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Breathing While Black

It looks like it’s all over between The New York Times and Cornel West. In a recent Sunday book review, “the newspaper of record” complained that while the noted African-American scholar “combined the style of a radical intellectual with a message that was middle-of-the-road” in his previous book, Race Matters, its sequel, Democracy Matters, finds West “whining” about how “nihilism has now spread to Americans of all races.” Worse still, reviewer Caleb Crain asserted, West “disapproves of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and of America’s implication in the treatment,” going so far as to mention the newspapers and magazines that unquestioningly support Israel, including ‘‘the non-Jewish Rupert Murdoch.’’ This, Crain claimed, is “deeply confused.” But there’s nothing at all confusing about the obsequious fealty African-Americans are required to display toward Israel lest they be accused of anti-Semitism. It’s part and parcel of a whole list of proscriptions for anyone belonging to the non-white majority — invariably referred to as a “minority.”

American “mainstream” culture defines itself as white, male, Protestant, Republican and heterosexual, as anyone who can’t check off those categories learns in no uncertain terms from the moment they attempt anything from buying a house to hailing a cab. About 12 years ago I was hauled off an RTD bus in broad daylight, handcuffed and thrown to the ground with a revolver placed against my temple by a pair of police officers who had apparently “mistaken” me for a much shorter, much darker suspect. In other words I was “Breathing While Black,” even though my blackness has been a matter of much dispute — and not just because of my last name. You might say I’m a “post-Negro,” much like the “white-looking biracial children” of writer Debra Dickerson, whose constant carping (most recently in Slate) about other African-Americans has met with mainstream approval.

“It is a startling thing to hear an American speak as frankly and un-self-servingly,” wrote The New York Times Janny Scott of Dickerson’s An American Story, which, along with her The End of Blackness, has pushed her far ahead in the mainstream’s Survivor-like competition for “spokesperson” for the African-American community — otherwise known as Head Nigger in Charge.

“I’m desperate to prevent them from becoming the kind of privileged snots with that disgusting sense of entitlement I saw in too many of my trust-funded classmates at Harvard Law School,” Dickerson wails. But their world’s a lot different from the one that produced George Herriman, creator of the immortal Krazy Kat, who passed for white, as did the Times’ own ’60s-era book reviewer Anatole Broyard.

The controversy of the civil rights era and its heroes Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X has given way to the quiescence of such “consensus” figures as Oprah Winfrey and Denzel Washington. Yet even a crossover figure as definitive as Bill Cosby can prove controversial when he dares to criticize the legacy of hip-hop — a minstrelsy more devastating than blackface in that it sells black “authenticity” as a white fashion accouterment. That a form that began with Gil Scott-Heron has been appropriated by Marshall Mathers suggests that every generation gets the Al Jolson it deserves — this time, one without talent. But as one of my favorite white women, the incomparable Hildegarde, recently noted, “Talent is a thing of the past.”

Traditional racism may be as well. For while the Aryan Nation (whose founder, Richard G. Butler, recently passed peacefully in his sleep) persists, the ever-morphing meaning of race now coughs up such grotesques as O.J. Simpson, Michael Jackson, Kobe Bryant, Dinesh D’Sousa and Tiger Woods — whose declaration that he’s “Cablinasian” has about as much validity as Essie Mae Washington Williams’ claim that her biological father, archracist Strom Thurmond, had an “affair” with her 16-year-old mother rather than raping her.

Yet she’s no more grotesque than that trio of house niggers — Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Clarence Thomas — confected to confuse liberal whites and reassure conservatives, while providing grist for the mill of the brilliant Aaron McGruder, whose Beverly Hills residency doesn’t prevent him from speaking about racial issues of all sorts.

And much speech is needed in a time when the White House inquires after journalists’ race before dealing with them, and a brilliant young Democrat named Barack Obama — the son of a white woman from Kansas and a black man from Kenya — gave a keynote speech to the Democratic National Convention that will long be remembered.

“My parents shared not only an improbable love, they shared an abiding faith in the possibilities of this nation,” said the rising political star — who happens to be several shades lighter than I am. “We are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the Stars and Stripes, all of us defending the United States of America. In the end, that’s what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?”

Good question.

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