I had the opportunity to present at Facing Race this past weekend. Junot Diaz, card-carrying literary genius, delivered the keynote. DIaz was funny, insightful, acerbic, raw, real. After the lecture he had a book signing line that appeared to be wrapped around the hotel.
Deservedly so. What I most appreciate about The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, is the way Diaz blends a rich historical narrative (check out the footnotes, yo!), with the traditional elements of immigrant stories, with the intra-racial skin color politics of American Latino communities, with comic book and D&D geekdom. I haven't read Michael Chabon's work, but I have read Ta-Nehisi Coates' and they all seem of a piece to me. Their brilliance is not only in their wordplay but in their ability to take the day to day stuff we all used to navigate seventies and eighties life in urban communities and use them to answer the Big Questions.
With that said though, I had one big problem with Diaz' speech.
Diaz spent a lot of time going over internalized oppression–a phenomenon most of my readers and damn near everyone at Facing Race is familiar with, theoretically at the very least. We are so bruised, battered, and beaten down by internalized oppression, our first role of business before we even begin to engage in real political organizing, should be internal. Should be dealing with our stuff.
What Diaz said resonated with most of the folk in the audience.
Not with me so much. Because I don't really believe in it. I do believe we've "stuff" to deal with. Lord knows I do.
But The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao wasn't titled "The Brief Bruised Battered and Beatdown Life of Oscar Wao" for a reason. The characters Diaz developed in that book had all TYPES of issues. But at no point did any of them seem so beaten down by internalized oppression that they couldn't find the space to work, to live, to thrive, and to be. Even Oscar Wao–who and this shouldn't be a spoiler given the title–doesn't even live a full live.
In fact I'd take it one step further. At the podium Diaz said that he was nervous as hell because he hates doing 1400 person packed house type speeches. But I didn't see him bruised and battered by that experience, and it wasn't because he knew that a check was coming. In fact, I saw the exact opposite.
So part of the reason I don't buy into the internalized oppression thing is because I don't believe it accurately depicts what we go through, particularly in the aggregate. Said another way, internalized oppression doesn't scale. There's very little data, at least among black communities, that internalized oppression plays a bigger role in our condition than the simple fact that we don't have a lot of stuff.
But the other part is political. If you are interested in any form of political organizing, I'm thinking your organizing approach is going to look one way if you believe the people you are organizing with/for are bruised/battered/beatdown then your organizing is going to look one way. If you believe the people you are organizing with/for simply don't have stuff, then your organizing is going to look VERY different.
I didn't have a chance to push him on this issue because I had to step out of the lecture for a second and by the time I got back they were on the last question. Something tells me our paths will cross again though.