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Baptized in Fire 

On the exigencies and excuses of black history

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Illustration by Shino Arihara

COMPTON IS BURNING, AND THE EMPERORS OF BLACK PUBLIC OPINION are fiddling by dint of the fact they are saying nothing about it. The musical chair that the mayor's seat has become has rightfully reverted to Eric Perrodin for the moment, but not without a firestorm from ex-ex-mayor Omar Bradley that was needlessly ignited by a judge who treated Compton like a Third World country badly in need of some benevolent colonial guidance. I'm pissed off about the whole sorry treatment of a town that is in the fight of its life for self-respect, but my vinegar needs some backup. Yes, I know: Bernie Parks is absorbing 99 percent of the black public outrage to be had in L.A. these days, but I'm going to complain anyway about the monumental silent treatment -- the latest episode in a history of many -- black pundits are giving the city of Compton in its greatest hour of need since the state seized control of Compton's school district back in 1993. Now, as then, I'm not talking about a need for action or knee-jerk protest so much as I'm talking about a desperate need for commentary, feedback, acknowledgment -- a signal that something bigger and more meaningful to black folks than an awards dinner is happening in our midst. Black observers close their eyes to Compton because of geography (in hallowed SoCal tradition, we reason that if you don't live there, why bother?) and because Compton, with its naked acrimony and name calling that often threatens to devolve to the school-yard level of yo' mama, greatly disturbs the image of progress and rationality we have tried so hard to cultivate since DuBois' time. Though mainly it disturbs the image -- we're bombarded daily with gangsta rap and other popular glorifications of black thuggery -- we certainly don't need this kind of foolishness (as my mother would sternly say) from our elected officials.

The problem is, of course, that our own image anxiety steers us away from the deeper issues that should be the real purview of all aspiring, even expiring, black punditry. Granted, mining those issues can be messy and uncomfortable, hardly Black History Month material, but it's got to be done. We should have thoroughly excoriated Compton school officials for their corruption at black kids' expense back in '93, as we should be excoriating all sorts of people now for the leadership crisis that's threatened to turn the hub city into the OK Corral once and for all. A judiciary crisis is actually the culprit this time out; when Superior Court Judge Judith Chirlin took the law and the will of Compton voters into her hands and reinstated ex-mayor Omar "Boss Hog" Bradley after voters put him out last June, all hell predictably broke loose. Bradley promptly got the City Council to approve nearly a million dollars for himself in back pay and legal fees (a move that's being challenged by many within the city as grand theft of public moneys). Father Stan Bosch, a leading Compton reformist and part of a clerical coalition that helped defeat Bradley at the polls last year, reported getting some drive-by taunts from Bradley supporters bent on payback. When Eric Perrodin won his seat back on appeal three weeks into Bradley's bizarre new reign, some supporters turned their wrath on Compton City Attorney Legrand Clegg, who got unnerved enough to request security guards.

This is parochial, small-town stuff, particularly among the Southeast L.A. hamlets. But it also speaks to the bigger picture of black political accountability and black politicians being held to ridiculously low standards of rule -- or worse, to none at all. The spotlight is back on Compton, but only as the theatrical divertissement it's always been to media types. It evidently doesn't even rank that high among black organizations and others who would claim to have a lock on the pulse of the people; in the days following the Chirlin ruling and the subsequent successful appeal by Perrodin, the Times' editorial pages featured only a few dry musings by election-law experts, all of them white, about the whole affair. Percy Perrodin, Eric's brother and most tireless supporter, says the vast majority of indignant calls he got after Chirlin's ruling were from whites. That wouldn't be so damning on its own, but in the context of zero response from outfits like the NAACP, the Brotherhood Crusade and the Urban League, all of which built their names on the backs of political causes affecting black people, it's downright embarrassing. It makes me seriously wonder -- for the hundredth time this week -- about the fate of black advocacy groups (a designation once so easily made and so perfectly understood), now so frequently hamstrung by their own history that they court irrelevance, if not extinction. Someone in Compton huffily theorized that black organizations are steering clear of Compton's conflagrations because "If there's no clear white enemy, they don't want to bother." Percy Perrodin and other reformists have long been resigned to dealing with the ruckuses on their own. So far, despite the breakthrough victory last year, they've maybe broken even.

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SPEAKING OF BLACK HISTORY, I'M GLAD IT'S over. Again. Black History Month, that is. February is always a confused and exhausting time, a month through which I suffer a nagging low-grade tension headache about what people are going to say or not say about African-Americans and achievement this year. A noble idea, this paying tribute to us, but also one grown so inherently and patently patronizing I invariably wind up feeling like I belong in a museum behind glass or in a Happy Meal box as the special-themed giveaway toy. (For a limited time only! Collect all 30 million!) Then there are all the solemn television and cable-movie premieres about the lives of Rosa Parks and A. Phillip Randolph and Marcus Garvey and scores of other black folks whose giant steps get perennially reduced to small-screen signifiers of black pride. I have nothing against pride, but at some point it becomes but an inert gas glowing for its own sake, a far cry from the combustible and forward-thrusting force that was Parks and Randolph and Garvey and a lot of others like them. We tend to busy ourselves bolstering black pride throughout February because to really examine black history, as I noted earlier in a different way, can be unsettling. Why, for starters, does black history tend to peter out after 1968? How and where did the much-serenaded fight for freedom end, or how does it go on? It doesn't help that the evidence has been mounting over the last 20 years or so that black progress has stalled more than it's moved ahead, overall; the legacy of us even being in this country is still forming. I know we need reassurance amid all the uncertainty -- a loud, public reiteration that Brown v. Board of Education actually meant something -- which is what we've decided Black History Month is all about.

I wouldn't mind an open feelgoodfest quite so much if it were just limited to blacks, but it's not; whites love to feel good about Black History Month, too. They love to assert America's triumph in achieving equality. They love to feel magnanimous about the ample air time we get. They love the unlimited opportunities for "African-American," the ultimate dignifier, to roll trippingly off the tongue. They love most of all that they only have to do this four weeks out of the year. But let's face it, we all want to prettify black history because denial, or at least a softer focus, serves a lot of our best interests. Yet the very phrase black history is still a challenge, a rude question to those who maintain there is only American history, or that we live in a rare country where race finally doesn't matter.

Glib as it's gotten, black history is still politely dissident in the way Carter G. Woodson, who started the whole thing with Negro History Week early last century, intended it to be, and it's for that reason I'm not stumping for the end of Black History Month. I'm simply asking for some postmodern adjustments. Alongside the engraved encomia to King and Parks and Bunche, there could be days of Oprah dedicated to the soul-searching confessions of black history's besmirchers; guests could include everybody from Omar Bradley to David Horowitz to Clarence Thomas to David Duke to Suge Knight. Nor would the viewing audience and a whole host of lesser sinners be off the hook. We would all have to own up to the grievous mistakes we've made, the neglect we've instituted and accepted without a murmur, the P's and Q's we've consciously dropped in the name of blackspeak and holy American cool, and restored in the holier name of 9 to 5. Black History Month would become a national emotional purge in which celebration and condemnation would stand together and complement, not contradict, each other, and the strange stuff of truth would, at long last, set us free.

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