The commodification of Black History
I have 100 black books on my shelf, at least. Who knows how many are in storage? But like the trophies I won in high school, they have served their purpose and I feel a bit sheepish about dusting them off. Yet there seems to be, even in my limited view, a sense that all I’m going to find is another set of tales of woe. I’m not sure exactly how to counter that but I’m pretty sure that somehow I’ll be going against the grain.
The other day I woke from a daydream of explaining to a skeptical audience about a need for a renewed call to Black History. So I condescended in this daydream to outlining the following conspiracy theory.
Imagine that a white supremacist cabal of publishers scoured all of the libraries in all of the universities in America with the following aim. To remove any history, treatise, poem, play, essay or literary document or recording with a black author. Remove them all, and only put in their place those by black authors whose narrative explicitly included victimization. No matter how heroic the lives or actions of any black American, there must be an asterisk that shows that white supremacy took the sheen off their glory. This is what is now available for study and nothing more.
Now this clearly hasn’t happened, but it is indeed the aim of those who wish to establish an unquestioned narrative of the hegemony of white supremacy. There are all kinds of Americans who are playing that game, but it’s an old game, and a lot of people actually believe it. So I will call this conspiracy the All Ballers Die Broke conspiracy. Now you know exactly what idea I’m talking about.
You might think that the reverse is what is being called for by the various activist groups born yesterday following the memes of DEI. But it doesn’t seem so to me. I mean why indeed would anyone buy a book by Kendi instead of DuBois? Deeper still why DuBois and not Tocqueville?
I come across these perverse thoughts because as I was perusing the books of my library I came across a biography of Matt Henson. He was one of my childhood’s first three heroes who were Batman, Henson and Michael Collins. The man in the middle is the mysterious one for most folks, whereas the fictional superhero and the NASA astronaut are much more well known. But for a kid like me, knowing that a black man had gone to the North Pole twice, was a revelation and a release. If there’s one consistent thing about my life it has been discovery. I go there, if only in my head.
Warning: Contains mind-numbing graphics & content.
But the feeling about the knowledge of Henson wasn’t anything like this video. For my generation it was really just learning about the fact of adventure with that little juicy nugget of Henson’s person and personality thrown in. I suppose it’s the difference between, the discovery of something you believed impossible and just another example of ‘yes of course’, which of course depends upon the psyche of the student. My favorite science experiment was called ‘Wandering Water’ and it’s the one with the glass and saucer water and a candle. The miracle is the discovery of what Bernoulli discovered, not the discovery of Bernoulli himself. It might have been Henson who discovered the pressure of the atmosphere and Bernoulli the pole. The point is the discovery. But what does the above story say about the North Pole itself? Nothing.
I’m considering the massive investment required of whatever powers are that be to institutionalize this level of dumbing down. Not only educationally dumbed down but psychologically dumbed down. But let me couch this in what I believe is somewhat inevitable.
As I’ve mentioned before, we have the largest literate population of humans on the planet in the whole of history. At some point, our collective efforts at education will conspire to put our entire knowledge into every digestible form. For me there is the funny story of my studying YouTube in anticipation of a train trip from Switzerland to Germany with a long layover in Geneva. I needed to stow a week’s worth of luggage somewhere. So I practiced a German conversation I ultimately never needed to have because the train station at Geneva is idiot-proof. To ‘Americanize’ any number of European delectables is to undermine what makes them interesting to those in the know, and that is what all of our future editors and editor-bots will have to reckon with. We take it as an axiomatic fact that convenience is the aim of consumer commerce. What will we not do for a convenient world? How powerful is the dictum “Explain it to me like I’m 5 years old.” Actually, people don’t even spell that out. They say ‘ELI5’. You can bet there will soon be an emoji.
The video above is ELI5 for certain, and now that we’ve suffered through the mediocrity that is the journalism of the Winter Olympics we find the same ethos. We will discover the first black short track medalist, but not anything about the history or evolution of the short track, other than the interpretation that it has been ‘White’. Yay for our racial team and their social justice enablers! Just wait for the cereal boxes, lunch boxes and the Visa commercial to check the rest of the middle class boxes. The medalist has an agent.
There’s nothing at all wrong with the celebration of bourgeois entertainments and achievements. Lord knows I’ve attended quite enough Scouting ceremonies and Homecoming activities for my three highschoolers. That’s what Instagram is for. No picture = It didn’t happen. This is not history. It’s not discovery of the discovery, it is discovery of the discoverer, a rote mechanic that’s good only for Trivial Pursuit.
The tragedy here, colored brown for the sake of the month, is that the decline from greatness affects us all. I have no special place in my mind lamenting the poor self-esteem of (insert pet minority here). Rather I grow more impatient with the elites who are so blind as to think this thin gruel provides the calories needed to bear the burdens of civilization. They are not, and we are indeed becoming uncivilized.
I must say that this has been the blackest Black History Month in recent memory. Upon my start with the brothers and sisters of the Foundation for Free Black Thought, I have paid more attention to the attentions given to black America than I have in quite some time. Most of the time, I simply ignore Black History Month it. So many of the issues people get vexed about don’t rise to my interest. They often appear petty and childish, like Chuck D’s boycott (and song about it) of Arizona for not having a MLK holiday. Because I’m out here in the Genius Class, I often don’t get how many people haven’t managed to think their way out of the cheap seats. Privilege has its blinders.
This year, upon receipt of several hundred pounds of books from the Bowen Library which now falls to my curation, I have had an opportunity to glance back at the many lessons that I have taken for granted.
I'm so old that I remember when there was Black History at schools in the 40s and 50s that did not adhere to the victimisation narrative. I'm White and grew up in an all White town of 400 in New Hampshire, but in school we learned about George Washington Carver and other successful Blacks and the agenda was that Black people, freed from slavery, could succeed. Hunh? Black people succeeding all on their own doesn't seem to fit the current narrative one little bit. I want to say that your reflections help me see my how my white liberal background predisposes me to see Black people in need of help to recover from what has been done to them, and at the same time helps me to see the never ending cycle of Black victimisation and White guilt is largely White Narcissism. Whites trying to avoid feelings of guilt and feel good about themselves without ever recognising that Black people are actually fully functioning humans who have to cope with the human condition as they find it. Here in Perth Western Australia it is fashionable among the whitefellahs to 'acknowledge the traditional owners of the land' in what I see as public displays of virtue while not acknowledging the ongoing suffering of Aboriginal people from alcohol and drugs, family breakdown in all its forms - and the often counterproductive interventions that our governments implement. And I agree part of the mistake made by these people trying to be virtuous is dumbing down education such that it renders victim status endless and unconsciously keeps the power in the dominant 'virtuous' group because they inadvertently delude themselves that are the only ones that can help or improve the situation. Allow these people agency? Why they might decide to go off to the North Pole or something!