Thursday, February 03, 2011

Happy Black History Month?

I first saw this extraordinary video on the terrific blog "We Are Respectable Negroes" last year. The moderator of that blog asked in posting it, "Am I dark and twisted as I laugh at the predictable outcome of Black rage, white fear, white denial, and the inevitable power of white women's tears in this video? Well actually they were rendered ineffective by said brother's verbal Kryptonite. Being a bit more provocative: Is there anything that he said regarding whiteness as property, power, and privilege in the U.S. that was (generally) untrue?"

I repost this video of a confrontation between a young white woman and representatives of the Black Israelites sect, and quote provocateur Chauncey De Vega's introduction not to endorse the Black Israelites (which in point of fact he wasn't exactly doing either). Over the years I've heard them preach terrible hateful things in Times Square about "faggots," and their love of the worst parts of the old testament is particularly unappealing to me. Their orientalist fantasy of what real Israelites must dress like -- they routinely show up in harem pants and studded leathers -- is at least naive and silly. And well, as a white person it's not my business but their separatism and virtual black Zionism is just a disaster. But the exchange recorded here on video is indeed powerful, revealing and thought-provoking. (It's also worth checking out the discussion on the original blogpost; it's linked above.)

Because the truth of the matter is that so many decades after what we remember as the classic transformative period of the civil rights movement, and even two years into the term of the country's first African-American president, the fundamental tension of racism in American society is really only papered over. Talking about race and racism directly is upsetting to many people. It quickly reveals gulfs in assumptions and culture that are like stark, unhealable and infected wounds. It seems we can try to act civil, putting on friendly faces, but so much of the underlying injustice and mistrust in society remains.

What better example of modern racism is there than the "tea party" movement? And yet that movement's white racial resentment is largely bottled up there behind a quivering lip, a locked jaw, and shifting eyes, by people who know better than to say what they are actually feeling. Only occasionally does that racism bleed off into a crudely worded sign or a tragic little monkey ragdoll. You can't prove the tea party is a racist movement, but everybody knows it is. Everybody's playing nice. Or at least, pretending they're playing nice. So in this video, nobody's playing nice, and tears ensue.

On the one hand it's nice that Black History Month is so officially recognized. Heck, the cafeteria at work today even had a Black History Month themed buffet. The smiling plastic talking heads on TV offer up historical tidbits like the past is all forgiven: hey we're all friends now. But maybe what we really need is a lot more yelling and crying. Cause pretending that there's no problem, well, it just doesn't seem to be working out so hot.


  1. I have a powerful memory of the 1968 Olympics when Tommy Smith and John Carlos, with bowed heads, raised a black gloved hand in protest as they stood on the Olympic platform during the playing of the National Anthem.

    "If I win, I am American, not a black American. But if I did something bad, then they would say I am a Negro. We are black and we are proud of being black. Black America will understand what we did tonight." ~ Tommy Smith

    Many I knew then thought this action was disgusting - I saw it as a powerful and respectful protest.

    Time magazine ran an edition which showed the five-ring Olympic logo with the words, "Angrier, Nastier, Uglier", instead of "Faster, Higher, Stronger".

    Back home, Smith and Carlos were subject to abuse and they and their families received death threats.

    In 2008 Smith and Carlos received an Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPY Awards honoring their action.

    We as human beings have a right to peaceful protest - to make statements in a non-violent manner.

    To me a clinched fist and bowed head is peaceful and non-violent. Rifling down an innocent crowd as was done in Tuscon is neither peaceful nor non-violent.

    I salute you again Tommy Smith and John Carlos for your courage to rise up in peaceful protest.

  2. I hate that "look how far we've come bullshit". A lot of the official observation of Black History Month is actually a celebration of whiteness. The claim is that every day, in every way, white people are becoming ever so slightly more tolerant so that now, today, despite a few uninformed and unfortunate throwbacks, white people are the most tolerant people on earth. If there is something we will not tolerate there must be a very good reason because we have just celebrated Black History Month by crowning ourselves the most tolerant people on Earth.

  3. A lot of the official observation of Black History Month is actually a celebration of whiteness.

    Exactly @Jon! So well said. I wish I had thought of that line.

    @Annie, isn't it funny how when some people stand up for their dignity they're called "angry"? That would certainly turn me angry!

  4. Jon - I heard comments that the movie The Blind Side was just another movie about how whites were once again the savior of the poor blacks. Another 'feel good' movie...but for whom?