Friday, May 04, 2007

Was Humpty Dumpty a White Supremacist?

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.”

“The question is, said Alice, whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master - - that's all.”

---Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

Lewis Carroll’s two most famous books, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, have a warm place on the bookshelves of our children’s bedrooms. Lest we forget however, they were written during mid-19th century Victorian England, and were biting satires on everything from poverty to public school education. The second book of the Alice duet, Through the Looking Glass, presents one of the most enduring characters in children’s literature. Although Carroll did not create Humpty Dumpty, (he was already a well-known figure in a nursery rhyme), he added character to the rather sarcastic and arrogant little egg, who ignored Alice’s warnings that the wall he sat on was too thin and might contribute to a nasty fall.

Humpty’s confusing dialogue on everything from “Jabberwocky” to “unbirthdays” leaves Alice rather bewildered, and reminds me of many contemporary discussions on race in America. Several pundits, politicos and others declare their firm grasp on understanding America’s most troubling problem, and like Humpty triumphantly state that a “word means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less.” I am convinced that many of those who discuss words such as “racism” “sexism”, “political correctness” have no functional definition of the very words they use. They rely, as did their intellectual ancestor, Humpty Dumpty on their status of being “the master” and therefore possessing an inherited authority to define words and groups in whichever way pleases them at the moment.

When Alice challenged Humpty, she fought a losing battle; confronted with his unwillingness to listen and ignorance of nearly everything she talked about, Humpty’s “logic” beat Alice at every turn. Like Dumpty, contemporary pundits ask ridiculous questions based on little or no knowledge of the very subjects they discuss. On the issue of Black/White relations, they might state, “Affirmative action is the same as ‘reverse discrimination’, “Africans were primarily responsible for the slave trade.” or “I don’t know what to call you people, ‘Black’ or ‘African American.’” Criticism of the fundamental nature of these statements, can quickly plunge the questioner through the looking glass of “political correctness”, still another favorite expression of those whose brains burn out at the slightest suggestion of reading the history of those with whom they are unfamiliar.

Honest and clear dialogues on race are necessary if Americans wish to address our national agony. These dialogues will trouble those who wish to remain “masters” of words that are being redefined by people who seek to be a part of the great experiment called America. Those who cry “political correctness” nostalgically wish for the days when women kept their place, Blacks were colored, Asians were cooks and Latinos were gardeners. Similar to their intellectual ancestor Humpty, they are scornful of those who dare say that “We the People” includes those once denied access to the fruits of American democracy.

Was Humpty Dumpty a white supremacist? I think not. He was simply ignorant of other persons' experiences and felt that his worldview was the only one really worthy of consideration. That alone can be the seeds that water the weeds of racism. Dumpty’s techniques in glorifying limited awareness of other person’s histories, experiences and worldviews however, are characteristic of racists who insist on staying seated on the very narrow wall of ignorance toward other people.

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