A Few Words About Nothing

An Essay on “Race”

Jorge Avalos

Race is everything or nothing.
John Edgar Wideman


And we thought the old trickster was dead.

He’s back. He arrived and came into our house as if he had never left. He sat at our table. He asked for a piece of our bread, for a hot cup of coffee. We shared with him the little food we had left. He was dark and silent. We told him we had heard the stories and the songs.

“The tricks and the mayhem are now legend,” we said. “Neither plagues nor wars have stopped you. You have wrestled the devil himself, we’ve heard.”

He didn’t say a word. He drank his black coffee.

We wanted to hear yet another story, perhaps a story about ourselves. Instead, he placed his old bag of tricks on the table and gave us back what he had taken from us. And then he left, once again. We just wanted to hear another story.


Race is an old, timeless trickster. The dark angel of history. The evil twin of progress. Welcome to the circus of reality, where race is the ringmaster. Welcome to the New World, this way to the looting, this way to the genocide. Welcome to the cotton fields of America. Welcome to Auschwitz, the gas chambers are to your right. Welcome to Bosnia, too little, too late. Welcome to Hiroshima, welcome to the fire. You are the color of your skin. You are the child of a lesser god. You have an inferior mind. You are trespassing. You are illegal. Your food is so spicy. Your culture, so traditional. And the funny accent. The oriental charm. The exotic spell. I’d love to take that veil off your face.


I remember the war. I remember my sixteenth birthday in a torture chamber in San Salvador. I remember the cold Christmas Eve of 1980, shortly after crossing the Mexican-American border. I remember sleeping in the streets of San Francisco. I remember crying over my first warm meal in two months. I remember the noise of English. I remember two boys dressed as girls in the youth shelter of Mission Dolores. I remember the prostitutes I flirted with in the alleys of the Tenderloin. I remember my first job, caring for a rose garden. I remember those days with a strange, dark passion. I didn’t know who I was. And nobody gave a damn.


Race is a political border. The superstructure of Plato’s Republic over two thousand years in the making. The hegemonic axis of modern capitalism. The iron curtain that separates the powerful from the oppressed, the developed master from the developing slave. The American Civil War was in fact an economic war, the high noon of modern history. The South didn’t loose to the Yankees, they lost to the Industrial Revolution. Race is class. We can’t speak about race in terms of progress. If the historicist is at home retelling the history of the world as a history of technological development, as the natural progression of civilization, then race is the reminder that there is no such thing as human progress. After two thousand years, we are still crucifying the savior. After two thousand years we are still the predators of our own liberation.


To cross the political border of race is to leave behind the trickery of race. We are afraid to leave race behind, so we stay and live amidst the trickery. We think we can outwit the oldest trickster, but, can we wrestle the devil? Our liberation from racism can only come about by transcending the notion of race as color, race as culture, race as the standard of measure of human value. Our liberation from racism can only come about by implementing a just economic order, for race is above all an economic question. There was slavery before there was racism. There was depreciation of human value before there was colonialism. We have misread the history of our shame because we now inhabit Plato’s cave. We debate a story of shadows projected on the walls of a cave. At the center of the cave, the fire of history consumes our true memories. So I say: “Dare, dare yourself to look into the fire and listen to the words we have forgotten, revisit the mountains and the rivers of your childhood, dream the dreams that you no longer dream. And forget nothing.”

May 1st, 1996