Nothing brings out more American madness than race and nothing is more available for exaggeration than the “plight” of black people, especially black men, most especially those now behind bars. They are the most authentic because real black men always run afoul of the law or are forced by poverty to murder, rape, and brutalize other black people when not selling them drugs. Authentic black men are not academic milquetoasts. They wake up angry, they go to bed angry, and they sleep in anger.
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But if one listens to conservative race baiters like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh—professionals who are loons on demand and for pay—one notices that they also live inside of shared toxic exaggerations. Or at least spout them. As they speak of Barack Obama’s supposed hatred of white people, the red seems to grow from their necks and rise under the skin on the backs of their heads until continuing to their faces, which then take on the kind of purple that white people call “wine stain.” I doubt a brew will calm them down. Nor will a painkiller.
This is a weird moment.
Bessie Smith once sang of wanting a pig foot and a bottle of beer and to be left alone because she was “in my sin.” The blues diva would be perfect entertainment for one of the most ridiculous moments in what is the presidential version of something he termed “silly season” while debating in the contest for the Democratic Party’s nomination.
Silly season comes to the White House as our president brings together two men descended from Niall of the Nine Hostages, an Irish warlord of 450 B.C. It could be called “sin for three,” because they will be having a couple of cool ones but probably no pig feet so as not to offend either Jews or Muslims or vegetarians. After all, you know how they are and must be aware of how very hard it is out here for three men just trying to figure out how to get along. Given all of the blather, it cannot be easy to get firm footing while attempting to scale our racial fence of barbed wire.
One of the president’s guests this afternoon will be a millionaire Harvard academic named Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Gates has a brown neck and got loud before and after being arrested by an Irish cop whom he appears to have assumed had a red neck. Apparently wrong because, as a volunteer instructor on the evils and dilemmas of racial profiling for the last five out of six years, Sargeant Crowley seems to have had the wrong neck pinned on him. It continues to get good. Obama also has Irish roots, even further proof of how important the Emerald Isle is to our national gene pool. In America, you are never actually sure at whom you are looking. Two heads on a pillow is a wild and wooly story.
This moment of ethnic trivia was made molten by our media but also unavoidably high profile by Obama’s choosing to answer an inappropriate question about the arrest at the end of a press conference on health care! His choice showed the president to be far more vulnerable to lack of discipline than at nearly any moment during his long, long march to election.
One commentator observed shortly after the race had been won that Obama’s ability to never repeat a rhetorical mistake over that incredibly grueling campaign put him in a category by himself when compared to other politicans whose gaffes are not only expected but sometimes legendary.
But race, like sex, will catch the best and brightest of us with our pants down or our panties slipped off. We have not heard much of late about those descendants of Thomas Jefferson who so stridently denied the possibility of red-headed Tom knocking boots with Negro female Sally Hemmings. DNA closed that case, or left TJ’s britches unbottoned. Zippers had not yet been invented.
The public confessions of “me and my gal on the side” made by Governor Mark Sanford and Senator John Ensign have pulled us closer to a formerly secret Washington, D.C. prayer group on C Street. The Christian group is called, like Charles Manson’s followers, The Family. It has an ominous philosophy that transcends morality with a small first letter in favor of a heavenly Morality out of which God chooses men for the execution of power rather than to act by the standards used to assess men with lesser positions of authority. According to Malcolm X in his Autobiography, this was the explanation Elijah Muhammad gave him to explain having impregnated a few of his young secretaries. As it was once said in the streets, “Either it is what it is, or it ain’t what it ain’t.”
Both Sanford and Ensign pray—or some would say prey—with those men who gather on C Street. They have been counseled by the group in matters of the spirit and the booty—I mean the body. Ensign was even advised to further trouble the waters with bribery in order to keep the husband of Ensign’s side squeeze silent. The husband was also a member of the prayer group, so it had an unusual spiritual density.
Finally, in the human as opposed to ideological world that dominates the intellectual hoax of black studies, where Skip Gates got his reputation, there is more than a bit of bitterness felt toward him for his wealth, his access to the powerful, and his ability to raise issues and promote himself in a way that has worked well for the good professor. Yes, those with green-eyed monsters in their souls can be black academics.
Ishmael Reed’s extended diatribe in CounterPunch lays out all of the black complaints most often made about Gates behind his back. Like most academics, the black ones are distinguished more by their cowardice than any dedication to intellectual rigor. Gates has long been under attack for being trendish, for selling out to feminists, to homosexual liberation, and to whatever point of view comes up if aligning himself with it will guarantee his further success. A disreputable brother, mostly because he makes so much goddamn money and is on television more than his mediocre colleagues.
Where Reed’s logic veers into ethnic solidarity rather than substantial ideas or opinions is very obvious, but his charges are much more common than those reading about the Gates arrest would assume because he is so often referred to as “America’s top black intellectual.” Reed correctly asks just who might be the most prominent white intellectual. Hmm. No answer. Silent night.
One can sell out to the right or to the left but Reed misses one thing above all else. Whether or not he is a great man, Skip Gates has done two inarguably great things. First, he stood up to that form of intellectual paralysis known as Afrocentrism when it was gaining popularity in the academy during the '90s for extending the damage to quality higher education already done by “victim studies” as a whole. Ethnic and women’s studies are kept in place because college presidents fear campus disruption, not because they are respected. Yes, college presidents are as cowardly as anybody else.
Some poo-poo Gates for having chosen to stand up. But there were not many ready to take on the ideologues loudly pretending to be scholars. They were on the move but began to lose ground after Gates publicly dismissed them for what they were: racist frauds who based their “work” on blood libel or on blood celebration.
His other inarguably great achievement has been bringing more attention to the importance of what we are learning from DNA. Here is scientific proof that we are far more deeply connected one to the other than we have ever previously known. Over time, that may do more to put racists in their place than mirroring their crack-brained ideas or refusing to acknowledge the hard but unsentimental fact that all progress for black Americans has been the result of coalitions with those whites willing to stand long and tall against traditional bigotry.
While President Obama may one day deeply regret having his fellow Irish descendents over to kick back behind a cold one, I doubt that they will regret having come to the White House. The right wing may make much hay about the country being forced to pay a bill for his personal entertainment that the president should lay out his own cash for. Gates will go on to deepen his wealth, his power, and his influence. The attention will better whatever work he is doing because he will be under the microscope for the rest of his life.
Sergeant Crowley will have been happy every second that he was there. Arresting a Negro doesn’t always get you to the White House. Some blessings are as strange as our country is when it comes to race.
Stanley Crouch's culture pieces have appeared in Harper's, The New York Times, Vogue, Downbeat, The New Yorker, and more. He has served as artistic consultant for jazz programming at Lincoln Center since 1987, and is a founder Jazz at Lincoln Center. In June 2006 his first major collection of jazz criticism, Considering Genius: Jazz Writings, was published. He is presently completing a book about the Barack Obama presidential campaign.