Rowley: 'race cannot be transcended in America'

3 July 2008, the Book Show (15 minutes into the program).
Expat Hazel Rowley talks about the writing of her biography of Richard Wright, the first bestselling black American writer:

Even today, race divides America to the most amazing extent, and I think that perhaps I know more than many white Americans that race cannot be transcended in America. I mean, by writing this book, I have several black friends for example, and I've been invited to weddings and funerals, and each time I make the mistake when I turn up of thinking, you know, "this person is so highly educated, earns such a lot, is so established in the white world that at this wedding, at this funeral, I'm going to find that fifty percent of the people there are white". And I find that, you know, I'm among a little handful, and they're all black.

There is, I mean, whites and blacks in this country work beside each other. They mix at work, but when they go home, the segregation still today is amazing. In fact many of the older people I've interviewed for this book tell me that it's much worse now than it was in the forties and fifties and perhaps up until the sixties.
Thanks for the honest reporting. Also, Hazel is not too fond of Australian culture. Lamenting the tall poppy syndrome she says:
All in all, I had such a good time and was received so generously after living abroad for 10 years that it seems sour of me to mention the petit probleme we know as our national syndrome. But it's there still, perhaps more than ever, and frankly, we need to talk about it. I found that people readily toss into the air that term tall poppy syndrome (an expression nobody overseas has a clue about) and they shrug a little helplessly, as if to infer that it is deeply regrettable, this need we seem to have to belittle our local talent ...

Yet I noticed these same people no sooner sighted a bright-coloured bloom standing slightly higher than the waving mass than they got out their shears. "He's a wanker," they would assure me. "He's full of shit." They were nearly always referring to people I admired, people who made a substantial contribution to the arts and public debate, people who were outspoken, and had conviction and passion. "She's got tickets on herself," I was told. "He's up himself." Or they would tell me they liked some semi-articulate television personality because "she's not pretentious"...

We flatten our vowels, we flatten our voices, we flatten out any richness in our use of language and we flatten each other. People who take their passions seriously are accused of taking themselves too seriously. "Plain Jane on the high horse!" ...

The US is far better at celebrating excellence ...
Interview with Hazel Rowley on
RB: Okay then, why did you want to write a book about Richard Wright?

HR: Coming from white Australia — Australia prides itself on its multiculturalism and talks a lot about it. But when you've spent time in London, in the big cities of the US, which I had done to write the Stead book, you go back to Australia and you find it monotonously, homogeneously white. With a bit of Asian thrown in. Of course, Australia had a "white Australia" policy until the late '60s. It had artificially kept out black people. Even the very best American jazz groups on their way to Europe weren't allowed to stop on Australia's sacred shores. So consequently they have this country which I don't find very interesting on the edge of the Pacific.

I came to the US and got wildly excited by this colorful mix. Of course, as an outsider I swallowed the melting-pot myth. And it wasn't until I was on sabbatical in Austin, Texas — in between books — in 1994 (I was there for six months) that I really saw American apartheid. I really saw that it was very rare for black people and white people to be sitting at the same dinner table. And you know, Austin, Texas is divided in half by the I-35; one side is black and Hispanic and the other is white. I came to see race as the most urgent and the most serious and the most fascinating issue in the US.
OK, she finds Australia boring and the US wildly exciting. Yet she acknowledges that race cannot be transcended in America: presumably doomed to forever remain segregated. I don't have a problem with her lamenting the tall poppy syndrome. But recently, Australia's tall poppy syndrome seems to have gone out the window regarding African immigration. You would think that with the troubles the US, France, the UK, and the Netherlands etc have with black populations that Australia would be the last country on earth to stand up and say "stand aside, fools, and watch how African immigration should be done". You would think that the appalling state of our Aboriginal community would say: don't go there again. You would think the recent experience of whites in South Africa and Zimbabwe would make us think twice. But no.

Regarding immigration, Australia has become the taller poppy. One wonders what view Rowley now holds on African immigration into Australia, given "the most urgent and the most serious" nature of race relations in America. She's probably too bored with us to have an opinion but, if she does, I suspect she belongs to the prevailing taller poppy camp: against all the odds, where all else have failed, Australia will rise to the top. I'm indifferent to our tall poppy syndrome but, in regards to immigration, there is every good reason to get out the shears and cut down the absurd idea that Australia will succeed where all else have failed.

Rowley's admission that race cannot be transcended is also a fly in the ointment of Laurie Ferguson's distributed residence plan to prevent African immigrant troubles. You can expect, at the first opportunity, blacks to gravitate back into black areas.

Stop African immigration.


Mark Richardson said...

you go back to Australia and you find it monotonously, homogeneously white

Odd how differently Rowley experiences things. For me it's the very opposite. It's the genuinely diverse areas which are the most boring as there's no group dominant enough to assert its own culture.

I wrote a piece once about an American liberal who liked the fact that cultures became insignificant when none was allowed to predominate:

"Cultures and religions are either about weddings and music and fancy clothes or they're about to get their asses kicked ... If all religions and cultures are equal then none is superior, and that is how we keep them in line."

What is Rowley missing out on?

a) a closer, more familial sense of community
b) a closer sense of connection to an urban heritage and to the land
c) the subtler forms of human expression and communication which are possible in more stable communities sharing a common culture
d) a closer connection to generations past and future
e) a sense of belonging to a distinct expression of human culture

Rowley seems to be dead to all this. If she is bored by real cultural traditions, including her own, perhaps she needs to question her own condition of alienation - i.e. to consider that the problem resides with her and not with the continuing existence of a white society.

Abandon Skip said...

Yeah I guess Rowley lives mostly in the cerebral dimension, with her community of literary like-minded. Folks who are interested in stories, drama, anything that reads well. Probably books that celebrate the triumph of the individual, breaking the mold, etc, where race, culture and nations are seen more as hindrances.

With friends in London and the US we must be a right homogeneous embarrassment to her. I wonder if her discovery that "race cannot be transcended" has led her to believe that Australia should remain white or, despite the evidence, she persists with the melting pot myth for Oz.

You would think her discovery might make her think "well, maybe I'm the one out of step here". But I doubt it.