Over at the PoMoCon blog, Robert Cheeks asks a question about this statement by Shirley Sherrod: “So I figured if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him.”
Now I don’t have a problem with Ms. Sherrod’s use of the phrase. I’m not offended in the least. But, my question is, is it permissible for a white federal bureaucrat to use that phrase (“. . . his own kind would take care of him”) to describe his/her dealings with an African-American?
Well, presumably not. But I have a question of my own: How does Robert Cheeks think that Shirley Sherrod was using that phrase? I ask not because I think there’s anything particularly or inappropriately aggressive about Cheeks’s question, but because it seems so oddly irrelevant. It’s a question that would only arise, I think, in the mind of someone who doesn't fully grasp that Shirley Sherrod was telling a story. Sherrod was not delivering a lecture; she was not presenting a position paper; she was not outlining policies and procedures. Instead she was narrating events that occurred twenty-four years ago — and among those events, the ones she was clearly most interested in were internal, mental: her chief purpose in her talk was to deliver an account of her own state of mind and how it changed.
So in that light, look again at the sentence that Robert Cheeks finds noteworthy — “So I figured if I take him to one of them, that his own kind would take care of him” — and then listen to her whole talk, or read the transcript. Isn't it perfectly obvious that the whole point of the talk is to narrate her own movement from a place where it seemed natural to her to think in terms of “my own kind” and “his own kind” to a place where those distinctions are abolished?
And that this is her purpose she makes clear not only at the end of her talk but when she introduces the story of how she dealt with Roger Spooner: “When I made that commitment [to work in rural Georgia], I was making that commitment to black people — and to black people only. But, you know, God will show you things and He'll put things in your path so that — that you realize that the struggle is really about poor people, you know.” What she found was that if the lawyer who was supposed to be working to help Roger Spooner was “his own kind” it was only in skin color, because, though Spooner was paying the lawyer, he wasn’t getting any help from him. Sherrod saw that Spooner was too poor to mean a damned thing to the man who was supposed to be working on his behalf. And so, at the end of the anecdote, she circles back to her point: “Well, working with him made me see that it's really about those who have versus those who don't, you know. And they could be black, and they could be white; they could be Hispanic. And it made me realize then that I needed to work to help poor people — those who don't have access the way others have.” It’s as clear and straightforward a critique as you could possibly ask for of the idea — the idea that Shirley Sherrod had in 1986 — that people of the same skin color will necessarily see one another as of the same kind, as kin, as sharing a common nature. (Those italicized words are extremely closely related: see chapter two of C. S. Lewis’s Studies in Words.)
If you understand this, you’ll also understand that the responses from Sherrod’s audience are not remotely what Andrew Breitbart has said they are, but instead are ways for the audience to register that they’re tracking with the path of the story. And I bet that pretty much everyone in that room understood what kind of story Shirley Sherrod was telling: it was a testimony, a conversion narrative, of the kind that Christians have told in churches from time immemorial. If you think that Shirley Sherrod endorses thinking of white people as being of a different “kind” than her, you may as well also think that St. Augustine endorses the stealing of pears. Because her story is in the same genre as his Confessions (which title, as Garry Wills has pointed out, might better be translated Testimony).
As Andrew Breitbart has so helpfully reminded us, “Context is everything,” but especially in stories — and more especially still in stories that narrate a personal transformation. In political and journalistic and blogospheric environments dominated by sheer polemic, it might be worth our while to pause to remember that there are other, and very ancient, ways of getting a point across.