The End of 'Bad Boy' Thinking
Barack Obama's election brings down the curtain on decades of potted history, academic hustles, and bad-boy thinking in black politics and culture.
Racism is actually a childish form of paranoid narcissism which makes one group taller by cutting off the legs of another or, when considered necessary, stacks up as many bloody legs as the mass market demands. That is why it works for conservative identity politics as well as it does for purportedly militant and radical ethnic identity politics. On the right or the left such politics has become boring and ineffective.
So it will be good if the Republicans drop their sentimental version of identity politics for white people, which Richard Nixon used in coded language during his first victorious presidential campaign exactly 40 years ago. That stuff has run some kind of a course and, as they used to say, will only fool a one hundred percent fool. People can see it coming from a mile away with their backs turned. Identity politics has a smell that sets the mouth in a bitter pose and goes down no more succulently than a three part mixture of motor oil, mayonnaise, and honey. More slippery and greasy than sweet, the old identity politics for white people leads to the heaved up muck that precedes a pratfall, not a victory. The McCain campaign can give you the particulars. A clear and decisive majority of white people no longer fear being called "elites." Because of Barack Obama, black people, high profile or not, are no longer reluctant to generally appeal by being sophisticated and doing well, which can still be attacked for "acting white," another way of being smacked down as "elite." Everybody seems to agree to one thing with this new president: It is time for the brain to make a comeback.
Everybody seems to agree to one thing in this era of the new president: It is time for the brain to make a comeback.
If carried to its logical extreme, letting the brain make a comeback should allow for a sober and ongoing rejection of the misbegotten world of cynicism, potted history, racism, and adolescent bad boy thinking that has had too large a place in black politics, culture, and higher education since Martin Luther King's death in 1968. The Obama victory proved its emptiness because its campaign resulted from an extraordinarily sophisticated effort based in the most unbending fact of American politics and history: every gain of any true significance for black Americans and, therefore, for the nation as a whole, never failed to be fomented by integrated alliances. If white people did not want it, it did not happen.
Had Obama taken all of the independent voters and all of the black voters, he still would have lost. While embracing the miscegenation that defined his parentage, he did not allow his color to be seen as symbolic of a special interest group. The only special interest group to which he appealed included everyone. Consequently, it was an American victory, not a separatist or segregated win. Integrated purposes and alliances are and have always been the only way, from the Abolition Movement that began in the eighteenth century to November 4, 2008. The final slavery of limited expectations ended on that night as what seemed to be the content of his character had taken the highest set of hurdles in the nation and gone on to snap the finish line tape with a report heard around the world. American history was split into two parts, B.B. and A.B. Before Obama and After Obama. It was actually like that.
So when Obama won, Martin Luther King was exonerated from all of the insults heaped upon him while he was alive by Malcolm X and by others after his death. Living or dead it is now time that they be seen for the fools, frauds, defeatist demagogues, and saber-rattling charlatans that they have always been. Such people had accused King of being hopelessly optimistic about an America that would never accept more than certain kinds of black "tokens." I guess "never" is a shorter time than we used to think it was. Supposedly, the non-violent strategy was embraced because King and his followers were either "in love" with the white man or no more than cowards afraid to stand up and confront "that old pale thing," as Malcolm X loved to say. King dismissed Malcolm X's conveniently crabbed assertion that non-violence made the Southern white man “comfortable” since it wasn’t aggressive enough. King knew better and was sure that anyone taking on the power structure in the redneck South knew much better than a rabble rouser speaking from behind the safety of a Harlem podium guarded by the NYPD. But Malcolm X—and the many who came after him—wove their variations on a stubbornly stupid set of conceptions that are still accepted as the outrageous emperor's new clothes at public gatherings of one sort or another, which has been possible for far too long.
Louis Farrakhan, for instance, has been given a pass by the entire media and has not been exposed for all of the racism that underlies his "militance." Like Malcolm X while he was a member of the Nation of Islam, Farrakhan taught his followers that white people were invented by a mad black scientist 6,000 years ago, back when the world was a black paradise. But the Nation of Islam had up to date imbecility to offer as well. For instance, UFOs are actually black scientists in space ships waiting to drop bombs on America and destroy it. The roughest line is that white people are, simply, devils. Hmm.
This has neither been reported clearly and consistently enough nor have any people in black or white media made anything of the fact that the letter Farrakhan read at the Million Man March to great effect and unfortunate influence was proven a fake, almost line by line, by Spelman scholar William Jelani Cobb. Famous among black people as "the Willie Lynch letter," it was supposed to be from an eighteenth century white slave explaining how to keep the slaves divided against themselves. No matter, Cobb's discovery has not had much headway and the letter is still cited by too many black students and non-students as an explanation of why black people have not been able to "unify." Even in the otherwise excellent film The Great Debaters, the protagonist cites the "letter" as a hard fact. Lies are always better known than scholarship.
When finding out that the exceptional South African singer Miriam Makeba died recently, I thought of how she destroyed her career here in America when the singer married Stokely Carmichael/Kwame Toure, who helped introduce a separatist version of black power that first challenged and rather quickly overtook the civil rights movement. As one super hip woman said to me at the time, "Those white people were not going to pay to hear her so that she could give the money to Stokely for weapons to kill them, like he says he wants to do."
The next stage of descent was identity politics of the most limited and insipid fashion, including the cartoon Afrocentric idea of Africa as a solution to all of the world problems. Carmichael/Toure popularized the word "honky" as an insulting term for white people, embraced the idea of armed Third World revolution, and became increasingly irrelevant. At the end he was packaging himself as something of a visiting rabble rouser whose only audience was black students North and South. His radical running buddy H. Rap Brown went to prison for trying to extort Harlem criminals, came out converted to a Muslim bore, and was finally sentenced to life in prison for murdering two black police officers in Atlanta. As you read this, he is probably misleading someone else.
Then there is the once influential Amiri Baraka, formerly a formidable literary talent whose birth name was LeRoi Jones. Jones/Baraka did his best writing before changing his name, becoming a black nationalist and an anti-Semite, then repudiating that "direction" as he had his former Jewish wife and the two children had with her. After leaving his first wife and his Greenwich Village home where the writer had been an avant garde poet and writer, he noisily moved to Harlem, incinerated his talent and transformed himself into an hysterical propagandist. Jones/Baraka soon left for another home, Newark, New Jersey, following one of the tribal wars that bloodied many black nationalist sects and "revolutionary" cults. As with the gang banging Bloods and Crips, the black nationalists and revolutionaries were far more dangerous to each other than they ever were to the whites whom they promised to overthrow and kill off.
When he was in his toxic cups, Jones/Baraka led the loud "Black Arts Movement," which produced a long list of now forgotten sub-talents who were not quite as illiterate as rappers but were parallel in their other limitations. Blood libel was a specialty, as was calling white people ugly and black people beautiful. They had a short list of "thoughts" that were, as the blues say, "built close to the ground." Failing at one evolution after another, Jones/Baraka now remains in the pasture a garden variety Marxist and neutered intellectual whose work convinces no one of anything other than his lack of importance and an unusual ability to write the very same thing over and over without losing addled heat.
In his recent and indispensible memoir Will You Die With Me?, Flores Forbes exposed in bloody detail the criminal creation that Huey Newton made of the Black Panthers, shifting the saber rattling group from its "revolutionary" Marxist pretensions to an extortion ring that was intended to take over all of the hoodlum enterprises in the Bay Area of California. Newton was a handsome, charismatic murderer and thug who remained so until a crack dealer for the Black Guerilla Family put three in his head one 1989 night in Oakland. No one died with him; it was another time. By then, pretentiously revolutionary political names had descended to the world of crack. Perhaps where they belonged.
While we’re cleaning house, we cannot forget the intellectual crack of black studies. Initially proposed on college campuses as an alternative to racist history texts, it was not the alternative it claimed to be. In far too many cases, black studies very quickly became a hotbed of paranoid bunk and intellectual buffoonery. Its specialty was feeding black students a diet of alienation, hopelessness, aggressive victimhood, and a fusion of racist and paranoid interpretations of all experiences with white people, especially Jews. Bogus but rabid clowns like New York's Len Jeffries were good at little more than porous logic, meeting purported racism with actual racism, and strutting about in ethnic getups as though African garb put one closer to some sort of truth. Clothes make the man, indeed!
Were they actually scholarly, they would have known that these robes and beads were yet another version of fashion and hair styles as symbols of being politically astute which actually goes back to the French Revolution. In our black studies version, black people realized that the greatest danger was becoming "westernized."
In an embarrassing commingling of radical politics, racism, and anti-Semitism, faux academics such as Jeffries, Molifi Asante, father of Afrocentrism, and Tony Martin of Wellesley taught unscholarly rants given to claiming the impossibility of white America ever giving black people a fair chance; that Jews controlled the African slave trade trade; and that they also conspired in modern times against the black scholars like themselves who could liberate the black mind. In short, as much bull as the campus market could bear.
With only a short list of exceptions, the black studies hustle was forced into the halls of academe by naive and hopped up students who demanded this carrion for breakfast, lunch, and dinner or threatened to turn out colleges and universities if they did not submit to this false "scholarship.” One of the many failings of the civil rights establishment once it began to be overcome by and finally submitted to black nationalism was its failure to stand up against intellectual pollution. Oh, well.
It should be obvious by now that hip hop—a black popular music already degraded by violence, misogyny, and crude materialislm—was the last spittoon in which those academic hustles found sympathy. Insecure middle class black kids wallow in this version of "street knowledge" in order to give themselves a feeling of "authenticity" and, in some cases, to profit from their interpretations of this aesthetic junk for white friends who never lose a taste for any version of minstrelsy—black nationalist, revolutionary, thug life, you name it. The Birth of a Nation with a back beat.
Barack Obama, a fiercely accomplished student, Constitutional scholar, and first class writer, may well provide a symbol of the way out of this dungeon of propaganda posing as "authenticity" or "black consciousness." As they used to say, "Crack them books, boys and girls, you might learn something."
We should now note that Ralph Ellison, the most sophisticated thinker about American life since World War II, along only with Saul Bellow, was defiled and personally attacked by the agents of ethnic toxicity. He was called a traitor to his race and to his class. His belief in the grandeur of the Constitution, and in the multi-ethnic fundamentals of American culture and American life, caused him to be derided by his inferiors for years, sometimes brutally and hysterically to his face.
Yet Ellison stood by his beliefs and never failed to provide as rich a reading of this country's history as any of our finest writers or thinkers. The depth of his understanding of this country's culture has never been exceeded nor has anyone had a better perspective than he had on what this country means to the world at large. In Harper's magazine, as if looking into his Oklahoma crystal ball, Ellison once said that it was time for the Negro not to stop dancing or cooking or contributing to America's sense of national elegance, improvisation, and heroic optimism, but to start thinking and step into the ring with the heavyweights whenever possible.
Barack Obama has done that and would do himself well if he read and reread all of Ellison's essays throughout his term of office. Because long before this remarkable politician arose from among us, the great writer had always reminded us of the possibility of the American hero coming from out of nowhere, studying, mastering, and charming when necessary or, when it was called for, kicking ass and taking names.
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.