Dancing on the Third Rail
The American conversation on race never stops.
This is a series I wrote in 2005 which represents, hopefully with great clarity, how I thought about Americans wrestling with race. It is from my original blog Cobb from where I also ran The Conservative Brotherhood which I retired in the following year, only to start it up after about 6 months of not writing. I am now, 16 years later a great deal more hardnosed about the failure of imagination and well-integrated into alternate ‘realities’. So while I hate watching things and people burn, I’m a bit less likely to suit up in my rescue boots. I also don’t talk about ‘blackfolks and ‘whitefolks’ any longer. The fact that I did demonstrates that I thought both could reconcile their American racialized identities with reality. Now I see that as harder than ever, so much so, that I might even concede that we are still dealing with the Negro Problem. Anyone I suppose still who needs to consult James Baldwin, I suppose, remain in those crosshairs. I was still invested in the ‘beloved community’ of black success, whereas now… So pull up a chair and an adult beverage and get at where I was in my evolution of thought about this enervating subject. As I do again, I’ll have some parting words.
The problem with learning and caring is that you can never shutup, even when you want to. Even when it's better to let people be wrong, and misinterpret, to be committed to what you know to be true forces one, in the end to add another straw to the camel's back, hoping it will balance the odd one someone else put on a moment, or a millennium before.
So it is with race in America. The conversation never stops.
What I understand about race in America is that it involves two sides, and that neither side can win. Black and white are like twin brothers wrestling on the floor. But I think the most true thing about race in America is that it inhabits all of our metaphors. There are so many stories and so many reasons and so many prayers bound up in the drama of race. For anyone who truly cares about the American condition, the state of our union, the meaning of our values, race is always intrinsic, ever puzzling, ever revealing, ever punishing.
I shake my head because I have not yet reached that time in parenthood during which my children rebel. So my instinct remains at the patient-explanation-for-your-own-good level rather than the, fine-do-it-your-way-you'll-see level. And so I am taking an hour or so to respond at length to some straws I see poking out.
Two cats respond here at Cobb on the regular. One is Dave, the other is Chap. I don't really know them. I don't really know anyone in cyberspace, and it's difficult to explain how much of an in-your-face person I am, how I am such an acute observer of people. The web and all computer mediated communications represent to me an abstract medium for the expression of (more or less) pure thought, and it is perfect for certain things, but doesn't begin to approach what I can remember when watching a man or woman walk or listen to them speak or read their faces. So I am something of a bull in a china shop of ideas out here on the web, I am an arrow on a path. I redefine and correct, and I don't listen as much as I would face to face. And it is that gap between the person and the virus of an idea inhabiting their minds which may or may not express itself clearly in the digital realm, that I both recognize and obliterate. So if it sounds like I am beating up them, or whitefolks, or blackfolks, I am, but only in digital bits, only in the realm of ideas. I am a great respecter of people, but when I see a bad paragraph, I am compelled to attack. I don't know that I will find one, but don't hold your breath. This is not about you guys in particular, it's sorta about your being a part of this thing that I and the Brotherhood, and America is going through. I understand your stake as Americans in the reconciliation between all of us.
The best defense, they say, is a good offense. And I really have no need nor cause to be defensive. I'm already here, on the other side of the mountain of personal achievement that unleashes a man's spirit. I have been unleashed for a dozen years and then some. It is how I have managed to take the diary I had been writing in college, to the public - to stand in front of hungry patrons and recite poetry from the heart - to write the unspeakable memo, to correct the man who thinks he knows it all. I care deeply for people, but I only answer to God. Engagement with me is an exercise in honesty, it's about how real I think I can get with you, it's about how much truth you show that you can handle. Sooner or later we get to that place called intimacy. It's a quick jump to there when I write. And I am true to myself and therefore not false with my readers.
So what is this racial thing and why do I bother? I thought about that at the baggage claim this morning after a good 4 hours of sleep. Why is it that this black experience thing is so difficult for my white cousins to understand? Why do I appear obsessed? Why even use such a word? The first answer that passed back through my mind was that it only seems obsessive if you don't see the value in it. But like breeding sows or birthing cows, somebody has to stick their whole arm into uncomfortable places, and once you have learned to do so everything is different. I think whitefolks depend on blackfolks to stick our arms up into race, and they take our civility to be a sign of forgiveness. That's partially true. But there is also a science of husbandry in this, we bring it along generation by generation. But that is always done by engagement, and never by distance.
Speaking for myself, and I think for many in my generation, much of black culture has been about representation. We have been engaged in a struggle to be a different we. We were like stowaway children under the tarp of a horsecart on the Underground Railroad. Our parents rode shotgun with their hats down low, not speaking too loudly less they draw too much attention. And yet we were their joy and it was our brightness, sheltered within our humble homes, that gave them the courage to take that road to freedom. But my generation crawled out from under the tarp and started talking loud. Yeah! We're free, and guess what you don't really know about us? We've been representing black culture, we've been blackety blackety black black y'all. We've been painting the white house black, and we've dared you to say anything about it. And it was necessary, God knows what the world has been missing in the wake of our parents' silence. And you've been discovering it from Eddie Murphy to Joe Jett to Serena Williams to Condi Rice. The Negro is dead. Blackness is about busting out of jail, about bringing music to the Nowhere Man, about never letting anyone forget about our flavor and unlimited potential.
The success of blackness is demonstrable but its task is not complete. It will take another two generations I think. When my grandchildren purchase banks in Chile or Ghana perhaps. When there's a country club in Georgia where two black ex-presidents hang out. When the Kwaku Foundation awards it's million dollar grant for the 40th time and the networks celebrate. These are my expectations of a fulfilled African American destiny. But lots of African Americans have their own. These hopes and aspirations were forged in different fires and every family's history shapes them, but there is a direction to it, and a common kind of struggle when it comes from African American history. In our generation, it has been to represent - to come out and be loud and proud. As Rick James said, we're bustin' out of this L 7 square, done braided our hair and don't mind if you stare.
James Baldwin said:
Take no one's word for anything, including mine-but trust your experience. Know whence you came. If you know whence you came, there is really no limit to where you can go. The details and symbols of your life have been deliberately constructed to make you believe what white people say about you. Please try to remember that what they believe, as well as what they do and cause you to endure, does not testify to your inferiority but to their inhumanity and fear. Please try to be clear, dear James, through the storm which rages about your youthful head today, about the reality which lies behind the words acceptance and integration, There is no reason for you to try to become like white people and there is no basis whatever for their impertinent assumption that they must accept you. The really terrible thing, old buddy, is that you must accept them. And I mean that very seriously. You must accept them and accept them with love. For these innocent people have no other hope. They are, in effect, still trapped in a history which they do not understand; and until they understand it, they cannot be released from it. They have had to believe for many years, and for innumerable reasons, that black men are inferior to white men. Many of them, indeed, know better, but, as you will discover, people find it very difficult to act on what they know. To act is to be committed, and to be committed is to be in danger. In this case, the danger, in the minds of most white Americans, is the loss of their identity.
And so I know that American destiny is not complete until African American destiny is complete. And we keep working, we blacks and whites, we keep working each others nerves until we reach a settlement. Today the settlement is an accommodation, a compromise, a tenable peace which is both uneasy and comfortable. We still live in a society where OJ makes a difference. We still live in a society in which Colin Powell's wife fears for her husband's life. We still live in a society in which Camilla Cosby was considered crazy when she said race mattered in the murder of her son. And whitefolks know very well, as they look at their own families and friends and associates, that something about them is unfinished and unreconciled to the rest of America. It's nothing a simple as 'discrimination'. Hell, nobody I know is a racist. Everybody I know hates racism. But only few can talk about it in mixed company for more than a minute.
Online is a different story. I've proven that, because I wanted to and I paid close attention. But the fact remains, there is still dissonance, sometimes it is as clearly defined and significant as the street between a white gentrified enclave and the beat down streets of chinatown. Sometimes it's as subtle and insignificant as choosing the right beer when ordering Thai food in New Orleans while listening to reggae music. I don't mean to be cavalier, but I'm not sure that we know what to do with our Multicultural ethos or exactly what it buys us in the post 9/11 world. I'm not sure we know what to do with our new sensitivities. Today, 3000 gay couples had their marriages annulled by legal fiat in the state of Oregon. Online we can talk about all this stuff, but what do we do?
Everybody knows how to fight. Nobody knows how to fight racism.
It could be said that in my life online I have been through three phases. In the first phase, mostly as a cat named 'mellow mike', I was primarily interested in black cultural content creation. I had honestly believed that I could transform the realm of hiphop through some kind of online interactive artform. I was also all about the writing, and so I did a lot of lower case, and spoke with flair and flavor. It was all about the culture and the existentials. It was all about the Representation I spoke of.
Then I found out that people were so stuck on race that I couldn't carve out such a space without it being attacked. The internet was a hostile environment for black creativity. I recall as I write this, the hostility a friend of mine received for proposing a black cultural forum from the editor of Boardwatch Magazine, which was very influential at the time. It is exactly parallel to the stink over The Conservative Brotherhood, the same whack logic. Like any number of new domains, you'll often find self-appointed white male guardians who require it to be 'colorblind' and are thus hostile against women and minorities who claim a spot. As if white wasn't a color and male wasn't a gender. And so faced with this racial problem in the way of my cultural expression, I became 'boohab' and fought the race man's battle.
There was a break and a breather between boohab and 'Cobb', and I'm not sure how much longer Cobb will last, but in this phase I am clearly more focused on the political. As such I am being much more personable rather than abstracted and talking about Domestic Affairs, from an Old School perspective. I don't so often pick the subjects and preach as I comment on the subjects most bloggers are commenting on. That was easy during the beginning of the war and during the campaign season, but not so easy now. At any rate, The Conservative Brotherhood and Cobb are specifically about the black Right, what it is, what it thinks, what it wants, how it operates. Simple.
I spoke to my boy Les briefly on the phone last night. He made me laugh in his own inimitable way, knowing just what to say. He said that there will always be some fool whiteboy who will want to make it all about himself. How come I can't form a white political group? How come I can't talk about white culture? How come I can't do what you do? How come I'm always made out to be the bad guy? How come I...? Yes indeed how come you? How did you come into this discussion in the first place? What's your mission? Why are you here?
Remember what Baldwin said. "To be committed is to be in danger." To come up with a handle and dedicate yourself to black culture or anti-racism or black right politics for years at a time online is dangerous work. Somebody might take you wrong. Somebody might take you as a weirdo or as a narrow minded obsessive. You might be accused of stirring up trouble and upsetting apple carts. Good.
Somebody will always demand an explanation, an executive summary that sits well with them. Something they can give a thumbs up or down to, because most people don't want to get into the details. They don't want to hear, they don't want to learn. They want to note briefly, categorize and move on.
But when it comes to rolling that boulder of race, every American's identity is at stake. So there's a lot of excuse making about why such talk is dangerous. And that poor whiteboy is wondering what we're all going to decide for him next. Because if it isn't the damned blacks, it's the damned gays. And if it's not the damned gays, it's the damned feminists, and then the damned Asians and all these damned people keep trying to redefine America under the white man's feet. The white guy bullseye. Sitting duck. Dinosaur. Nobody has any common decency any longer and things don't make sense. No they don't. And the world keeps changing and everything settled is at risk, and everybody fights with the tools they have. Can't we all just get along?
Yes we can. And when it comes to race I've been saying as boohab that yes Mr. Man you have to come up with a new name for yourself. We have. We're not coloreds any more. We're not Negroes. We're halfway done with black and still trying out our African American. Asians ain't Orientals or Celestials any more. You can't be sure if you're looking at a Hispanic or a Latino. Everybody is changing and getting better, why should you be your father's Oldsmobile?
I know there was a deal done when Moses became Morris and lots of people lost the 'stein, shave off a few grams of nose meat and married the blonde. I know there was a deal done when the lace curtains were traded in and the brogue dropped. Everybody pays their price to be called American. But it's a price that keeps getting paid, so long as we are a free country and people still want to come here all of our destinies and identities are bound together. I wish I could be at the border of Mexico this weekend with the Minutemen because I believe that we need to force our politicians to reckon with the hypocrisy in our Immigration Laws. But I know I can't do that without being considered biased against Mexicans. That's the price of the ticket. We all inherit a racial identity, but what do we do with it?
Right now we're in a muddle. Everybody has got different terms and everybody is weary of dealing with race. But we haven't really finished getting it right. A lot of people think it would be better if we just call the whole thing off.
No. We have to face off and deal. I cannot hide behind a XXXL sports jersey, a doo rag, 500 watts of bass and a sneer. You cannot hide either. You have to talk about that smelly town where you grew up. You have to talk about your roots and what was right about them and what was wrong and we have to see the common struggle and invest in the common system. There's no hiding here. With TCB and me, we show our path, our roots, our values, our aims. We can't just front as 'black'. That's not enough. And yet sometimes it just gets reduced to that. That's what got us into this mess in the first place. Oh it's just racial thinking.
I don't to the 'black Republican' thing any longer. I had to work my way through it to understand this side of the aisle. I discovered it was about *do*, not *be*. So when I did different things, my identity changed. And I don't think anyone can read Cobb and say 'typical black conservative'. That's because I don't front. I'm honest about where I'm coming from with myself and with my readers. Sometimes it gets to be strictly about race, and I have decided to deal with it as it occurs, whether or not I want to. Not because I'm defensive about it, but because I know that I have something to contribute which can draw people into this shared issue we have.
You can sing the words to 'Amazing Grace' to the tune of 'Gilligans Island'. Try it. It works perfectly, and it kind of destroys the purity of both songs. It's completely unexpected and it stays in your head. I think that's what a black Republican is. The first time you see it, you don't believe it, because it seems wrong, and whenever you think about it, it makes you angry because it disrespects tradition. And as long as you've learned it the way you've learned it, it will seem that way.
I believe the future of this country is like that, with regard to race. We are going to have to expect the possibility that all of the different colored square pegs belong in the square hole. We have to stop mistaking color for shape. It requires an honesty that seems wrong and disrespects tradition. It requires an honesty about color and an honesty about shape. But there's still a lot of mending to do because we've all been getting bent out of shape over color.
The Existential Shape of Politics
I've talked about the mending in terms of healing and curing. Since I'm a conservative, I think that the primary burden of healing and curing lies with the self. I have come not to expect a fair society, I've always said that you cannot wish for a better public. As my new pals in the Mother Company salesforce say, 'It is what it is.' I prefer the Run DMC version myself, but the point is exactly the same. We live near the end of an awful history that has taught valuable lessons. That's good and bad. The bad speaks for itself, but the good is found in those lessons - after all, somebody succeeded. But since I believe what I do when it comes to race, it puts me in a peculiar if not precarious position, with regard to where and with whom I feel my responsibility lies. I say this understanding that it's a fair guess that most of my readers might consider themselves to be whitefolks. I'm shouting out to the public. The bottom line is that I'm trying to direct black politics into a direction that speaks honestly to self-representation that allows the truth about blacks to be said, and I'm trying to influence white politics into a direction that works in honest coalition with black interests as expressed through those black politics. We've had a liberal white coalition with left blacks and that produced the mandate for Civil Rights. Now that Civil Rights is baked, that coalition is in shambles and everybody is wondering where to go next. So far they're regressing. That's why I think the progressive side of the Old School is in a unique leadership position now that Republicans control American politics, but that connection has to be done right.
You see, I am a nationalist and a globalist. I believe that I am a citizen of my nation and I inherit its traditions and laws. I have a duty as an African American to reconcile myself to the history of my country. I make sense of it and I locate myself within a thread of its development. I am an African American raised as a black nationalist in Southern California during the 70s. When I was driving Lee around and showing her my Los Angeles, she found it remarkable that I knew so many black Catholics & Episcopalians. I really never thought much about that fact in isolation, but it's a very real part of my association with the folks in The Dons. Many attended mass at Holy Name, or Advent or with Reverend Stallings. That's part of it as well. And I also look very closely at my family. I am part of them and I am responsible to them, not just the nuclear family but my entire extended family. That's hard. My family tree is deep and wide. There's a lot to say here but the point is that there are significant contexts within which my identity is subsumed and these are the contexts I expect others to represent as we all work as citizens in the public sphere. When we talk about simple matters like Affirmative Action, I don't want to hear just 'white' or 'asian', I want to hear second-generation Vietnamese whose family ran a restaurant.. and that whole nine yards.
So when we talk as Americans about race, a lot of it comes back to the personal, and I know sometimes I get upset when people say ('oh by the way I'm white') and just leave it at that. I say that's hiding. If that's all you say, that's all you can be. But I'm trying very hard to get the energy of black nationalists who led back in the 60s & 70s to work on this new politics of the 21c. I can't do that if whitefolks are just going to be 'white', because that's problematic with regard to multicultural ethics and anti-racist principles that are non-starters in the coalition of color.
There are a couple of huge conspiracy theories in operation today with regard to American politics, and one of them is that all Republicans and folks on the right are like 'Goldwater' and that Goldwater was opposed to Civil Rights for racist reasons. So while a significant number of Old School blacks have basically opted out of mainstream politics for this reason, the Republican agenda has a big gaping default. And from my perspective, all the Pat Robertsons in the world do not add up to one TD Jakes - the conservatives of color, not just blackfolks, but conservative immigrants in generation one and two are a huge flavorful coalition that ought to be the more proper multicultural coalition on the right. But you have to play whack-a-mole on a lot of knuckleheads like Phil Gramm & Tom DeLay before that message get through their thick skulls. They think we're going to assimilate and they're dead wrong. We don't have the ethics problem. They think we're going to get stronger by beating up on homos. Wrong again. They think we're going to sell out to high stakes influence politics. Nope. They just don't have their marketing right, although Christie Whitman does. I think GW Bush started off on the right track with regard to 'compassionate conservatism' but global events took over his domestic agenda, and really this Republican Congress defaulted big time. I think history will show that the focus on terrorism and the war allowed a high quotient of mediocrity to set the domestic legislative agenda...
But I digress.
The American mainstream is wide open and accommodating to ethnic flavor, but the issue of race is more than just flavor. That's not anybody's choice - but it is deeply embedded in the way we talk about social justice. It's an important shape, and we shouldn't let color distract us from the content of that discussion. There will always be people who have grown up singing Amazing Grace to the tune of Gilligan's Island for whom there is no resonance of the way things were. That's not what we want. We want people who understand the effort with which things were changed who are comfortably fluent enough to put the same words into the tune of 'When the Saints Go Marching In'. So this is not about colorblindness, it's about color competency and cross-cultural fluency. It's about understanding both history and possibility. It's about knowing enough about why people made political coalitions in the past and how they view their progress from there in order to make new ones in the future. It's about living with the public we have and incorporating their aspirations into the society they would have for their children. It's all going to come together and come apart again. That's why integrity is key.
I have thrown in some Cobbian politics above, and I am negotiating some complex dynamics. I am convinced that the leadership of black political coalitions will be of a certain type of elite. You cannot dredge up the 'legacy of slavery' without the understanding that through it all, the African family persists. And you cannot talk about oppression in the world without recognizing the possibilities of Africans on the world stage. So in solving problems for a particular class of African Americans, black political leaders are going to be thrust quickly onto that world stage. The Congressional Black Coalition appears to me to not be forward thinking in that regard; they're thinking small and as such are going to be marginalized. The context of race is political and the political power one can obtain by wrangling that context well is outsized, but the end goal has little to do with race, and it is a mistake to think otherwise. So how we spend the political capital of making the ethnic vote produce is of critical import. I worry that those who believe the 'Goldwater Theory' are all too ready to pay it all back, that is a strategy which will devolve into an Israeli-Palestinian situation.
Failure is Not An Option
An enemy is somebody who doesn't mind if you fail. And since white identity and all American identity depends very highly on how well our ethnic politics go, everyone has a stake is making this work. Nobody wants to go back to the repression of the 50s, well nobody sane anyway. Neither do we want to go back to the chaos of the 60s nor the sappy accommodation of the crossover 70s. And while I don't wish to overstate the import of how black politics gets its act together in the context of the American economy and geopolitical destiny, it is at the very core of the world's experiment with democracy. We are the leading example of how democracy can empower. If it weren't for what happened to Emmitt Till and how we worked America because of it, the Minutemen at the Mexican border would be shooting first. If African Americans had failed in their demand for universal public accommodations, this society would be a great deal more closed and this nation would be unable to lead the world in any way whatsoever. Just count the American cities that burned in 1968 and imagine where we would be if it got worse instead of better.
It took 26 years to free Geronimo Pratt. Certain key things simply must happen in order to sustain our faith in law and order. One of those things is that we must be free to stake our claim in this land. We must be able to sustain our families as we believe they should be in a place we call our homeland. We cannot sacrifice ourselves into la vida sin corazon. Rather we must draw strength from a society that grows respect of its people. When it comes to American identity, that means respecting the aspirations of freedom and accomplishment for which our emergent populations struggle. It means not only, in the way Malcolm described, are we diners at the American table, but our recipes are on the menu. In that and only that way do we secure the blessings of liberty.
"Humankind still lives in prehistory everywhere, indeed everything awaits the creation of the world as a genuine one... if human beings have grasped themselves, and what is theirs, without depersonalization and alienation, founded in real democracy, then something comes into being in the world that shines into everyone's childhood and where no one has yet been -- home."
I’m happy to leave the half-progressive identity stuff as it stood. I’ve come to expect less of that and yet with a competent understanding of it primarily because of two convictions.
Racial and ethnic identity are self-reinforcing castes. Any hope invested in them, even with simple terminology, demands authority and authenticity. These are attributes that can and will be undermined and power will be accorded to those who can fake it. That makes both authority and authenticity untrustworthy.
The world has an emergence point of culture which is somewhere just past lower middle class. It therefore doesn’t require coalitions of ethnic cultural elites in the way I have traditionally described them. What doesn’t work in a democracy for the lower middle class corrupts democracy itself. Ethnic cultural elites can be seduced into forgetting whom they work for. Their top-down fixes will always be patchy.
I am satisfied today that there is insufficient humility in our posturing for progress, and the path of healing and curing is only sufficient to ameliorate grievances. That is something of a zero-sum game if at the same time we are unwilling and unable to build something new and better. I’m saying Conviction #1 says that new ability will not emerge based on some adjudication on past identities. Only those bold and imaginative enough to create art that steps beyond the influence of a well-baked authority and authenticity can build that path.