We have a cat staying with us at the moment, so I was thinking about posting about that species. Then last week we saw a documentary about life in a black suburb in the USA, and I thought I should write something about that. Then I realised that what I would write about one is pretty much what I would write about the other.
The fact is that my relationship with Bella (the cat) is characterised by mutual bemusement. She rubs around my leg in the morning and is pleased to have me stroke the top of her head – once. Then she stalks off shaking her head as if to rid herself of parasites. Later in the day she alternates between rolling voluptuously on the carpet in my path, bolting in apparent panic at my approach, and ignoring me.
I’d like to have a conversation with Bella, to find out how she sees the world, human beings, and me in particular. Is she conscious of her own mortality? Does she distinguish between the humans she knows, or is it just a matter of who last topped up her food bowl? Above all, is she curious about the things she sees humans doing? Curiosity killed the cat, as my prep school teachers would say to any wayward child who exhibited curiosity about anything that wasn’t on the immediate syllabus; but are cats curious about things other than the next meal and the warmest place to sprawl?
And it was exactly the same with the American documentary. I found myself at a loss to understand the ways, manners, habits, choices and even the speech of the people on the TV screen – fortunately the programme was subtitled. It wasn’t just that they were black; it was that they seemed to live in a parallel universe in which drugs, gangs, guns, unemployment, promiscuity and incarceration are normal.
Of course, it’s not unusual for a certain neighbourhood to contain a preponderance of one ethnic group or another, but it seems to me that in the USA (much more than in Australia or the UK) the black population has seceded from the Union and developed their own culture, language, values, forms of religious expression, even their own de facto laws.
My mind went back to 1966, when I used my university vacation to travel around North America. It was the year after the infamous Watts riots in Los Angeles, and I was curious about the term “motherf***er” – new to me at that time. Did negroes (an acceptable word at that time) really believe that white mothers were in the habit of having sex with their sons? I sought out the neighbourhoods I’d read about – as well as those I’d heard about through songs (Kalamazoo, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, Buffalo, Laramie…). I hoped to come home with insight but gained little.
I was brought up when the British considered their empire to be a great civilising force, replacing the ball-and-chain of tribalism with the institutions, laws and infrastructure of a modern nation state, illuminated by the glory of The Enlightenment. It looks to me as though that high-minded project has ground to a halt and shifted into reverse.