When compared with black lives at the dawn of the 21st century, and 40 years after the watershed events of the Civil Rights Movement, many of Du Bois’ remarks now sound ironic, for all the impossible things he spoke of in 1926 are realities today. We are “full-fledged Americans, with the rights of American citizens.” We do have “plenty of good hard work” and live in a society where “men create, where they realize themselves and where they enjoy life.” Even more ironic is the fact that some of our famous rappers and athletes who like “living large,” as they say, seem obsessed with what Du Bois derisively called “the tawdry and flamboyant” (they call it “bling”). Furthermore, some of us do use the freedom paid for with the blood of our ancestors to pursue conspicuous consumption in the form of “powerful motor cars,” “elaborate estates,” “striking clothes,” and “the richest dinners.”via A&L Daily
To put this another way, we can say that 40 years after the epic battles for specific civil rights in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Selma, after two monumental and historic legislative triumphs—the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965—and after three decades of affirmative action that led to the creation of a true black middle class (and not the false one E. Franklin Frazier described in his classic 1957 study, Black Bourgeoisie), a people oppressed for so long have finally become, as writer Reginald McKnight once put it, “as polymorphous as the dance of Shiva.” Black Americans have been CEOs at AOL Time Warner, American Express, and Merrill Lynch; we have served as secretary of state and White House national security adviser. Well over 10,000 black Americans have been elected to offices around the country, and at this moment Senator Barack Obama holds us in suspense with the possibility that he may be selected as the Democratic Party’s first biracial, black American candidate for president. We have been mayors, police chiefs, best-selling authors, MacArthur fellows, Nobel laureates, Ivy League professors, billionaires, scientists, stockbrokers, engineers, theoretical physicists, toy makers, inventors, astronauts, chess grandmasters, dot-com millionaires, actors, Hollywood film directors, and talk show hosts (the most prominent among them being Oprah Winfrey, who recently signed a deal to acquire her own network); we are Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, and Buddhists (as I am). And we are not culturally homogeneous. When I last looked, West Indians constituted 48 percent of the “black” population in Miami. In America’s major cities, 15 percent of the black American population is foreign born—Haitian, Jamaican, Senegalese, Nigerian, Cape Verdean, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Somalian—a rich tapestry of brown-skinned people as culturally complex in their differences, backgrounds, and outlooks as those people lumped together under the all too convenient labels of “Asian” or “European.” Many of them are doing better—in school and business—than native-born black Americans. I think often of something said by Mary Andom, an Eritrean student at Western Washington University, and quoted in an article published in 2003 in The Seattle Times: “I don’t know about ‘chitlings’ or ‘grits.’ I don’t listen to soul music artists such as Marvin Gaye or Aretha Franklin.... I grew up eating injera and listening to Tigrinya music.... After school, I cook the traditional coffee, called boun, by hand for my mother. It is a tradition shared amongst mother and daughter.”
No matter which angle we use to view black people in America today, we find them to be a complex and multifaceted people who defy easy categorization. We challenge, culturally and politically, an old group narrative that fails at the beginning of this new century to capture even a fraction of our rich diversity and heterogeneity.
01 August 2008
The Need for More Black Narratives
In the latest American Scholar, published by the Phi Beta Kappa Society (I am not a member), Charles Johnson, the author of The Middle Passage, talks about the need for more diversity in narratives of what it means to be black in America.