On Gratitude

I knew some Negroes at the School of Medicine. . . . In short, they were a disappointment. The color of their skin should have given us the opportunity of being charitable, generous, and scientifically friendly. They failed in their duty and to satisfy our goodwill. All our tearful tenderness, all our artful concern, was to no avail. We had no Negroes to cajole, we had nothing to hate them for either; on the scales involving small jobs and meager daily deceits, they weighed virtually as much as we did. (Michel Salomon, qtd. in Fanon)

Sharon Holland recounts a racialized incident in which a white woman, pissed at her, muttered, and I paraphrase, “and to think I marched for you people.” Holland responds, “you marched for yourself.” How might it be possible to read the labor of “gratitude” as one that subtends race? How might we read something Fanon might term “white resentment” as a response to the absence of the opportunity to be thanked? (I have a nagging sensation that there is something to be said about affirmative action, but it has not yet settled into a thought, let alone a sentence.)

It is amazing how many anecdotes about interracial interaction are marked by the language of gratitude and ingratitude: good people (across racial lines but inflected by class in important ways) are thankful people. More, they are constructed in advance as people willing to be thankful. Any reader of Booker T. Washington’s encounters will know this.

“Bad” people are often so because they are ungrateful or, to complicate the matter even more, insufficiently grateful. Thus, the middle-class African student informs the very helpful U.S. student that Africans are familiar with traffic signs. And receives, “well, I was only trying to help,” uttered in an all-too-familiar tone of hurt.

One might extend this to how philanthropy functions. One wants to invest (and philanthropy is an investment) in the place that will produce the most gratitude. (Here, I riff on and extend June Arunga’s recent discussion about investing in misery.) Thus, a student receiving aid should be living on earthworms and cow piss—much more grateful than the student who lives on maize gruel. And those who dare to compete for aid without an “against-all-odds” story stand no chance, in part because they will not be grateful enough.

(Of course, the question of being “grateful” has created various kinds of action and inaction in this prolonged economic thingie we are in; thingie is as technical as I can get right now. Long flight back home. Still not fully present in my time.)

Were this a longer project rather than one of my seemingly endless riffs on Fanon, it would ask, following my paper at MSA, about the kinds of feeling that subtend racial interaction, beyond those conventions of feeling to which we all return. How might focusing on something “like” gratitude expand our archives of race-feeling? How might it help us to get to something about how race functions alongside class? How might it help us to re-think the very strangely named “white man’s burden” (porter, you carry 2,000 kilograms and I will impart civilization to you)?

And while I don’t have the brain space to pursue this right now, it might be worth thinking about how the expectation of gratitude, quantified through some strange calculus, is crucial to producing the conventions of feeling that accompany race. In other words, if we begin with the expectation of gratitude, we might find a richer way to talk about what it means to be “uppity” or “angry.”