I was in Portland, OR a few weeks ago and took the opportunity to swing by Powell’s Books. Powell’s is the world’s largest independent new and used book store. It encompasses an entire city block and is about four stories high. I spent two hours there and could have spent much, much more.
At Powell’s I purchased two books on one subject that has become increasingly important to me as I grow older. The subject is ‘race’. This past May I spoke on the topic of race and the church at the Pepperdine Bible Lectures and was truly disappointed in the attendance and interest. Jerry Rushford and the folks at Pepperdine do an incredible job putting together the lectures and I am grateful–not to mention humbled and shocked–that they keep letting me have a blank sheet in regards to what I teach.
At any rate, the two books were Joseph C. Phillips’, He Talk Like A White Boy, and John McWhorter’s, Winning the Race. You may remember Joseph Phillips from his turn as Denise’s husband in the latter years of The Cosby Show, and McWhorter–well, McWhorter is just smarter than most people you’ll ever meet. Phillips is a self-avowed conservative, while McWhorter seems to lean to the right, but is somewhere in the middle politically. Either way, both men have some very compelling and important things to say about the state of race relations in America–and for the most part–I agree with them.
Both writers, give sharp, intelligent critiques of the thinking and policies that have contributed to the contemporary condition of the black underclass, the seeming disdain for education in the black community, what has caused and is causing the economic disfunction in the black community, and most importantly, what it means to be “authentically black”.
Of course, having achieved what they have achieved, being proficient in the proper use of the English language and not wearing their pants around their ankles, both men have and continue to hear taunts of not being “black enough”. Or worse, “not black at all”. They are not the only ones. People like Condelezza Rice and Colin Powell–because they have taken the most advantage of the opportunities granted them and have not bowed to hip-hop culture–have also had to endure the thoughtless, inane disdain of others who feel that any black who succeeds in endeavors other than art, music, sports, or dance have somehow abandoned who they are. And honestly, I have often heard many of the same things.
My parents grew up in the 50’s and 60’s and were part of the Civil Right Movement, a movement designed to be practiced in peace and love for enemies with equal access to education, pay, and work as the end goals. When my father talked about those days I listened and took his words to heart. Doing well in school was important, being competent in my field of endeavor was important, and knowing that I was as capable and worthy as my white counterparts was deeply ingrained in my mind. Therefore, I have always seen my life–one with a good education, a beautiful family, a house in an integrated community, a fulfilling job, the respect of my colleagues and countless opportunities–was the point of what Medgar Evers and Martin Luther King died for. Unfortunately, there are some who now see that kind of life as antithetical to “being authentically black”. For example, does anyone remember that pointed and correct Chris Rock–whom I love–routine where he says, “Black people get more respect for coming out of jail than getting a Master’s degree”?
Joseph C. Phillips in He Talk Like A White Boy recounts the story of when he–in the eyes of a classmate–became inauthentically black. After answering a question in class, one of the other black students exclaimed, “He talk like a white boy.” Phillips writes…
“I never knew how ugly, or hurtful, the words “Uncle Tom” were. In that moment, the tyranny of opinion–the notion that there are some people empowered to stand at the doors of culture and determine who is and who is not welcome–was made painfully clear to me. My definition of blackness-more accurately, my black self-was unimportant. That decision was left to the anointed, and no matter how idiotic, arcane, or nihilistic their definition, any deviation would be dealt with swiftly and decisively…
“So there you have it. At the tender age of twelve, with no warning whatsoever, my membership credentials to the brotherhood were confiscated and ripped to shreds. The mere difference in how I spoke–the sound of my voice, my diction–clearly meant that I was trying to be something that I wasn’t, that I was an infiltrator, and that difference, real or perceived, made me an outsider.”
This type of treatment of one another is exactly what McWhorter, in another work, calls “self-sabotage” in black America. And in my opinion is one of the root causes that smart, capable blacks often fail to break out of generational poverty and educational failure. People like Phillips, McWhorter, Rice, Powell and countless others should not be treated with contempt for who they are what they’ve done, they should be treated as heroes in and of the black community.
Perhaps the black community should be mindful when we speak to and about each other that whether we are factory-workers or CFO’s; whether they are high-school educated or tenured Ph,D’s; whether we speak colloquial slang or are dedicated to following the most minute rules of proper English usage; Condelezza Rice is right when she says, “You can’t try that ‘black enough’ stuff on me. I’ve been black my whole life!”
More to come…