meet, know and work with who don't give a damn enough to question their own racism, or who completely deny its existence. 

The blacks here don't want to look at me either I don't blame them. Still, I do blame them and I blame whites too. We hate them. We shout "nigger" at them from our balconies and in our actions. The black community looks back at us, declaring, "What the hell do I want to make it in your system for anyway? Then I've got to worry about dealing with you every day." 

We whites respond with, "Look, bud. Why are you so shiftless? Why don't you pick yourselves up by your boot straps? Then, maybe, I'll give you a little respect." 
And on and on. 

The topper, and the inspiration for this column, was my long discussion very recently with a black woman of advanced social and political conscience. After lengthy deliberation, we decided that, despite her skin being brown and mine being white, we actually had been flirting. We told each other how much we hate the system. We talked about the difference between the messages that our hearts and our minds were sending. She told me about the chastisement black women receive from black men when they date white men -- yet another burden of discrimination to be shoveled on her, as a black woman in my world. 

I admitted that I don't give a damn what whites think. For some reason, my obstacles seemed slight when placed beside hers. She was just too bitter to go out with a white man. In the end, we gave in to the system. All we did was flirt a little bit. Then we spent hours deciding if we wanted to embark on the possibly disastrous route of caring for each other. It's really not as easy as we thought when we read Romeo and Juliet. We gave in. We made a pact to be only friends, no matter what. 

For all my liberal condemnation of the crap that I'm told to believe in, for all my self-righteous goop about maybe understanding the world from someone else's shoes, I told myself that I did understand. This world sucks. 


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