Monday, February 26, 2007

Where is Muhammad Ali?

[one from the archives that appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution]

I drive a 2003 Mini Cooper S. It was slightly damaged and I went to a popular Atlanta body shop to get it fixed. In order to get into the office I had to navigate through a maze of Mercedes Benz’s and Porsche’s with fantastic aftermarket effects. The middle aged white man who owns the shop greeted me at the door. He saw me looking at the cars and said, “that’s one of Too Short’s.” “Wow,” was all I could say. He went on to show me pictures of cars he had done for several other celebrities like Jermaine Dupri and Shannon Sharpe. His secretary was a young and pretty, blond white woman who had a picture of herself posing in front of Tyler Perry’s custom Rolls Royce. The owner was telling me that he has a ton of work for a lot of celebrities – athletes and rappers. I asked how he got their business. He said that a local stereo spot is the one that all of them go for really high end sound systems and the people there recommend his shop for aftermarket body work. He said, for example, that some of his clients install $40,000 sound systems and then come to him for body work in the same neighborhood of cost. According to him, some of his clients spend nearly $100,000 on aftermarket effects on their cars

He told me all of this with an air of connection and the assumption that he was impressing me. He was. These cars were incredible and extravagance is awesome by definition. His assumption was based on the common view that young black men are taken by excess indulgence. He is making himself rich on that very fact. His assumption is precisely at the core of the problems with black male achievement that so many people are concerned about. Many of these celebrities are fantastically popular and their lifestyles are public in the extreme. Their wealth and trinkets are copiously documented in a variety of magazines and television shows. What is conspicuously missing from their public personas is a cause. Very few of them have taken a decisive and public stand on any of the assortment of issues that are strangling the black community, particularly the young black men that idolize them.

There is no doubt that there is an emergent political arm of the hip-hop movement. The sincerity of the movement is questionable, however. Even those who are at the forefront remain awash in three-quarter million dollar watches and half-million dollar rings. They set a weak example, at best, for aligning a lifestyle with a positive principle. They fall into the category outlined in Kahlil Gibran’s, The Prophet, “There are those who give little of the much which they have – and they give it for recognition.” Several others of this black celebrity clan are completely immersed in vacuous consumption and narcissism.

In 1974 Muhammad Ali was asked about his title fight with George Forman, The Rumble in the Jungle. He said:

I’m gonna fight for the prestige, not for me; but to uplift my little brothers who are sleeping on concrete floors here today in America – black people who are living on welfare, black people who can’t eat, black people who don’t know no knowledge of themselves, black people who don’t have no future.

Ali not only spoke that principled view, he lived it. His famous resistance to the draft was a living example of a young black celebrity who was not consumed by consumption or by public celebration of him. He sacrificed all of his material wealth to stand by a principle. He did this at a time when he was at the top of his career and stood to lose the most. He was a soldier, in the spirit of the Nation of Islam, for the betterment of the collective black condition. His celebrity was only incidental to that core belief. It appears that our current crop of celebrities are soldiers, in the spirit of Narcissus, for the betterment of themselves and their principles are only incidental to that core belief.

In a world of black fame, diamonds and millions, I am utterly inconsequential. I continue to stand up straight, however, propped up by my faith in the legacy of the black community, my pride as a black man and the example of Muhammad Ali. The repairs for my car were $196.53. Ouch!!


Monday, February 19, 2007

Black : Suffering :: _____ : _____

The astonishing degree of human suffering in the black world is such that it is almost an identity itself – black is to suffering, as day is to sun. Often you can recognize black identity by the presence of suffering as you recognize day by the presence of the sun. Haiti, Guyana, Jamaica, Brazil, France, England, Sudan, Chad, Zimbabwe, Baltimore, New Orleans, Detroit – in nearly every theatre of human living where there is a concentration of black people, there is a concentration of suffering. Black people do not have a monopoly on suffering; there is more than enough to go around. The painful challenge for black people is that suffering is becoming part of our identity. In many circles, the authenticity of one’s blackness is measured against the degree to which one has suffered. Suffering can be redemptive and add depth to human character, there is no shortage of sonnets, hymns and poems to demonstrate that visceral connection. Indeed, Christ’s love itself is strengthened by His redemptive suffering under Pontius Pilate. Nevertheless, suffering ought not be the cornerstone of a racial identity.

The sufferer’s identity is a trap. It leads to the condition where the absence of suffering is seen as a loss of identity. There is ample evidence of the sufferer’s identity in the United States. The slogan, “keepin’ it real” and its implications are symptomatic of the sufferers trap. It creates the problem where black people who succeed without undue hardship are questioned about the legitimacy of their identity simply because of their relative comfort. This is an experience that suburban middle class black youth, for example, can easily recognize. Their blackness is questioned as a result of their comfort which is a product of the accomplishments of their parents. Neither their comfort, nor the accomplishments of their parents ought have anything to do with their connection to and affinity with the broader black community. An identity oriented in such a way places far too much value on suffering and devalues the coefficient on humanity and success. The end result is that in order to collectively maintain our identity, we must continue to be grounded by some amount of suffering. The circular and counterproductive logic in that is clear. Notwithstanding the spiritual and human virtues of suffering, this is a flawed basis for identity.

The sordid and ongoing relationship between Africa and her Diaspora and Europe and hers is such that race is still important. The argument that class has usurped race as the primary social division in the world overlooks the staggering correlation between race and class in every country in the world where black people live. There is undoubtedly merit in the economic underpinnings of globalization that stratify the world according to skills. That does not diminish the significance of race, on the contrary it highlights the global correlation between lower skills and darker skin color. As such, considering a black identity is still relevant. The universality of black suffering forces one to consider an alternative black identity.

An alternative and more positive identity could have transformative power. It could shift the central pillar of black identity from resistance to affirmation. African Diasporic studies invariably use the brutality of slavery and its attendant suffering as the common link between black people around the world. The beautiful cultural manifestations of song, food, spirit and family are usually recognizable among black people regardless of where they are. That is typically because of the common strategies that emerged to resist European oppression of one form or another. Despite the profound beauty of many aspects of that common identity, it is still rooted in resistance and tends to glorify not only suffering but, hardknocks. Is it possible to transform an identity of resistance to an identity of affirmation? Is it possible to do so when the conditions facing black people everywhere are so dire? Is it possible to move from an identity rooted in resistance despite there still being an endless array of forces to resist? Is it possible for an alternative identity to be pinned to our humanity as opposed to our suffering?

An identity based on affirmation does not neglect that suffering is part of our legacy. Forgetting our pain would be a mistake. Rather, it acknowledges that suffering is merely a component of a more broadly defined and evolving identity. With an affirmative identity there are no bonus points for being from our global “hoods” – Tivoli Gardens in Jamaica, Albouystown in Guyana, Hillbrow in Johannesburg or Bushwick in Brooklyn. Equally, there are no demerits for being from the comforts of Rendezvous in Barbados, Cap Estates in St. Lucia, Baldwin Hills in L.A. or Brooklyn Heights in New York. In an affirmative identity, black : suffering :: living : suffering, suffering is merely a part of the experience, not its definition.


Friday, February 16, 2007

Who is an African American? Bringing it Down to the Individual

In the current round of discussions about race, culture and education in the U.S., all black people are often referred to as African Americans. There is no classification for non-African American black such as there is for non-Hispanic white. African-American has become synonymous with being black, effectively flattening the rich cultural complexities that distinguish non-American from American black people. I am the first person in my family to be born in the United States. While I am a born citizen of the United States, for all of the generations between me and Africa my family has resided in the Caribbean - Guyana and Barbados. That is an important distinction that is largely covered over by the blanket titles African American or Black American. Black people like me with Caribbean roots do not have the same cultural history that black Americans do. For many of us in the north east, for example, we did not go to Alabama or Georgia or Mississippi for the summers to visit our grandparents when we were growing up. We went farther south, to Antigua or St. Lucia or Trinidad. We do not share the history or contemporary experience that is implied by the term African American. Of course all black people share the historical experience of enduring slavery and colonization in one form or another and surviving the inhumanity of Europeans. In the current context of race, politics and education in the United States; however, that does not make us a monolithic group that can be easily or singularly classified as African American.

One of the most obvious demonstrations of African American racial identity occurs right now, during Black History and Culture Month. While the practice seems to be slowly dying, it is the time when the perceived identity of African Americans is most clearly on display. Typically it is a presentation of famous people and interpretations of their meanings to black people in America. Frederick Douglas, Fannie Lou Hamer, Martin Luther King Jr., A. Philip Randolph, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and Thurgood Marshall are part of a long list of significant African Americans that I have learned about nearly every February of my life. As a person with Caribbean roots I do not relate to these figures with the same degree of intimacy that my black American counterparts might. Michael Manley, Walter Rodney, Eric Williams, Bussa and Sir Arthur Lewis, for example, are much more closely related to the actual experience of my family and my ancestors. The artists and athletes of significance are also different. Brian Lara and Sir Vivian Richards, Sizzla and the Mighty Sparrow, C.L.R. James and Kamau Braithwaite do not mean much, if anything, to my black American friends. Indeed, the psychological memory of and identification with slavery and history itself is different. The black American recognition of self in Alex Haley’s Roots is different than the Caribbean recognition of self in George Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin.

The implications of being African American as African Americans popularly conceive of themselves do not directly apply to West Indians in America and people like me with Caribbean roots. Indeed, the term African American does not really fit most of the thousands of non-American black people in America. I do not mean to overstate the tension between these communities and suggest a false polarity, but rather to acknowledge it. I am a cultural hybrid. I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York but spent considerable time in the West Indies. Since I am born here and am black in America, I am forced to cleave a space of meaning for myself out of this umbrella term - African American. Some might argue that a more courageous alternative would be to declare myself an individual and not worry about whether or how I fit into the box of African Americaness. I argue that as part of any society my individuality is referenced against some larger group. In this case, black people in the United States, called African Americans. This larger group is part of how I know what makes me different and what makes me the same. Declaring myself African American does not diminish my individuality. Rather, because of my individuality I am forced to be critical of the group with which I identify and determine exactly the nature of my relationship to that group.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Obama: A Responsive Remark

In my view Senator Obama is more interesting right now because of who he is and our reaction to him, than who he might be as President. My cynicism has left me feeling that the layer of lobbyists and special interest groups has effectively disconnected the interests of the common voting public from the actions of elected officials. The idea that we ought to wait and see with Obama holds little weight with me. Wait and see what? He has already aptly demonstrated that he is not simple-minded and gives reasoned response to the complexity and nuances of many issues facing the country. That, and his obvious concern for the common, the poor and the disposed, is enough to distinguish him from President Bush and the ideologues fashioned in his image. Obama’s actions, therefore, will be determined by the balance of his convictions against the cumulative weight of powerful and often conflicting interests. That is the same for all of the candidates. With that line of thinking, Obama, is only marginally different from Biden, H. Clinton, Edwards and even Kerry for that matter. Bill Clinton is arguably the most loved American president by black people since Abraham Lincoln and John Kennedy. It was under his watch, however, that he sided with Chiquita at the World Trade Organization and destroyed the Caribbean banana industry. It was also under his watch that he held American influence in check while nearly 800,000 Rwandans were killed. I supported Clinton and still do, but I do not profess to know what forces force the hand of leaders, even those who purportedly support interests that I hold dear. As such, I am not sure what I would be waiting to see with Obama that he has not already demonstrated.

As a result, Obama’s lineage and our collective reaction to him is more interesting to me. The discussion of “the black vote”, my categorization of “blacks being cool” with him imply that there is an understanding of the meaning of being black in America; that we can be discussed as a monolithic group. Of course, I do not think that implication is correct. Who is an African American? Clearly the answer varies. I am in the “dirty south” which is a different world than the Bay Area, for example, or Brooklyn where I am from. Obama’s interesting and timely arrival has forced us to consider an evolving definition of black in America. The host of Ethiopians in Oakland and D.C., the innumerable West Indians in New York, the increasing numbers of displaced north and central Africans in Minnesota, for example, are all significant components of a new collective identity. Forging this new identity is both timely and difficult. It is obviously coming at a time when significant portions of the country would like to demonize illegal immigrants personified by Mexican workers. It comes at a time when Americans increasingly tend to see Muslims as simply terrorists or potential terrorists. It comes at a time when anything counter to American interests is pitted as evil. Essentially it is coming at a time when nuance is under siege and sympathetic consideration is seen as a weakness.

This is therefore a time to recreate. It is an opportunity for black people in America to utilize the humanity born of the suffering that we all share to demonstrate how a cultural identity can transform itself. Embracing Obama, and criticizing him, based on his blackness can be a healthy cultural exercise. It can help us to identify what we mean by being black; what is its cultural foundation and which parts of that foundation are most important? In so doing we will be forced to measure the outcome of our choices against a universal human standard. Doing that can be an enormous contribution not only to ourselves, but to the country.


Wednesday, February 7, 2007

For Blacks, Blasting Barack a Myopic Mistake

Black Americans are cool, at best, in their support of Senator Barack Obama. Central to that lack of enthusiasm is the criticism that he is not really black in the specific African American sense of the term. It is repeatedly noted that his father is Kenyan, his mother is white, he did not grow up in the United States and he was not outraged by Senator Biden’s simple remarks; therefore, he cannot intimately relate to the legacy and identity of the black American.

This line of critique is myopic and counterproductive. What is more disturbing is that it reveals a quiet scorn among black Americans for foreign born black people. On a popular talk show in Atlanta, a black caller suggested that, “If Obama doesn’t come correct, he can go back to Africa and tend to his goats.” Black Americans ought to be careful not to be contaminated by the brand of xenophobia that is sweeping the nation at the moment. It does not serve our collective aims, as members of the African Diaspora, to be engaged in internal discord at a time when the entire black world is threatened with irrelevance.

The reality is that the changing demographic face of the country has altered the face of black America too. The history of Jim Crowism and the intimate iconic reverence for Martin Luther King and Malcolm X is no longer the only history representative of the black experience in America. People with African or Caribbean roots contribute other histories, other icons and other summations of the past. Indeed, the budding relationship with black Americans is a new iteration of the collective identity of black people in America. Rather than be reduced to myopic insularity, we ought to embrace the very diversity that we are so often clamoring for. What we have is a golden opportunity to resurrect the true spirit of Pan-Africanism and the recognition of human equivalence.

The quiet rebuke of Obama is disturbing on another front. Several issues that are critically important to African Americans can be undermined by the promotion of such specious squabbling. A recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, noted that the percentage of black students with foreign roots at the most selective American universities is high and climbing. That has caused some critics of affirmative-action to suggest that it is not benefiting those American black students it was intended to serve. The position some black Americans are taking with Senator Obama, when applied in other areas, could lead to ugly ends. They could conclude – with the enthusiastic support of right wing conservatives – that, yes, it is not supporting black American students. In the current political climate the obvious outcome would be renewed efforts, with the purported blessing of black Americans, to end affirmative action programs altogether.

Conquered by division at its textbook best.

This is not the time for black people in the most powerful nation in the world to develop such a narrow view of cultural identity. Broadening our identity may make addressing the conditions of Sudanese in Darfur, for example, more urgent. It may make us take the conditions of Haitians more seriously. Adopting a more inclusive identity of being black in America can strengthen our influence on important national issues as well. For instance, it would place us in a better position to resist the vitriolic attack against immigrant Hispanics because we are sympathetic to the global conditions which are forcing them to come to a place where they are so unwelcome. Black people across the world can understand and relate to suffering. None of us is too distant from it. Unfortunately, that painful mark is one of our most universally identifiable features. Just because Barack Obama is not from Detroit does not preclude him from that human understanding.

Black Americans ought to be critical of Senator Obama in the same manner that they ought to be critical of any other candidate. To criticize him based on his nearness to the black American persona is pure folly. Black people in America, regardless of their origin, have the opportunity to demonstrate what a changing cultural identity looks like to a nation that sorely needs some lessons.


From the beginning

My primary interest is the embattled state of black people throughout the world. I am convinced that in our time, the principal battle is for relevance. Once upon a time Pan-Africanism and Black Nationalism were platforms to unify the Diaspora and reclaim our identity. Ironically, our battle now is nameless and is a battle simply to be relevant in global dynamics. The thoughts here are dedicated to that broad aim. They cover the spectrum of my own evolution of thoughts.