Thursday, July 2, 2009

Inside That Little Black Box

The other night I was chatting with an old, high school friend on Facebook when he informed me, in all his Caucasoid glory, that back then, he was "blacker" than I was. Now, the Integration Baby that I am has been sliced by that little barb more than I care to count. The Angry, Young Black Man I used to be always wanted to slap a fool for such nonsense. But I'm a bit older now. It simply annoys (after all, he didn't mean anything by it). So, I replied that "some people's notion of blackness is quite limited."

"Blacker Than Thou" was indeed a familiar refrain growing up. Mine was an odd presence in my white neighborhood, and a lot of folks weren't afraid to let me know it. They were more than willing to tell me what it was that I could and could not do. "Black people don't live here." "Blacks aren't good at school." "The Negro don't talk like that." "I want that buck on my basketball team." "Hey, Billy, why don't you dance for us?" "You like watermelon?"

I now realize that my very presence in that neighborhood was a challenge. All those people had their preconceived notions of what black people were, and I simply did not fit into them. I was not supposed to be in their hood. I was not supposed to be in their schools. I was most definitely not supposed to be doing better than them in those same schools. Blacks were not supposed to be doing any of it. These white folks had this cute, little Black Box in which all Negroes fit, and little Billy Campbell refused to dive in. Therefore, he simply was not Black.

"Hell, Bill, I'm blacker than you."

But we all know that white folks don't have sole ownership of our Little Black Box. Black folks also got in on the act. We can all just imagine what happened when Billy took his nerdy, "proper"-speaking, questionably-black ass to the ghetto (the black kids in his own 'hood--and a couple friends from the Hill--didn't say any of this). "You think you're better than us." "You talk funny." "Walk funny." "You act white." "I don't want him on my basketball team." "He probably can't dance." "That nigga don't even eat watermelon."

Yet again, my fellow African-Americans also believed that there was a "proper," uniformed manner in which to be black. They, too, had the box, saw that I didn't fit, and declared my dark skin somehow false.

Now, it's not as though there's only a Black Box. There's one for every race, ethnicity, religion, sex, and sexual preference. Oreos ain't the only fare served at our multiculti feast. There are also bananas, coconuts, and a whole bunch of other foodstuff that's colored on the outside and white on the inside. And don't forget to tip your waiter when you're done, the "self-loathing Jew."

Everybody wants everybody else to fit in a nice, neat, little category, a box, that reaffirms our own notions of how our world and the people in it operate. Those who are different upset the order we've constructed for ourselves and make us uncomfortable. And when someone refuses to be boxed in, we often view them as inauthentic and try to disregard their existence as anomalous.

So, unlike Mark Sanford, I ain't asking Argentina to cry for me. And, as Slick Rick said, "This type of shit happens every day." I know I wasn't alone in this (thank God!), and I now know there are millions of folks just like me challenging people's ill-conceived notions. So, you won't hear me asking, Why me? My question is, What exactly was in that Black Box 20 years ago? Why did so many feel I didn't fit into it? How exactly was I supposed to act "authentically" black? How am I supposed to act today?

After all, yesterday, 3T at work told me about how one of her friends was saying that Michelle Obama isn't black. Or, to be more exact, the young sister was saying that the First Lady wasn't black, was a sell-out, acted white, and didn't speak one syllable to the 21-year-old woman's concerns.

Now, within the Black community, class divisions have created a multitude of Black Boxes. All along the socioeconomic ladder folks believe there are proper modes of Blackness (don't believe me? how do you feel about Clarence Thomas?), and where one falls on that ladder determines what they feel goes into their box. Some may feel academic achievement is "acting white" while others may feel it's your duty as an African-American to achieve academically, etc., etc., etc. So, I thought this Michelle diss might have just been a class thing.

But, of course, it wasn't. 3T informed me that the sister who said that Mrs. Obama, daughter of working-class black folks from the legendary black Mecca known as the South Side of Chicago, who got her Ivy League education and returned to the South Side, wasn't black enough was herself from an affluent, white DC suburb and actually came from money herself.

Yep, you got it. A 21-year-old, bourgie black baby who grew up outside the box herself derides our First Lady for not crouching into the cardboard. Now, this could simply be a matter of protesting too much, self-loathing, or simple hateration. After all, in today's America, we have lawyers and doctors and accountants; blacks are the head of some very powerful, non-black, national organizations; there are black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies; blacks are major power players in Hollywood and the music industry; one of the most powerful women in the world is Oprah; we have black millionaires; we've had two Supreme Court justices; a black Attorney General; two black Secretaries of State; and, oh yeah, the motherfucking President of the United States is a Black man! In the space of some 40 years, this most despised minority (less than 13 percent of the country) has far surpassed their ancestors' wildest dreams and old Ku Kluxers' worst nightmares. And yet, despite all this, how can anyone call their "blackness" into question? How are they considered somehow "white" or "inauthentic" or "sell-outs" and "Mammys" and "Uncle Toms"?

I think you have to look once again to that little Black Box. When I was growing up in the '70s and '80s, there were plenty of negative, black stereotypes to excite the imagination. However, there weren't that many negative, black images to continuously feed that imagination. There were very few, crossover artists back in the day, and, outside of a few network shows, you had to actively search for black culture within the mainstream culture. It was a lot easier to kick that Box to the curb, and say, "Fuck you. Nobody's going to tell me how to act."

Today, however, black culture is mainstream culture. Ironically enough, considering its history, the film industry has mostly cleaned up its act. However, when you look at the rest of black culture being transmitted around the globe, one has to wonder if coonery has not reached epic proportions.

Gangsta Coon?

We have Tyler Perry, who has invented the transgendered Mammy who badmouths black women every chance s/he gets. Our music is dominated by a "gangsta" ethos, where every black man is a "nigga," every black woman is a "bitch," and we are all somehow connected to the drug game. The black section in any book store has become so overwhelmed by sleazy "ghetto lit" (where Zane wouldn't recognize a plot point even if you strapped it to a dildo and GED-owning, ex-con Shannon Holmes's head would explode if it accidentally constructed a readable sentence), you have to wear a condom just to enter. And BET and TV One (or rather, NET) offers the absolute worst the ghetto has to offer and purposely gives shows to folks for being trifling and, in the case of Tiny and Toya, because these women are baby mommas.

Every day, every hour, the entertainment industry glorifies that little Black Box. And when you finally open it, you see all the drug dealing, the gangs; the poverty and crime; the senseless violence; black hypersexuality; dismissive parenting; the economic, familial, and moral inferiority of the black race--all in the name of "Keeping it Real." That little Black Box tells us all that blacks deserve our lot, that we are indeed inferior, animalistic, and primitive. It tells us that striving beyond its lids is inauthentic, not black, "acting white." It tries to keep us in a place that many of us have long since striven past.

New Millennium Mammy?

And, when it is oh-so-obvious that so many of us have left that Black Box behind, it has become even more pervasive, more insidious, more invidious, more global than it ever has been before. And it calls into question those who aren't within its confines. It openly says that those folks ain't keeping it real. It says that folks like Oprah or Michelle Obama, etc., simply are no longer black. It calls into question any measure of black achievement and not so subtly reinforces the myth of white supremacy because those blacks who achieve supposedly are embracing white culture while the rest are incurably mired within barbaric black culture.

This coon media explosion has allowed those who believe in the Black Box to allay their fears. It wholeheartedly dismisses the challenge that black success has issued to those who believe in our inherent inferiority. Successful blacks simply aren't blacks. If you want to see real black folks, don't look at Neil deGrasse Tyson's Nova Science Now, watch Flava of Love. Don't look at the Obamas if you want to see a black family, peep the g-e-t-o Keyshia Cole: The Way It Is.

And the saddest thing about it all is that this ain't Al Jolson donning the black cork and singing "Mammy." This is black folks doing it to ourselves. They celebrate the Black Box, the triflin', they revel in the myth of black inferiority. And they have no qualms whatsoever because these modern-day Sambos are making them Benjamins. And if capitalism has taught us anything, money buys you legitimacy.

Modern-Day Slave Narratives?

And it is this legitimacy that has me terrified. How long will we let the Black Box to remain open? How long will we let it influence what people think about us? Let these fools profit off of the worst others believe about us? How long will we let it influence what our children think about themselves?

We like to hide our heads in the sand and act as though it doesn't affect our friends, our enemies, ourselves, and our children. But it does. How else do you explain 3T's bourgie friend claiming the First Lady ain't black? How else do you explain do you explain Lexus, the 12-year-old black I taught in an inner-city DC school years ago, who proudly proclaimed that she would be pregnant in four years? When my co-worker and I asked her why, she simply said, "I'm a nigga, Mr. Campbell. That's what niggas do." Is that really how we want to raise our children?


RonStrelecki said...

There's so much to respond to here. There always is in your blog, though. That's the big problem with blogs is people who take the time to write essays don't get responses because there is too much to respond to.

I am reminded of Margaret Thatcher's rise to Prime Minister. To many people, she stopped being a woman when she became Prime Minister. I am also reminded of many encounters with people who have this fanstastical notion that Matriarchy would solve all the world's problems. When women get into positions of power, not much changes of course. So, the conclusion is that they are men in women's clothes, sort of. That they are not "real" women.

I am also reminded of potheads I've known who think that if pot were legalized, they would suddenly be captains of industry... If pot were legalized, Phillip Morris would put you out of business in a month, idiots.

In pseudoscience they call it "shifting goalposts". It's easier to cast out an exception than to redefine your terms.

And your last sad illustration reminds me of the crying grandmother on the day after Obama's election who said, "Now my grandson can strive to be something other than a rapper or a ballpalyer."

Anonymous said...

Gonna agree with Ron - there is just so much to respond to because it really gets you thinking as you read through it all. It brought back a lot of experiences and memories from when I was in high school. Without going in to too much detail - I was put in a "box." I grew up in the military and went to high school in 3 different states. When I lived in New Jersey - the fact that I could play basketball put me in with the black kids in the neighborhood. To me, having lived all across the country and in europe in a multi-cultural environment where the color of your skin didn't matter - what mattered was that we were all military dependents - I didn't even realize at that time there were boxes.

I never lost my own identity - I knew who I was - I was a kid who enjoyed playing basketball with other kids that had similar interests. But, when I was with my white friends - I wasn't white enough for them any more. When I was with my black friends - I always had the feeling I was being tolerated because I could play ball - but I wasn't really accepted. I was boxed in by two groups and I just didn't get it.

Racism sucks and so do all the boxes people put other people in. Again - a most excellent read.

Black Diaspora said...

My friend, you had a lot of good things to say, but in all of that: your personal history, and your black experience, you're still clinging to a box of your own making.

"That little Black Box tells us all that blacks deserve our lot, that we are indeed inferior, animalistic, and primitive. It tells us that striving beyond its lids is inauthentic, not black, "acting white." It tries to keep us in a place that many of us have long since striven past."

I hope that you find this hard to believe. I really do. But there's not a box that exists that tells me anything.

And I don't care about those boxes that you've mentioned.

I don't have a box. I had one years ago, but I dumped it where I picked it up.

Further, I don't care what whites think--about me, the black community, or what issues forth from there.

The entertainment industry can create whatever it wishes--whether it's flattering to blacks or not, or to the black community or not.

I could care less. And those who believe that such images have an adverse impact on blacks, are forgetting the era of blaxploitation films that drew many a young black person, with or without their parent's permission into the darkness that illuminated that world of drugs, prostitution, violence, and what have you.

Somehow all those black kids that watched those movies didn't become addicts, because they saw addicts, and prostitutes, because the saw prostitutes, and were anymore prone to violence than they were before entering that forbidden world.

Let me suggest this. Mind you, it's merely a suggestion, and nothing more: Try living without a box of any kind, not an American box, a black box, an etertainment box, or a human box.

Just become boxless, and find the boxless self that resides within.

boukman70 said...

With all due respect, Black Diaspora, I strongly disagree with your diagnosis. If you read deeper into this blog, which I highly (and self-servingly) recommend, you will find that I do not live within this box at all.

My concern has nothing to do with me but with children (my own and others). I spent some time in "inner city" schools, watching that box being reinforced on a population that is most damaged by that little black box. So, I worry for them and worry for the pressures that may one day be placed on my own daughter. I worry about constantly having to combat that pressure that she may find and worry about the children who don't have parents to combat that pressure for them.

Black Diaspora said...

"My concern has nothing to do with me but with children (my own and others). I spent some time in "inner city" schools, watching that box being reinforced on a population that is most damaged by that little black box."

You have already stated that you have no control over the "little black box."

For your daughter, as I would for mine, tell her that she has within herself the power to choose whatever image she cares to project to the world, and that the world is powerless (unless she succumbs to it) to shape who she is and what she might become.

Then she can face whatever images that might impinge on her--from the community, the world at large, or the silverscreen--and still remain true to herself.

As for others, live a self-defined life, and let others see you doing it.

You can't shield anyone from the images you find repulsive, but you can give those within your sphere of influence the tools by which they might defend themselves.

Tell them, show them, that they have within themselves the power to define themselves, and to create themselves, and that no one can take that power from them, but them.