I certainly hope that the election of Barack Obama will force certain black people to try telling the truth. There are many phony baloney positions and purported experiences that are delivered and claimed to be truer to "black reality" or to "white America" than others. This contrived nonsense is something that we have all had to suffer through for the last four decades.
A recent bit of fakery was made clear to me by a young black writer who pointed out that he knew a good number of black people who said of Obama that he was not like any of the black people whom they knew or who resided in their neighborhoods. I told him that I thought he was being told a damn lie. A guy who is from a solid black middle class background and believes almost anything he hears from black people who claim to have been born in a barrel of butcher knives (and perhaps shot in the ass with a pair of Colt .45s), he wanted to know why I thought his friends were not telling him the truth.
Black nationalists wanted black people to be angelic, while others wanted the "soul" of black people to be the solution to America's problems. We need no such sentimental fantasies.
I said to him that those were people who had obviously heard someone say that on television and had begun repeating it, as many people are prone to do, especially if the result is something crudely inaccurate and stupid about the "black experience." Either that or they had never been literally let out of a box while they supposedly grew up in somebody's projects in some asphalt jungle somewhere.
This began with the writings of Richard Wright and James Baldwin, both of whom painted essentially one-dimensional portraits of black experience that were determined to shame the white people into removing black people from the limitless house of pain reserved for them. Racism made black people ashamed of their hair, their skin color, their lips and noses, their supposed intellectual inferiority. Were there truly bad things that had been done to black people and continued to be done and are still, in some ways, done to this very day? Yes and no.
Once I got my own bearings, I became as frustrated with black people who were so enraged by liberals trying to be condescendingly sympathetic to their supposed plight of psychological scars, humiliations, and ongoing ass whippings that they went too far in the other direction. Equally smug, they pretended that, except for a couple of redneck knuckleheads here and there, black American life had just been one endlessly wonderful set of evenings dancing to Duke Ellington, eating the cuisine invented by plantation slaves, watching a succession of black boxing champions beat the bull dookey out of white men, and savoring the unique black American expression of timeless and specific but universal variations on the national ethos at its best.
Well, you can sprinkle sugar on new plops of crap but it still stinks.
The simple truth is so old that it seems forever brand new. Human beings do not know—and have never ever known—how to be anything other than human beings and, I might add but am quite sorry to say, there is nothing that ever holds them free of that reality. When John Lewis recently said that with the election of Barack Obama we had seen a nonviolent revolution, he was exactly right. Not the overthrow of the nation that we had been promised, not the slaughter of the white people, not the Third World gathering of the troops that would reset the clocks of the planet.
I think that soon such a nonviolent revolution will unearth, or reaffirm, facts of extreme importance. Those facts will help free us from outright lies or well-intended distortions about the nature of black American life—those distortions used to manipulate white people or to make money from wailing or growling in the name of "the black experience." That is the line from which those people drew who told my young, naïve, black, middle-class writer friend that Obama's type was a stranger to them and to other black people they knew. This might draw some attention from lames, but it is still no more than hot air.
Any black person from anywhere in this country has always known intelligent, studious, disciplined black people recognized by almost one and all for their cool mastery of their surroundings, their careers, and the responsibilities that life has placed upon them. They know these people, male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, religious or not, possessed of as much individuality as made possible by their sensibilities as their DNA. Any black person who defiantly says otherwise is in desperate need of a rhetorical diaper change.
Human types are beyond category and that is why all we have to do is learn the language of a particular—but foreign—artistic idiom in order to recognize that the same kinds of people we all know are over there, too. That was part of the excitement in America 40 years ago when foreign films taught anew the things we already knew: Human beings are neither angels nor devils in most cases but are just about anything else you can imagine between those extremes.
Black nationalists never liked that truth, though it had been agreed upon by all of the world's great religions and by all of the world's greatest artists. They wanted black people to be angelic, while others wanted the "soul" of black people to be the solution to America's problems. We need no such sentimental fantasies.
Then there are men with the intelligence of Shelby Steele, who sits in a conservative think tank in the cultural and intellectual anus of the nation. Steele was surrounded by white people while writing that Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Tiger Woods, and Michael Jordan had somehow "allowed" white people to feel free of their racism if they just embraced those outstanding individuals. Negro, please! I wonder if those white people who work with you and are your peers assume that they are not racists only because they know and like you. I hope it takes more than that.
So these fake and pretentious versions of American reality, whether or not they are exactly color-coded, are some of the things that we have to deal and do away with to the best of our abilities. On November 4, 2008, we learned that we should not worry because it was proven that all is possible.
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.