I hate to keep dragging my husband into this column, but I can never ignore his knack for escalating, sometimes elevating, a tedious marital spat into a cultural moment. The most recent example involved a discussion in which I aired my ongoing displeasure with the tendency of the media to profile only those black political figures who call themselves (sigh) conservative. Because they go against the grain of social progress and governmental activism still largely expected of black figures, folks like JC Watts and Ward Connerly have a sexiness and built-in angle that Jesse Jackson and those other musty old drum majors for justice evidently haven’t had in a while. My husband sympathized but said stories about black conservatives and how they got to be that way are, strictly speaking, newsworthy. I knew what he meant but disagreed. Within minutes we were shouting each other down, to little avail, to the point where my exasperated husband inadvertently settled the matter with this last shout: “You won’t see the point! That’s the problem with all you guys on the left!”
I was stunned, but not because I was outraged. I was flattered. I’ve been called many things, but never a Guy on the Left, though if you go through my political dossier point by point, that’s exactly what I am. But I have grown so used to being black and nothing else, to having color eclipse the need for membership in any other kind of social club in America, the idea of being regarded as a leftist unexpectedly thrilled me; it brough back my old high school hankering for joining Las Laureas, an all-girl campus service organization known largely for its high collective IQ and cool sweaters. (I applied once, and was rejected. Prophetic.) I know that I may be clamoring at this point to be integrated into a burning house, to borrow a notion from James Baldwin: The left is not nearly so hip these days, or even coherent enough to be regarded as a club at all, but the notion of belonging to something that had at least seen some glory days stirred me vicariously more than I’ve been stirred by real events in quite some time. Sure, I’ve railed lately against the left and its flagrant apathy, but beneath the railing is always resentment of feeling intellectually excluded from a whole movement that was built, in part, on one’s fundamental attitude toward race and all the politics therein.
I’ve always felt less left and more like a fixed point around which the great, expanding leftist galaxy revolved; I may be important and even life-giving to the whole enterprise, but I am a separate planet, another life form entirely. I may burn brightly but only as the cause, not the effect. I may applaud campaigns for environmental justice and such, but nobody expects me to. Until my husband’s outburst, nobody had remotely accused me of abandoning the cause of environmental justice or some other signature project of the left, other than racial equity, of course. But I had never been held accountable even for the racial equity — just held up, like a prism to failing light — and I suddenly felt like maybe I needed to be.
This is not a great time to discover a connection with the left. Military action in Afghanistan is wreaking hell on what was already a movement in serious moral and directional crisis. When a war materialized out of the black smoke of September 11, talking heads began carping immediately about the peacenik proclivities of the left, and how that had no place in this war, and the elected-official left — which, admittedly, has the least conviction of all leftists — had little to say in its own defense. Out of some weird defaulting to the patriotic mood, it wound up attacking not the right but itself, as even more stringent and intellectual lefties like Christopher Hitchens began publicly rethinking their traditional anti-war position. The terrorist attacks and subsequent war have made opinion-making liberals anxious to appear tough-minded, if not plain tough. Thresholds of tolerance have been reset, and the most high-profile and urbane faction of the left seems eager to shed, once and for all, the ’90s milquetoast meaning of the word that it grew famous for.
Now, I was never a fan of the tolerance/diversity thing myself — it too often papered over problems rather than attempting to solve them — but I don’t like where this is going. Getting tough is a political make-over strategy that has never worked in a black constituency’s favor. Tough on welfare and tough on crime were ’90s catch phrases for racial anxiety; in that way, tough was actually the flip side of tolerance, which itself, as the tough-punishment battle cry zero tolerance suggests, was often racial anxiety with a nicer face. Now a minority but very visible faction of the left wants to get tough on terrorism, but I don’t see how that can be done without some of the racial and social-justice components of leftism coming severely undone. Of course, even those core components have most often been more an ideal than anything real, more sloganeering than slogging ahead. But what is this country if not one big fat wish list? Wishful thinking has worked against us, but it can theoretically work for us; the right to possibility may be the last real bit of democracy we still have, and the left, afield as it may be now, is still the most likely cultivator of that possibility. So blacks may not be the left, but the left is certainly us, with all the fracturedness and jury-rigged dreams we carry into this century. It is still ours to imagine and fight for, pro-war sentiments and all.
As much as I like the idea of belonging, it’s probably better to function as the left’s conscience than as a card-carrying member. The rare times in history when blacks have stood up and declared their affiliation have proved disastrous; Richard Wright and Paul Robeson were fingered not only as communists by the McCarthyites, but black communists, a double negative in a long history of weighty negatives ascribed to the race. They also served to validate ancient suspicions that blacks were inherently treasonous and un-American, too skewed and embittered by their slave past to be of much good to the country they helped build — of course Wright and Robeson and other permanently dissatisfied Negroes (including, a bit later, Martin Luther King Jr.) would sympathize with foreigners like the Soviets and the Cubans and the Koreans. White communist sympathizers and lefties were simply misguided; blacks were, quite literally, showing their true colors. They were irredeemable, they always had been, and no amount of bold new political crusading was going to change that. And black conservatives, that eminently newsworthy population we can still pretty much fit into a phone booth, are no exception: They may be lauded by the right for not being aligned with the left, but they are lauded for very little else. Larry Elder functions much more as a salve for the racially uneasy than he does as a war pundit, or a lawyer, which he is by profession. If he were a more liberal lawyer — well, there’s that pesky double negative. The point is, it is his color, not his politics, that is of primary importance, that makes him controversial and gives him currency, as it does (or doesn’t) for the rest of us, in one way or another.
But I have to admit that while I condemn the Larry Elders of the world, I understand in cold, hard terms why they’re casting about for new paradigms. Blacks have gained relatively little — certainly less than they should have — in being totemic members of the left, even during its glory years of the ’60s and early ’70s. Blacks of certain ambition in this second age of the aughts look around and realize the black-progressive gig is a dead end, noble but nondescript, completely anathematizing to the celebrity they so desperately crave after endless generations of foot-soldiering. After well-known black academic Glenn Loury publicly renounced much of his conservatism some years ago, he all but disappeared from the media’s view — until two weeks ago, when The New York Times Magazine ran a profile about his return to the ashes of progressivism whence he came. But in a way black folks have missed their star. All this time we came-with-the-place, wallpaper progressives should have been repudiating the left for abandoning its principles as loudly as Christopher Hitchens and some others are repudiating those principles now. We should have been holding our own powers of accountability accountable; instead, we’ve become as flabby in our way as the left. Still, to be taken for a moment as a real lefty, not its enduring silent critic, to be granted the center stage I never quite had, even with palpable disgust by somebody who knows me too well, feels victorious. To say nothing of American.