Tag Archives: Cornel West

Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? Me, Kinda.

I’m teaching a Black Politics course this summer, and I’m using Toure’s Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What it Means to Be Black Now as the primary textbook. Initially, I planned to take the traditional route – lecturing from works by the usual suspects: Manning Marable, Michael Dawson, Cornel West. But I decided in the end that I wanted to discuss race in a contemporary way, and Toure’s work allows me that freedom.

My class starts like Toure’s book does, with questions about the nature of identity. What exactly is Blackness in 2012? 50 years ago, varying shades of brown skin were sufficient determinations. If you couldn’t pass a brown paper bag test, then you were Black enough to experience the struggle, and on some level, you probably knew it personally. It was that – the struggle, the trauma narrative – of the Black American experience that was the rallying cry of Black Americans.

In 2012, however, with a biracial President of the United States who has chosen to identify culturally as Black, what now is the rallying cry? What now is the reason to rally for the race? Toure’s book argues that Blackness is multifaceted. Struggle, trauma, oppression, and racism are no longer qualifying characteristics of living while Black in America. Scholar and Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates explains it this way: if there are 40 million Black Americans, then there are 40 million ways to be Black. Thus, poor, oppressed, and powerless is but one reality of Blackness. There are 40 million other ways to “do” it.

Last week, I asked my class to write a short paper about the way(s) they express Blackness. I wondered if it was fair for me to have the same expectation of my non-Black students. But I figured, fuck it. Writing the paper required all of them to soul search. They’d have figure out for themselves what it means to be Black and how they, as individuals, fit into that narrative. It’s an opportunity to process through a different prism.

In the beginning of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness, Touré lists his interview questions. There are some good ones designed to move the windmills of your mind and to jump-start dialogue. Touré asks: What does being Black mean to you? Does being Black mean something different today than it did 40 years ago? Would you feel comfortable eating fried chicken or watermelon around white people? My students and I talk about these questions, and we try to answer them too. I’ve noticed that the younger ones always respond in post-Black, individualistic ways. And the older students often answer from a collective perspective.

It always starts this way though. No one likes to admit that they still subscribe to a trauma narrative about the Black American experience. That they still wear “the struggle,” and are still caught up in it. Post-Blackness gives folks license to slough off that trauma, and move on. In a way, it’s like a second Emancipation Proclamation. This time though, Blacks are liberated from an imposed responsibility for advancing the race. You get to just “do you,” without worrying about whether it helps or hurts Us-at-large. “Us” is not your priority; you are. Post-Blackness allows Blackness to be embraced in a continuum, where Clarence Thomas-types can be at one end and Angela Davis-types can be at the other. And it’s all the same. Angela Davis hasn’t kept it real, and Clarence Thomas hasn’t sold out. Each of them performs Blackness in their own way, and each expression of Blackness is as legitimate, and as authentic as the other.

Post-Blackness represents the freedom to be an individual. To that end, it’s possible no one embodies the Post-Black pathology ideology quite like Dave Chappelle. “Chappelle Show” was absolutely fearless in the way it handled the social and cultural constructions of race in America. The third chapter of Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness is titled “The Rise and Fall of a Post-Black King”. In it, Touré presents several of Chappelle’s most hilarious, most provocative, and most brilliant comedy sketches cum social commentaries on race. But they’re so much better in video. See for yourself.

The Niggar Family

Frontline – Clayton Bigsby, Black White Supremacist

These sketches worked because they made it seem like we could actually be evolved and mature in discussing race – so conscious, as it were, that we could even be irreverent about it.

Roots Outtakes

But alas, as I mentioned, Chapter 3 of ‘Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness’ is titled “The Rise and Fall of a Post-Black King.” Remember, Dave Chappelle walked away from “Chappelle’s Show” and away from his $50 million contract with Comedy Central because he felt like folks no longer laughed with him. Whereas initially, the point was to be funny and if somewhere along the way, a sentient message about race relations emerged, that was even better. But in the end, Chappelle felt more responsibility than that. In other words, the irreverence for Blackness that Post-Blackness encourages and excuses is cool until it’s not – that is, honestly, until white folks laugh a little too hard at depictions of slavery, or get too comfortable misunderstanding nigga/nigger. “You start to realize that these sketches, in the wrong hands, are dangerous.”

The history of race relations in America makes discussions of race slippery and uncomfortable. Being able to laugh about it certainly lightens things up, but the sore still festers if we really aren’t yet evolved and mature enough to also recognize the blues of it all.

The blues of the Black American experience are still palpable for a good number of folks because, although some of us have managed to exorcise ourselves from the charge of race consciousness by standing proudly as Post-Black, the world in which we live, unfortunately, isn’t so evolved.

Clever. Renege is spelled differently, but I’m sure they already knew that.

Post-Blackness, in the wrong hands, is also dangerous. And in the Trayvon Martin case, I think Touré saw that too.

Wake Up, Stay Woke.

Tuskegee University, my *first* alma mater. My first love.

I ran across this piece on education from The New York Times:  “Do We Spend Too Much on Education?”  The author questions whether the economic cost of education is worth the promise that “it’ll all pay off” eventually.  He argues:

For some people in some careers, some colleges may be worth the price they charge. But millions of other people are paying more than quadruple what their parents paid 25 years ago (plus inflation) for a vague credential, not much knowledge or skills, and a crippling amount of debt.

So unless you’re a doctor or a scientist, your college degree is little more than a “vague credential.”

Not to be remiss in understating the full value of college education, the author reminds us that “… learning should be done throughout life, and technology creates more ways to learn every year.”  You don’t need the “antiquated debt-fueled luxury” of  the college classroom! You can learn everything you need to know from the #innernets. But what if your spectrum of knowledge is already limited?  What if all you know how to do on a computer is check your facebook page, and play solitaire when the comcast bill doesn’t get paid?  What if you’re 23 and you need to compose an email to see a man about a job.  And you haven’t a clue what to do once the internet explorer finishes loading on your dial-up connection.

This visual might seem extreme to you, but I promise I’m not engaging in hyperbole to oversell the point.  This is real life and I’ve witnessed the education struggle first-hand.  Imagine being post-college age and not knowing the difference between city and state.  Continent and country.  Africa and New Jersey.  Education in America failed somewhere.  And it appears it happened well before the recruiters from University of X showed up in high school cafeterias, flaunting their college-boy elitism.

Our values have changed.  What we value has changed.  I wrote recently about the price of entertainment, which at present, seems to occur at the expense of knowledge.  I concluded that our collective desire to be coddled by amusement supersedes our hunger for information.  And so, “Molly.  We in danja, girl.”  Adding fuel to this fire, it’s now permissible to challenge the “value” of the education itself, instead of questioning why it costs so much.  And perhaps, why the education we receive won’t fit the workforce we enter.  No, no.  That would be too much like right, as they say where I’m from.  Better that we nix the concept of college altogether, and save ourselves the debt.

Talk about throwing the baby out with the bath water.

The college experience is about learning as much as you can, and preparing as best you can for a bright future.  Countless mamas have declared over the decades that they don’t want their babies to struggle the way they did.  And without exceptional talent, exceptional ingenuity, blessings from above or wherever, or a Midas touch, education was the single best way to combat strife.  I mean, you mighta still struggled, but at least you met it armed, as opposed to fear-struck and stuck.

College isn’t just about what you learn in class.  It’s about what you learn having a roommate for the first time.  Living away from your parents.  Living away from the comforts you’ve always known.  It’s about learning that you probably shouldn’t drink that much bad liquor if you don’t want to feel that shitty the morning after.  It’s about learning the definitions of consequence and responsibility through youthful trial and error.  And learning that nobody has to treat you special just because you’re you — you were a big fish in a small pond.  And now that the pool is bigger, you must be that much more extraordinary to be considered extraordinary.  College is about transforming the invincibility of your teenage years into the humility that must accompany the rest of your life’s journey.  Because in college, you learn that everything you know isn’t everything there is to know.  And that challenging you culturally, emotionally, and intellectually, while equipping you with advanced knowledge is valuable in a way that transcends money, and eclipses fear of debt.

Cornel West’s opinion piece published today in The New York Times, gets right at the heart of how virtue in American values has devolved.  Professor West writes:

…Materialism is a spiritual catastrophe, promoted by a corporate media multiplex and a culture industry that have hardened the hearts of hard-core consumers and coarsened the consciences of would-be citizens. Clever gimmicks of mass distraction yield a cheap soulcraft of addicted and self-medicated narcissists….King’s response to our crisis can be put in one word: revolution. A revolution in our priorities, a re-evaluation of our values, a reinvigoration of our public life and a fundamental transformation of our way of thinking and living that promotes a transfer of power from oligarchs and plutocrats to everyday people and ordinary citizens.

Whole lotta college words in there, ain’t it?  However, don’t miss the power of  West’s prose because you’re too lazy to learn the meaning of a new word.  He’s saying wake up.  In fact, he’s screaming it like Laurence Fishburne’s character did at the end of School Daze.  Understand that they understand you’re too distracted by everything else to recognize the wool is being pulled slowly but surely over your glazed-over eyes.  Your intellectual curiosity is dulled by fear and irreverence.  In other words, you don’t need college because you’ll be “crippled” by debt.  And you’ll likely get drunk and have a hangover in class anyway.  So why bother?

Fam, your ambition is misdirected.  You think you can “make it” if you can just get that bullshit youtube video of you doing some bullshit to go viral.  And you can, and it might!  But consider this:  what are you offering for public consumption?  What are you leaving as your legacy?  What, of yours, are future generations building on?  Some bullshit.  And that’s ok with you because at least you made it.

Learning from the accumulation of information available on the internet is not the same as practicing the wherewithal  to understand, and apply, and critique and build on said information.  These skills are sharpened and refined by the college experience, by the kind of knowledge that is acquired in college.  Neil Gabler explains it well in his piece also from The New York Times, The Elusive Big Idea“.  College is about so much more than the classroom lecture and the decreeing of the “vague credential.”

Obama vs. The Ambassadors of Blackness

What's the situation with the professor's teeth though?

I can’t let the bandwagon lambasting of Professor Cornel West and Tavis Smiley go unchallenged.  Nor can I accept the berating of liberals and progressives who are expressing their disappointment with President Obama.

Firstly, President Obama and the Democrat-controlled Congress of 2008-2010 shared some great victories.  They passed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and raised the minimum wage.  In response to the implosion of the global economy as a result of predatory banking practices, they created a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, enacted a series of stiff financial industry reforms and regulations,  and resuscitated an automobile industry that was about 20 minutes from being dead on arrival.  The Democrat-led Congress passed Health Care Reform, which will extend affordable healthcare to millions of Americans.  Health Care Reform also makes it illegal for insurance companies to deny individuals coverage based on pre-existing conditions.  For the record “pre-existing conditions” can be serious illnesses like heart disease or cancer, and they can be as petty as a previous ankle sprain that never quite healed.  So beginning in 2014, if you need medical coverage, you can still be eligible for it instead of restricted from it because you caught some pre-existing bad luck.

The Obama administration also ended the cowardly and immature Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy that prevented gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military.  And coincidentally, they’ve stated publicly that they will support a bill to repeal the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).   This means that the federal government will extend to legally married same-sex couples the same benefits and protections provided to heterosexual married couples.  All in all, the President has been highly successful on progressive issues.

But President Obama still is not above constructive criticism.  Much has been made of Tavis Smiley’s and Cornel West’s rebukes of Obama’s policies as they relate to the poor, and specifically, to Black Americans.  When I say “much has been made,” what I mean is much shit has been talked, and much mud has been slung at Smiley and West.  The cynic in us is convinced that these brothers believe they are self-appointed ambassadors of Blackness who can and will criticize the Black president without flinching — but mostly for the purpose of furthering their own interests.

The headline that surfaced on the Huffington Post this week, “Tavis Smiley:  Obama Is the First President Who Hasn’t Invited Me To White House” doesn’t help in putting the Smiley-West Self-Aggrandizement theory to rest.  But perhaps I can get you to see this differently.  I posted an article recently on President Obama’s reluctance to deal directly with the role race plays in American society, and in his Presidency.  I see his resistance (either willful or unintentional) toward Smiley and West as part of his and our discomfort in talking about race.

For all their shortcomings, neither Professor West nor Tavis Smiley has ever minced words in describing the plight of the poor, and exposing the disparities that continue to hold Blacks back.  Now, if in your mind you intend to hit me with a personal accountability/responsibility retort, let me reassure you:  A case can certainly be made asserting that “The Man” has raised his boot up off your neck some.  That notwithstanding, the wealth gap between Blacks and whites continues to grow.  Black unemployment today sits somewhere around 16%, while “general” joblessness hovers at 9%.  Projected figures show Black unemployment soaring to 20% by 2012.  Soooo…yeah…

If I hear another person hop up on their post-racial soapbox to inform me that President Obama is President “of ALL of America and not just Black America,” I’m not sure what heinous act of defiance might package my response.  But it will be heinous, and it will be defiant.  I took my rose-colored glasses back to the unattainable utopia store a couple years ago, and so I am well aware that Obama must govern as a “pragmatist,” and a centrist who pretends to be color-blind.  Thus, holding a fried chicken and watermelon summit with Cornel West and Tavis Smiley talking 20% Black unemployment succeeds in making the color-blind see, and it forces us to delve into the clusterfuck that is American race relations. Because either there is something inherently wrong with people of color that renders them incapable of “succeeding” at the same level as whites, or there is something amiss structurally/institutionally that is worth exploring.

Finally, conventional centrist rhetoric likes to reassure the people that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”  In other words, economic policies that benefit the majority of the people also will benefit Black people (and poor people and Latino people, etc.).  I suppose the inverse of that is the proverb, “when America gets a cold, Black America gets the flu.”  I mean, do you treat your cold the same way you treat your flu?  Will some chicken soup and a few “feel betters” soothe your fever and body aches?  Or are you at CVS in your robe and slippers looking for the Thera-flu — the joint that will remedy your shit directly?

Professor West and Tavis Smiley acknowledge without apology that cats don’t have the sniffles anymore.  This financial flu is full-blown in Black America and it’s spreading like gossip on my granny’s block.  Obama’s allegiance to the illusion of compromise and political pragmatism essentially has him prescribing Flintstones vitamins — the gummy kind — to cure what ails us.  And that shit’s not good enough.  Obama is brilliant and charming and handsome, and he undoubtedly is the best choice going into Election 2012.  But he deserves this criticism.  And I’m not mad at West and Smiley for giving it.

**For the record, I refuse to speak on Steve Harvey’s contributions to this discussion.  That cat is a coon, and coon opinions don’t count. You don’t see anyone trying to pen down Soulja Boy’s feelings on the subject either, do you?**