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.