The last time we talked, Eugene Hall Jr., the hard-working, mildly conservative man who is married to my sister, was wondering what people like him might do to help the growing underclass that everybody seems to be talking about these days.
Now he writes from his home in Indianapolis to say that maybe he's the one who needs help.
"I was driving home the day after the CBS special on 'The Vanishing Family' when I saw a couple of black love birds -- maybe 15 years old -- strolling in the usual boy-girl fashion. None of that disgusting his-hand-on-her-hip stuff you see so much of. And still, I almost had an accident because, instead of the fleeting glance such a scene usually merits, I found myself staring.
"Now the thing that distresses me is this. I didn't -- this time -- just see two love birds. I was looking at a problem, a threat, a catastrophe, a disease. Suspicion, disgust and contempt welled up within me for a couple I knew noth about except that they were black.
"I am sure Bill Moyers' special engendered those feelings.
"Though my recovery was an immediate 'Dang, what am I doing?' is it overly pessimistic and conceited to suppose that a significant number did not recover and, worse, will not recover; and that some of them got a reinforcement of an already entrenched negativism about black youth?
"The mind being the trap that it is, maybe I'm not fully recovered, but am probably disqualified for a positive effort in the interest of salvaging black youth and, ultimately, black society. . . .
"Another thing: I can't remember if I saw a young white couple that day or not, and I know I'm not color blind. Please hurry your answer. I need to feel good about myself again."
Gene Hall's letter is a reminder of something too many of us forget: the vital importance of context. If Alice Walker's/Steven Spielberg's "The Color Purple" had included an ordinary black man or two -- you know, the sort of neighbor who plays catch with his boy or dandles his baby on his knee -- it might not have divided black America into two warring camps: the women, who loved it, and the men, who saw it as libel.
The women in "Purple" run the gamut from strong-willed to doormat, from soft to violent, from homely to fetching, and, as a result, each woman is seen as an individual, in the context of all the others, with echoes among the women known to the audience. The men, on the other hand, are uniformly, inexplicably, rotten. And the impression is that that is how men -- or at least black men -- are. That's what the absence of context does.
It's an especially dismaying thing in works about black people. Both white and black audiences can take the characters in, say, an Erskine Caldwell novel as "white trash" without buying into any implication that most white people are trash. The audiences bring their context with them. But we fear that white audiences, lacking sufficient context from their personal experience, will take the men in "Purple" not as a peculiarly awful group, but as an insight into black men generally.
It is the fear of being taken out of context, I believe, that made the black leadership so reluctant to acknowledge the social disintegration of the big-city slums that was the focus of the Bill Moyers special. These leaders could talk easily about what racism had done to blacks. But they were afraid to death to confess that some of the problems facing blacks were the result of a moral breakdown, addressable only by blacks themselves. They feared the conclusion on the part of whites that black people generally were somehow immoral, irresponsible and hopeless. They were afraid that white people would react permanently the way my brother-in- law reacted fleetingly.
That is why I believe, now that attention has been focused on the problem, it's time to stop beating up on the underclass and to start looking for solutions, positive examples and ways to help.
There is no denying that the people highlighted by Moyers, or dramatized by Walker/Spielberg, do exist. But even truth needs context.