I haven’t been here for awhile. I spent today gathering data. Here’s some of what I found.
Here’s some more.
And some more. People are working.
Note that the crowd in Jenna is not entirely Black. Movements are never simply homogenous, undifferentiated. When I lived in Berkeley in the mid 1980s, South Berkeley, my grandmother asked me if the neighborhood was integrated. She grew up in Texarkana, Arkansas and moved to Los Angeles in the early 1940s. I told her that it was integrated an integrated neighborhood, Black and Brown. we both laughed.
Black people have plenty to be angry about and spend quite a bit of time being angry. They express much of that anger toward themselves in a variety of self destructive behaviors: fratricidal gang violence, hedonistic indulgence, self medication, and disdain for other Black people and Black communities, compounded by anger over being angry and disappointed in one’s people. This is the paradox of the post Civil Rights Movement Black America: increased high school and college degrees and expanded dropout rates, an expanded middle and professional class and an expanded underclass growing farther apart, exponential growth in black elected officials, perhaps soon including the U.S. presidency, and exponential growth in black incarceration and subsequent loss of voting rights in many states, increasing incomes for some, frozen or decreasing wealth for the majority, select, high profile celebrities in all fields of endeavor and millions of invisible, desperate, hard working, disaffected people. The powerful use those who succeed under the terms of mainstream society to bludgeon that suffering, black working class majority, offering comfort for compliance while the state institutions continue to fail.
In several important areas, African Americans continue to be underserved. Dilapidated public education characterizes the schooling of too many majority Black school districts, urban, suburban, and rural. Police forces over-police Black communities and Black people, continue to brutalize and murder Blacks, and continue to be exonerated by police commissions and juries. Medical care prices are out of reach. City and county governments allow neighborhoods to become trash dumps, abandoning housing projects to criminal elements inevitably present in all communities. Developers and real estate interests, including Black developers, price Black families out of their traditional neighborhoods through gentrification projects. The recent foreclosure crisis represented one of the greatest transfers of Black held wealth in U.S. history since the theft of labor under legal chattel slavery. An entire city of Black folks were flooded out of their homes due to federal and local incompetence and prevented from returning home to help rebuild. That African Americans continue to succeed under any terms at all under these conditions should be the subject of great wonder. Black people should be angry.
The Obama campaign has already been characterized as evidence of the embodiment of Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. However, Dr. King’s political vision did not remain in 1963. Rather, that moment, and that politically useful message, has been elevated as the climactic moment of the Civil Rights Movement that found its resolution in the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act of 1964 and 1965 respectively. The imagery of a dream rooted in the “American Dream” firmly ties the values expressed in that speech to the soaring rhetorical themes of The Declaration of Independence. The mainstream discourse in the public sector and the private sector freezes August 28, 1963 as the dominant and really the only acceptable representation of Dr. King. The aspirations of African Americans are expected to culminate in the enforcement of the Civil Rights legislation. That Black people continue to agitate for rights upsets the apple cart. Calls for and the implementation of affirmative action policies, not especially radical solutions, have been used to perpetuate racialized hostilities. Calls for Black Power and self defense simply will not be tolerated. In short, the mainstream of America decided that the Civil Rights legislation of the mid 1960s and judicial opinion upholding and interpreting those laws should have been enough. Black people have nothing to be angry about but each other. The problems must be behavioral, never structural.
“As I have walked among the desperate, rejected and angry young men I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through non-violent action. But they asked, and rightly so, what about Vietnam? They asked if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today, my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.”
The discussion of the New Yorker cover featuring Senator Barack Obama dressed as a Muslim of Southwest Asia or East Africa and Michelle Obama dressed as a Black Liberation Fighter with full Afro and AK47 has taken primarily two tracts: the inability to appreciate the satirical intent of the cartoon exactly to condemn the politics of fear, or the bad taste, insensitivity and poor judgment of the New Yorker for publishing the drawing. Both tracts center their discussions, understandably, on the possible impacts on the presidential campaign. Lost, or at least submerged, in the discussion is the Michelle Obama part of the equation of the fear politics, U.S. fear of Black radicalism, U.S. fear of black anger, and thus the persistence of racism. She had the gall to admit that she has not always been proud of her country’s behavior. Imagine that.
The political right represents Black anger as unjustified, irresponsible, and a security risk. The political center and the center-left represent Black anger as perhaps justified for class reasons, but irresponsible, and a political risk as it mobilizes reactionary action from the White working and middle classes who should be in solidarity with the Black working and middle classes. That narrow political spectrum casts persistent Black disenfranchisement, poverty, alienation as essentially behavioral problems. If Black people stop acting the way they do, they too can succeed, a usefully vague notion. So the race that Americans want to take them beyond race turns on race and U.S. inability or unwillingness to address racism, the real “race” problem.
Now, during the week of the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama’s keynote speech Monday night played the familiar notes of American Exceptionalism, the narrative of uniquely American working class and middle class possibilities for upward mobility and wealth if one works hard enough and sacrifices enough. Michelle Obama emphasized, for example, how her story and her husband’s story are so similar: her raised working class on the Southside of Chicago, and him raised by a single mother, perhaps the only single mother in recent history who Americans have been asked to feel for, and her parents, working class white people. The message was clear: we are really all the same; we Black people are just like you White people.
Revealingly, the mainstream media picked up this sameness theme and framed it as a necessary humanizing of Michelle Obama, that indeed, she had to demonstrate to the American people, which really means most of the 80 percent white electorate, that she and her husband and their daughters are just like other Americans, that they love each other, work hard, believe in God, love their country, are Americans. Consider this: 8 out of every 10 voters in the U.S. are white. A significant number of these 8 voters need to be shown that Black people are human like them. That is what it means to humanize people, isn’t it, to make them more human in some one else’s eyes? How were they perceived before they were humanized? How do Whites really see Blacks if in the week when Barack Obama gave his acceptance speech on the anniversary of Dr. King’s speech at the March on Washington, his wife still needed to be humanized, and this is taken as necessary and serious politics?
But we are Americans. Malcolm understood that, what that means culturally, the way in which African Americans have created, developed, forged, cultivated, scratched out – which metaphor?- an identified and indentifying culture only possible under these unique conditions of U.S. political and social history. We live with the doubleness. It marks us. It marks our modernity. Henry Louis Gates and others remind us of the creole character of our culture, often as a critique of the Afrocentric, the essentialist. But creole-ness has not weakened the magnetic pull of Africa, and American-ness continues to complicate how one lives with the pull. We live doubled.
So what did Malcolm mean?
Josh Howard of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks has been in the news this week for disrespecting the national anthem over summer. The clip has been bouncing around YouTube.
Michel-Rolph Trouillot, discussing Bourdieu’s concept of the unthinkable explains, “The unthinkable is that which one cannot conceive within the range of possible alternatives, that which perverts all answers because it defies the terms under which the questions were phrased”. He goes on to explain that this exactly describes the Haitian Revolution and the ongoing silences about that revolution. It is a silence that continually muffles discourses of black Resistance, erased from mainstream discourse and often relegated to legend or “mere rhetoric” in black communities.
Toussaint L’Ouverture, Jean Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, these men and the men and women they led saw themselves as rising to their historic roles in a revolutionary period, actors in the Caribbean phase of the French Revolution. Revolutionary France was ultimately unable to come to terms with African freedom in the Caribbean and under Napoleon attempted to reinstate slavery. The Haitian defeat of France, and England, and Spain in their attempts to fill the vacuum left by the French, shook the slave-ocracy of the young American republic. But the U.S. had its own problems, its own history of uprisings, its own grumbling slaves and natives. Theirs are the silenced narratives. They make Americans uncomfortable. They should. Josh Howard is a reminder, including his comments about the Obama campaign. How will Obama’s campaign and possible presidency be used to regulate African American dissent from the mainstream? Not everyone is drinking the kool-aid. “No, I’m not an American. I’m one of the 22 million black people who are the victims of Americanism…I’m speaking as a victim of this American system…And I see America through the eyes of the victim. I don’t see any American Dream; I see an Amercan nightmare.” from The Ballot or the Bullet, delivered April 3, 1964 in Cleveland, Ohio.