Gerald Early: The End of Race as We Know It.



(The Chronicle Review) The controversial New Yorker cover of July 21, 2008 — showing the Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama, as a Muslim jihadist and his wife, Michelle, as a gun-toting, Afro-wearing black militant — actually missed its target. It was funny as a kind of political and cultural satire, but only if you view the Obamas as channeling the first generation of black students to attend elite, white universities.

That was my generation — we're about 10 to 15 years older. We started attending college in 1970, almost as soon as black-studies programs, special black dorms, and special black admissions were instituted. Many of us were secretly, in our imagination, Muslim back in those days, or we adopted certain superficial Muslim pieties. We didn't eat pork, castigating it as slave food, and we sometimes called God "Allah." Among our heroes were the late, martyred Malcolm X and the living but also martyred Muhammad Ali, both Muslims. Ali himself kept the image of holy war alive in popular culture in the way he promoted many of his fights: as a cosmic battle between the good Muslim and the reprobate, pork-eating, Uncle Tom Christian. He did this especially against black opponents like Floyd Patterson, Joe Frazier, and George Foreman. The Autobiography of Malcolm X was the central book of our generation, the story of how true Islam spiritually and politically reawakened an African-American. The basketball great Lew Alcindor became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in 1971. The Nation of Islam was highly respected, even highly feared by some. Amiri Baraka, our poet laureate and leading agitprop dramatist, was publishing work with the alternative Jihad Press, based in Newark, N.J., his hometown, and his form of cultural nationalism gave a respectful nod to Islam. The jazz pianist Doug Carn wrote a tune, "Jihad," that appeared on his popular (with black college students) 1973 album, Revelation. Other hip black-college-student music of the period: The tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the singer Leon Thomas recorded a tune called "Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah-Hum-Allah" on their 1969 album, Jewels of Thought. A 1966 album of Sanders was called Tauhid, an Islamic theological term.

In our bull sessions, some of us would talk about jihad, or righteous war, against the whites. (It was all talk.) Some of us actually became Muslims (very few — we were Christians to the bone, despite our chatter about "the white man's religion") or joined some Eastern religious sect and adopted certain garb and mannerisms. Many of us wore wild Afros, making them wilder with blowout kits, and thought we were revolutionaries of a sort. After all, some of the black upperclassmen among us had seized buildings in protest, and a few even brandished weapons during the sieges.

Looking at The New Yorker cover as a middle-aged, black baby boomer, far removed from any of the Orientalism and racial and political romanticism of my youth, reminded me of a certain kind of silliness, but it also, strangely, moved me deeply. The cover told the story of a rite of African-American passage that occurred at a particular time for the generation of blacks who would become the most successful in the history of the group, and the most integrated. The relatively difficult years that my generation endured integrating white institutions — difficult not in any material sense, but in the sense that we were not very well prepared academically or emotionally to cope with our surroundings (we were given more than we knew what to do with, so much that one felt simultaneously intoxicated by the riches and stressed to the breaking point by how alien it all felt) — made us clutch at any sort of feeble identity protection we could muster. We had to "act black" because, after all, that is why we were at the university in the first place: to provide diversity in the only way we knew how.

Basically, entrapped in our excessive and youthful self-consciousness, our special sort of juvenile insecurity, we were trying, ironically, to show that we belonged, to protect ourselves from being considered "dumb niggers," or, even worse, "charity cases," the ragtag tail end of the American bourgeois elite. Some succeeded (by graduating). Many didn't. It is a modern story about integration in America — not the bloody civil-rights struggle of gaining access, but rather how people can sometimes be killed by kindness, paddled by paternalism, undone by philanthropy. I think back on it all as a remarkable form of self-hazing.

In looking at that New Yorker cover, it occurred to me that an important dimension of black identity politics was the memory of being something you never were but that you needed to think you might have been. Middle-aged black yuppies, like me — we, the generation of the Talented Tenth, the recipients of the gifts of the civil-rights struggle, those to whom much was given — see a great deal of ourselves in the Obamas. Whether we are elitists is unclear (many of us probably are — there is no shortage of black snobs), but we were surely educated to be an elite, a professional cadre for the race, gate-crashers turned gatekeepers — guardians who ensure diversity at predominantly white institutions rather than exult in and maintain the precarious, tarnished glory of black, "shadow" institutions.

The New Yorker cover reminds me how much we have, as integrationists, tried to fit in and how much we may secretly feel (or hope) we haven't. But the cover not only reminds me how much this group has done to make whites feel comfortable around us by adopting "secret identities" (the exotic nature of which were meant to nonplus and annoy whites, while titillating their sense of romantic racialism). It also posed an important question: How comfortable are we with ourselves? Did we, in our desperation, ask race to do more work, support more of a psychological burden, than such a limited concept could ever hope to do because, alas, it was all we had: white people's crazy, self-serving idea of what human difference means? As Kwame Anthony Appiah wrote: "There is nothing in the world that can do all we ask race to do for us." We even hoped it would make us Americans while it would protect us from America.

As black people know better than many, it is, as Henry James acknowledged, a complex fate to be an American, especially to pose as being an American against one's will, the forever skeptical quasi-American, as most of us did. Anti-Americanism — not saluting the flag, ignoring the playing of the national anthem, decrying the United States and its policies at any and every opportunity — was common among black college students at the time, particularly those with any intellectual pretension. As influenced as we were by black cultural nationalism and trickle-down Marxism, this is hardly surprising.

But the irony of our anti-Americanism was that it masked our yearning for inclusion, which is why we were attending white colleges and universities in the first place. We grasped an identity of "blackness," of the superficially non-Western, in our confused hunt to fit into somebody's scheme and our reflexive fear that we would certainly not fit into a Western or white scheme. We did not want to be, in James Baldwin's words, "bastards of the West," but the very nature of our identity quest was propelled by the fact that we knew, inescapably, we were just that. It was the West, America, that we knew and by which we measured and understood reality. We had a complicated, uncertain place in the American scheme, a scheme we desired but that did not desire us. Suppose one day our place would become more assured in the scheme, suppose one day we could be unconditionally loyal to the scheme. Would we recognize that day, or would we be so historically conditioned that we would not know when history had finally turned a page, ended a chapter, entered a new phase of its unfolding?

Dinesh D'Souza's controversial 1995 book, The End of Racism, proposed that if racism has a historical beginning (which it does), then it must be reasonable to think it would have a historical end. The book then proposes: Suppose there is sufficient evidence to show that we have now reached that endpoint? The end of racism would mean that blacks can live their lives as fully as whites can, that any existing racism is residual and has no impact on the quality of black life. Thus the end of racism means the end of the claim of black victimization. But how would we know when we have reached it? What sign would show that we have arrived at, in effect, the end of America's racial history?

Considering the vociferous responses by black intellectuals and leftists to D'Souza, we had not unambiguously arrived at that point in 1995. Apparently, for many black leaders, pundits, and scholars, the signs were not the success of Bill Cosby or Oprah Winfrey, not the Nobel Prize of Toni Morrison or the career of Spike Lee, not the crossover achievement of Serena and Venus Williams and Tiger Woods, not the political careers of Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell, not the stardom of Will Smith and Morgan Freeman, not the Ivy League college presidency of Ruth Simmons or the arrival of such black public intellectuals as Henry Louis Gates Jr., Michael Eric Dyson, Orlando Patterson, and Cornel West.

None of those have been the tipping point. The accomplishments of those people and thousands more did not indicate to many African-Americans that America had advanced beyond racism and that blacks had transcended their victimization. We had the anxiety of the paranoid: Whites are always out to get us, no matter how much we might succeed. In fact, they are out to get you all the more if you do succeed. We had the self-deprecating, cynical view of our elite status that spoke of guilt because of our lack of solidarity (we kill each other at an alarming clip) and our continuing need for white philanthropy (our dependency undermines our sense of power as a group): Successful blacks are nothing more than social and political tranquilizers that mask the continued existence of racism and the brutal victimization of black people. The thought crosses my mind from time to time: Am I doing good by doing well?

Might the presidency of Barack Obama be the tipping point? Blacks may become famous authors, film directors, diplomats, CEO's, fashion models, entertainers, and physicists. But the presidency of the country, the most powerful person in the world, is the ultimate — to have authority that all whites, everyone in the world, would be bound to respect. What could mean more to a people who have endured a history of powerlessness? Black people were convinced that no black would become president of the United States during the lifetime of the baby-boom generation, not in the lifetime of any African-American adult currently living. That may change in a matter of weeks. My mother, who is 79 years old, summed it up: "I never thought I would live to see the day when I could vote for a black man for president and he actually has a chance to win." My mother says this as if that fact signifies the end of America's racial history, or at least the end of race as we once knew it.

The presidential campaign of Barack Obama has raised the question of what happens to the black American meta-narrative of heroic or noble victimization if he wins. (Presumably nothing happens to it if he loses; the loss can be blamed on racism, as it will, in fact, be another example of victimization. White folks will always find a way to cut down a successful black man, to not let him get too far, is the common belief. That sort of black cynicism, expressed in different political and aesthetic modalities, underscores both the blues and rap. If Obama loses, he becomes, in black folklore, John Henry, the "natural" man with the courage to go up against the political machine. The moral of the tale, in politics as in life, is that the machine always wins.)

The author Charles Johnson, in an essay that appeared in the summer 2008 issue of The American Scholar, argued that the black American narrative of victimization has already reached its end: "It simply is no longer the case that the essence of black American life is racial victimization and disenfranchisement, a curse and a condemnation, a destiny based on color in which the meaning of one's life is thinghood, created even before one is born." Perhaps black conservatism, the first sustained attempt by blacks to de-emphasize racism as a factor in black life, arose in the 1970s and 1980s as a way around the victimization narrative, as a way to move beyond civil rights. Perhaps it was the beginning of victimization fatigue. Afrocentrism re-energized the victim narrative in the 1990s by designating the achievements and destruction of Africanity as the core reality of Western civilization.

Many of us black professionals, members of the black elite, keep the embers of our victimization burning for opportunistic reasons: to lev-erage white patronage, to maintain our own sense of identity and tradition. In some respects, this narrative has something of the power in its endurance that original sin does for Christians. In fact, our narrative of victimization is America's original sin, or what we want to serve as the country's original sin, which may be why we refuse to give it up.

We have used it shamelessly — especially those who are least entitled to do so, as we have suffered the least — hustled it to get over on whites, to milk their guilt, to excuse our excesses and failures. Being the victim justifies all ethical lapses, as the victim becomes morally reprehensible in the guise of being morally outraged. Being the victim has turned into a sucker's game, the only possible game that the weak can play against the strong with any chance of winning. Nonetheless, the narrative does a kind of cultural work that serves our purposes in some profound ways, and it may be good for the country as a whole in reminding everyone about the costs of American democracy, its fragile foundation, its historically based hypocrisy. The conservatives are right: Freedom isn't free, and the black victim narrative reminds us all of that.

In the end, black people chose to see themselves as America's exceptionalist people, the only ones who came to the land of freedom as perpetually unfree, who came to the land that welcomed the exile and the outcast against their will and who remained in that land as exiles and outcasts. In the grand scheme of American exceptionalism, the Goddesigned empire meant to do good, were African-Americans who troubled the waters with their own exceptionalist claims that went counter to the story of American triumphalist history. How could the country claim to be good and do good when it so mistreated blacks? The African-American story, perforce, had to be the tale of America's tragedy.

But of course that is not quite the case: The black American story of victimization, our exceptionalism, was meant to be a triumphalist story of its own sort. Black Americans have survived, persevered, and even thrived despite the enormous obstacles thrown in our way. In a way, the black American narrative revealed American hypocrisy but simultaneously reinscribed American greatness, for blacks were heroic victims, and only in America could the heroism of the weak win a victory able to humble a nation into recognition of its wrongs.

The black narrative of victimization may have outlived its historical need and its psychological urgency, but it still may have a kind of cultural work to do as a tale of redemption and an example of salvation history. If we are the shining city on a hill, part of that city must be the quarters of bondage, the world the slaves made, and America's true greatness might be that it is the only nation that symbolizes itself in this way, the grand city as the uplift of all people, even those it has enslaved. In the tale of heroism in adversity, perhaps best exemplified in spirituals, black-American Christianity, and the secular humanism of the blues, the narrative of victimization reminds all Americans of the need, from time to time, to lift every voice and sing in tribute to who we are, however inadequate, and to what we hope we can be when we arrive at that day when, as Martin Luther King Jr. prophesied in his vision of America as a beloved community, politics becomes an expression of love.

Gerald L. Early is a professor of African and African-American studies and American-culture studies at Washington University in St. Louis, as well as director of its Center for the Humanities. He is the series editor of Best African American Essays and Best African American Fiction, whose inaugural volumes will be published in January 2009 by Bantam Books.


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