Facing down the stereotypes

Race: African-American poet figures that open discussion is the only way to find the rhyme and reason for our fears.

February 18, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The man in the second row doesn't like being called "African-American." The label is more exclusive than inclusive, he says. It doesn't leave room for his Native American and European ancestors.

"I'm just as American as apple pie," he says.

The two dozen people gathered at the Barnes & Noble at Towson Circle earlier this week nod as he explains his point. Other ethnic groups -- Chinese-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Italian-Americans -- can point to a country. History has given him a continent.

Bruce A. Jacobs, a local prize-winning poet, listens intently to this different point of view. His new book, "Race Manners" (Arcade Publishing; $22.95), has inspired this discussion on race. Jacobs says he is comfortable with African-American.

Still, there is a point to be made about differences of opinion.

"There is no official way of how blacks can identify themselves," he says.

It is a small point. But for Jacobs, no point is too small when it comes to making sense of America's racial landscape. Too often stereotypes, misconceptions and ideas filtered through a gauze of fear keep people apart. Perhaps the reality of two black men openly disagreeing could dispel a notion that all blacks think alike.

Jacobs -- whose 1997 book of poems, "Speaking Through My Skin," won the prestigious Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Prize -- has been thinking about race -- the American subject. The topic won't go away. Year after year, it flares up in countless ways.

This week, three white men went on trial in Jasper, Texas, on charges that they tied a black man to a pickup truck, then dragged him to his death. Yesterday in San Diego, five white men who broke the neck of a black Marine from Maryland and left him paralyzed were sentenced to prison terms ranging from one to nine years. In San Francisco, a lawsuit to overturn the school desegregation system could bring about a redefinition of diversity in the city's classrooms.

Yet, meaningful talk about race is hard to find.

"I think the crazy voices at the edge of the conversation have begun to kind of dominate the tone of the discussion through sheer tone and volume to the point where people of good will have decided to shut up," he says by phone from his home in Upperco. "I think it's time for us in the broad mass of well-intentioned humanity to take the conversation back -- even when that means arguing and struggling and failing to agree."

Jacobs, 43, has been making his way through America's racial minefield since childhood. When he was 8, his family moved from the black, west side of Rochester, N.Y., to a middle-class, all-white neighborhood. A protest petition greeted their arrival.

He grew up multicultural, graduated from Harvard, traveled, became a free-lance writer, enjoyed writing residencies in France and at the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire. His work has appeared in Black Enterprise, American Writing and the African-American Review.

The idea for "Race Manners," his first book of prose, began with a discussion in France with a man from the Ivory Coast. The man quizzed Jacobs on the seemingly bizarre workings of race in America. He wanted to know how Americans could live with the routine tension and anxiety.

"He spoke of America with a mixture of wonder and horror, the way a sane man might speak of an asylum," Jacobs writes in his introduction.

In "Race Manners," Jacobs deals with the discomfort blacks and whites experience in everyday encounters in elevators, at stop lights where squeegee kids offer to wash car windows, on buses where nervous strangers try to stake out a safe place.

Instead of suffering in silence and fear, Jacobs argues for discussion and self-examination.

"We almost need a 12-step program against racist programming, and I say that in all jest. But I think part of what a lot us need to do is to realize that we have been taught things that we have been told to believe, things that are not true," he says.

Many, though, have given up on racial dialogue, preferring to resegregate themselves. Working together is fine, they feel. Cheering on the home team at the stadium is fine. Calling for honest, gut-level discussions is asking too much.

"I think it's perfectly fine for people to shut down to keep their blood pressure down," says Jacobs. "At the same time, if you can find a healthy way in your life to address some of these questions as they come up and to pick your spots, then do that."

So far his book readings have ended in healthy, honest discussions. It is easy to see why. His sincerity is disarming. He wants this to work. He is serious without being strident. He doesn't have all the answers. He just wants to talk.

A recent reading at a Tennessee college included an anecdote in which his sister questioned a black facilitator on her assumptions about African-Americans. Afterward, a white woman came up to Jacobs.

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