Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Sweet Taste of Death

The Sweet Taste of Death
Sean Michael Barker

On my way home from work tonight, I stopped by Wendy's and ordered Honey Barbecue Boneless Wings and a medium chocolate Frosty. It's a contemplative sort-of evening for me, so I'm sitting here eating my snack and reflecting on why I'm attracted to things that are gradually killing me. It won't be long before I light another Newport, in this same vein.

For starters, it's clear that I'm going with a certain flow. I am by no means the only person I know who can make an entire diet out of fast food, nor am I the only Danvillian who smokes menthol cigarettes. In fact, for perhaps the first time in my life, I consider myself to be in the majority in this sense; what I'm doing is considered completely "normal" here. Indeed, with two working parents and a cultural endorsement for choosing tasty convenience, I can honestly say that I was raised on fast food. Outside of Danville, it took a great deal of conscious effort to will myself out of my fast-food addiction, not to mention a group of well-meaning friends who lovingly looked down upon it. But here I am again, surrounded by folks who see nothing wrong with a habitual stop at Hardee's or Bojangles or McDonald's or wherever you fancy (pick your poison!), and I have relinquished my will power to the greater judgment of my present context. And, I must admit: I am a lot happier now that I've stopped trying to be health-conscious and vegetarian in Danville, VA.

The question at hand, then, has less to do with why I-personally am making these decisions, and more to do with why we, as a culture, find ourselves constantly doing this. I have a theory which I aim to share.

My theory dates back to my college days, when it was my job to think (or, depending on the class, to repeat others' thoughts). I was a Black Studies major, because the thoughts inspired by these classes were the ones that I found to be the most interesting. Every Black Studies class will at some point address the history of slavery. Most of these conversations will make some attempt to connect the past to the present. This is what I loved most about Black Studies: it helped me to make sense of the world I currently live in, by offering a wider array of conceptions of the past than I found in more "traditional" classes.

I'm not sure which one it was, but in one of my classes, we talked about soul food. As in, the culinary tradition that originates in Southern African-American culture. My very insightful professor told us that slaves--particularly "field" slaves--were generally fed what amounted to table scraps. The master and his family, fittingly, would reserve the choice foods, specifically the "good" cuts of meat, for themselves, and would give the slaves whatever remained that was edible. The slave's diet, then, would be a combination of foods that they could grow for themselves in their precious-little "free" time and their owners' leftovers. This explains why black Southerners (and even some white Southerners of poorer backgrounds) retain their tastes for intestines, livers, dark meats, and what have you. At one point, this was all they had to work with. It also accounts for black people's cultural penchant for rich seasoning: they needed to add a good deal of flavoring to their food to make it palatable, because they were eating parts of the animal that were not even considered to be "food" by the culture-at-large. So, there you have it: a tradition is born, predictably out of the conditions of oppression.

My "original" thought comes in here. I completely accept the narrative that I just laid out as truth, but I have a contribution that I believe adds further insight into the situation. Let's say that you're a black American slave at the turn of the 19th century. You have no personal connection to Africa because your family have been in America for 3-5 generations by now. You work sunup to sundown for a man who does not love or care for you, who beats you whenever he feels the need, who rapes your daughters and considers you to be an animal. You have no conception of a better life than the one you're living now, because you know that any effort you make toward self-liberation will result in a brutal death. You know that you can be separated from your family and loved ones at any moment; your teenage son can literally be sold to the highest bidder. What, then, do you really have to live for?

Hope springs eternal and the will to live is one of the most profound phenomena of human existence. Nevertheless, suicide exists, as do subtler forms of self-destruction. It seems to me that there is a sort-of economic factor when it comes to living. When the cost of living outweighs the cost of dying, perfectly sane people choose to die.

But there seems to be a gradient. We have the extremes: those who kill themselves, and those who completely embody health and vivacity. But we also have a vast middle ground of people who have no desire to die in the immediate sense, but who clearly demonstrate patterns of behavior that can only result in death. Perhaps a similar economic measure can be applied to those in the "moderate" categories.

This is the thrust of my theory: even though everyone knows that certain behaviors, certain foods, drugs and other products are as good as gradual death sentences, people nevertheless choose to engage in/consume them based upon the degree to which they value their own lives. This is why I find more smokers in my social circle as a waiter in workingclass Danville than I did as a college student in middleclass Williamsburg. People here believe that they have less to live for. The longer I stay here, the less I believe there is something to live for.

And who can blame us? Our work is repetitive, degrading, depressing, and soul-crushing. Most of us have aspects to life outside of our work that gives us something to live for. But, when most of our waking life is spent doing work that is not intrinsically rewarding or meaningful, why wouldn't we want to ensure that the release of death draws ever-closer? On the opposite side of the coin, why wouldn't those who lead more fulfilling lives want to prolong it as much as possible? It can all be reduced to a cost/benefit analysis.

And, in the case of good food, good times, and good friends, what better way to go could there be? When no quality of life is apparent, we create it out of thin air. No matter how bad my job was on any given day, it can all be turned around if I have a delicious meal when I get off. When I have no strong desire to live anyway, death can taste quite sweet indeed. It's only when that menacing voice of hope emerges that my habits start to reek of bitterness again. Thankfully, my will toward destruction remains strong enough to silence that voice, no matter how loud it gets. I'm always only one mentholated puff away from where I started, and for the time-being, that's how I like it.

I trust and believe that someday I will find a self-sustaining drive toward health and life. But while my material circumstances dictate my reality, I reserve the right to kill myself a little bit, just to take the edge off of what would otherwise be a completely abysmal situation. My taste for death is completely moment-appropriate, and I do not comdemn myself for obeying my treacherous desires. At present, death to me is as sweet as honey. I will know it's time to move on when it begins to taste as bitter as itself again.

As for right now, it's time for me to reward myself with another Newport :)


  1. This middle-ground middle-class world we exist in is the new slavery and the little pieces of delight and treasure they plant at every corner with their bright yellow and red neon signs are the chains and shackles of the yestertimes.

  2. well said, daniela! thanks for reading and commenting. any plans to update your blog anytime soon?