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Exit The Ghetto
The abuse of history leaves us in intellectual isolation.
One of the hardest things to get your head around in America is that the only thing interesting about the vaunted African American history people say they want to study is what African Americans have said to African Americans about African Americans. It’s a very big story completely generalizable to humanity, but most people, I think study it for more shortsighted and provincial reasons. I’m going to have a go at explaining this.
A Minority of One
The first thing to do is pretend that you want to be black. No matter who you are, this works, including if you already call yourself black. But it helps most to imagine yourself as a young person, because that in fact of how the overwhelming majority of blackfolks start there, there meaning an average black neighborhood. Within a few years of immersion in this place you discover that it doesn’t quite fit you, but it is where you live. Your parents are telling you one origin story, the minister at the church has another. The kids around the corner have no idea what you’re talking about, the folks up the block from out of state have a different take. Nevertheless, you accommodate yourself to the stereotypes and the lowest common denominator. After all, this is your home. It’s where you first encounter your sense of human belonging. You sort yourself into some stratum of everything you understand to be that society which is your black neighborhood in your part of town in your state and part of the country. The country is generous, by the way. There is no orthodoxy on blackness. If you’ve got the one drop of blood, you’re in. At least that’s how it begins, with the baggage of your origin story whether or not you are proud of it.
You then carry that baggage out into the mostly indifferent and sometimes hostile world. It might start with college, or an entry level job, or the military. Either way, you are at fresh start. Suddenly, you are a fish out of water. All of the ways and means of expression and communication and convention don’t click. But you manage to communicate through that pipeline of black cultural wisdom that gets broadcast beyond the walls of your former home. You can relate your current situation to a Bible lesson, a song lyric, a sports metaphor or something your auntie used to say. Nevertheless, you start to realize there wasn’t a lot of reliable information about this wider world that you had been receiving back home. This includes everything spewed out of every guidance counselor, coach, teacher, activist, neighbor, TV, radio and church. This is your experience of life as a minority of one within the larger minority of your home’s neighborhood. You start to realize how sheltered you were. Your well wrapped home appears more and more to you like a ghetto. You keep seeing the Brady Bunch on TV and they make everything look easy but it’s not easy. They don’t access that same pipeline of wisdom, nah mean? They talk ‘mainstream’, and when they talk about you they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Being a minority of one means that when you sit at the dinner table with the people you know best, you still disagree on what the world is and how best to deal with it. Unless your family is like Ned Flanders’ from The Simpsons, you must be your individual self. You have to get out there and deal with all of the dissonant spew that disagrees with the evidence before your eyes and the concepts in your mind.
Albert Murray says, that dissonant spew especially includes the mass of data and narrative spewn in the name of social science. Matthew McKnight writes of Murray:
The Omni-Americans was intended as a counterstatement to “the folklore of white supremacy and the fakelore of black pathology,” the stories of our nation and of race that “insist that political powerlessness and economic exclusion can lead only to cultural deprivation.” In the first section, Murray targets a major source of such lore—the behavioral sciences, or what he termed, “social science fiction.” He contended that the insights that can be derived from sociology and other behavioral studies are far too superficial to yield meaning that properly defines a group of people. By its very nature, Murray argued, social science tends to turn rich and uniquely textured lives into generalized abstractions and to overemphasize the hardships of life, often by ignoring the positive qualities of a group’s way of life. The statistics, polls, and findings of social science might be factual in the sense that they can be verified, but they are insufficient for reaching a comprehensive understanding of a people, their motivations, their ambitions, or their potentials.
Moreover, Murray found that the mindset that justifies or takes poverty, social alienation, and political inequities for granted is also very often the starting point for social scientists. “The one place U.S. Negroes have always found themselves most rigidly segregated is not the inner sanctum of the is-white family but in the insistent categories of behavioral science surveys, studies, and statistics.” In other words, Americans are most rigidly segregated in our collective imagination.
I call all of that wrong-headed dissonance because I personally do not feel victimized by it. I genuinely feel sorry for people who have got it wrong. They don’t know the joy of the love in my life. I’m not saying they can’t have it, they just don’t know it. So they are poor in spirit. Sucks to be them. Nevertheless, anybody can read Albert Murray. The entirety of African American thought is readily available to the genuine seeker. It’s no secret. Everybody in the world teaches their toddlers how to give high fives. You’re welcome. As Michael Jackson said plainly nearly 4 decades ago. “You’re just another part of me.” If you watch this video, I want you to focus on the exuberant confidence of the man singing those lyrics.
The Noble Spirit
People today tend to forget it. So the social scientists and pundits and Gatekeepers of Syllabi all make calculations about what people need to know about African America. I’ve talked to many people as a founder of Free Black Thought, and many of them want to get into policy discussions. They have a racism angle or a criminal justice angle or an economic disparity angle. All valid, legitimate and genuinely held. After all, how many of us can know more than we know? I say it again, and yeah maybe it’s just me. The most interesting part about black history is about what black people say to black people to keep them black because that is the history of reaching out and reaching within to find the essence of the noble spirit of humanity when its existence has been denied. This is not what has become of black history. Black history has become a ritual of power aphorisms, a presskit of circular political questions, a library of frustration. All that is non-history. That is what makes ‘black history’ not history, because the proper use of history is for humans to tell other humans how prior humans have done - and this is done for the benefit of all who can read it.
You see part of the problem with this form of black history is that it makes presumptions about what America tolerates. The hagiographic parade of black heroes generally is interpreted as the limit of what the most talented and skillful African Americans could ever accomplish. At the same time, when one crashes through the glass ceiling, a strangely one-dimensional metaphor which presumes we’re all somewhere down there, they are quickly disposed of as yesterday’s news. Oh yeah Condi Rice was the second black American Secretary of State, but that doesn’t matter any more because there’s no black President. That was the story in 2007. She was National Security Advisor as well. Now we have all digested that like it’s no big deal. Rice is not dead and buried, nor is Charles Bolden, Byron Allen, Michael Jordan, Ahmad Jamal, or innumerable other geniuses to whose lives we bear shaky and intermittent witness. The social scientists and political scientists will cast a spell of doom proven by their litany of facts and dubious fates that befall the statistically representative African American, but that’s all wrong-headed dissonance. I’m talking about soul, indeed I’m talking about nobility. In the most flea-bitten, hard-edge dystopia the human spirit reaches out for nobility. Recognition of that is what saves the human soul. The human soul doesn’t just crash up through ceilings or fall down into basements, it spreads wide through walls. It seeps into the air and permeates in every direction. It fills vacuums. I think Stanley Crouch said it best:
..I will answer them also by saying that nobility is always born somewhere out there in the world, and when you live in a democratic nation you have to face the mysterious fact that nobility has no permanent address, you have to face the fact that nobody has nobility’s private phone number. Nobility is not listed in the phone book. Nobility is not listed in the society column, nobility shows up where it feels like showing up, and where it feels like showing up might be just about anywhere. If it could rise like a mighty light from among the human livestock of the plantation, you know it can come from anywhere it wants to. You see, nobility is listed though. Yes, it is listed. Nobility lists itself in the human spirit, and its purpose is to enlist the ears of the listeners in the bittersweet song of spiritual concerns.
A bittersweet song of spiritual concerns. That is not what any of the contested agendas and culture wars are trying to uncover. They are playing a one-dimensional zero-sum game which is concerned with money, fame and power. They are about building wrecking balls to smash through hierarchies and demolish edifices whose floors and ceilings are made of glass. They are about dynamiting glass houses in the endless hall of mirrors that is the race game. They expect to walk out standing and suffering no collateral damage. After all, it’s us versus them, right?
When the Negro was only Negro, he presumably wanted to be only American. I can only most accurately speak for my own family. I think of my grandmother Lucille who named all of her children with Christian names, who wore the pillbox hat, A-line dress, white gloves, circle pin and pocketbook of her era. I think of her husband who was a Shriner, a Mason, a member of the Connecticut State Guard. They weren’t trying to assert any identity that diverged by race, they simply understood that racial thinking was immoral. They didn’t need histrionics. They needed to succeed in the face of the failures of E Pluribus Unum. They survived the Depression like millions of others and they sent their children to college.
These days I cannot say with confidence that all post-Negro thinking was foolish. There was great creativity involved in the creation of Black Consciousness and some bold intellectual steps were taken even by the most Marxist revolutionaries. After all, they were not simply trying to keep up with the Joneses, but seeking an international context of freedom.
Yet I am convinced that the success of the Civil Rights movement in the US, not only for the Negro as an ethnic minority but for other immigrants and identity groups set the stage for new methods to deliver on the promise of American liberty. What is so horrifying in our contemporary contretemps is the reversion to the smaller, more provincial idea of African American identity. It has regressed back to the provincial domestic Jim Crow comparisons of black & white (or everything vs white) without any of the gracious and noble aims of a shared American citizenship. The Negro was not a ‘person of color’, and now the Negro aims have been denatured of their intellectual and ethical dimensions and the grace of their assimilations and integrations into demands for reparations. Not just reparations for slavery but reparations and compensations for any and every inequality that can be accounted for in the new revisionist zero-sum con game of ‘black history’.
The Beat of the Drum
So what exactly is it that is so interesting about what black people tell other black people about being black? And what indeed is the content here? Well first let’s start with a startling fact. When it comes to income inequality, black American haves are way more Monopoly Man fat than black American have nots. Bert Cooper reminds us:
“You got 1 percent of the population in America who owns 41 percent of the wealth… but within the black community, the top 1 percent of black folk have over 70 percent of the wealth. So that means you got a lot of precious Jamals and Letitias who are told to live vicariously through the lives of black celebrities so that it’s all about ‘representation’ rather than substantive transformation… ‘you gotta black president, all y’all must be free.’”
– Cornel West interviewed by Joe Rogan, July 24, 2019
West nails it. The black Talented Tenth, from which I expatriated, ‘owns’ the vision of blackness and does so mostly from a Progressive point of view. So standing with the oppressed is easy for those who, famously like all the rich black standup comedians, get to call people niggers with no oversight whatsoever. Snoop Dogg can decide who is and who is not ‘my nigga’. This is something you understand implicitly when you grow up around people who use the insult ‘niggers and flies’. The more polite folks generally use the term ‘The Element’. We all know the difference between those we want to uplift and those we are comfortable despising, whether these distinctions are shared publicly or not. Essentially this is the racial gatekeeping function of the black upper class. You’re damned right it means Dave Chappelle. What Chappelle might say about Michael Vick matters. What Jay-Z might say about Trayvon Martin matters. What Spike Lee might say about Michael Brown matters. What Bill Cosby used to say mattered a great deal. These are the wealthy black Americans to whom everyone pays attention to decide what to think about the rest. Never forget that they are the 1% of black America even if they are not the 1% of America. Are you catching my drift here?
Ironically, because of this unique double standard, the black upper middle class has the same interest as the white upper middle class, especially the Progressives. They greatly desire to expand their influence on public opinion and conventional wisdom. Oh by the way there are more black PhDs in America than ever. You can bet Ibram X. Kendi would just be just another girl on the IRT if it wasn’t for that degree. So it should come as no surprise whatsoever that ‘lived experience’ of the PhD that comes from the ghetto gets an extra pump when it comes to speaking about black America than the one that comes from the suburbs. Of course that counts for nothing if it doesn’t reinforce that rules of race intellectually lazy Americans wish to follow. Who cheers for that particular zero to hero Supreme Court Justice? The point here is that there is competition among blacks to control The Black Narrative, which is all about what social capital can be gained and maintained by the proper explanation of those black Americans with little or none. Death Penalty? Imprisonment? Police misconduct? School expulsions? Drug abuse? Violent gangs? Lead poisoning? Holding forth on any social pathology or dysfunction that happens to people who happen to be dark skinned gets one immediately launched into racial punditry. That’s a big fat industry.
Once upon a time, that industry included Soul Music. But it turned out that subject gave a great deal of meaning and joy to people who didn’t need mouthy intervention and explication. It wasn’t hard to understand what Bill Withers was saying in Lovely Day. Everybody understood Aretha Franklin when she began “What you want, baby I got it.” There are millions of beats from millions of drums, and we each choose which rhythm we wish to sway to, or dance with lovers, or march with soldiers, or chant with ideological devotees. We should remember that drummers drum with a purpose, and sometimes there’s nothing behind the beat but a robot machine.
Black America is middle class. Black America isn’t poor. It isn’t comprised of criminals, slaves, addicts or sociopaths. Black America isn’t only living in ghettoes. We, all of us, live in transparent glass houses of our own design. Sometimes we leave them and venture out to meet new people; learn, refresh or rediscover; adventure, dare and push the envelope. Sometimes we meditate and reflect and take inward journeys with the aim of rectifying our past selves with our current situation. Very few of us stand still, except those who view their best interests in static doctrine. I say the interests of static doctrine are the enemies of liberty, but you knew I would say something like that dear reader. I am saying particularly in this meditation on being a minority of one, that we take care not to try to assimilate into an ideological minority of many engaged in political warfare and reductive stereotyping. For too long, our red and blue tribes have played against each other over convenient typecasting of the whole of the African American experience; bogus racial ethics masquerading as ‘black history’. Americans are still playing racial games to no good ends. The drumming gives me a headache.
Exit the Ghetto
Life presents us with every opportunity to recast our fate. It’s risky to do so when consistency with reality forces us to abandon concepts we have long held to be true. The truth about any 46 million people is far more complex than any consistent narrative can contain. Certainly the truth about the 20 million alive five years after the Brown decision has changed a great deal. Yet we seem satisfied with assumptions about the permanence of a vision expounded in three or four books and speeches made during the 1960s. At the core of so many of these were the assumptions about what little America could sustain and the essential character of racial identification in human life. In this regard I’d much rather hear questions that cannot be answered than answers that cannot be questioned. I thus leave it open-ended. We know ghettos are mistakes, whether they be organized as ethnic enclaves, religious doctrines or axioms of political discipline. They are all intellectual prisons that serve humanity poorly and do damage in combat when opposed. If we are to honor any human history, it must be done by seeking the emergent element of nobility. Free nobility from its cages in ourselves, in our nations, in our time.