Friday, July 25, 2008

Chauncey DeVega says: So Underwhelming--CNN's Black in America Part 2

I am underwhelmed. I wasn't going to comment on the second installment of the series, but I felt that for consistency sake I should, and then with a sense of completion, I am going to read some comic books, look over this article I am finishing, and play some Company of Heroes.

Some relatively spontaneous thoughts.

This show and the last made me think of Chris Rock's classic, "Black people versus Niggas" routine:

This is getting really tired. As I said before, in these "let's see the negroes in the window" news exposes the bad is usually highlighted at the expense of the good. Tonight's installment wasn't too offensive in this regard, and in some moments actually had a little nuance--I particularly liked the installment on the school superintendent and how his racist neighbors called the police on him. How many of us can relate to that?

I will be informal and freestyle so to speak, so please forgive me if this is a bit disorganized:

1. This show made me thankful for the men in my life. As I have said before, my dad had a very old school view of life and success. He, and my godfather, would always tell me you have to do better, and white racism will change its stripes, but it is very very real and ain't going no where. They also told me that in the present we don't have to do 10 times better, but we still have to do 5 times better. I accepted this fact and it has served me well. I am also thankful for the women and men, white and other (Asian, Hispanics, and others) who gave me wisdom. I tell my students that you may find mentors in surprising places: we need to reinforce this fact to our young people.

I thank God for my surrogate Irish grandpa who called black folks "colored," he said this with love not malice and had so much wisdom. My surrogate grandpa would always tell me that "you have to do better than the white kids" and "that you can achieve no matter what." Period. No excuses. He was an old white man who saw so much history, but had little faith in white society doing the right thing. I remember one of my favorite conversations with him, where we were talking about the Civil Rights movement and how it saddened him that Dr. King was treated so badly, because he "just wanted the rights every American" is entitled to.

Damn, this is bringing back memories. I am also lucky for having such folk as my 4th grade teacher, a white native American lesbian, in my life. In my elementary school all the black kids were tracked into the remedial or average courses. I look back on my life and how it would have been quite different had this teacher not intervened, and if I had not had parents who threatened to sue in order to remedy this racist injustice. In this class I would do the work in about 15 minutes and of course be bored. And of course, I would get in trouble. This teacher had 2 options: help me or punish me. I remember on one occasion I had detention during lunch and she sat down with me. We talked for a long time and she said that I am going to be moved to the upper track because I clearly don't belong in her lower track class. After I left her class, Mrs. D always checked in on me. She was never warm, in fact she was damn critical and mean, but she had my best interests at heart. I wonder in watching this show, how many of our young black men, in these crappy schools, have access to people like this? How many of our gifted, best, and most talented, end up in prison because school is a dead end and they are bored?

2. I don't know how one learns to be a man. I really don't, frankly, because I am still figuring out this great mystery. From my dad, my godfather, my uncles, and the other men in my life I learned about responsibility, about women (I am still mystified and confused), about success, and am still figuring out this responsibility angle. I do remember some key moments. I remember my godfather telling me that "real" men don't need porn--yeah, right. But, I got his point. I remember my father telling me after one of my peeps got beat down and all of his friends, including me, ran off out of fear, that next time a friend fights you fight together, of course assuming he is in the right, but even if he is in the sort of wrong, you have his back. Period. No excuses.

In another moment where I thank God I had good role models in my life, I was basically accepted to West Point--I had letters lined up and all from my congress people, did the application, interviews, and I was a black man going to the Point so I got extra attention--or I was alternatively going to Naval ROTC and then the Marines. I was about a day from doing it and a bunch of men who know better than I did said, "fool, you are black and you are going to die for this country? You best stop!" When I watch the news I am glad they intervened.

At a later point, me, my "2 brothers," and a friend were going to get beat down over some woman (she was a total jump off) at this club we frequented. I was scared to death, but I checked the wallet for the insurance card (it was going off like that) and I prayed. I was going after the guy in the middle and if I got the first shot in maybe I would have had a chance, unlikely. Thank God the bouncers broke it up. I also learned something that I took for granted, a lesson which many young brothers apparently are not getting--violence is real business and you don't raise your hands or fight unless you can't avoid it and you are prepared to do real harm to someone else. Violence isn't a game, it isn't to impress women, it is in fact a means to a carefully considered end. I wonder how many of of our brothers are learning this lesson?

3. How many successful, if not solidly working class black families, have a knucklehead in the kin group? Hmmmm. In this special we have a superintendent of schools who is quite comfortable, with an attorney for a son--a prosecutor--whose other son acts the fool and shoots someone. How sad? Are these brothers doing this to perform what they think a "real" black man is? People make mistakes of course, but is there something particular to the children of the black bourgeoisie that criminality becomes a measure of manhood? Perhaps, but I hope not.

4. I don't get worked up about these black men going to jail because the "system" is out to get them arguments. Sorry, I don't feel pity for the incarcerated black men featured in these stories. I just don't feel empathy. The prison industrial complex isn't a bogeyman hunting you down. Nope, you find this monster. Life certainly isn't fair, but you do make choices. Moreover, most of these "clients" of the prison industrial complex are preying on their neighbors--black and brown folk. Sorry, I don't feel bad if you catch a bid. Now, of course we need to deal with disparate sentencing for crack and cocaine. Yes, we need to deal with a criminal "justice" system which punishes black people more harshly for the same crimes as whites. Yes, we need to talk seriously about how to address felony disenfranchisement. Yes, we need to have a mass review of felony sentencing guidelines, and the DOJ needs to review EVERY death row sentence for possibility of acquittal. Yes, we need civilian oversight boards to govern and investigate police departments. Yes, there are lots of criminal, racist, crooked, and dishonorable police thugs who hide behind a badge and should be put in jail. But, the majority of people in prison are not victims. Sorry, they just aren't. They made poor choices and prayed on their neighbors, and consequently, they deserve their comeuppance.

5. I always enjoy the dismay which many Whites display when a person of color shares their paranoia, fear, and negative experiences with the police. The police are extensions of State authority--usually a racist state. Why would we trust them? In the wrap-up show following the Black in America special, Anderson Cooper interviewed D.L. Hughley. Now, the dude makes coonish movies, but he is a good father. Anderson Cooper looked shocked and appalled that D.L. has to teach his son how to interact with the police (Amadou Diallo anyone?). As many black men (and women) were taught, you need to be polite, speak in a measured tone, and assume these cops are looking to lock you up, shoot you, or at least beat you down. Of course you never, ever, talk back, and you best not run because the law wants to shoot you in the back. Again, it is sad, but how many of our men are not learning these unfortunate, but necessary lessons? I know this speaks to my agency, but I was told to be quiet, be polite, and don't let them search the car. Hold out and we will get a lawyer and sue their asses. I, like many of you, have been harassed by the police. Never mind being followed around stores or asked for id when using a credit card--that is de rigueur. Hell, my cousin, a really rich attorney, had a shotgun put to his head on I-95 by some Maryland Staties because of course his car was likely "stolen." No, he is just a millionaire. Little did they know who they messed with, but when the black middle and upper class share these stories with their white peers it is funny how these stories are often met with utter dismay. This divide in experience, and the common white denial when people of color share these experiences with their white friends, partners, and colleagues, is one of the great dividing lines in our society, a division which stands in the face of progress and racial unification.

6. The other narrative running through this show is how much we learn informally through access to social networks. For example, how do you dress for an interview? What do you talk about? What is workplace appropriate clothing? How do you negotiate the workplace and manage conflicts with your supervisor? Do you talk back or do you eat it? How do you diffuse conflict? Many of our young men and women are not getting the preparation necessary to move beyond an entry level service position, never mind onward to a managerial one.

7. I get really pissed when I hear educated black people recycling a narrative that the breakdown in black families is due to slavery and lack of employment opportunities. Come on people. There is much scholarship to suggest that black people at Emancipation struggled desperately to find their families during and after slavery. In fact, we so respected family that we recreated kinship and family relationships with friends, fellow slaves, and others, when our blood families were irreparably torn asunder. The next time a scholar reproduces this narrative, the interviewer should ask him or her, "so, if you were unemployed would you leave your family?" We know the answer.

8. Simple thought, black elites, the superintendent again, has two kids who are dating white women. Hmmmm...I am all for race mixing (you should see my photo album). But, why must it fulfill the tired narrative of a handsome black man of means likely marrying down and/or dating a fat white woman? (look at those 2 women and be honest, those two black men could do better, right?). More importantly, especially in regards to wealth accrual, why don't black elites keep their resources inside of the in-group like every other racial and ethnic group in America? Maybe, we are just very liberal, loving, and progressive?

Actually, there are social demographers (I need to find the cite) who study these things. The argument they make is that the brothers in these relationships are trading class privilege for race privilege by marrying a white woman of lower class status. The white women in these relationships are gaining class status by sacrificing racial privilege. So calculating isn't it? But it makes total sense...sort of like why you see gorgeous Asian sisters with really unattractive white men. Oops did I just say something impolitic?

9. Next time, these specials need to stop talking about "Black" values and "White" values. It is tired and silly.

10. These hip hop is bad segments are tired and silly.

11. The Cool Kids? That was a surprise.

12. The expose presented some research on how black felons have difficulty finding jobs. Great. Here is the real punchline they should have highlighted: that people with "black" names are less likely to be hired than white felons, regardless of credentials. Now, that is a great example of the real, day to day, racism which folks who do the right thing shouldn't have to deal with.

13. The A&R brother at the end of the segment unsettled me. It wasn't that he looked like he was in Leaders of the New School or Fu-schnickens, but that he was talking about being comfortable with being black, but I didn't buy it. He seemed to be a black person more invested in being exceptional and the special one, than really being comfortable with being a black man. Am I being unfair?

14. Finally, we need to talk to black men and black women about their life choices. In watching the young brother doing his baby daddy drama performance, and that sad sister who he laid with and made a baby with, I had to shake my head. How about this calculus. Passion is tempting, irresistible at times, and really compelling. I have my lust demons and more often than not give into them. Fine. But, let's have a campaign where we talk to the sisters about who they lay with. This CNN special featured a likely (under) unemployed, tax payer assisted sister, now knocked up by another man, when the first one is already not doing his job. I would have paid money to see Mrs. O'Brien ask her: Girl, do you have anything else to do with your time? Are there other things you can do instead of laying up under some man? Does he have anything to offer except five minutes of disappointing sex? I know the answer. Fate, please help us all.

Here is my idea. The buses, radio spots, magazine advertisements, and the like that feature my campaign should emphasize a simple set of slogans and calculi: does he have a job? is he using a condom? does he have anything to bring to the table? If the answers are "no" then close your legs. If you can't close your legs then demand he use a condom and you go on the pill. We need to mirror this with our men. As my mom said, "do you want a baby with this woman?" If not, wrap it up. Simple business.

That was therapeutic. I need to de-stress. As an appropriate but random non-sequitur, it is time for a little Serenity Now:


Anonymous said...

i'm just waiting for the "white in america" special. i think that would be fascinating, personally. not that it'll happen on anything...

Anonymous said...

"As I have said before, my dad had a very old school view of life and success. He, and my godfather, would always tell me you have to do better, and white racism will change its stripes, but it is very very real and ain't going no where."

Well of course racism isn't going anywhere. Why would it? Why should it? One looks out after one's own kind. First, yourself, then your family, then your extended family, then your clan, then your tribe, and then your race. Chinese know htis. Japanese know this. The N'debele and Xhosa and Fang know this. The Igbo know this. Pretty much all tribal folks know this.

This used to be commonplace. In the black community folks used to speak of someone as being a "race man". Talk to your daddy, back then being a "race man" was a good thing.

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

The good old days--where have the race men gone? Funny and random story, I met John Hope Franklin a few years ago and asked him "Where have all the race men gone?" He replied, "You, should start by looking in the mirror."

Sort of sharp and a little cold in his response, but hell I am honored to have even breathed the same air as JHF.


Invisible Hand said...

"Let's see the negroes in the window"... the perfect phrase for the situation.

My question is, and always has been, who is this for? Cause really it seems like a program where black academics explain what it's like to be "black in America" to a studio and television audience comprised almost exclusively of black Americans.

Lady Zora, Chauncey DeVega, and Gordon Gartrelle said...

That has always been a questioned I asked myself.

Could it be for the masses who need to learn more about their own experiences? i.e. rank and file black folk? but then, what is being reported isn't news to them either? maybe curious and/or liberal whites and "educated" black people are the audience? the latter can complain about the show and the former can be "educated?"

chauncey devega

Anonymous said...


I'm going to pick on the last group for whom it is still socially acceptable to publically ridicule... the "White in America" special would be more aptly named "White in Appalachia".