By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
At the turn of this century, we all listen to black, dress black, walk black, step to the real, etc. In fact, we’ve all rather publicly decided that rap, hip-hop and their a innumerable spinoffs are acceptable fun in a corporate sort of way, a way of getting dangerous without getting hurt, like Nintendo or a theme-park ride that offers a near-death experience. The book By the Color of Our Skin elaborates on this malady of delusion in its discussion of “virtual integration” -- the idea that whites (and blacks, to a degree) see far more integration in the media than they see in reality, but believe the media-fied version because it makes them feel better about themselves and about racial progress in America. Virtual integration also dictates what gets integrated (Bill Cosby, Fresh Prince, the WB) and what doesn‘t (gang activity, black suspects on the 5 o’clock news). Psychologically speaking, it makes perfect sense to take something feared and make it something appealing: So it is that blacks are the nation‘s bogeyman and also the nation’s greatest entertainer.
I know now why Scott Joplin admonished musicians in his sheet music: “Do not play this piece fast. It is never right to play ragtime fast.” It was a small but persistent entreaty that we all read between the lines, smell the roses, make distinctions. As I stumble over “Gladiolus Rag,” “Bethena Waltz,” “Solace,” I am grateful that I cannot do otherwise.
I never caught up with William Grier, though he‘s in Southern California. (His son, I discovered, is the comic actor David Alan Grier, whose career in Hollywood would be a study in the abuse and neglect of full black talent, and in any case an appropriate subject for this story.)
Price Cobbs lives in San Francisco now, works primarily as a coach of business executives, has an office in a lovely part of town that feels like Larchmont Village but newer and not so hip yet, twinkly and inviting in a middle-class kind of way. He answers the door immediately. He is grayer, of course, than in his photo on the dust jacket of Black Rage, taken 32 years ago. He’s dressed in the Dockers and leather sport shoes of his active but listing-toward-retirement generation. He understands perfectly what I‘m trying to write about, but doesn’t know what I want. On matters of black behavior and psychology, he is both clinically brusque and deeply feeling in the way his book is. He is kind to me, like family.
Cobbs agrees with the notion that, socioculturally speaking, it‘s still very hard for blacks to exist as individuals because our group sense is so fragmented. And this fragmentation is not well understood, or even regarded as a problem; the world at large, which in its most magnanimous mood paints blacks with the broadest of brush strokes, has increasingly little patience with our postmodern angst or the new nuances of black consciousness. “There’s a sense of ‘Damn, you got all those civil rights laws, of course the playing field is level now,’” says Cobbs. “We get unfavorably compared to model minorities, like Asians. The problem now is that issues are for us much broader, deeper and more diffuse. They‘re much harder to mobilize around than, say, ’Get out the vote.‘ While there’s a more visible and bigger middle class, the problems are much less tangible -- problems that are economic, psychological, social.”
Has there been net progress? Cobbs says yes, but guardedly. At points he vigorously refutes his own examples of progress. “We‘re more aware of black history,” he muses, “but on some level it isn’t really substantive awareness. It‘s put on, trivial, commercialized by Black History Month . . . But I think that whatever our degree of pessimism, we’re still optimistic about how things could change.” That optimism has also undone and undermined us, by glossing over where it should illuminate with the light of truth. “It‘s most important now to know where we are, but we use these PR campaigns in real attempts to negate what’s going on,” Cobbs says, animated but fuming now. “When we first saw black people in ads back in the ‘60s, we thought, ’Great! This is cool!‘ But later we thought, ’Wait a minute, this is bullshit.‘”
Speaking of which, Cobbs believes that we are deep in an age when things are not what they seem, as well as an age of comfortable, and comforting, denial. When it first found public voice, black rage seemed like a clear, straightforward, albeit taboo concept; in 2000 it is still as potent, but expressed so differently that people are willing to assume it has percolated down to nothing. Cobbs says nothing could be further from the truth. “One of the reasons we wrote Black Rage was this notion we had that seemed to make sense: The angriest black person is the one most deprived,” he says. “But we found out that the angriest black people were those working at a major liberal metropolitan paper, or the suburban schoolteacher. They had no way to talk about the rage, to feel it. They had no context. I’ve seen people in corporations who are there to represent blacks, but they have as many hang-ups and self-image problems as any black person out there. What to do?” Cobbs wishes he knew -- he, after all, should know. His coaching job has called for him to convince black executive types that they belong, that they have as much of a stake in their outfit as anyone else. “I‘m supposed to help them see that they could be everything they wanted to be,” he says, half wistfully, half caustically. “But I talked to them individually and realized they had risen as high as they could go, and now it was, ’Now what?‘” What to do, indeed.