Thursday, February 23, 2006

Pour A Libation On The Ground Today (The Day That W.E.B. Du Bois Was Born)

"High in the tower, where I sit above the loud complaining of the human sea, I know many souls that toss and whirl and pass, but none that intrigue me more than the Souls of White Folk. Of them, I am singularly clairvoyant. I see in and through them. I view them from unusual points of vantage. Not as a foreigner do I come, for I am native, not foreign, bone of their thought and flesh of their language...I see these souls undressed and from the back and side. I see the working of their entrails. I know their thoughts, and they know I know. This knowledge makes them now embarrassed, now furious! They deny me my right to live and be and call me misbirth! My word to them mere bitterness and my soul, pessimism. And yet as they preach and strut and shout and threaten, crouching as they clutch at rags and facts and fancies to hide their nakedness, they go twisting, flying by my tired eyes and I see them every one stripped --ugly, human." (1903)

"It is a peculiar sensation...this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness -- an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." (1903)

"The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line." (1903)

"The cost of liberty is less than the price of repression." (1909)

"By the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight the forces of hell in our own land." (1919)

"And what of Black women?...I most sincerely doubt if any other race of women could have brought it's fineness up through so devilish a fire." (1924)

"Drunk with power, we (the U.S.) are leading the world to hell in a new colonialism with the same old human slavery, which once ruined us, to a third world war, which will ruin the world." (1949)

"Believe in life! Always human beings will live and progress to greater, broader, and fuller life." (1957)

"In my own country for nearly a century I have been nothing but a nigger." (1959, in China, before moving in exile to Ghana and accepting Ghanian citizenship)

--William Edward Burghardt Du Bois
sociologist, writer, activist for social change
(2/23/1868 - 8/27/1963)

Rest in peace.
We hear.
We fight.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

You Want To Destroy A Black Person?

"You've heard the joke," she said to me after wiping the tears from her cheeks. "If you want to destroy a Black person, just leave him in a room with another Black person."

I hadn't heard that particular "joke," but I have often heard an African-American person speak of crabs in a barrel and how when one has almost broken free, the others will pull it back inside.

She had gotten the second highest grade in the class--what ended up amounting to even more than a perfect score once the extra credit points were added in--and then she admitted it when someone in the class cracked a joke about who it could be.

When a person has been out of school for a while and comes back, they very often find that suddenly (and somewhat unexpectedly) they are at the top of their academic game. No matter how well they did--or did not do--before, now, they fairly dazzle themselves with their own performance. It's quite a moment, really. I know, because I had the experience. One minute, I was paralyzed with terror over the whole prospect of "going back to school," my best friend holding my shaking hand and pledging to help me in any way I needed her to so that I could make it. And the next minute, I was already in grad school, having cleared my Bachelor's degree in a calendar year! Who knew?

Anyway, it's very exciting. And reassuring. Damn! Here I thought maybe I was too dumb to walk and chew gum simultaneously and, then, in what felt like a heartbeat, I realized that I hadn't begun to understand what was just waiting patiently to be unleashed. It's like the sun coming up and suddenly, all those shadows disappear and we're dancing for sheer joy. And it most definitely is not about anything or anybody but us.

So we might blurt out in a moment of celebration, "I'm the one! I killed the curve! Is that the bomb or what?" Not unlike how we might feel if our kid wins a race or our mutt dog does a particularly clever stunt we didn't teach it. We're so amazed ourselves that we can't immediately conceive of it having anything to do with effort or even ego. We're simply delighted.

But drawing this type of attention, of course, is like going out in hunting season wearing a deer suit, joy notwithstanding. It'll only ever happen to an individual once, I assure you.

In this case, however, the Curve-Killer was an African-American and the one she apparently most offended was, as well. Thus, the telling of the "joke." And the beginning, for me, of a week of thinking about it. Because even though this exact same thing could have happened to any returning student--male or female, Black or White, rich or poor--when it happened to this particular student, it became about "race." That's how it is in the United States: one way or the other, if you're African-American, everything is about race.

Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm not saying that it's perceived as being about race. I'm saying it's about race. Because White people can have a whole list of other characteristics as individuals, but African-Americans are first, foremost, and even with each other, primarily "Black." That's the way the European-American power structure set it up back in the 1700's to reduce Africans to one big amorphous body of labor. Cut them off from their respective traditions, from their languages and their religions, from their names and their peoples, and eventually even from each other. So that two hundred years later, two students of color--both bright, both unquestionably capable of being anything they have an opportunity to be--will find themselves unable to be allies. Now, whose best interest is that in?

Movin' On Up

It amazes me that African-American people, particularly African-American young people will have anything to do with a person that looks like me at all. That people of color honor me with candid observations about the socially-constructed political notion of "race" leaves me humbled (under the circumstances of life in an institutionally oppressive society) beyond anything I could adequately express. But they do. Knowing that I'm going to tell all. And maybe that's partly why they do it. Sort of like leaking secrets to a trusted member of the media because the public, after all, needs to know.

European-Americans, typically, don't really want to know the answers to the questions they wave in the faces of African-Americans. I say "wave in the faces" because the White folks in question aren't really asking anything. They're just setting up what they imagine is going to be the slam-dunk. "Now, I know things aren't the way they should be in America racially, but aren't things really getting better?" they'll challenge, ready to follow up with an account of their personal experience with having once lost out on a job for which they are absolutely certain they were the best qualified.

Sometimes, they don't even ask a question. They just make a flat statement like, "The problem in the Black community..." (because every White person has a canned answer for this at the ready at all times--especially when around Black folks. One can only imagine what one would learn if one went around asking people of color to expound on the problem in the White community.) "The problem in the Black community," Whitey will continue, "is the absence of the father-figure in the home." Completely ignoring the fact that African-American men in the U.S. are four times more likely to be unemployed at every educational level than European-American men. Which then parlays into them being seven times more likely to go to jail, having retreated into crime or drug use in desperation, assuming that they actually had to do anything to get arrested.

Anyway, I was recently involved in one of these discussions I get to be a part of where I am allowed to ask real questions because I am seeking real answers and they know I wouldn't ask if I thought I knew.

"Why do some of the Black guys on campus," I asked on this particular occasion, "wear their pants hanging low on their hips as if they were on a street corner in the hood or rap stars or something?" It seemed to me, I went on, that this has to be uncomfortable on some level. I mean, I've observed guys who walk funny because they're trying to hold up their pants without grabbing them ("Look, Ma, no hands"?). I've seen them surreptiously holding onto the slipping garments with their wrist or the side of their hand without actually using a firm grip. And I've seen them needing to run and being forced to just go ahead and take hold so they don't wind up stepping out of them or, worse, having them fall down and trip the usually otherwise infinitely "cool" wearer. "It's got to be a nuisance," I said without judgment since they're not by a long shot making the most outside-the-box fashion statement on the campus on any given day, given the punk rockers, for one example.

"They're obviously upwardly mobile," I concluded. "They're on the campus. They're committed to the process of education as an opportunity to move into different circles. And they're making it. So what's the deal? Why are they still hanging onto their past?"

"Because they know this is it," came the reply from a young African-American male student who's already started his own business in the music entertainment industry and whose pants do not hang low, at least on this occasion. "Because they know that soon enough they will not be allowed to express their Blackness in public, so they're taking this last opportunity to do it now."


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

And The Winner Is...

When I was first asked to be one of the judges for an African-American beauty pageant on my campus by a Black woman student I greatly respect and who, apparently, greatly respects me, I felt so honored that, for a minute, I thought maybe I could do it. I started tripping on what I could wear that would be special enough for such an important occasion and then, right in the middle of my fun, I realized that I had to tell her no. And this is why:

Historically, African-American women's physical beauty has been judged and found wanting by a European-American standard, power structure, socialization system, entertainment industry (including pageants, etc.), and mass public. Even to this moment, the socially-constructed, political notion of race is routinely combined with a designation of womanhood to summarily slam-dunk every fine, capable, and attractive woman of color through the hoop of U.S. culture. Halle Berry and a number of other stunning and talented Black women have won in the face of all odds--as individuals--but the standard against which they have been forced to compete has not changed.

Consequently, African-American women have always been left to deal with taking up the slack for the rest of the culture by "sucking it up"--pretending that it doesn't matter, pretending that they don't notice or care, trying to rise above it all anyway no matter how bad it feels, being so affected by internalized oppression that even when they feel beautiful, the negative, painful past and present still nags at them continually, especially since the society just keeps doing what it has always done, in any case.

Because of this context, despite the fact that we would hope eventually to see this change (soon, please let it be soon), I had to say no to the request, though I would have loved to have gotten to be a part of the festivities.

History doesn't prevent me from doing it. It just compels me to believe that until more water passes under the bridge, that seat should be held by a beautiful African-American woman. While I may be beautiful (I'm smiling here), and while I may have some heritage to which I could point (so many of those who look like me do), my heart, out of respect for the suffering of African-American women since the first boat hit the shore, won't let me judge them.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Coretta's Work

Coretta Scott King died this week, and I guess I feel the need to say a few words over the body. To pay my respects, as it were. To nod in the direction of a fallen warrior. To pour a libation on the ground of a country soaked in her husband's blood.

Articles have sprouted up like mushrooms after a heavy rain, but they mostly talk about how she rose stalwart from the blow of 'his' death and how she carried on 'his' work. Little about how a pretty young Alabama native got talked into marriage by a glib-tongued young minister that she saw as too young and too short at their first meeting in Boston when they were both students in 1952. Two years younger than she was, he was only 5' 6-1/2", after all, but she was (pretty or not) already twenty-five years old, and having picked cotton and worked as a waitress before, Coretta Scott wasn't looking to die an old maid. Nor to live on peanut butter and crackers the way she had during her first year at Boston Conservatory of Music after she earned her B.A. at Antioch, following her sister, the first African-American full-time student at that institution.

Besides, once he had made his decision, he must have been something, making his case. He was a helluva case-maker, as we all came to know eventually. She was the one, he told her. And she listened.

I doubt that, at that point, he was thinking about being a hero. Or going to India. Or leading a movement. Or being shot to death at 39 and winding up with his own holiday and his face on a stamp. I doubt that at that point either one of them could imagine the struggles they would face--both political and personal. Though, if every man in the U.S. who ever cheated on his wife--or for that matter, if every minister who cheated on his wife, was investigated by the F.B.I. and the results published in the national news, there wouldn't be enough newsprint in the country to hold it all. And then, of course, there was the matter of how 'he' incorporated others' writing into his work, being so much more widely read than the average person that, sometimes, he may not even have remembered he was doing it. 'He' didn't have to deal with that, but she did.

And she did. Carrying herself with resolution and great dignity to play a historical role she could not possibly have wanted, but having it thrust upon her, simply rising to the challenge and accepting it. Like she had accepted the sack to hold the cotton. Like she had accepted having to student teach on the Antioch campus because the parents at the local schools didn't want a Black woman in contact with their children. Like she had accepted having her first real home bombed when she was only 29 with a year-old baby. Like she had accepted the request to lead a crowd of 50,000 people through the streets of Memphis four days after her husband--and the father of her four children--had been shot in the head.

'He'--Martin Luther King, Jr.--was, for all his human frailty, one of a handful of leaders who have walked to their death to illumine the path to freedom. But 'she'--Coretta Scott King--was the one who, like women in history have often been left to do, fulfilled her work quietly, bravely, and even doggedly at times, but with the finesse that only the great--and the pure at heart--are able to exhibit.