At Obama's Rise, Praise King's Movement--and Bury It
Martin Luther King was a great man who led one of the defining movements of the 20th century—for America, and by example, for the world. However, I believe he was fundamentally wrong in the conclusions to which his Christian moralist background led him throughout most of his crusade. Since his death, the movement he symbolized has stagnated. The recent election of the first (half) black President only illustrates the point. Obama was raised by whites--his mother and his grandparents. He embraced Afro-American culture in early adulthood. However, that embrace does not negate the fact of his background—the fact that being raised with a white mother in white households dramatically altered his point-of-view from that of your typical Afro-American (a term I will use throughout in reference to American descendants of African slaves vs., for instance, a Haitian or Nigerian immigrant).
This shift in point-of-view played a significant role in his ability to win the presidency. What many of us take personally, he takes intellectually. He inherited none of the cultural ‘can’t haves’ that Afro-Americans carry around. Removed from American history’s damage to blacks (his father was Kenyan, not American) he needn’t take our Afro-American history personally. He need not feel its sting. The mother telling him that he could grow up to be President was a white woman. Because he did not inherit a deep sense of exclusion, like the rest of us, he did not react to Republicans’ dog whistle racist taunts by defending his American bona fides with litanies of forebears who had fought in wars or who had labored in southern fields, thereby evoking memories that discomfit so many. He did not react defensively in learned fear of the less-than-American status of earlier black generations. He carelessly flicked off the opposition's arrows. He didn't have to remind America that he was part of a past that they want to forget. Why? Because he is not. His past is not black America’s past. He had the luxury of ignoring it. In doing so, he allowed America to follow suit, and so comforted, elect him President of these United States.
Far from proving how much progress Afro-Americans have made, Obama’s election proves how far we have to go. He cannot be held up as a direct example; we cannot follow in his footsteps: Most of us were not raised by whites and do not imbibe mainstream white cultural attitudes about everything from history to the nature of our country. Most of us do not call a white woman our mother. Most of us do not call a non-American man our father. Most of us are not raised largely in all-brown environments with a distinct distance from mainstream American culture (like Indonesia and Hawaii). No. He cannot be a direct example to us. However, we can identify the elements which have allowed him to reach higher than most of us would have dared and adapt them to our own cultural and historical place in America.
American descendants of African slaves find ourselves, 40 years after the civil rights movement, lagging economically, medically, professionally, educationally. More importantly, we find ourselves struggling with a diminished sustaining sense of our cultural selves as a minority group. It is this cultural sense of self that Obama seems to have cobbled together by uniting his unique mainstream upbringing with his adoption of Afro-American culture. His first book is all about his work of self-creation. It is this work that Afro-Americans, as a group with a shared history, have never done. It is this work that our obsession with the civil rights Movement and its methods—long after the expiration date of both—has prevented.
The election of a dark-skinned man with no personal, genetic attachment to Afro-American history will not prove the balm so many anticipate. I can actually see it proving the opposite--a point of frustration. “There’s a black President, dammit. What do you mean that apartment’s rented when you still have the sign outside the door?” Oakland descends into riots after the release of videotape showing the shooting death of an unarmed black man, hands shackled and lying on the ground as a transit cop seemingly assassinates him at point blank range. The results of the 2008 election will not end American prejudice, bias, racialism or racism. Job applicants with black-sounding names will still be 50% less likely to get a given job than those with less distinctive tags. Blacks will continue to slip backwards—out of the middle class. The growth of hate groups will not suddenly slow. We will wake the day after Barack Obama’s inauguration facing the same hurdles that confronted us prior. The Dream will remain as elusive as it was the day before.
Two historically magnetic forces have kept us tethered to a civil rights era strategy bound to be half-successful because it accepted, on some fundamental levels, negative mainstream constructs about who we are, our place in American society, and the essence of the majority. Barack Obama’s unique upbringing combined with the work he chronicled to blend this part of his self with his adopted culture, freed him from all of the above. It’s time for the rest of us to use similar methods to construct equally independent identities based on a differing set of ingredients.
Because of Martin Luther King’s deep faith, he has been remembered as a man who believed that the pull to brotherhood could overcome what science now tells us are basic human characteristics—seeing those who do not look like us as “the other,” trusting them less, and more readily assigning them negative attributes. King, we’re told, believed that the pull to brotherhood could overcome American history. To that end, he preached the perfectibility of the white majority. He taught that they could seamlessly overcome both history and biology. He brilliantly flattered the majority and used their own beloved Christian symbolism to do it. He gave them a vision of their own colorblind perfection, in which they attributed nothing more to dark skin than hue, and judged each individual not on the color of his skin, but on the content of his character.
It was a dream. And it achieved its initial aim of shaming the majority through flattery, while arming Afro-Americans to fight laws that legalized our marginalization, humiliation and, often, brutalization. It achieved its political aims brilliantly—but little more. As far as healing a people scarred by a history of chattel slavery, and governmentally sanctioned violence and humiliation, it was only a first step.
And then his death left an enormous gash in Afro-America’s psyche. It was as if a wound had only partially healed, and the shaman with the cure had died. We’ll never know how King would have ultimately evolved, where his leadership might have taken Afro-America, or what his long-term strategy might have been. However, at the end, his leadership left us with a dream unfulfilled—a dream dependent upon the Christian goodness of the majority. He left us with a dream—not the reality of the human animal that more easily belittles, reviles and hates those who do not look most like him, not the reality of a history that has taught us all to see black skin as a kind of scar—he left us with a dream that would be endlessly deferred, momentarily slaked with a grand symbolic flourishes but never sustained because it is a dream of human godliness, a dream easily interpreted as one of white men’s perfection—so easily, in fact, that only two decades later, a conservative movement that raised itself up milking fears and hatred of black Americans would claim King’s words and mantel as their own, and there would be nothing to be said against that usurpation, because, as if it were a cunning vampire, King himself had inadvertently invited it in.
In 2006 The Washington Post began publishing a multi-part series entitled “Being a Black Man,” based on the premise that “black men often feel caught between individual achievements and collective failures, defined more by their images in popular culture than their lived experiences.” The series highlighted a poll conducted in collaboration with Harvard University and the Kaiser Family Foundation. When black men were asked about the biggest problems facing them:
68% said racial discrimination was a “big problem.”
91% said young black men did not take their educations seriously enough
88% said too many black men becoming involved in crime
88% said involvement in drug and alcohol abuse
87% said HIV/AIDS
In a similar vein, entertainer Bill Cosby has annoyed some and tickled others with his admonitions against black youth for “opting out” of mainstream society. He made national headlines for, according to CNN, “upbraiding poor blacks for their grammar and [accusing] them of squandering opportunities the civil rights movement gave them.” Juan Williams, Sr. Correspondent for NPR Radio and political analyst for Fox News, expresses the ubiquitous lament on today’s black American youth culture in a Washington Post op-ed. He wrote:
Their search for identity and a sense of direction is undermined by a twisted popular culture that focuses on the "bling-bling" of fast money associated with famous basketball players, rap artists, drug dealers and the idea that women are at their best when flaunting their sexuality and having babies.
However, Williams dresses his arguments against today’s ills in yesterday’s rags. “Where,” he asks, “are the marches demanding good schools for those children—and the strong cultural reinforcement for high academic achievement (instead of the charge that minority students who get good grades are "acting white")?” He bemoans the poor results of a “search for identity”—a cultural issue—and then instinctually regresses to political civil rights clichés—marches, sit-ins, etc.—the political lifeblood of the old civil rights movement. These tactics were highly effective in gaining legal recognition of our rights. They are utterly useless in effecting cultural change within Afro-America. Looking at the results of the Washington Post survey, that’s what is most needed now. It’s time to jettison the old civil rights rhetoric, and set the stage for 21st century actions that might actually have an impact—an impact greater than allowing the zombified carcass of the 60s civil rights movement to nod sagely as it congratulates itself on massing yet another hoard of people to stand about shouting couplets to no lasting effect.
We now know that humans are naturally predisposed toward prejudice against those who look “different.” We are not sci-fi “creatures of light.” We are animals whose primate brains continue to look with suspicion and fear on those who are not like us. Thus, we can officially stop the two-step dance of feigning shock that prejudice and racism still plague us and/or denying its existence. It will always exist. No amount of righteous Christian dreaming will change that. And for a great long time its sting will be greater for Afro-Americans because a national cultural history of negative perceptions and stereotypes have been hard-wired into the American cultural circuit board. It takes but a wink and a nod to evoke them.
In their book “The Black Image and the White Mind,” Robert M. Entman and Andrew Rojecki write:
… it is apparent that White racial attitudes have undergone a change that is neither insignificant nor yet fully consummated. … white racial thinking now spans a spectrum that runs from racial comity and understanding to ambivalence, then to animosity, and finally to outright racism. The bulk of Whites exhibit ambivalence that may be tipped toward comity or hostility depending on the interaction of the political climate, personal experience, and mediated communications.
(When someone is “ambivalent” and can be “pushed” to racial animosity toward a group due to general atmospheric conditions, that someone is infected with racism—perhaps not yet downright poxy with it, but certainly infected.)
There is but one way to prepare Afro-Americans, descendants of African slaves, to thrive within this intermittently hostile atmosphere. But it demands that we put aside hundreds of years of humiliation and shame. It demands that we look at ourselves and build a common cultural—not political—foundation based on our sojourn in America, based on our unique history and the certifiable triumphs we’ve pulled from it. It demands that we acknowledge that our insistent cultural (as opposed to political) identification with blacks of other cultures is, at least in part, a reflection of the majority’s contempt—our inability to see ourselves through our own eyes instead of theirs, see our own indigenous cultural value, and codify a unique, sustaining American cultural identity upon it.
Sustaining cultures—cultures that sustain their inhabitants—provide a sense of entitlement, and even superiority to those who nestle within them. Per University of Kentucky psychologist Margot Monteith, “To the extent we can feel better about our group relative to other groups, we can feel good about ourselves. It's likely a built-in mechanism." Name me a culture that boasts that its people are equal to other peoples. They don’t; they boast instead superiority. They also have common delineators, usually based on varying combinations of history and ethnicity. We are Afro-Americans—the American descendants of African slaves. We are not Haitians, Nigerians, Gambians or Sudanese. We are “black” people as much as we are “bipedal”, and cultural identification as “black” is only marginally more valuable; the term “African-American” is merely one half-step more descriptive. It fails to distinguish between a native born Kenyan who moved to Brooklyn two years ago and an American descendant of African slaves—between Charlize Theron and myself. Of course, to suggest that either of those sets shared intimate cultural bonds would be asinine. Africa is part of our history—an important part, but it is no substitute for a rapprochement and full acknowledgment of the more recent past that bleeds into and fully colors our American present.
If you ask ten Afro-Americans from different locales and socioeconomic backgrounds what Afro-American culture is, you’d get factious answers. Some will talk about hip-hop and rap. Some about religion, some about jazz, some about Africa. But these are all just cultural flotsam, outgrowths… cultural results. From what are they born? I don’t think we’ve ever self-defined that—the fundamentals of Afro-American culture—shared cultural touchstones and definitions that allow us, like other cultures, to celebrate our glories, and ingest a sense of cultural superiority and entitlement. What have our American horrors taught us and how have we wrested from them unique ways of thinking about issues such as God, history, death… How has our perception of the world been formed by our American experience, and how does that experience in all of its horror and all of its glory, allow us to be better, smarter, more perceptive than our fellow Americans who have not had the privilege of being born into it. How has it provided us cultural tools second to none in America? Barack Obama had a white mother and guardians injecting him with the majority’s positive views of self, history and culture. Most of us don’t have that luxury.
Webster’s Ninth - 5a: the integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon man’s capacity for learning and transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations. 5b. the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group.
“…transmitting knowledge to succeeding generations.” What formal knowledge do Afro-Americans customarily transmit from generation to generation about our distinct sub-culture? This is something at which we have consistently failed. So intent have we been on first righteously fighting persecution, and then, less righteously, on perfecting the majority via politics a la the King. I remember consistently seeing the book “To Be a Jew” on the bookshelves of high school friends of mine. Was there any such book in my house regarding being an American descendant of African slaves? There was not. The Jewish kids I knew went to Hebrew School on weekends and sometimes after school. Jews had learned not to abandon their distinct cultural education to the majority. They had learned that the majority simply does not, and has no reason to care.
During my formative years, I had several advantages that changed my personal cultural circumstance. First, I was comfortably middle class. Second, I was 10 in 1968, and living in Washington, D.C., a place full of middle class blacks. Third, the civil rights movement was reaching its zenith, and Afro-American life, history, culture, practice and theory were alive in the air all around me. And most importantly, my mother was born of a distinct sub-culture that afforded her all the things I hope for Afro-America at large: A culture nurtured and passed down from generation to generation that provided, in part, a sense of self-worth, entitlement, and yes, even superiority.
My mother was born and raised a New Orleans Creole. That means that she was part of an upper caste in Afro-American society dating back hundreds of years. These were half-breeds, quadroons, octaroons whom whites considered tainted by their black blood, but who were afforded and took special status and privilege due to the light skin they wore. They were the sons and daughters of slave masters and overseers, and seized their special status to become more prosperous than other blacks.
Their ability to attain this was based on a grotesque belief: the closer to white, the better you were. However, creoles wrested from this baseness a society they considered as cultured as the white, while taking their place as the elite of the black. In addition, they seem to have considered themselves prettier than either, and were not above holding both in contempt.
It was my good fortune to be born into such arrogance, to be the progeny of people who somehow managed to consider themselves more clever, more resourceful, and more wise than those around them due to their unique history and place in society—despite all the lies, half-truths and contradictions their place bespoke. Because of the high esteem in which they held themselves, they made a point of passing along the idea that I was part of something unique and special, worthy of careful maintenance. They made a point of passing that glowing aspect of their particular cultural information from generation to generation.
Everything the majority had was ours, I was taught, but nothing of ours was theirs. We had what they had—but more. That lesson should be one passed from every generation of Afro-American to the next. We must not only be armed with a thorough and exacting knowledge and level of comfort with the mainstream culture, but in addition, we must be loaded for bear with our own American creation myths, our own American histories, passed among ourselves that exalt us, defining ourselves, finally, once and for all. What’s theirs is ours. What’s ours is not theirs. It is DuBois’ dilemma, but recast from a dilemma to a blessing.
Loving DuBois’ Dilemma, Daily
Blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians, Muslims and all other Americans share American culture. We have our enduring creation myths: George Washington cannot tell a lie; our Founding Fathers, “with liberty and justice for all” to name a few. Regardless of the degree to which we accept these myths, they bind us. The history surrounding them is part of our public education. We pass this knowledge from generation to generation.
This knowledge, this culture belongs as much to me, a black man, as it does to any white man or woman. To thrive in America, Afro-Americans must be of this culture, must know it inside and out. Joni Mitchell and Charles Ives are mine as much as they are any other American’s. But then, I also have Mingus. If whites want him, he can be theirs as well. He is part of their culture too. But with that great man I share a history that will forever be out of reach for most whites. That shared history, that likeness, that connection gives me unique access to musical spaces that will probably forever be unreachable to those who are not Afro-American. Let me explain: I, for instance, will never know what it means to be a Native American and watch a typical Hollywood Western. I can appreciate the lie of the Hollywood product. I can distantly appreciate the pain that it could inflict on a Native American, but I will never have the experience watching that film that a man or woman of that culture will have, because I am not of their culture. Similarly, there are experiences of things Afro-American that will forever be out of reach for most others. I have a friend who is obsessed with R&B. Knows it backwards and sideways. Yet, he never understood Aretha Franklin’s place was not just musical—it was cultural. Hollering “Freedom” in 1967 through every radio in America meant infinitely more to Afro-Americans than it did to him. To us, it was visceral, political and personal. To him, it was great music. As Afro-Americans, we share a slice of America that is unique to us. Yet, mainstream America and its culture are ours as much as any white man or woman’s. The only thing of theirs, as Americans, that we cannot claim, is their historical contempt for us (and in some ways we come frighteningly close to that as well).
So we’re back to DuBois’ conundrum, the “double consciousness” of the Afro-American. It means that we have the additional “burden” of learning our own history, comings, goings and the ways of being they have bred in us, in addition to learning all that the majority learns. But it also means that the additional benefit of knowing our own history, comings, goings and the ways of being they have bred in us. It is our leg up. It is our superiority.
People like Bill Cosby ask the extraordinary of Afro-Americans. Where he too often fails is in acknowledging that it is extraordinary, acknowledging the bravery and smarts required to accomplish it, and expressing his belief that Afro-Americans are more than capable of it.
This is about accomplishing the extraordinary. It is about nothing less than codifying a cultural experience, advancing it from the vernacular, to the formal. To do so, you must first dispel the fear and humiliation borne of hundreds of years of the constant threat and too-frequent reality of this…
Rational fear born of experience has led so many blacks to be repulsed by the majority that we reject crucial pieces of our own past as well as American “things” that we feel reek of “them.” How do you acknowledge that there is something poisonous in the very culture that literally helped create you? How do you acknowledge that the existence of your cultural being is due to the hatred of your countrymen? How do you reconcile your fear, and yes, sometimes, hatred of the majority culture for what it did and tolerated for so long, with an embrace of the majority culture of which you are a part?
There is an extraordinary amount of thinking, and heavy lifting we must do.
I can hear, and understand the complaint. “But white people don’t have to do that. Why should we? That’s not equality. White folks don’t have to work harder.” No, they don’t. That’s because they were born white and a majority in this country. That is because they are "less" than we. We were born minorities here, thus we bear that extra burden and the ultimate cultural benefit of dealing with the crimes and the hate and the fear and the legacy, half-embracing, half-rejecting, and pulling from all of it a rich and gorgeous subculture that sustains us. Is it fair? No. It is not. But if the Afro-American experience has taught us one thing, it should be this: “What has ‘fair’ got to do with anything?”