Breathing While Black
It looks like its 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 Israels treatment of the Palestinians and of Americas 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 theres nothing at all confusing about the obsequious fealty African-Americans are required to display toward Israel lest they be accused of anti-Semitism. Its 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 cant 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 Im 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 Dickersons An American Story, which, along with her The End of Blackness, has pushed her far ahead in the mainstreams Survivor-like competition for spokesperson for the African-American community otherwise known as Head Nigger in Charge.
Im 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 worlds 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 DSousa and Tiger Woods whose declaration that hes 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 shes 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 doesnt 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, thats what this election is about. Do we participate in a politics of cynicism or do we participate in a politics of hope?
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