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An Uppity Answer
What's it like to be black in America?
(from the pre-stoic archives c. 2015)
Whatever people think they know about 'being black in America', most have very little concept about the black upper class. I don't make much of a deal about it but that's where I live, for what it's worth.
(Christmas Pic 2014, chez moi)
Some days I get mildly annoyed at what people perceive to be 'black culture'. For me there is only one black culture and it is highbrow, I’m not talking about Jay Z, I'm talking about Ella Fitzgerald. However on any day what happens to 22 year olds in any impoverished dangerous ghetto small town in America can be called 'black' and its participants made exemplars of 'black culture'. And on any other day some rich or famous black individual will tell you a sad tale about being disrespected by a police officer or flight attendant and that will become a signpost about racism in America. I say all of that is crap.
I have been fortunate enough to be a member of what is called the 'Talented Tenth', which is basically the black upper class. It doesn't exactly follow the rules and class lines of normal American society, but when you're in it, you know it. But it's also, like anything else, a dual edged sword. Let me also say that I don't consider myself exclusively in this club, I play every other game in town as an American - I move back and forth with ease. It's where I'm from, not a self-serving destination (although it is for some). People forget that this group exists. The reason is because it's not super-rich enough to command media attention and focus on itself, but it's also because its loyalty is divided. I think I'm a good example of that.
I've had opportunities to meet extraordinary people as a member of this group. I've met several black astronauts, an Army general or two, lots of famous actors and not so famous 'first blacks' in various industries. Homepage | The HistoryMakers For example I met the first black partner in one of the old 'Big Eight' accounting firms - something like that guy in the Will Smith movie 'Pursuit of Happyness'. I'm in the same fraternity as MLK was (Alpha Phi Alpha) and hang with the Alphas every once in a while. But what's really important about the black upper class, like any elite, is family.
I'm third generation college educated and have family all across America. In Rhode Island, Louisiana, DC, South Dakota, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and here in California. I have in-laws in France and Senegal and lord knows where else. Oh yeah, and my first cousin just moved to Panama. He deals precious metals. It's this network of family that connects me to black America in unique and special ways but most importantly by blood. And so when this or that narrative about what black America is, was or might be comes up on the news, I have plenty of examples that set the record straight for me. And I don't mean to or have a need to boast, it's just the simple fact that all of black America isn't what is portrayed on TV and the internet.
It should be obvious that we've been here, like this, for generations. But you really cannot count on the average Joe to read the books that would make it clear. There is probably still a 'Who's Who Among Black Americans' with 50,000 entries or so published. All I ever needed was 300 or so to be my friends and family. So that has always been pretty simple for me.
I don't mean to suggest that talk about racism is entirely specious, but talk is cheap. My uncle didn't get to be a university president with a wave of a magic wand. You work harder than everybody and you prove your merit against a surfeit of doubters and haters. But you succeed and victory is sweet. That doesn't stop Americans from focusing on the losers and the victims and the whiners. And our kind of success is not something most people want to emulate. Anybody can be destroyed by lies. But I want you to know that this group of people persists.
Now would be the good time to give the Colonel Jessup speech about whether or not you can handle the truth - because we know deep down inside America wants black America to succeed, and we are something of a vanguard, and I certainly try to be excellent without drawing too much attention to myself. It's not about me, but you should know I exist and am not a unicorn.
I am reminded of this essay because of a recent domestic hiccup. You see we had a water pipe explode and the first floor of our tract mansion now has to be demolished and re-floored. One of my old friends, upon seeing the following lament of my wife as we cleared out the 400-odd boxes of material possessions from the first floor, remarked. “Your kitchen is beautiful. I can’t wait to see what it looks like after the remodel.” Yeah that’s not going to happen.
My life is indeed filled to the rim with first world problems. The problem with being affluent is that you gain expensive habits, many of which are tied to social status. The trick is to pare them down, of course. Yet this is something I think is uniquely difficult for black Americans at my social station. That is we know how difficult it is to have any control whatsoever with regards to our portrayals in the popular culture, and we know how much more difficult our own lives were prior to our own success. There is probably an amplified fear for those who were born into affluence, but I can’t say that’s the case for my own kids. Nevertheless, the distance between your actual worth and your social capital often depends on the whims of fashion. Who actually listens to Ella Fitzgerald any longer?
My brother Doc told me that my life is stuffy. I have too much stuff. It doesn’t seem like it until I have to move it. So I’ve been thinking about decluttering down to an acceptable minimum. Still I can’t avoid thinking about the supply chain problems of our global economy, and my familiarity with preppers. “Two is one and one is none.” I have a year’s supply of printer paper, 9mm brass and loose leaf tea. I have an extra iPhone - actually three. What could go wrong? Where is our next 9/11? When does my affluence go poof? I can see all the fragilities out there. In society, can sense the constant compromise with the competence we used to take for granted. I can scan the 5000 channels from pabulum to porno. I move money out of Bitcoin and into Berkshire Hathaway. I’m trying to hold on to something beyond money, some exchange with society that makes sense in a deeper but simpler way.
I’m not as uppity as I used to be. I still know which way is up, but I don’t like the way things are sorted. I can’t say that I am particularly satisfied with… maybe I ought to just go and listen to Ella and Louis. That will settle me down. Can’t we be friends?