By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
And if I were to cast out the “old” paradigm of black, as I am regularly encouraged to do, what new one would I embrace? Full-blooded American? Why isn‘t anyone in my vicinity casting off old paradigms of white, Thai, Chinese, Latino? No one else seems to be in such a hurry to depluralize themselves. Assimilate, adapt, yes; give up a defining culture, however in flux, no. In fact, the more put upon and oppressed a people, the less likely they are to lay down traditions and the more likely they are to thrive. The problem is that we consciously fail to recognize what our traditions are, though we are certainly reminded daily what we are. As pioneering publisher Earl Graves remarked a generation ago, “You can graduate from Harvard and Yale, but you can’t graduate from blackness.” Even if I could, would I want to?
Maulana Karenga, executive director of the African American Cultural Center and a locally famous figure from the Black Power ‘60s, waves such questions away like an annoyance, so much cigarette smoke. In his modified boom of a voice, he touts the importance of thinking in a new box, an African one. He calls it kawaida, principles similar to those of Kwanzaa (also his creation) that stress a constant connection to African culture in order to carve meaningful spaces for ourselves in the world. Karenga calls them “free spaces.”
“Self-assertion in the world is dependent upon self-understanding,” he declares. His office is cozy, stacked with books, woody and inviting, like a rectory. The noise and hectoring of 54th Street seem miles away. An enormous, very handsome atlas with yellowed pages and intricate pictures sits open on a lectern. “We don’t turn to Africa for answers, because we‘re Europeanized, so we’ve turned historically to Greece and to Israel,” he goes on, “but how do you reconcile being African with this acculturation?”
I have no idea. I want to listen, that‘s enough.
“But look at all the things we’ve done,” says Karenga, sweeping out an arm. “I‘m very impressed with black history. We’ve suffered a holocaust, but we‘ve achieved tremendously. No one gave us that -- we carved it out of the hard rock of reality. We did things the founding fathers” -- whose? -- “never dreamed of. I’ve been saying this since ‘65: We must fight a cultural revolution for ourselves, for the hearts and minds of our people, a revolution that will grow a collective self-conscious. Kawaida says we must constantly recover and put forth the best of what it means to be African.”
Karenga rails against the current black intelligentsia -- chief among them Henry Louis Gates, de facto leader of Harvard University’s black academic “dream team” -- for deconstructing black people, criticizing them into irrelevance. “They‘re always looking for the stitch and stain of blacks, peeling paint instead of providing the masses with models of possibility, of human excellence,” he says emphatically. “Blacks are greatly in need of possibility. If not that, what?”
What, indeed? I second Karenga’s motion, and in the pit of my stomach I am guilty. Am I needlessly unraveling thread, as he accuses Gates of doing? Should I keep my doubts to myself? But if I had, I would not have been led here. And if I were only ministering to myself, I also would not have been led here.
Karenga, too, seems to have been reviewing the puzzle-box questions of I and We, of I and Me, Me and We. He sighs. “Black indignity and indivisibility,” he says. “They‘re inviolate, inseparable.” He chuckles ruefully. “When you hear a gangsta rapper denigrating the ho’s, that‘s you. He doesn’t say, ‘Everybody’s a ho‘ except Lakisha.’”
Mad, Mad, Mad World
I‘m depressed because I can’t merely be mad, and my anger therefore wanders around aimlessly in a kind of emotional cul-de-sac. If you‘re black and mad, you are never assumed to be merely black and mad: You are in the throes of Black Rage. However inalienable a right this rage is, it is viewed as fearsome, tedious, wearying, an impediment to progress. I claim black rage, but I hardly exploit it in the way people like to think it is routinely exploited by, say, Al Sharpton. That presumption is why people around me back up when I glare at a mall cashier who’s telling me my credit card‘s been denied. No matter that I’m really only concerned about my checkered financial past; at bottom it must be black rage that‘s turning my face into a hurricane threat. In fact, I don’t often know which parts of my anger are which -- am I mad at Visa, at the humiliation of it all, at yet another instance of being denied? Sometimes I don‘t even try to untangle things, from which I get a grim sort of satisfaction in being the unruly Negro the world figures we all carry around with us like an inner child, the one that makes its appearance sooner or later and trumps everything -- reason, job, straightening combs, everything.
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