Existentialist Madison

We must remove the veils of ignorance and misconceptions to make our city a truly great place to be

Jonathan Gramling

Jonathan Gramling

When i was a student at Alcorn State University in Lorman, Mississippi, one of five Euro-American students at the historically Black university, I had some rather profound discussions with Paul Broome, a Euro-American professor at Alcorn. Paul was a progressive son of the Old South and I a progressive product of Madison who was in denial when it came to race matters.

I proclaimed that I was not a part of the muck and mire of racial America, that it had somehow missed me in the cocoon of the hyper-segregated suburb of Milwaukee from which I came. Paul said that we are all a part of it, not just the Old South. And over the course of my two-year stay at Alcorn and work on the Congressional campaign for an independent Black candidate in 1978, I had to agree with Paul.

I did hold biases and stereotypes that I was often not aware of because they were ingrained in me by a race-conscious society. Since those biases and stereotypes were shared by so many Euro-Americans, those biases and stereotypes were “reality” to us, “facts” that we used to deal with people of other races. And because these beliefs were so widespread—and African Americans and other people of color so relatively powerless in the society to change them—we could go about our daily business with our biases and stereotypes remaining unchallenged and intact.

That is, of course, not true any more.

My experience at Alcorn was a profound, life-changing experience that taught me we all walk around life with a thousand veils over our heads, the veils of our own ignorance and misconceptions. And we think this distorted view that we have through the veils is “reality.” And then something happens—we have a profound experience—and we realize that we have a veil over our eyes and the view that we now have is “reality,” not realizing that there are 999 veils to go. Some of us are forever satisfied with this view of “reality.” And there are others who continue to deal with life and other people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds and remove the veils—or in some cases have the veils removed for them.

Madison is a great place to live—if you can get past the cold winters—with many amenities, great restaurants, free community events almost every weekend of the summer and many, many people who are civically engaged. Outside of my three years living in Mississippi, I have called Madison my home since 1970.

But I would also call Madison “Racially Existentialist”—“I believe and therefore I am.” Madison has always had a “manageable” percentage of people of color, now perhaps twenty percent of the population, but historically much smaller. And Madison is a community of progressive ideas that attracted me to it in the first place. Madison has believed itself to be antiracist and therefore thinks that it is. And there has never been enough people of color present to say, “Madison, you still have to remove the thousand veils from your eyes through honest engagement and interaction with people from all walks of life on a continuous basis and more than just with a handful of people who are different than you that allows you to remain fully veiled, but feeling you have no issues to deal with.”

Madison has the potential to be a truly cosmopolitan city where people can pursue life, liberty and happiness without subtle and overt barriers being placed in their way because of “what” they are. But Madison is going to have to go beyond its existentialism and truly deal with racial matters. It is going to have to go beyond the denial that I had back in the 1970s at Alcorn State University.

And once Madison “gets it,” it will have the world in the palm of its hands for it will have a competitive edge in attracting the talented from every background to its city limits. Madison does truly have the potential to get there, but it is going to take the talented and the brightest from every cultural background to get us there. I hope you will join us!

Jonathan Gramling is publisher and editor of the Capital City Hues.

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