I've got a stupid racist ditty playing in my head

When I was a kid I learned this obnoxious song, and now I can't get rid of it.

By Cary Tennis

Published July 30, 2007 10:19AM (EDT)

Dear Reader,

You remember I mentioned a while back the writer and teacher Pat Schneider and her book "Writing Alone and With Others"? It describes in detail the Amherst Writers and Artists workshop method, which offers a way of healing one's relationship with writing and its buried sources of power and dread. This week, the week of July 30, I will be attending a weeklong workshop in Berkeley with her.

The column should continue unabated this week but, aside from today's rather hefty contribution, some columns may consequently weigh in a little light, due to the creative demands of the workshop. We'll see. I may need to take a day or two off, but I don't think so. We'll see how it goes.

The reason I am taking the workshop is that I plan to begin giving these writing workshops myself, following closely the method outlined in "Writing Alone and With Others."

In a couple of weeks or so you will find a link here to a new Web site where you can find information about the workshop and also place an advance order for the "Since You Asked" book. It is not quite time to announce a firm publication date for the book. But we are very close. We do hope to take advance orders once the e-commerce portion of the planned new Web site is up and running.

I will keep you informed. Until then, please be assured that work is proceeding briskly in these areas. --ct

Dear Cary,

When I was 12 or so and living in Outer White Generica (aka the Tucson suburbs), a friend of mine taught me a racist little ditty. We were two sheltered Mormon white kids who had hardly ever even seen an African-American. We were sharing a naughty secret. We were, to quote Gene Wilder from the Mel Brooks movie "Blazing Saddles": "You know ... morons." It is now almost 30 years later and that stupid little song has come back with a vengeance. I keep hearing it over and over in my head ("I don' care what de' white mon say..." I'll leave it at that). Yesterday I caught myself mumbling the words as I sat at my cubicle working and almost had to "put on the brown pants" looking around to see if anyone was listening.

I've become so paranoid that I'm going to blow my proper, liberal, modern, progressive cover that I'm only making it worse. The more you try to not think about something, the worse it gets. My co-workers already think I'm a little strange (Asperger syndrome will do that) and my slightly panicked, furtive body language can't be helping. Should I lock myself in a room and shout it out for two hours? What if I get caught? Help!

Bad Ditty in My Head

Dear Bad Ditty,

Say a man stands behind a counter of steam trays dishing out hot lasagna to folks who have no money and no home and nothing to eat. As he dishes out the food, a little racist ditty from his childhood is running through his head. If we could monitor the music that is playing in his head, would we take that spoon away from him and beat him with it and throw him out of the soup kitchen? Or would we let him ladle out soup to the poor? What does it matter what racist little ditty is playing in your head? What matters is what you do.

Until we have done the work that we are called to by our good fortune, who cares what racist ditties play in our heads?

Until we in America have housed and fed and clothed the poor and homeless and provided everyone with decent medical care, who among us can claim the moral high ground? No matter how carefully we parse our speech, not matter how deep we have looked into our own souls, not matter how fervently we have atoned for the sins of our ancestors, we must ask: What have we done to care for those less fortunate than ourselves? Until we do that there is no moral high ground. There is only this fetid swamp of indifference masquerading as compassion and correctness.

I wish we could all admit that we're all a little crazy and scared of each other and scared to be labeled racist or sexist or out of step with political fashion. I wish we could admit that although we are sort of impressed with those who can perfectly parrot the church of common decency's latest decree, secretly we prefer an authentic voice even if it is the voice of someone who may have the occasional racist ditty from childhood playing in his head.

I wish that all we white Americans, instead of skulking around in shame because some ditty from childhood comes unbidden into our heads, could come out and say yes, many of us as children were raised in a racist way and yes, there is racism in white society.

But this is my biggest, fondest wish: I wish we could feed and house everybody. I wish we who are lucky enough to be born and raised in the richest democracy in history could agree on a simple premise: Nobody should have to live on the streets. Not here. Not in this luxury hotel of a country. Not in this gleaming ice rink awash with money.

So you've got a stupid song playing in your head. What did you see on your way to work this morning? Did you see any poor people living in the streets? Did you see any people begging for food? Did you see anyone living with open sores because they have no money for medical care? What did you do about that? Did you stop to sing them a song?

Did you stop to inquire about their plight?

What could it possibly take to care for all these poor people of all races "ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished"? A billion dollars? Ten billion dollars? A hundred billion dollars? What could it take to build a big building in the center of town and give everybody a bed who needs a place to sleep? What could it take to give everybody a good meal who is hungry? Keep it open 24 hours a day. Staff it with ministers, cooks and bouncers. Have drug and alcohol recovery meetings there. Put all the soup kitchens there. Put all the cots there. Put the mayor's office there. Put all the deacons and elders and mullahs and bishops and rabbis there. Put all the columnists and communists and free-marketeers and Christian fundamentalists there. Put everybody there who pretends to give a shit. Put me there. Put us all there. Give us showers and hot soup. Keep us there until we make it work. Do the same thing in every city and town. How hard could that be?

Enough soul-searching. Feed somebody. To feel absolved of history's crimes merely because you have no racist ditties playing in your head is, it seems to me, a luxury of the very decadent society we would decry and change if we could.

Our quivering introspection is a luxury of the very world whose wealth shields us from consequence, whose entertainment keeps us laughing like children, amused and placated while our neighbors starve and sleep on the streets and die of treatable diseases. The personal is personal. Feed somebody.

So how much could it cost to build a giant building filled with hope and beds and hot food? How much could it cost? Call it the Dignity Hotel. You go to the desk and they say, How are you, sir? How are you, ma'am? Are you hungry? Our kitchen is open. We are serving now. Do you need a bed? Go upstairs and tell them you need a bed. Do you need a hot bath? Do you need some clean clothes? Do you need a little dignity?

How hard could that be?

I'm afraid that the truth is, it's just not that important to us. We're not that important to each other.

It's not you. I'm not blaming you. It's not your fault. None of us can do much on our own. We lack leaders. We lack consensus. Our moral imagination has been hijacked by an entertainment complex far more powerful than any writer or activist. Our publishing industry has been hijacked by soap companies and toy makers. Our churches have become the propaganda wings of political parties. We don't know how to run our own country. We don't know how to get it back. We don't know how to take care of each other.

I'm just standing here watching the empire crumble.

But maybe this tune is a little ray of hope. Maybe it's a wake-up call from the front desk of the Dignity Hotel. Maybe as you try to make your way through the disorienting sensorium of advertising, through the dizzying agora of distracting ideas, maybe this dumb little ditty is a wake-up call. Maybe it is your dim, atrophied conscience vying for attention in our vast amoral multiplex of despair.

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