The power of legend

Narratives don't always travel well. A Jewish friend related the story of how he was hosted by an Arab family who insisted on offering the choicest part of the dish they had prepared to him: the eyeball.  Most of us can tell stories like that. What is less commonly understood is that American narratives can also take on different meanings in other cultures or be re-told in perplexing ways. Years ago when traveling in the Congo, I boarded an airplane bound for one of the interior towns.   The aircraft was an Ilyushin and before it took off a very strange thing happened.  Several dozen passengers went forward to look inside the pilot's cabin, including the man, an African gentleman in a business suit, who sat beside me. My wonder at the strange proceedings increased when my rowmate returned an announced in a satisfied voice, "homme blanche". The pilot was a white man and it was safe to travel on the airplane.

The pilots, upon further inquiry were apparently Slavs, whether from Russia or another one of the Slavic countries, I could never determine. Not exactly people who would inspire automatic confidence in a Western airport. But the incident got me to thinking about what my seatmate meant by the "homme blanche". It turned out to mean something rather different in that setting. For example, if you were black but a black American, you might be the "homme blanche" in Africa. A story from Bloomington Illinois paper illustrates the point.

BLOOMINGTON, Ill., July 29, 2005 - African American students traveling to Africa are likely to experience greater culture shock than their white counterparts, and travel leaders shouldn't shy away from frank dialogue to help them cope with such feelings, according to an Illinois Wesleyan University anthropologist. ... To illustrate, she includes excerpts from journals kept by African American students on a recent travel course to Kenya, using pseudonyms “Tami” and “Lana” at the students' request. ...

Rather than defining social relationships by skin color, Gearhart explains, Kenyans interpret race by such factors as cultural heritage, first language, home district, family name, profession, and/or ethnic affiliation. Lana was baffled to see an African leader align himself with his political allies and non-African elites, rather than looking out for what she considered to be “his own people,” the average Kenyan citizens. ...

“When Tami is confronted with cross-cultural barriers that separate Americans and Kenyans, namely language and economic status, a black-white racial matrix no longer explains her position relative to her fellow Americans,” Gearhart wrote. “Tami discovers that in the Kenya setting, the cultural background she shared with her white American peers is more significant to her than the skin color she shares with the Africans she encounters.

And it's not limited to African Americans. In that setting, the Japanese for example, are homme blanche as well. It's hard to describe, as "Tami" discovered, but you will soon get the drift. Once abroad one comes face to face with the fact that the West still has a legend. The fact of Western-ness is a de facto assumption that you are qualified to lead. The doors of the local elite will open to you on the strength of your culture. And if you fit the bill and show your quality, then right, you are the white man, whatever your skin color. The mystique of the West has almost magical qualities. I remember someone calling me long distance once and asking me to look up something on the Internet. When I asked, over the crackly connection, why he didn't go to some Internet cafe and look it up himself, he replied "the Internet is different there." A large part of the power of the West derives from the memory of its once-dominant competence.

So when an African-American President gets up on a stage in Copenhagen and dons sack-cloth and ashes; apologizes for his culture and all the rest, he is really telling two stories. To the domestic audience it is the familiar tale of guilt and redemption. But to the international audience it is in some ways a totally different narrative. It says, "we are only the man behind the curtain. The Mighty Oz is nothing but the flacks I have around me." He is the demolishing the very aura that brought him there, because when you come down to it, the invitation was extended not to him as a person, but as the leader of the once mythical and legendary United States of America. He was careless of his legacy. Stars know the power of mystique and work to keep it. A-list Hollywood figures want to be regarded as a demi-gods; it's the source of their power. When a Letterman goes and airs his dirty laundry, he loses his ju-ju. He would rather not have done it.

But politicians can trade notoriety in one sphere for aura in another and so they do it. When Obama constantly apologizes for his country's past, he diminishes his country abroad but exalts himself before a select political audience. For the country it may be a net loss. Domestically it may be a net political gain. Yet paradoxically the ones worst off are those who still believed in the midst of their misery, of the possibility of the City on a Hill, only to hear from its leader than it never existed. There is nothing quite so sad as watching a fan whose god has fallen; who has touched his rock-star idol and found that he is only a man. I met a man in Pointe Noire who took out his wallet and proudly showed me his Green Card Lottery ticket. He was going to go to America, he said, if it was the last thing he did. Some years later Pointe Noire was overrun by rebels in a civil disturbance and many of its inhabitants were massacred. I still wonder if he survived and where he is: one of "the pilgrims from all the lost places who are hurtling through the darkness, toward home." He deserved that home in his mind, I think, because for some, the vision of the glittering city is all that sustains them. Yet another thing thrown under the bus.

Man lives on legend. Ultimately, legends are things which are part fiction and part fact. And if the legend of the homme blanche was in some ways fictive, so is the narrative of the guilty monster, the eternal bogeyman, who must be punished for the balance of all time. Those Slavs did get the Ilyushin off the ground; they were good for something after all. Supplanting one lie with another is not exactly the same as speaking the truth. On the airplane over the Congo, my mind went back to the Frenchman I passed at the airport cafe under a ceiling fan drinking his Ngok beer on my way to the airplane. What did he make of it all? Was it better to live in the reality of France in France or the vision of France in Africa?


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