Saturday, February 06, 2010

Our better angels

I have just finished reading Andrea Levy's Little Island, a novel that won or was shortlisted for many prizes in 2004 -- and which was dramatized on the BBC this past December. Levy was born in Britain to Jamaican parents in 1956. She lives and works in London today. Her novel explores racism in Jamaica, Britain and India during and just after the Second World War, through the lives of two women and two men, black and white, Jamaican and British.

My children, and especially my grandchildren, would scarcely recognize the world she describes. To me, it is intensely familiar. I came of age at the time of her novel, in a thoroughly segregated Chattanooga, Tennessee. Jim Crow ruled. Public toilets, water fountains, lunch counters, restaurants, movie theaters, parks and recreation facilities were separated by race, and woe betide the person who crossed the line.

All that is gone now. Gone in Chattanooga. Gone in Britain. Gone in these Caribbean islands. Which is not to say that latent racism doesn't still exist. But on the whole things have changed enough that we can read Levy's novel and wonder that we were once beholden to so much hate.

What was the nature of the transformation? Did human nature change? Did a fear of the other inbred by millions of years of evolution suddenly vanish? Or was fear of the other suppressed by a cultural upwelling of an innate altruism?

Maybe it wasn't biological at all? Maybe both the racism and its amelioration are driven by cultural imperatives? Maybe we truly discover our better angels as we evolve culturally?

Since I was raised in a racist culture (although not by racist parents) and now count myself without prejudice (I hope), it would seem that self-reflection might provide something of an answer.

I suspect that both fear of the other and solidarity within a group are deeply embedded in our cultural traditions and maybe our DNA. In which case, it is a broadening of "us" that has diminished the "other", probably driven by technology -- radio, television, movies, air travel, the internet.

Then too, I suspect the growing promise of empirical knowledge over faith-based knowledge -- seeing what is there to see, not what we want to see or have been taught to see -- has lessened our beholdenness to the past and to our genes.