One of my closest and most intimate friends is a Black woman who was born to an Army father in Germany. She is deeply cultured, very smart, extremely funny, can still spit out a little German and in every way is as cultured as any European. Absolutely none of this comes as a surprise. She is simply herself. And as herself she has all these delicious facets. Her Blackness doesn’t make any of it surprising. To your point, Ajah, my mother, god bless her pointed and long dead head, expressed real surprise at ANYONE other than herself who liked Tchaikovsky, who could name a symphony and the composer in the first few bars, who could quote Shelley or Keats. That prejudice on my mother’s part was equal-opportunity arrogance. She was even surprised that I bloody well knew these things. Such arrogance, and I fully understand your point, has I think perhaps more to do with our collective insecurity as well as our terrible, desperate need to feel superior to any and ALL other people. Add race, creed, culture, etcetera, then as you say it gets even more pointed. My mother was a great supporter of Civil Rights. Yes. Good. Right. However, she couldn’t countenance the notion of breaking bread with a very poor Black family. On the other hand if she heard a Black man who had exceptionally good diction or vocabulary, to your point, she would be roundly surprised, and then comment on it as though the man were some kind of odd zoo animal. Yet if you called her out on this, not only would she have been offended by your calling her out, she would have been deeply hurt, for your observation would have attacked her very high-brow picture of her stance on Race. Of course she was emancipated. Of course she was with it. Of course she wasn’t prejudiced. But she was. This is how blind we are.
Part of what you touch on here is the human condition that speaks to how desperately we need to feel better than, no matter who the “other” might be. Race vastly complicates the issue. One thing that international travel has taught me is to not be at all surprised at what I come across, but rather delighted - in your example- that someone in a distant village shares an interest, which makes the human connection deeper in new ways. This is very different from being surprised, or that, to use your term said villager is “exceptional” just because they happen to know of, like or read about something that I do. That implies that I am just. That. Special.
Um, no. Especially in today’s world, with so much available to so many. It is ignorant for me to assume that I, or my culture, has exclusive rights to European classical music, or certain kinds of literature, or a certain pop singer.
To wit, Ajah, I would feel the same way if, in India, a host expressed surprise that I am familiar (and I am) with the writings of the great 1920s Nobel Laureate Indian Rabindranath Tagore. That simply means I have a curious mind. Any curious mind housed in any body, anywhere in the world can find out things that make them interesting. Not exceptional. Interesting. That that particular body happens to be brown or Black or yellow or red has nothing whatsoever to do with anything. We are simply, interesting on our own merits.
That’s what makes humanity so very rich.
That you are an excellent writer makes you interesting. That you (and I fucking HATE this phrase for its ignorance) happen to be Black- as though that’s some kind of accident of Nature- has nothing to do with it. You’re a thoughtful, smart, challenging writer. I like your work. Your Blackness doesn’t surprise me as though you’re an exception to some rule about Black folks. I just like your work. It’s a gift. Period. The same way that Toni Morrison’s stunning writing is a gift. That she is Black doesn’t make her work surprising or more exceptional. ZORA recently published a list of the one hundred best Black women writers- an act that forces the reality that they’ve been there all along, society simply has difficulty in seeing them because society has difficulty seeing Black women period.
We are all of us hijacked by prejudices that we often have no clue are embedded in our way of being. The troubling part is that we are quick to deny them, especially if we are afflicted with Bleeding Hearts. To embrace the fact that yes, of course, as a human I have prejudices is part of what you note as labor. That labor, like all labors of love, sets us free.