For whites, this doesn't matter in the least. They held bake sales, shucksed and awwwed to the images of desperate black faces on their TV screens. But their bake sales and their car washes and their donations means that they are good people, and good people are free from prejudice. It means they are fair people; Americans look after each other; Americans come together in times of crisis; United We Stand.
Tomorrow, they will look at our black skin with the same eyes with which they've looked at it for generations--tinged with an undercurrent of suspicion, with a faint whisper of shame for the hateful, bloody history about which our very skin screams.
America has had a tenuous relationship with its black citizens since its inception. We were slaves, not citizens, and then sub-citizens, and then second-class citizens. Now we hold a nebulous status. Our rights are guaranteed like those of any American, but our access to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" is still often subtly denied. The landlord who won't rent to a "black accented" voice. The employer who trashes resumes with black-sounding names. The lenders who charge more for mortgages in black neighborhoods, etc., etc., etc. The doctors who ignore pain and symptoms in black patients that they actively treat in white ones.
Yet, despite this ambivalence on the part of America toward us, we have steadfastly remained believers in the American Dream--what I've referred to as "the perfectibility of whites." We have assumed that someday, they will begin to truly adhere to their high-minded words with equally high-minded actions.
We are still waiting.
Black Americans are an historically despised minority with no homeland, severed completely from indigenous cultures, and trained and educated by the majority that has heaped contempt on them for most of their history. This is unique. What has the majority taught us? That they are... well, "perfectible." That "and justice for all" is a fundamental truth, not a distant dream; that any diversion from that truth is aberration, not norm. That the Jesus handed to us to make our enslavement less troublesome for our former slave masters--that the blonde god Jesus demands that we forgive, and by inference, forget. They have told us that we are less than they--less intelligent, less worthy, less pretty.
And with no countervailing voice of our own, we have believed them.
Other groups come here with cultures intact, self-images nurtured in non-toxic atmospheres. Afro-Americans have 400 years of breathing toxic air to contend with. The cultural lung tissue that feeds our self-image has been scarred. The question for us in the coming century is: "How do we heal it?"
America has had a tenuous relationship with us since its inception. I believe it's necessary for us to return the favor. It is necessary to free ourselves from the training that tells us that justice for us is a norm to which America will undoubtedly return. In fact, full and equal justice for us is a vision that has never been realized. We must acknowledge that.
We must free ourselves from the civil rights movement idea that the majority can effortlessly, or organically achieve "colorblindness." This suggests that being an Afro-American means nothing more than skin color. This is what has allowed conservatives to use the civil rights movement rhetoric AGAINST civil rights for us. The civil rights movement insisted that we were "just like" white Americans, except black. Subtly embedded in this is the idea that there's something wrong with being "unlike."
However, we are "unlike." During the civil rights era we did not insist that to be Afro-American was to belong to a rich, distinct, glorious, tragic subculture. We had breathed toxic air too long to see and insist upon the acknowledgment of that distinction. We only acknowledged the tragedy. By the time we began to acknowledge our distinction, we were so poisoned by our American experience that we didn't look in the mirror to find our true Afro-American cultural selves, we looked back to a fantasy of African cultures from which we'd been severed for hundreds of years.
To insist on the perfectibility of Americans is to accept America's historical judgment of us. It is to deny the majority's humanity, and our own. Only it places them on the level of demigods, and us on the level of slaves.
We must free ourselves from their judgment, and stop waiting for them to achieve the perfection that they see in themselves and have taught us to see in them. We must take control of our own culture: fully identify it, codify it, and immerse ourselves in it as an antidote to the toxins to which we will undoubtedly be exposed for a long, long time.
And there is a constructive model that we can follow in doing so: the Jewish Model.
Growing up, I had a lot of Jewish friends, and "Hebrew school" was a norm for many. Once a week or so, they went to be taught the Hebrew language, and Jewish history and culture. It helped assure that young Jewish kids never forgot what had happened in the past--that they were armed with tools to see themselves clearly--and not others' distorted visions of them--to see their history through their own eyes. It gave them a sense of their great worth as Jews and the value of Jewishness.
Afro-Americans have created forms of music, dance, speech, art and worship which are ours. They are renown throughout the world. There is a reason Sunday mornings are the most segregated hours in America. It is because our view of God is distinct. Ours is decidedly fallible. You rarely hear black Christians screaming for a Creationist curriculum. We are not ones to suggest that societal norms and prejudices should be set in scriptural stone. There is a reason Afro-American music sounds like no other, and why some of this country's greatest orators have come from the Afro-American tradition. Black folk tales tell us how our own visions of magic and death evolved. Think Toni Morrison's "Beloved."
Once a week, black children should take a seat in a back room (of the local church for instance), where they would study a standardized curriculum geared toward their age group. They would hear about Frederick Douglass from black lips, read black and white narratives from this country’s slave past, hear Mahalia Jackson sing, read Gates’ “Colored People,” and learn what a saxophone means, and how jazz can stand as a central metaphor for our way of being in the world. They should read Zora Neale Hurston’s folk tales. They should learn Plessy v. Ferguson, not as dry history, but such that they feel where we come from in America, so they can openly express the rage it engenders and then channel that rage into building from the cultural wealth their forebears bequeathed.
MARTIN LUTHER KING WAS WRONG
Face it, Afro-America, the Great Man was Great, but wrong. He preached a dream. And his dream touched the hearts of white America because it flattered the American Christian notion of white American moral divinity. Americans could be made pure; America’s sins could be washed away. And we, black Americans, could do it. To many, though, it was just an offer to clean their moral toilets—much as we had cleaned their porcelain ones. King's genius and his tragedy, is that he made the civil rights movement about THEM.
30 yeas hence, are we willing to admit that "they" are just as human and prone to prejudice as any other human? Are we ready to admit, that they, being just human, will have to acknowledge that tendency toward prejudice and actively work to wean themselves from it? Can we admit that there is minimal interest among the majority of making that acknowledgment, and doing that work? As evidence of the latter, I point to books like "The Bell Curve," and the work of Stephen and Abigail Thernstrom, which denies the existence of prejudice among whites. I point to the controversy that arose over the display of photographs of lynchings that toured various museums. I point to the fact that we're accused of "living in the past" when we acknowledge America's racist legacy, when contiguous or much older historical truths (WWII, the Civil War) are treated as living history.
If we're ready to admit this, we are ready to move forward, sans illusions that the majority will "come around" any time soon. We are ready to take command of our own self-image, acknowledge ourselves as cultural beings, teach ourselves that culture, and make it the foundation on which we stand as we master the mainstream culture such that we are competitive with any Americans of any color. Only we will have that much more to hold onto--a self-defined culture of our own.
I'M BETTER; YOU'RE EQUAL
No self-respecting culture on earth seeks "equality." They all insist on their superiority. Through Afro-American cultural self-education, black children would learn that their race not as a burden to be "owed" something, nor that automatically condemns them to intellectual and cultural deprivation. Armed with a sound foundation in the riches of Afro-American history, speech, letters, glory, worship, music, hurt and triumph, they will be able to compete in any circles they choose. They can then surmount remaining obstacles with the fiercely unapologetic arrogance and self-assurance of a people who made nothing less than a world from the seconds and scraps of a majority who never dreamt so much brutal beauty could be wrung from so little.
When this happens, we will finally no longer be the last to leave, and the first to suffer.