Wednesday, November 3, 2010
There is a history of divide along socio economic lines in the African American community. During the institution of slavery (before education and money were added to the mix) slaves were pitted against each other by skin tone. Due to blacks inferior status in America they saw it as important to create their own class system; a ridged system that runs as deep as the gash from a headman’s whip. This truth is echoed in the independent film “Sankofa” where Joe, a mulatto headman is given authority and prestige over his field hand counterparts. The divide that I speak of began with the separation of house niggas and field niggas. House niggas were often fair skinned (closer to a European heritage) thus deemed more civilized and suitable to wait on their white master and his family. The house nigga was usually better clothed and fed than the field niggas, as access to power was directly related to his proximity to his white slave master. The separate and unequal treatment created a self deprecating celebration of Caucasoid phenotypes and Eurocentric values among the mulattoes. This separation also created an inferiority complex among dark skinned blacks. The false sense of superiority that whites gave mulattoes during slavery would later turn into a long legacy of inequity, jealousy and hatred between the light skinned black elite and their dark skinned counterparts. In the post reconstruction era, a black middle and upper class emerged which still reflected their ancestors mixed heritage. During this era there was an aggressive attempt by the black elite to separate themselves from, and in some cases denounce the black masses. They quite successfully did so by creating clubs, fraternal organizations and historically black colleges and universities in which the administration was almost always fair skinned. The preservation of power among light skinned people is reflected in what is known as the “brown paper bag test”. Many of these organizations and institutions had this unofficial component to their selection process. To be admitted, ones face had to be lighter than a brown paper bag. The comb test was also used. If a fine tooth comb was placed in ones hair and the comb did not fall out, this signified discernable African ancestry and admission was not offered. All of the prominent African American figures from the past in our history books, from Ida B. Wells to W.E.B. Dubois were of mixed/mulatto heritage and probably would not be afforded the same opportunities had they been dark skinned.
What comes along with a mixed heritage is an access to power and wealth that was unheard of in the everyday lives of the black masses. Light skinned blacks were more likely to attain education and wealth passed down from their white ancestors. Due to their conflicted identity it is only natural that lighter skinned blacks wanted to set themselves apart from the stigmatized black community. Even in slavery, light skinned blacks often lived under the constant scrutiny of their slave masters so they adopted some of their values and opinions of black people, whom they too looked down upon. This holds true even to this day as we see its manifestation in Bill Cosby’s recent harsh critique of the black working class.
Bill Cosby’s scathing review of the black poor was an emotion stirring prognosis which circulated around the country and incited much controversy. It appears that the black community is split in terms of where they fall in the argument. This split however is not a simplistic one, as the face of the black elite has changed. No longer is it reserved only for the well connected “light bright damn near white” intelligentsia of yester year. In the recent past through sports, television and music, the black elite has extended its membership to those from a lower socio economic background and darker complexion. Bill Cosby would certainly fall under this category as he is a dark complected man from a working class family. Now a multimillionaire in his old age, he has proffered some very tough criticism of that same class from whence he came; a class whom he claims “I don’t know who these people are”.
Dr. Michael Eric Dyson is an esteemed culture critic, writer, political pundit and professor. Dyson seems to have taken personal offense to Cosby’s comments. If we are looking at these two gentlemen theoretically, we could say that Bill Cosby is a conservative behavioralist and that Dyson is a liberal structuralist. Cosby shuns the behavior poor blacks’ exhibit while Dyson blames macrocosmic structures such as the education system, the government and so on. One of Cosby’s comments is “The city and all these people have to pick up the tab on them (poor African Americans) because they don’t want to accept that they have to study to get an education”. Cosby’s comments indicate an undertone of resentment. This harbored feeling of resentment toward the black poor is one very familiar to the black elite. Educated wealthy blacks feel that they must prove themselves even more aggressively to whites because of the poor habits of the black masses. As Tyran Steward writes in his essay Cosby is “a metaphorical father for black America, Cosby wanted to show some tough love”. It appears however that Cosby and Dyson are two extremists on opposing sides of the debate. There is some truth to what Dyson says about the realities of poor blacks but there is equal truth to what Cosby says. The state of the poor black is one that has mixed causes. There is no doubt that some of those causes are structural but it is quite negligent (of Mr. Dyson) to excuse the poor of all personal responsibility because of those causes.
What’s more significant to note is the distinctly differing rhetorical styles of the two gentleman. Has the Afrocentric “black is beautiful” movement ignited a paradigm shift in the performance of race within the black community? It seems now that the roles have been reversed, and that dark skinned blacks are preoccupied with proving that they are white enough while light skinned blacks must prove that they are black enough. This may give some insight as to why in his speeches, Dyson feels the need to marry highly intellectual (anglicized) verbiage with an urban vernacular.
To be frank both of these men have an agenda and neither should be villainized for their points of view. Dyson clearly wants to be seen as “the hood crusader” while Cosby’s revulsion of the working poor may be a projection of how he feels about his own roots. Either way, it is concerning that both of these gentlemen find themselves comfortably nestled within the black elite. Both of these men are in effect speaking for/speaking to a group of which they are not a part. Hopefully in the near future we can find a scholar from the working class, who will be so bold as to equally critique the black elite; a group that has spent much more time honing in on the flaws of others, rather than their own.
Sunday, September 19, 2010
In my Afro-American Communities class Professor Cox posed the question "what was your first encounter with black culture?". I had to wrestle with this question for a moment as I didn't want to draw from a TV Show that my peers might deem stereotypical or offensive. I reflected on my childhood for a moment and realized that I should be honest with my answer and free myself of judgment from others. My most memorable encounter with "black culture" was one of my all time favorite movies..."Bebe's kids" (We don't die we multiply!). In that cartoon movie I recognized the patterns in rhythm, the customs, the food, and the jokes to be reminiscent of my neighborhood in Brooklyn. After I watched the documentary "Black is Black Ain't" I had an even better understanding of what black authenticity is. As an African American, it can be hard to put into words the complexity of what blackness means to you. Marlon Riggs captured the true essence of black folk in his documentary where he interrogated the question "What is or constitutes blackness?". He touched on all aspects of our community including the cuisine, church, divine nine organizations, the changes in language, class differences, skin tones, hair texture, and the ever present issue of homophobia. As a gay male dying with AIDS, Marlon Riggs gives a very unique perspective on what it means to be black. Historically, a black man choosing to be openly gay is without question, isolating himself from the black community. A community that prides itself on being so loving and kind and accepting, yet makes no apologies for its view on homosexuality. Riggs pointed out prominent figures that have made a significant impact on the African American community such as the organizer of the March on Washington Baynard Rustin. Without his contributions to the struggle, who knows where we might be as a people...
I particularly liked the way Riggs kept showing Gumbo in the documentary. One of the central foods in African American Cuisine, Gumbo does not only represent a Macro fusion which in New Orleans includes the French, Haitian, African American, Spanish, and Native American experience. Gumbo also represents the microcosm that is black culture. Just like a gumbo that incorporates many different ingredients to create a dish from heaven, black culture works the same way. The different people, accents, regional foods, churches, family traditions, neighborhoods are all different, and one example could never adequately represent the whole, but they all work together to paint a picture of the black community. Riggs raised the bar in terms of opening our minds to new concepts but this film is about fifteen years old. I would like to ask my readers, do you think that this film is still a relevant resource in studying black identity? Are some aspects of African American Culture moving forward or staying the same?
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
I have mixed feelings about black businesses. I support entrepreneurship 100% and admire those that decide to take a leap of faith, and become their own boss. I always have, and always will support black establishments but I am often disappointed in our business practices, most notably our customer/employee relations. We all know that "hole in the wall" restaurant. The service is lousy, the waitress is inattentive, the food takes forever and wait for the Pièce de résistance... they ran out of biscuits! You ignore these inconveniences because they have the best food, with a taste that gives you the nostalgia of grama's kitchen and that price.. well you can't beat it with a stick. Or how about your local beauty parlor/barber shop (ignorance is not gender specific). You have to wait for hours before you can sit in a chair. You would make an appointment but the last time you did, your hairdresser/barber pushed you back to squeeze in one of their relatives who's late for work, or perhaps they decided to make a run to the bank (on your dime). To me, a good soul food restaurant is a rarity and hard to replace but some of these beauticians and barbers need to brush up on their customer service skills because in this economy, they need all the clients they can handle. It seems to me, that some think they can stand to lose a few clients.
My (former) barber was working out fine until today. I had no intention of dropping him until he made it abundantly clear that he didn't need my patronage. I was taught that if I spend my hard earned money at an establishment, I should receive excellent service. Some African Americans deem themselves unworthy of receiving the same service that whites demand (but I digress.. that's a completely different article). I asked my barber if he would be able to come to my grama's house and cut her hair. She was more than willing to pay whatever price he established, knowing that it may be an inconvenience to do a house call. His response was "I don't know if that's worth my time.. make it worth my while". Suffice it to say, "homeboys" services are no longer needed. Dropping him was a tough decision but I just can't seem to wrap my head around the concept of spending money where I "tolerate" the service or feel less than appreciated. There is a cultural norm among us in the workplace, where we feel a sense of relief when a black customer walks through the door (due in part to the scrutiny we feel from whites). Our warmth is comforting, our smile inviting and our laughter is indescribably joyful. I get it.. believe me I do. But these very qualities can translate into employees being overly casual and distastefully familiar with customers. I've experienced some very well put together black restaurants and other establishments but the bar could still be set a little higher. Can we please show some semblance of professionalism?
Sunday, June 27, 2010
First I have to start this article by saying how GOOD it feels to be writing again! I've had to wipe away the cobwebs and dust off of my blog and reestablish it as my prized outlet and solace in a time of growth and self reflection. my social life and my family are not in the same city so when I come home from school, I get to spend a lot of time to myself.
My summer job (at a summer camp) has afforded me the opportunity to observe over 125 kids ages 6-12 and their interactions with their parents. The camp is predominantly black with a few biracial children mixed in ( no pun intended). As a young adult, I'm just now starting to realize how challenging it can be to lead a productive and successful life. Adding children to the equation, even though they are a blessing, is another layer of complication. After my first day at work I was sweaty, tired, had a headache and a backache to match! I won't say that children are annoying because they aren't yet aware that the world does not revolve around them. They are at that stage in life where they'll do ANYTHING to gain their friends approval, cut someone in line just to get to the water fountain first, interrupt your conversation because it is paramount that they tell you that their peer called them a name, cry as if their pain is unbearable only to see them laughing and playing two minutes later and making fun of kids whom they secretly admire. The list goes on and on. As I drove home from work I found a new and improved appreciation for parents. Parenting can't be easy! I then began to reflect on my own childhood and for the first time I remembered my childhood a little differently. No longer did I see the perfect angel I thought I was. Now that I look back, I could have caused my mom a lot less turmoil about small things that weren't that important to begin with. Did I really need to cry in hopes of making her feel guilty because she wouldn't stop at "Toys R us" for the 1,000th time? Did I really need to wake her from her slumber so she could watch my favorite cartoon with me? Now that I see through the eyes of an adult I regret every time my mom came home and I hadn't washed the dishes or taken out the trash. She didn't ask me for much but because I thought it was all about me, I rarely considered what she needed. So I would like to take this time to publicly announce my shameless gratitude to my mother. Ma, your the best!
On that note, I would be remiss If I didn't address my concerns about African American youth in regards to how they are being conditioned both by their parents and the general public. Their conditioning is the antithesis of how White children are conditioned by their parents and society at large. African Americans can attest to the fact that when we were children, we were constantly given restrictions, told to stay in our place, and above all else be seen and not heard! "Don't show out in here!, don't touch that!, don't you let nobody have to speak to you cuz I will go off on you and them!". We've all had those messages communicated to us in one form or another. In many ways our culture is focused on teaching children restraint, respect and self control in environments where adults frequent. Conversely, White parents give their kids a host of freedoms including: allowing them to cry and throw tantrums in public, run around the grocery store, demand what they want, and talk back to their parents (all of these things are foreign to your typical African American household). As an African American, I always thought that our way of parenting was fundamentally right, and theirs was fundamentally wrong. But lately I've been looking at white parents thinking, is there a method to their madness? One day at camp I met a parent (black women) who has created a blended family. She has beautiful messy hair and dresses modestly yet somewhat eclectic. Her husband is tall with blonde hair and blue eyes with long messy hair to match his wife lol. At first glance he looked like one of those grunge types you used to see at prospect park in Brooklyn, toting a bicycle and a bong but when he opens his mouth you can't help but notice his thick, Irish accent. I had come across many different families this summer but there was something special and off (in a good way) about this family in particular. I had seen them before and never got a chance to strike up a conversation but one day I got a chance to talk to the mother and she began to tell me about the book she's writing as a letter to African American women. She said "The book isn't meant to encourage black women to find a white man but rather open their minds to all different types of men." We went on and on and then we began to talk about different parenting styles. We discussed both black and white parenting methods and came to the conclusion that both while well intentioned, have gleaming flaws in their respective foundations. While blacks teach their children respect and restraint they also inadvertently kill their dreams and imagination, constantly telling them what they can't have and what's off limits to them. While white parents teach their kids it is okay to explore and ask questions, they accidentally (or deliberately) teach them a haughty and presumptuous sense of entitlement. Wouldn't it be nice if black parents and white parents could hash this thing out in some sort of conference or forum? Maybe the conversation will spawn some great new ideas that merge the two diametrically opposed philosophies. I don't know... just food for thought. I am clearly making extreme generalizations but I think we have all witnessed this phenomenon to some degree. If you don't believe me go to your local grocery store or Home Depot (which is where I got some of my most memorable and humiliating "pants down" butt whoppings). You're bound to see some kids in action. In aisle 9 you'll see Hayden throwing a pitch fit while his mother begs him to stop. In aisle 10 you'll see Jaylen getting scolded by his mother, threatening that if he ever embarrassed her in public and acted like Hayden, she would slap the taste out of his mouth. Poor Jaylen...he didn't even do anything! He was just an innocent bystander lol. I'll let you [insert] the race of each child for objectivity purposes. Bloggers you tell me, is this a worthless observation or could it be the beginning of a discussion that is both fruitful and promising?