Monday, October 7, 2013

Another Country

I began reading James Baldwin’s Another Country the day after I buried my wife.

She is the only woman I’ve ever truly been in love with. In growing together, we had learned strategies for surviving Quebec’s terrible racial climate; she as a young Ethiopian woman unused to the nuances of an oppressive culture, I shedding my idealization of the land of my birth – coming to terms with the fact that as long as I remained Canadian in my own mind, I was submitting to the White power that constituted Canadian identity.

That climate had rendered me perpetually on the job hunt as the recession economy contracted, squeezing me out of work. It had made her vow to return to Ethiopia when she finished her nursing degree. At times, the pressures of living from day to day in that world pitted us against each other, neither of us really knowing what we were arguing about until it was long over and we’d made up again.

In the five and a half years that I spent with her, she taught me a lot about myself. I had learned from other women that they thought it was attractive when a man was verbally rough. It had seemed a foolish exercise in performance to me in my early twenties, but I went along with the expectations and women seemed to like it. It was from my wife, though, that I learned how that performance could also hurt a woman emotionally. I didn’t ever want to be that guy again.

The last words I said to her, and the last words she said to me, were “I love you.”

That night, a Quebecois fireman left her on the cold ground to die, rather than trying to resuscitate her.

When you lose the only person you’ve ever loved, the person with whom you’ve spent every single day of your life for years, and you know that she’s never coming back, the most immediate concern you have is to decide whether life is worth living. And if you choose to answer in the affirmative, then you must find reasons to justify that decision.

I changed a lot in the days and months that followed. I listened to more hip-hop and less of the jazz I’ve always loved. Though I read more voraciously than ever to take my mind off my sorrow, I couldn’t enjoy the feel of words in my mind the way I’d used to. I couldn’t write, couldn’t feel as cogent and in command of my thoughts as I’d trained myself to be. I stubbornly held onto memories and feelings that reinforced my depression, because they were all I had left of her. I had to be tough enough to deal with it, I told myself.
And nearly everyone else was, annoyingly, telling me to “be strong” – as if they knew the first thing about it.

But if you don’t bend, you’ll break. After the night that I hit rock bottom – an episode still too painful to disclose in print, one in which I lost the respect of my oldest friend and wound up in a hospital late one Saturday night – I realized that I had to reconfigure my idea of myself as a man.

I could not “be tough” because holding onto my pain was literally killing me. So I had to develop a new standard of manhood for myself, one that incorporated an understanding that other people’s opinions were not going to help me. I had to be fine with being sad. That wasn’t going to go away, and to hell with anyone who thought less of me for it.

I could not be financially successful in this country – regardless of my intellect or work ethic – because I was brown and therefore was cheap labour. At that point I was working 16 hours a day. All my hard work really meant, in honest words, was nights of insomnia and stress-filled days of misery. Reaching after the brass ring of success meant jumping through hoops held by White people, and some people who wished they were White; and they’d move the hoops if you got too good at navigating through them.

If my ideas on masculinity were bound up with my social experiences, and my social experiences determined my political attitudes, then changes in how I saw myself meant that my political outlook had to change, too. I’d always felt I had to “be a man” precisely because White society was constantly telling me that I was not a man. (The converse of it was that White people assumed I was sexist because I was Brown…rather than because I was socialized under White Canadian patriarchy.)

I had to stop measuring myself by these standards of manhood. They were unrealistic and dangerous. They hurt people I loved. If I held onto them, I would end up dead.

I had to develop a standard of manhood that was honest about who I really was.

About six months after reading Another Country, I read Manning Marable’s new biography of Malcolm X, where he revealed that Malcolm likely had had an affair with an older White man in his pre-prison days. To me, this came as a shock: I’d developed a certain idea of what Malcolm was in my mind, and it wasn’t a dude who liked men in that way.

Up until that point, my concept of gay men was as predatory White men – mainly because I’d once had to fight a 50-year-old White co-worker in the parking lot of the garment factory I used to work in, after he’d tried to feel me up. But reading this about Malcolm reminded me that James Baldwin was gay. And so was Langston Hughes. And all of Eldridge Cleaver’s ranting aside: they were no racial sellouts.

In fact, their writing had a more realistic, well-rounded portrayal of humanity in all its ragged edges than some of the misogynist portrayals of manhood and the two-dimensional female characters of Richard Wright. Baldwin had penned my favourite work of literature – If Beale Street Could Talk – from the narrative standpoint of a young woman. Although he was a man, his portrayals of masculinity showed it to be a frequently harmful performance – one that reinforced racial status for White men, at the expense of Black women and men; one that ended in overwork, suicide, and feelings of powerlessness in racialized men. And I remembered how he’d once said that he understood masculinity better than most men, because he’d been victimized by it.

And if James Baldwin and Langston Hughes, and yes, Malcolm X, had had these life experiences and it shaped who they were as people, then it also shaped their writing and their racial struggle. That writing had influenced me. It informed my racial attitude as a man searching for his rightful place in the world.

The experience of grieving, somehow, gave me an intuitive understanding of others, one that was not so quick to condemn. It helped me to understand the sexually aggressive, racist behaviour of the White man I’d worked with as a compensation for his private feelings of insecurity. I began to understand that women often looked for men like the one I’d pretended to be, because they’d been taught that men were supposed to act that way. It helped me understand that my own imperfections were just like everyone else’s, and had the same cause.

Although we were all different, and some actions were unforgivable, we were all in the grip of feelings of failure and self-doubt and we lashed out at those closest to us because of them. For the way our Canadian culture had been organized as a colonial, patriarchal society relied on fear as a motivator – fear of unemployment, fear of losing status, fear of being perceived as “weak.” Covering up that fear, trying to emulate the models of success and dominance given out by this society, demanded unfeeling behaviours; and thus produced inhuman social interactions. Acting tough, paradoxically enough, was a sign of fear.

A few nights ago I read in the Upanishads that “Who sees beings in his own Self, and his own Self in all beings, loses all fear.” I wouldn’t have understood the meaning of that passage a few years ago. But after my wife passed away, along with a capacity for understanding the behaviour of others came the understanding that death is nothing to be afraid of. And once you lose your fear of death, you aren’t afraid of anything else. Fearlessness creates genuine empathy.

My political trajectory has brought me the understanding that I will never be truly free from racism until the Tamil nation wins freedom and independence for itself. Gaining self-determination for the Tamil homeland involves tearing down the neo-colonial structures, in which Canada is complicit, that maintain its oppression from a distance, just as it oppresses Tamil immigrants and their children here. To break these shackles, we must have another country.

But to free our nation, we must first know the freedom that comes from losing all fear. It is in developing fearlessness and compassion within ourselves that we may become the people – men and women – that we need to be to outlive this society. These qualities will give us the personal fortitude and social strength that we need to build our own nations, in freedom and dignity.

Acquiring that understanding cost me everything. But I would not be alive today without it.

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