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No Laughing Matter

I almost hate to bring this up — though if I don’t, I’ll be committing the very crime of omission that Bill Cosby feels most of us do-gooding blacks are guilty of almost by definition. I guess that means me, but I don’t think of myself as someone who avoids the truth, so I’ll keep going because — and I must apologize to Bill for saying this — I ain’t no punk. For those of you who don’t know, Cosby, in a recent Washington, D.C., address before black dignitaries on the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, chastised the race for indulging its own failures of learning over the last 50 years.

He attacked the unstandard English that was once a badge of black ignorance but has been elevated (sort of) as either ebonics or hip-hop parlance — “ain’t,” “where you at,” etc. — declaring that nobody is going to become a doctor or lawyer speaking that way. He went on to say that black parents have grossly misplaced priorities that have them spending $500 for outfits instead of $200 for Hooked on Phonics. He suggested that black criminality is too often excused as a byproduct of oppression, when in fact a black person arrested for stealing a piece of pound cake — a minor transgression that would surely have us out picketing and circulating e-mail petitions — had no business stealing the pound cake in the first place. Talk about food for thought.

The audience at Constitution Hall, which included folks from the NAACP, reportedly laughed, clapped or did nothing. The NAACP was scandalized, and Theodore Shaw, head of its Legal Defense Fund, the outfit that guided Brown to victory in 1954, assured the crowd afterward that most blacks were not on welfare and that many of the problems the NAACP addresses are not of black people’s making. Thank God.

Cosby was playing comedian, but he wasn’t kidding, and though he was right to a point, it struck me that this was a sad exchange to have had on such an occasion. The few commemorative holidays blacks observe are compromised by something — Black History Month is too short, too quickly patronized and still too segregated from larger American history, and nobody even knows what the hell Juneteenth is. Still, to try and make triumphal the current state of blacks in public education is to invite ambiguity at least. Sure, we’ve got the middle class and a lot more postgraduate degrees spread around than we had 50 years ago — Cosby himself, a longtime patron of black colleges and of education in general, is among the blessed. But given the expectation of what was supposed to happen after Brown, what should have happened, there are also far too many black people today who don’t graduate from high school or, if they do, are semiliterate and largely unemployable. They have zero prospects for college and a professional career. Whether they should then somehow create educational opportunities for themselves or give in to a don’t-give-a-shit life evidenced by their bad English — I’m following Cosby’s logic here — is a matter of some debate. But the anger that Cosby vented via his comedy routine was real.

The great thorn in the side of the black middle class that we curse in private but never in public for fear of denigrating the whole race — a very valid fear, by the way — is the hopeless intransigence of the lower class. It’s not just that folks don’t have money; Lord knows blacks, even the biggest conservatives, don’t blame each other for that. The anger is about people’s willingness to be niggers. Cosby’s fellow comedian Chris Rock brought this up years ago in his now-famous dialectic about loving black people but hating niggers — those who felt license to live the low life, to openly scoff at education, brag about doing prison time and generally sabotage the nobler efforts of their own people at every turn. Rock exaggerated to make a point, but it was well taken among blacks that I know. Yet he knew that a big part of the problem was that American culture, as usual, minted the current image of the truly authentic Negro, and expects blacks to live up — or down — to it. He knew that American culture still views educated or well-spoken blacks as almost an affront to the get-down soul, to the purely instinctual that dictates everything from basketball to bad English to breaking into violence, that we all know and love (and sometimes fear — but that’s another story).

 

Rock, and now Cosby, argue that blacks have a choice in the matter of behavior, and too often it’s the wrong one. That’s true, but what Theodore Shaw implied about blacks not being responsible for their own hell forged by a long history is also true. So you have your pick of truth here, though they are by no means equal truths all the time. It would be infinitely more useful to examine the gray areas — of public policy, resource allocations and the like — rather than choose one of only two paths at a false crossroads.

But this whole matter is personal as well as polemical. Cosby was hurt. He felt betrayed. One of the things he said at the podium was that lower-class blacks were “not holding up their end of the deal.” He, like many of his generation, had invested years of hope and plowed lots of resources into bettering black people through education, a freedom dream that has endured since the end of slavery. Unlike the younger Rock, he had marched and protested for equal opportunity for blacks in the ’60s, only to be outdone on the national stage in the new millennium by a new breed of gangsterism that’s achieved a celebrity and acceptance that it shouldn’t have. He wants desperately to turn that tide, and maybe he figures, like Michael Moore, that the only way to do that is to eschew politesse altogether and become a really big mouth. It was perhaps less than gracious to open that mouth on a day meant for observation and sober reflection. But, alas, sobriety has not served us well. And there’s just never a good time to tell the truth.

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