Saturday, September 10, 2011

Who are We? Of "Respectable Negroes" and the New York Times Archive

As I prepare for my interview tonight, I have been thinking about the phrase "respectable negroes" and its historical origins. When was its first used in the public press? Is it an idea that has gone out of fashion as the colorline has shifted and racism changed? Is black respectability and the questions surrounding it generational, and young people born in the post Civil Rights moment have a different relationship with blackness than their parents and grandparents, thus the idea of being a race man or race woman is anachronistic to them?

Or has the idea of the politics of black respectability been subsumed by a larger discourse on black pathology and the persistent social "problem" that is the ghetto underclass?

When WARN first began there was some good back and forth on the concept of race pride and black respectability. In fact, working through those questions was the impetus for this project and has, to varying degrees, been the meta-narrative which drives my engagement with questions of race, class, politics, and culture. I fly the flag for black respectability when I take on ign'ts and degenerate street culture. I stand up for negro respectability when I call out the old/new racially driven and infused attacks on President Obama that in many cases are a function of a White imagination in which African Americans are never to be given their due or just acknowledgement for successes outside of either a basketball court or music studio.

Although there are millions of ways to be black, and thus my care to avoid race essentialism, race men and race women still have a role to play as we do the intellectual work of truth tellers and serve as honest critics and referees who are not afraid to call out b.s. whenever, and from wherever, they encounter it.

The NY Times archive is a real gem. Of course, the "giant negroes" stories are great. But, today I have been searching for the phrase "respectable negroes." The results are rich, a real potpourri of (living) social history.

For example, the story with the "Miss Negro Slayer..." in the headline confused me as I thought that said person was a superhero or supervillain who either slays negroes or is a negro who slays the innocent.

These matter of fact stories about ethnic cleansing, wanton violence, and lynchings are unsettling reminders of this country's history and how cheap the lives of black folks were and still are. This piece is especially fascinating both for how it describes the preamble to the violence and the distinction made between "good" blacks and "bad niggers."

And sadly, some of the Times' archived stories are reminders of how far we have yet to go as the conversations about black political economy which took place in the 19th and early 20th centuries are eerily similar to those that are still occurring in through the 21st.

In the midst of stories that are not so uplifting, there are great finds such as this piece on the wealthy negro citizens of New York. The idea of black progress and black success was novel to many white folks in the 19th century...ironically the idea of black accomplishment and wealth remains novel to so many of them--and to no small number of African Americans--in the present.

Here is a choice passage:

You can almost feel this brother smiling across time:

He doesn't need the assistance of white men to run it.

How many black folks can say such a thing today?

More troubling, in the Age of Obama, since the invention of the race card, and the birth of colorblind white racism, such a proud and respectable sentiment would probably be called "racist" by a generation drunk on the lie of false equivalence and Conservative multicultural dreaming.

Sigh and exhale.


Plane Ideas said...


I am looking forward to your performance ( and it should encompass entertainment and infotainment)..

More importantly for me as a Free Black Man I want to continue to carve out space..I ant to draw within the lines and outside the lines..I want to imagine and elevate and be earthly all means of existence at my whim and choice..

You are correct"there are millions of ways to be black" be one of those in your interview....

Have Fun & Enjoy Being a Free Black Man Tonite:-)

chaunceydevega said...

@Thrasher. Always so kind. How have you been?

fred c said...

I have often said in these comments that the story of Black Americans is a story of triumph. Unique, unqualified triumph. That it should come as a surprise to anybody is, well, surprising to me.

You are an agent of this triumph, Professor. (So is Greg, by the way.) Good luck on the show.

Henri B. said...

I could put "They want to get along in the world quietly and unobtrusively, but they do not want to be looked down upon with contempt," on my headstone. I've been searching for that my entire adult life. But I guess I wouldn't be me if it had been easy.

I'm on the west coast so I assume you've already finished your interview - either way, Well Wishes!

chaunceydevega said...

@Thrasher. So good to hear your voice. Support is appreciated.

@Fred. Triumph. The struggle is too long. I am just a traveler. Where is a guest post from you good sir?

@Tanya. There is an archive already on the site. It was good...I think. Long interviews are hard because you have to change the game and let things flow and not be rushed. I like your calling attention to that quote. Just walk sister. That is all I ask for each day. When we do that things will be fine one way or another.

ish said...

Chauncey if you ever feel like rummaging through the dirty underwear of the NYT archives again try searching for the word "darkies."

Laughter/tears/rage ensues.

Constructive Feedback said...

[quote]good back and forth on the concept of race pride and black respectability.[/quote]

With all due respect, Mr DeVega -

Does your site talk about THE BLACK COMMUNITY enough to even qualify as "Respectable Negroes"?

This is more of an "Anti-Republican" site than it is a "Black Community Permanent Interest site". I say this NOT as a slight but a provable fact.
If you were to use the Blogger "label" system to record the subject of each of your posts - which labels would come out most frequently?

* Tea Party
* Republicans
* Rush Limbaugh
* Black Education
* Black Economic Progress
* Safe Black Communities
* The Black Culture As The Basis For Healthy Male/Female Relationships Within The Black Community

The term 'RESPECTABLE NEGRO' appears to be something that is marketed to EXTERNAL people who make the ultimate appraisal of one's actions. Do you agree?

fred c said...

Someone is watching you, Professor, with "hot eyes." Yet somehow, this site is not on his list of "Blogs That I Follow."