Apparently, there is an appropriate way to be a black man in 2013. Christian Coleman wants to discuss why it is that he doesn’t give a damn.
“Talk/ like a nigger now, my white friend, M, said/ after my M.L.K. and Ronald Reagan impersonations,”- Terrance Hayes “Talk”
On a somewhat regular basis, I encounter a strange kind of racism. Like most racism, it’s not actually about me personally, but instead, what I’m perceived to represent. Unlike other kinds of racism, it is firmly rooted in the content of my character. You see, black people sometimes call me white or accuse me of “acting white.” I’m accused of this brand of race-betrayal because I speak standard American English and attend graduate school. That’s most of the reason, at least; there are some nuanced reasons, such as my clothing choices (as much Justice League as is reasonable, then a little more Justice League).
I have a Bachelor’s degree, and I’m in the process of getting a Master’s degree, so this colors my manner of speech somewhat. I read as much as I can and not nearly as much as I would like. Spend five minutes in a conversation with me, and you’ll get peppered with equal parts superheroes and political snark. Apparently, none of this is adequately “black” (No, not even John Stewart or Luke Cage). I’ve heard these accusations my entire life, but until now, I haven’t understood them for what they are. This is racism. It’s not about me, personally; it’s about a perception that academia and pretty much any area historically dominated by whites is unfit for a black man (except for sports).
I’m of the opinion that this viewpoint is a reaction to the racism that pervaded American life until, oh, some time last month. I went to the University of Alabama, famous for an obnoxiously talented football team and an even more obnoxious Jim Crow-era governor. When George C. Wallace stood in the schoolhouse doors and barred black students from registering for class, he wanted to send a message that higher education was for whites only.
Side Note: George Wallace took the Oath of Office to the Alabama governorship at the exact place where Jefferson Davis took the Oath of Office to the CSA presidency. Mmm mmm Dixieland…
Well, it seems that some black people took that message to heart. I’ve literally walked through those schoolhouse doors. I’ve gone where, in the minds of some, no black man belongs. For this, I’m said to be ‘acting white.’ They’re expressing a level of racism that no conscientious white person would dare countenance. The people I’m thinking of, specifically, have never been to college, so they don’t know what it felt like; they especially don’t know what it felt like to go to a university that so famously barred black students. Enrolling at the University of Alabama felt like the fulfillment of the struggle my grandparents’ generation had been fighting; squandering my opportunity would be a betrayal of The Dream. Now, to some, that march forward is akin to a betrayal of my skin tone.
Essentially, when these racists say that I’m white, they’re saying that a black man is supposed to be uneducated and poorly-spoken. When they say this, they don’t know they’re insulting me, and that’s partially because they aren’t insulting me personally; they’re insulting all black people.
This post was born from a conversation with a co-worker. I deliver pizza to pay the bar tabs while I write poems. My co-worker said that I act “white”, because I was telling her that I don’t listen to Lil Wayne anymore due to his flippant, disrespectful treatment of Emmett Till’s memory. She responded that I don’t like Lil Wayne, because I’m “white”. I asked her what she knew about Emmett Till, or the Scottsboro Boys, or Medgar Evers. The answer to all of these was the same: nothing. She didn’t know where Martin Luther King had been shot or by whom. She’d never read The Souls of Black Folk, or Autobiography of Malcolm X, or Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. She’d never even heard of Frederick Douglass. This is the kind of “black”-ness that these ignorant people are promoting, one completely divorced from the history of black people in America dating back to around 1620.
In his biography, Revolutionary Suicide, Huey P. Newton discusses learning to read and attending community college saying, “I was advancing on them.” The ‘them’ in this quote is racists, bigots, sexists, vampire capitalists, anybody from the old establishment that Newton felt was holding down black people. Now, that ‘advancement’ is seen as inauthentic to the black lifestyle.
There’s a good chance you’ve heard this sort of talk around you. You’ve heard jokes about someone being an “Oreo”, black on the outside, white on the inside, or something similar. Don’t stand for it anymore. Don’t allow it to be said around you. These ideas are insults to all black people; silence is approval.
The last thing I want to say, I want to say loudly: I’m black, and I’m proud. No one will take that from me.
photo: public domain
Further Reading: “I Don’t See Race”: Racial Color Blindness and Eradicating Racism