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With Anne Beatts, The Joke Was Always on President Ford

[UPDATE, April 22, 2021: Back in 2019, when Donald Trump was still president, we resurfaced this 1974 page, written by Anne Beatts, from our archives. Beatts blazed a path through the boys’ club of comedy writing in the 1970s, most notoriously as the brains behind the 1973 fake Volkswagen Bug ad that ran in National Lampoon with the tagline, “If Ted Kennedy drove a Volkswagen, he’d be President today.” If you don’t get the punchline we can only say that checking it out is one internet rabbit hole that is worth plunging into. You can start here. Beatts, who was born in 1947, passed away earlier this month. —R.C. Baker] 

On November 27, 1973, the U.S. Senate voted 92-3 to confirm Gerald R. Ford as Richard Nixon’s vice president after the elected veep, Spiro Agnew, had resigned due to a bribery scandal. Nine months later it was Nixon himself who stepped down to avoid impeachment for various high crimes and misdemeanors, and Ford, formerly a congressman from Michigan, became America’s first — and so far only — appointed president. 

Turns out, the joke was on him. 

Ford is probably best remembered for Chevy Chase’s merciless portrayal of the president as a bumbling buffoon on Saturday Night Live, as in this clip from the comedy hit’s first season, in 1975.

Anne Beatts was a writer for SNL in those early years, making her an anomaly in a field that was then a fairly impregnable boys’ club. But Beatts (pronounced “Beats”) had earlier battled her way into another bastion of postwar American humor, National Lampoon magazine, eventually becoming its first female contributing editor. Despite that success she was still struggling for recognition. In an interview in Vice’s Broadly, Beatts recounted a meal with the magazine’s co-founder, Henry Beard, in which she asked him why more of her work wasn’t getting into print. His reason was succinct: “I just don’t think chicks are funny.” Beatts went on to say, “I cried and lost a contact lens in my soup — instead of punching him in the nose, which is what he deserved. So I stopped writing for the magazine altogether.”

Perhaps that was a bit of luck for the Village Voice. In the December 30, 1974, issue of the paper, Beatts contributed “Gerald Ford’s Joke Book,” observing, “If there’s anything we as a nation need right now, it’s the ability to laugh at our troubles.” Ford was a promising target because he had already gained a reputation for his malapropisms and physical clumsiness, traits Chase would begin wildly exaggerating a year later. In the Voice, Beatts displayed her chops by taking Ford’s penchant for misdelivering punchlines to old jokes by bending their banality almost 360 degrees so that they became absurdly funny again:

“A man went to see a psychiatrist. ‘Doctor, I have a terrible problem,’ he confessed. ‘It’s my memory. I can’t remember anything for more than a few seconds.’”

“’How long have you had this problem?’ asked the doctor.”

“’I don’t remember how long I’ve had it,’ the man answered.”

Beatts runs through a repertoire of such off-kilter chestnuts until she twists her concept even a few more degrees to deliver a joke that is perhaps more current than ever:

“Do you know the country is going to the dogs?”

“Yes, and if you hum a few bars I’ll sing it for you.”    ❖

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G. Gordon Liddy and the Fall Guys of Yore

In June 1972, G. Gordon Liddy supervised the covert operation to break into the Democratic National Committee’s headquarters in the Watergate complex and bug the telephones, a botched caper that eventually brought down Richard Nixon’s presidency.

As the conspiracy to hide this criminal act unraveled in the early days of Tricky Dick’s second term, Liddy offered to take the blame, saying to Nixon’s White House Counsel, John Dean, “I was the captain of the ship when she hit the reef and I’m prepared to go down with it. If someone wants to shoot me just tell me what corner to stand on and I’ll be there.”

Although the taint of corruption and criminality that has surrounded President Trump since his earliest days as a New York real estate mogul is a leviathan that cannot be contained in a single fall guy, there is no doubt that the presidential candidate who once proclaimed, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” probably wishes he had a Gordon Liddy handy. No doubt they would have a salutary meeting of the minds.    ❖

G. Gordon Liddy, November 30, 1930 – March 30, 2021

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When an Abortionist Dies

Dr. Spencer, 1889–1969: Last Trip to Ashland

One month, to the date, before his death last Tuesday, I was privileged to meet the legendary Dr. Robert Douglas Spencer. The trip to Ashland, which was more in the nature of a pilgrimage than a quest for an interview, had come about through the good graces of Dr. Nathan H. Rappaport. A chance to meet Spencer, and through the entree of another abortionist, was an unusual opportunity. Arrangements were made and carried out on a day’s notice. Rappaport drove us to the Pennsylvania coal country in his Citroen. The other passengers were Carol Kahn, a reporter for Medical World News, and her husband, Ira.

We were a high-spirited group, Carol, Ira, and I, and we must have sorely taxed the ego of our friend during the four-hour drive to the little town near Pottsville, pumping him as we did for details of Spencer’s life. It was a journey to Ashland that, I expect, was quite different from the more than 30,000 other journeys that travelers had made to this village, travelers with a secret, urgent mission.

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Spencer, I knew, was back in business again, at the age of 79. The justifiedly famous doctor had reopened his clinic on Centre Street and was now charging the incredible sum of $200, a concession, as he later told us, to the higher cost of drugs and supplies. At $200, Spencer’s price was still hard to believe, well under the going rate for such things. He was still unique in American history.

I tried to recall during our journey just when it was that Dr. Spencer of Ashland had first come into my consciousness. It was, I determined, about 12 years ago. A friend, a painter, had called one day to report that she was pregnant and desperate and did I know of anyone. The only abortionist I had heard of was one another friend, a model, had told me about. She had been taken to him blindfolded and he had charged her $1000. The model had not seen her doctor’s face without his mask and she did not know his real name. The painter, however, was able to make better arrangements. She called back to say that she had gotten wind of a Spencer in Ashland, Pennsylvania, who was supposed to be great, kind, and medically responsible, and who did abortions for practically nothing because he believed in them. A week later my painter friend came over to see me. Spencer in Ashland was a reality. He was, she reported with wonder, a kindly old man. His clinic was spotless. He had a nurse and an attendant. She had slept over at the clinic and had met some other girls who were in a similar plight. The next day, when she departed, he had given her an assortment of pills to ward off infection and build up her strength. He seemed concerned about her, downright fatherly. He didn’t make her think she had done something wrong. The operation hadn’t caused her much pain, and, the biggest wonder of all, it was only $50.

And so it was that Spencer went into my telephone book, under “A” for abortionist. I am poor at remembering telephone numbers, but Spencer’s old number is still in my memory. It was Ashland 404. I was an aspiring actress in those days, and much taken with Tennessee Williams. I remember once passing along the Spencer number to another friend and saying in my best “Summer and Smoke” voice, “Really, I think of it as the telephone number of God.” Young acting students are all over-dramatic, but there was good cause for such intense language when talking about Spencer. Spencer meant deliverance, it was as simple as that. Going to Spencer meant taking an alternative that the culture was doing its damnedest to hide or distort. The public image of an abortionist, through books, plays, movies, articles, or whatever, was of an evil, leering, drunken, perverted butcher at worst, and a cold, mysterious, money-hungry Park Avenue price-gouger at best. And then there was Spencer with his clinic on the main street of a small American town, who charged $50, who believed in abortions, and who was kind. Knowing about Spencer in Ashland was one irrefutable piece in the logic which led one to the conclusion that the culture was capable of the big lie.

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As the years passed, Spencer’s name would come up from time to time. The price had gone from $50 to $100. Some people remembered when it had been $25, or even $10. There were long stretches when the doctor in Ashland would go into retirement, and there were stories of treks to Ashland only to find the clinic boarded up and silent. There was, we heard, a death on his operating table from a reaction to the anesthesia. There was a trial and there was, miraculously, an acquittal. We heard misinformation, too. Spencer had become an abortionist, the rumor went, because his own daughter had died on the operating table of an abortionist-butcher. This story was untrue, unfortunately popularized in a bad novel based loosely on the life of Spencer by a lady novelist with one of those awkward three-name combinations. Maybe the lady meant it symbolically. Spencer’s real-life daughter, better information had it, was alive and well, and so was his son. Other information I absorbed about Spencer, I was later to learn, was quite accurate. He was a committed atheist and free-thinker who often pressed his literature into the hands of the girls along with the antibiotics and vitamin pills. He had gotten into abortion work during the ’20s through the supplication of the miners’ wives in the Pennsylvania coal country, and his work for the miners — he was a pioneer in the technique of bronchoscopy — won him a heavy workmen’s compensation caseload, and, some said, the protection of the United Mine Workers during the years when the protection of the mine workers was something that counted.

Ashland, Pennsylvania. Principal products: coal, homemade wine, and abortions. The sort of Americana that always evaded the Saturday Evening Post. The town of Ashland is in some parts as narrow as the width of two streets. One of those streets is Centre Street, which is also a state highway. For some romantic reason I’d pictured Spencer’s clinic as a rambling, gabled mansion with a front porch. It was, instead, a very ordinary three-story, brick-face structure, flat, characterless, and attached on both side to similar-looking units. Diagonally across from it was the local movie theatre, which bore the legend, “We Burn Coal.” Most of the private homes and business in Ashland resist installing oil burners, and show their defiance with a printed placard.

Spencer’s home was on South 9th Street, just a few blocks from the clinic. It was a little house with a storm door and no lawn. There was a Christmas wreath in the window. The hour was late when we rang the bell. Spencer’s wife, a tall, big-boned woman, greeted us and led us past the formal parlor to a back room: Spencer’s study.

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And there he was, a tiny wisp of a man, frail, dry as dust, with sharp, thin features and bright eyes. He was wearing a suit of some dark material and it hung on him loosely. Rappaport had told us that Spencer had more or less stopped eating this last year, convinced that his health was irrevocably failing. There were signs of his eating habits about: two opened packages of pistachio nuts. He sat in a rocker, with what looked like a bear rug slung over his knees. He hardly looked capable of the energy required to attend to three or four abortions a day, which was his current schedule. (In his heyday, he had handled 10 to 11 patients.)

We were introduced, and we gravely paid our respects to his reputation, which I think pleased him. The interests of the man were evident in his study. Books of every description, some still in their mail-order wrappings, lined the walls and were stacked on tables, fighting for space with the mementoes of his travels: large chunks of mineral rock, strange and beautiful Indian masks, a blow gun, and a fine collection of rifles. “Douglas likes to go boar hunting. Show them your boar-hunting pictures,” Rappaport said, and Spencer got up and obliged. The snapshots showed the tiny figure with a big, red hunter’s cap on his head, standing in a group with four or five other hunters, towering men, each with his rifle proudly stuck in the ground. Behind the hunting party, 11 large black boars were strung up in a neat row, quite dead. Dr. R. D. Spencer was, he informed us, firmly against gun registration.

Carol or Ira called attention to the microscopes. Several of them were about the room, some with camera attachments and light boxes, and one which Spencer himself had designed. Spencer’s training had been in pathology. Happy to show us the microscopes, he went to one of his cabinets and pulled out some slides. As we took turns at the microscope, intently viewing the various specimens of single-celled life that Spencer had prepared, the man grew increasingly more animated. He was entertaining his guests, and thoroughly enjoying it, and we in turn were thoroughly charmed and engaged, so much so that our friend Rappaport withdrew somewhat testily to the front parlor to converse with Mrs. Spencer.

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Warming to his audience, Spencer brought out further treasures. “This,” he announced of one exhibit, “is the life history of a fly.” And it was, from an insignificant speck to the insect as we know it. “Do you know what this is?” he queried, showing us a small, clear plastic block with something red and curled imprisoned in the center. It was, he told us, the embryo of a pig. We passed it from had to hand, marveling at its tiny perfection, examining it more closely under one of the microscopes. Spencer showed us another red, curled specimen in plastic. “A human embryo,” he announced. “Less than four weeks old.” Unbelievable, but there it was, tiny, more intricate than the pig, with a spot for the eye and the definite tracing of a spinal column. In all, he showed us three tiny human embryos, none more than a thumbnail long, but the third larger and more developed than the first. The only human embryos I had ever seen were those in a big picture layout in Life Magazine. These were in my hand, three-dimensional and real. I took the largest human one and compared it with the pig. A sentence from biology class popped into my head. “Well, ontogeny certainly does recapitulate phylogeny, doesn’t it?”

We were gripped by the human embryos and would have liked to see more, if there were any, but Spencer was digging in his cabinet for other exhibits. He showed us something pitch-black ad vaguely cloth-like in a glass slide. “I’ll give you a hint about this one,” he said, playing a game. “It’s animal and mineral and indigenous to the region.” We were stumped. “Carbon?” I ventured. “That’s the mineral part of it,” he admitted. “Well, a fossilized animal in coal?” I tried again. “This is a piece of a miner’s lung,” he stated simply. “The miner died, obviously.”

We didn’t leave Spencer’s house until close to 1 a.m., and we returned the next day. “He’s been expecting you all morning,” his wife said as she brought us to the rear study. We had thought, Carol and I, that we had better make a stab at a proper interview this time, particularly since Carol’s magazine was paying for her part of the trip. She set up her tape recorder and I reluctantly brought out my notebook. It seemed unfair to ruin a social visit. Spencer apparently though so, too. It was hard to keep him to the subject and several exasperated looks were exchanged among us as our host got involved in anecdote after anecdote, complex stories involving his diagnostic skills, but not at all about abortion.

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Trying our best to pin him down to his very first abortion, we discovered that there really was no such thing as a first abortion, a conscious decision to break the law, with trumpets. He had gotten requests from some local women, and he had obliged. “But why,” I persisted, “did you oblige? Most other doctors don’t. Why were you different? Why did you do abortions for women?” He rocked back and forth in his chair. “Because,” he said slowly, “I could see their point of view.”

For Carol, he attempted to describe his medical procedure. After using the packing method for a couple of years, one day he got a circular in the mail for Leunbach paste, manufactured in Germany. “By golly, it worked,” he told us. Later, when the Leunbach was taken off the market, he began manufacturing his own product in his laboratory, a mild soft-soap solution, which he used to dilate the cervix and loosen the conceptus in the first stage of his procedure. The following day he would complete the curettage. Spencer refined his own technique and he stuck with it for 40 years. The newer methods didn’t interest him.

Spencer told us that he was following with keen interest the recent attempts to liberalize abortion laws in several states. He himself had written Governor Shafer of Pennsylvania. “I told him that most of our laws are from the English,” he said spiritedly, “so why don’t we go to work and copy the one they just passed?” He talked about his letter-writing with the righteousness of an American Legionnaire or a Rotarian, which was not surprising, since he later told us that he was a founder of the Pennsylvania Legion and had been an active Rotarian all his life. His father had been the district attorney of the neighboring country. Did that explain his remarkable record of longevity in a career which is usually marked by the law crashing down on the practitioner’s head? “No,” he said thoughtfully. “I’ve been here since 1919. I daresay I’ve helped out half the town. Even on the abortion end, there is probably one of my patients related to a family in half of the town. I think most of the town would stand up for me.”

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It was 4 p.m. and beginning to snow, and Rappaport was urging us to get going. We said our goodbyes reluctantly. “Please come back and visit again soon,” Spencer urged. I had noticed that among his vast collection of books was a Writer’s Market ’69. Had he been thinking of publishing something, I inquired. Spencer smiled wistfully. Did he want an article about him in a major magazine, with a picture, I pushed. He allowed as how once the New York Times had been interested, but his lawyer had thought that the time wasn’t right. He still had an indictment hanging over his head. References to Spencer had appeared in print, but usually he was “the legendary Dr. S.” Time Magazine, as far as I knew, was the only mass circulation magazine to print his name in full. I told him I thought the time couldn’t be more right for publicity. The idea seemed to appeal to him. Punctiliously he gave me the address and telephone number of his lawyer in Pottsville, and then, special privilege, his own private unlisted number at the house. “We’ll do it for your 80th birthday,” I promised. He had told us that his birth date was March 16, and he was going to celebrate by shutting the clinic for a month and taking his wife on a trip around the world.

Last week I got a call from Dr. Rappaport. Spencer had died that morning at 5 a.m. ❖

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BLACK LIKE WHO? Arguing With the Homeboys

Since Spike Lee has consistently promoted himself as the down voice of black life — the homeboy who, with his other homeboys, speaks to and for black community — it should come as no surprise that black folks feel free to talk back to Spike. We speak about him in ways that suggest familiarity, closeness, the right to butt into his business. In traditional black community, elders would stop you when they thought you were out of line and set you straight. They would call you over, find a quiet space, and let you know what they thought you were doing wrong: this was not the stuff of con­troversy. In the world of racial integration where one’s shit gets “checked” publicly, in the newspapers even, with everybody watching, such critique becomes not only controversial, it plays right into racist as­sumptions that there can only be one pow­erful black (usually male) voice at any given time and that a struggle (preferably one that creates entertaining spectacle for racist onlookers) must take place to see who will retain the title of “head negro in charge.”

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The recent conflict between Spike Lee and Amiri Baraka has all the qualities of darky spectacle. When Lee boasts that “there are thirty million blacks in this country” and that “more of them are on my side than his,” he trivializes the importance of progressive cultural criticism that dares to speak on issues related to black experi­ence, reducing socially relevant conflict to a battle between two black male egos. Had Baraka and crew simply privately voiced concern about the way Spike might portray Malcolm’s life on the screen, it would not have become the stuff of controversy. It would not have raised in the public’s imagination fears of black fascist censorship, of a Rushdie-like affair with Lee as the potential victim of image or life-threatening attacks. When this conflict gets talked about as though it were merely a war between phal­locentric black males for public voice — for authority over black experience — the more serious issues having to do with the place of cultural criticism in black life, ongoing de­bates about issues of identity and authen­ticity (will the real black person please stand up?), as well as the role of artistic production in progressive black liberation struggle, are obscured and all but ignored. These are the happening issues that black folks do not talk about enough or with the level of critical seriousness and sophistica­tion that would enhance and enrich our understanding of black life and simultaneously strengthen our collective struggle. Both Spike Lee and Amiri Baraka would probably agree that collectively black folks are not FREE; that most of us have not decolonized our minds, are caught in the grips of paralyzing internalized racism; and that as a people we lack the kind of ongoing radical analysis of our economic plight that would lead us to understand fully the im­pact of capitalism on black life (contrary to what Spike and others would have us be­lieve, black capitalism and black self-deter­mination are not one and the same).

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Given that black folks make art and mar­ket it within white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, none of us can ignore the reality that any black person who wants to create a product with mass crossover appeal must do some serious soul-searching. It’s all too easy to sell out, to be co-opted, seduced into a conservative artistic practice that allows one to pretend that somehow it’s all right to produce reactionary, right-wing representations of black life that neither threaten nor challenge the status quo — if one is well-paid. Black folks, and all other critical thinkers who are concerned about the fate of black people, who want to see an end to racist domination, are justifiably concerned about the impact of race and representation. In this culture, what group of people could know better than black folks the danger of the IMAGE? And it is politically astute for us to raise questions about the way black life is represented (and that includes the biography of Malcolm X). But if we want such critique to act as constructive intervention, then it cannot be shallow or rooted in superficial personal conflict.

The most frustrating aspect of this Spike/Baraka affair is that as spectacle it does not serve as a catalyst for the making of new critical locations, spaces for open, honest communication. On the positive tip, at best it reminds those among us who would commodify blackness so as to render us objects to be consumed by a ravenous racist public (many of them people of color suffering from internalized racism) that we have not all lost our minds to greed and the lust for fame, that it is still crucial that black people critically examine the nature of the images we project so as not to be guilty of perpetuating the very domination we oppose. The issues raised by the conflict between Spike and Baraka remind us that there is a need for critical vigilance, that artistic production is always, always political.

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It is important that Baraka and crew urge black people to take a critical approach to cultural production, but the field of contes­tation they project is much too narrow and leans toward censorship. The point should not be to “check” or censor Spike or public­ly threaten him, but to urge black folks to be critical viewers committed to a libera­tory politics that would check our tenden­cies to passively consume images. A dynamic space for critical exchange should exist in which meaningful black artistic production could emerge and be critiqued. Many black folks, ruthlessly obsessed with the desire to further racial uplift by pro­moting “positive images,” refuse to ac­knowledge that we need a diversity of per­spectives, and seek to suppress the voices of dissent. Spike should know this since he has shown little interest in critical voices that he does not control, that do not un­equivocally affirm his projects.

Censorship is happening on all levels of the black culture scene. It threatens to keep black artistic expression and cultural cri­tique confined to narrow, suffocating spaces, where they serve as vehicles for the recycling of old images and thought or mindless propaganda. We need to get a grip! During the controversy over Satanic Verses any voice that supported Third World readers’ critical interrogation of the ways people of color are represented in a white supremacist context was automatical­ly seen as betraying the cause of artistic freedom, threatening democratic principles. Yet many folks (myself included) felt we could unequivocally oppose violent intimi­dation even as we could simultaneously ac­knowledge the political necessity of op­pressed and/or marginalized groups asserting in resistance that all forms of ar­tistic expression seeking to perpetuate and maintain imperialism, colonialism, racism, and sexism must be contested. Contestation and censorship are not the same.

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The work of Spike Lee and of all of us who create black art should be critically interrogated. There should be a space to discuss work — in progress as well as com­pleted. As the field of contestation widens for black artists and audiences, as we insist on a critical openness that expands our visions, that invites ongoing transformation of consciousness, we will not need to worry about who produces what kind of image, for the structures will be in place to chal­lenge, critically interrogate, and, if neces­sary, subvert. ■

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BLACK LIKE WHO? Beyond Assimilation

These days, if you read The New York Times, you may have already formed the correct impression that Afrocentricity is largely a question of history and pedagogy. What contributions, if any, have African cultures and civilizations made to the West? (See Manin Bernal’s Black Athena and Cheikh Anta Diop’s Civilization or Barbarism.) What contributions, if any, have Afro-Americans made to U.S. culture? (See any book by Henry Louis Gates Jr.) How will such contributions be recognized and acknowledged by curricular reform? How will such matters be predigested and served up as a list of tasty facts for public school instruction and SAT exams? Nathan Glazer, a member of the Sobol Committee to review the social studies syl­labi in New York’s elementary and high schools, tells us in The New Republic that driving such reforms are the performance problems black children are experiencing in school. Afrocentric and multicultural edu­cational reforms are designed to redress the high dropout rate and the low SAT scores and reading levels of black children.

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On the other hand, Glazer says, Afrocen­trism and multiculturalism, by emphasizing “difference” and minority perspectives on national history, don’t acknowledge that the immigrant experience has largely been one of assimilation. Most Americans couldn’t care less where their ancestors came from. Moreover, he says, there is little evidence that recent Asian and Mexican immigrants want to do things any different­ly. That Afro-Americans and some Latinos want to emphasize “difference” reflects the fact that their attempts to assimilate have been frustrated.

I am not so sure about this word assimi­lation. I suspect that the tendency for eth­nic and postethnic populations around the U.S. to formulate endlessly minute hybrids and variations on The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit should be called something else that better reflects the fluidity and an­archy of the process. (Just think of the difference between folks in Buffalo, New York, and Amarillo, Texas, or Chimayo and Miami.) But I am sure of this: the resistance blacks and nonwhite Latinos have experienced to their upward mobility is called racism and thus far Afrocentrism and multiculturalism seem an inadequate response to it.

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I am opposed to viewing “facts” as the major building blocks of education. Seven­ty-five per cent of the time what goes on in school, when it is going well, is socializa­tion. The integrated Lutheran elementary school I attended had more marks for man­ners and courtesy than it had for math or science. And with good reason. I was learn­ing how to fit in. School was reinforcing the message I got from my family: bathe, wear clean clothes, speak when you’re spoken to. and everything will be okay. This all-impor­tant process continues right through col­lege. Consider, for example, those loath­some fraternities and sororities on every campus.

But the rest of the time, what makes pedagogy worthwhile is now the experience of education is structured, how the student learns to interrogate “fact,” to challenge facticity. What we saw recently in the streets of Moscow and two years ago in Tiananmen Square — a population standing together to resist official “lies” and to fight for “democracy” and “freedom” — this, too, is taught in school. So the very notion of an Afrocentric educational formula in which a list of appropriate “facts” would be disseminated strikes me as almost completely beside the point.

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The problem that Afrocentrists and mul­ticulturalists are facing is a breakdown in the socialization process, what Glazer calls “assimilation.” My older Jewish colleagues at City College are fond of describing how they were successfully “assimilated” or so­cialized by arrogant, perhaps even anti-Se­mitic WASP teachers at Columbia Univer­sity and elsewhere who knew nothing of their heritage or their struggles in Russia or Poland. But what they forget, again and again, is that they were white, or at least — ­as James Baldwin might say — about to be­come “white.” Being white meant they didn’t have to combat racism as they swal­lowed the Eurocentric brew at the tea party of American education.

By “racism” I mean the idea that other races, especially black descendants of Afri­ca, are inferior to the “white” race. The idea of black inferiority has a particular history in U.S. and European development, and often an interesting relationship to oth­er kinds of bias, such as misogyny and anti­-Semitism. This history, unfortunately, is rarely taught by either Afrocentrists or Eurocentrists and this has always been and continues to be my problem with both programs.

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Since the category of “race,” itself, is both racist and mythological, and a symp­tom of what Frederic Jameson calls “the political unconscious” in that “we,” as a culture and a civilization, find it almost impossible to describe it ethically or em­pirically, the mistake that both Eurocen­trists and Afrocentrists make is to almost completely discount it. In fact, I think “race” is an embarrassment to everybody. But by ignoring it, we all, unconsciously, conspire to make it tick.

My “white” colleagues had the option to be good little boys and girls, politely imbibe Eurocentrism and unite with their WASP teachers under the banner of whiteness. People who are not only not white but are black are rarely faced with that option. This doesn’t mean there aren’t lots of excep­tions, like Colin Powell and Clarence Thomas. What it means is that there are only exceptions, or “tokens.” (In agony, I include myself in this group.) And the bulk of people of color, by which I mean those who are too black to become “white,” will remain the unsocialized, unassimilated horde who don’t do well in school because before you can do well in school you have to be accepted, and who don’t do well in American society because before you can do well in American society, you have to be accepted. (See the Crown Heights riots.)

Of course, money helps. But there isn’t much of that around, is there? As for the conspiracy theories and “fact” formulas of the Leonard Jeffrieses, need I tell you what grade he gets in courtesy?

Next: “Arguing with the Homeboys” by bell hooks

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BLACK LIKE WHO? Love and the Enemy

The question: Black Identity. The problem: Who names it, claims it, and decides who profanes it. Here at the crossroads, whose Black Consciousness movement is it any­way? Like the man said, Van Glorius’s. In other words, it’s every man for himself on that one, G. When I was younger and very much the aesthetician, I believed that Black cultural difference was gonna set us free­ — that our salvation and liberation would come in realizing how great Black art set us apart from the illin’ white boy and his cre­ations. If we could make Black political parties function like Parliament-Funkade­lic, we’d be kicking much ass. Having wit­nessed participatory democracy at work in our Black Power renascence of the past five years, that delusion has gone the way of P­Funk’s fabled mothership. (Park it in the dustbin of history, boys, and don’t stop for fading spotlights.) The resurgence of Goth­am’s Black Power movement has been both a welcome and a woeful affair. Welcome because of the bridge it has formed between today’s young rebels and the long-­toothed tigers of yon; woeful because fatuous male posturing, demagoguery, and gen­erational envy have also made a sorry comeback.

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Spike Lee and Amiri Baraka at each oth­er’s throats over who owns the legacy of Malcolm X is one more pathetic episode in our movement farce. For the record, I think Baraka has about as much business telling Spike how to make a politically correct movie about Malcolm X as Spike would trying to instruct Baraka on verse structure. I’ll be stunned if Spike overcomes his immaturity as a storyteller and makes a film with anything approaching the complexity of Malcolm’s world and worldview, but c’est la vie. Ain’t nothing but a movie y’all, and after those two hours in the dark are over we’ll all still have to get up the next morning and deal with being Black men and women in America. Which at the end of the day is about what? Learning to love and struggle with one another, end of story.

Three weeks ago, at the funeral services for a flame of a life named E. Tamu Elling­ton Bess, I realized that the meaning of being Black is summed up in who comes to bury you, who gathers together in your name after you’ve gone, what they have to say about how you loved, and how you were loved in return. Offering such testimo­ny at Tamu’s services was a cross section of our community’s Afristocracy, politicos, artists, activists, bereaved friends, and fam­ily. People presented songs, dances, poems, and soliloquies in her honor. By the end, without knowing any more than the sketchy details of Tamu’s life, you knew she’d made everyone she’d touched more aware of the sacrifice, service, and devotion Black Con­sciousness demands.

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Though I didn’t know her that well, Tamu was revealed to me as one of those exceptional Black folk who are at home wherever African people are, regardless of geography, class, custom, cuisine, or crea­ture comforts. If there’s any legacy of ’60s Black Nationalism I find ennobling and empowering, it’s that movement’s Pan­-Afrikanist embrace of Black folk every­where as brother and sister. Recognizing a loss to our community like Tamu Bess’s, you realize that any liberation or empower­ment strategy that doesn’t grow out of love, in its most constructive, critical, and com­passionate senses, is useless.

What makes the oratory of Malcolm en­dure as a source of enlightenment isn’t just his clarity about how white supremacy works, but also his desire to see us love our African selves more than we love the world of the oppressor. We still listen to Malcolm because we hear the voice of a lover, some­times asking what Bob Marley asked­ — could we be loved — other times asking us why do we love white America, or at least its status symbols, more than we love our­selves. I find the essence of Malcolm’s criti­cal ardor for Black people lacking in most of our grandstanding spokespersons of the present. The Black love you find manifest­ed today is mostly a love for Black Male Posturing. Now, BMP is truly a marvelous thing. Yet do I marvel at it everyday. Where would hip-hop or jazz be without it? Basketball is defined by it, and the streets of downtown New York would be looking mighty shabby for its absence. But the im­potence of current Black nationalist politics comes from its being phallocentric to the core, so caught up in stroking its own hard­-on that it makes no space for the balance offered by feminine wisdom. We have nev­er in our history had a movement that wasn’t well-populated with female leader­ship. These days, part of the reason issues of daily violence and oppression never get discussed is because the people on the frontlines, women and the children in their care, have no voice where legal-eagle activ­ists prevail. So even when the victimization of a Black woman is at the heart of our rallying, it becomes reduced to what dream hampton refers to as a “nut-grabbing contest.”

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The tragedy of this isn’t the gesture itself, but how misguided the movement is in terms of targets and objectives. When I look up to see hundreds rally behind Pro­ fessor Leonard Jeffries when he’s predict­ably attacked for Jew-baiting, I got to won­der what’s the goal beyond reactive rage. (And on the “Jew-baiting” charge, let’s be real. When you put the bait on your line, expect fish to bite, especially if the bait is live and in living color. Jews may be disin­genuous about holding economic, cultural, and political power and privilege and abus­ing it, but some Black folks can be just as disingenuous about admitting they despise Jews more than they despise the average cracker who isn’t a cop.)

Large numbers of Black folk in this town get more upset over being disrespected than they do over being disempowered. Why look for respect from a power structure so greedy it would destroy the planet on which its grandchildren will have to live? I expect neither justice nor respect from white pow­er and certainly not love. What I expect from Black folks is for us to organize in such a way that we make the white power structure understand that it would be in its own best interest not to fuck with us. But no. We’re more concerned with scoring intellectual brownie points than we are with that kind of unifying. (Or, for that matter, with raising the level of reading and writing skills of Black kids in this city or even with improving the rude physical plant of their learning environment. Far as I know, there are currently no plans afoot for mass, fire-breathing demonstrations to protest toilet­-bowl classrooms.)

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Favoring issues of disrespect over strate­gies of empowerment will keep us chasing after love from a muhfuh that don’t love nobody. Such folly leaves us with a politics of reactive rage and race-baiting that my friend Melvin Gibbs astutely defines as “just another form of Tomming and min­strelsy because the audience is always the white man.” My suggestion is we give up the white man as the problem per se and start thinking of him as a natural disaster, a catastrophe we may be unable to prevent but whose destructive effects can be over­come and reversed. I also think we need to let go of the idea that some real natural disaster like the dissolving of the ozone layer is going to wipe the white plague off the face of the earth. You know by the time that day comes, these muhfuhs will be liv­ing in bubble cities and have your ass in the cold paying for air sandwiches faster than you can say Jackie Robinson. Later for Black to the futurism. Your mind may be in Khmet, bro but, yo …

When reactive rage is the dominant form of our politics, when it takes police or mob violence to galvanize us into reaction, it means that there is an acceptable level of suffering and misery. When quality of life issues are not given the same attention as our antilynching activities, it means we have a low level of life expectations. It also means, as Dr. Frances Welsing has pointed out, that there is a general state of depres­sion operative in the Black community that provokes other problems, such as drug abuse. The warriors we need to step forward now aren’t the confrontational kind, but healers. Folk who know how to reach into where we really hurt, to the wounds we can’t see and that nobody likes to talk about. Outside of Joan Morgan, no one has spoken on the traumatic impact John Sin­gleton’s Boyz N the Hood had on many young Black ghetto escapees for whom it screened more as a nightmarish flashback than as escapist entertainment. If Black male leadership doesn’t move in the direc­tion of recognizing the pain and trauma beneath the rage, as the work of Toni Mor­rison, Ntozake Shange, Alice Walker, bell hooks and other women writers have done, if we don’t exercise our capacity to love and heal eachother by digging deep into our mutual woundedness, then what we’re struggling for is merely the end of white supremacy — and not the salvaging of its victims.

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Next: “Beyond Assimilation” by Michele Wallace

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BLACK LIKE WHO? What Price Unity?

For two decades, an honest exchange of ideas in black America has been discour­aged in the name of something called unity. Public disagreements have been perceived as providing ammunition to “the enemy,” that amorphous white “they” that works with a relentlessly evil intent against blacks. Thus, during the 1984 presidential prima­ries, Jesse Jackson accepted the public sup­port of Louis Farrakhan in the name of black unity. This proved fatal to Jackson’s campaign because when Farrakhan’s anti­-Semitic utterances became too much of an embarrassment, Jackson was faced with the impossible moral task of upholding unity without repudiating Farrakhan because such repudiation would have given “aid and comfort to them.”

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Not only was free speech suppressed in black America over the past two decades, but the suppression of dissent and differ­ence in the name of unity evolved into a form of social fascism especially on college and university campuses. In some in­stances, black students were harassed and ostracized for having white friends. One was supposed to associate only with blacks, sit at the black tables in the dining halls, sit with other blacks in classes, and to present, always, a common front for a common cause — blackness. Thinking black took pre­cedence over thinking intelligently.

But American black history had never elevated racial unity above debate, dialogue, difference, or intelligence. In the first part of the 19th century, Negro National conventions were held where black leaders debated and disagreed bitterly and bril­liantly with each other over slavery and freedom, abolitionism and separatism. Frederick Douglass, the first national black leader, and Martin Delaney, the first black separatist, were political adversaries and friends.

Dissent and disagreement have been the hallmark of black history. Though Booker T. Washington, the most politically powerful black in American history, sought to control the minds of black folks with that power, W.E.B. Du Bois, the preeminent intellectual and a founder of the NAACP, fought publicly with him over whether the minds and souls of black folks were better protected by protest and the vote or accommodationism and economic nationalism. Later, Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, the ideological father of today’s black separat­ists, would not even pretend that they liked or respected each other.

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No era in black history presents a better model for public discourse than the ’60s. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Roy Wilkins of the NAACP, Whitney Young of the Urban League, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and the Congress of Racial Equality had fundamental differ­ences on goals and tactics. These were not denied in the interest of something called unity. The differences were acknowledged and asserted while the leaders and organi­zations tried to find a common ground from which they could work for the com­mon good. That good was the social, eco­nomic, political, and moral health of Amer­ica, not just black America.

What is especially significant about the ’60s, at least the first half, is that whites were not excluded from public discourse on racial affairs. Whites had to be included in the public discussion because the souls of white folks were at stake, too. How could they not be?

The ’70s and ’80s saw a narrowing of concern. Black America was not vaccinated against the “culture of narcissism” that in­fected white America. Blacks looked into the pond and became paralyzed by a beauty that was in their eyes only. What they be­held were images of African warriors and princes, the Afrocentric origins of all cul­ture, all knowledge, all civilization, and themselves as legatees. (Today the slogan is “It’s a black thing. You wouldn’t under­stand.”) In short, what they saw were fanta­sies induced by their own sense of inferior­ity, and they fell in love.

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Paralyzed by the passion of self-love, any semblance of intelligent thought and ques­tioning vanished from the politically liberal and radical segments of black America. Jackson mistook cleverness for thought, statistics for knowledge, and slogans for discourse in his efforts to flog life into the faded memories of the ’60s.

However, a new generation of black intel­lectuals were beginning to be heard, intel­lectuals who owed nothing to the black li­beral/radical political establishment, intellectuals who dared question the authority of that establishment to speak for black America. Glenn Loury, William Ju­lius Wilson, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Stanley Crouch, Randall Kennedy, and Stephen Kennedy are too varied and independent to be safely dismissed as con­servative, though some of them are. What they are returning to black America is an intellectual integrity the ideology of race is too impoverished and feeble to bestow.

The intellectual and spiritual health of any group is secured only to the extent that its members are permitted to be themselves and still be accepted as part of the group. Black America is far from evidencing that kind of health, but at least the disagree­ments over Judge Clarence Thomas’s Su­preme Court nomination may indicate a return to the political maturity blacks ex­emplified 140 years ago.

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Unity cannot be an end in itself. The emphasis on it in the past two decades has been a sign of the intellectual and moral chaos in which black America finds itself. Only the weak insist on being agreed with.

Unity comes from respect for difference ind love of dissent. Unity does not come from agreement on a racist principle (and blackness when put forward as the overrid­ing moral principle is as racist as whiteness when put forward in the same way). Unity comes from a concern for and caring about the common good. And the common good must include those who do not belong to my group, racially or ideologically.

Whether black America will be morally capable in the near future of such a unity remains to be seen.

Next: “Love and the Enemy” by Greg Tate

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BLACK LIKE WHO? Niggers, Negroes, Blacks, Niggaz, and Africans

So it’s me and a few of my friends down in Mississippi in this shack of a juke on a Sunday evening and we’re here to listen and watch the Negroes dance a little while and drink some moonshine and feel the real thing, y’all. Yes: the real thang. The folks I’ve come with are all certified white, A-1 white: Pat, a long-hair from Jackson; Peter, a paleface Rasta from somewhere in South Africa; and a silent peaceful-looking guy with a beard who blends into the scene like a melting ice cube, chilling softly. I don’t know his name, and he’s melting out my mind in the heat of this happy place.

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I check the scene and then myself in my own black mirror wondering, “What you doing here with these whiteboys?” when a well-hipped well-spoken sister scheming for that surplus fitty moves past me at the bar and eyes my longhair friend in the face and says, “You here to observe black culture?” Which could have been directed at me and was, really, because my authenticity was on the line and You are only a guide, nigger, she was saying, like a renegade scout point­ing the cavalry towards the secret camp where black culture is true. So the question put me outside gazing in, and suddenly I was just serving these boys like a salesman and I wasn’t real no more and hadn’t been for a long time. And yes, I had come to see the real black thang.

See, this was a blues juke and the people in it were blues people of the sort idealized in LeRoi Jones jazz history and in all kinds of quasi-Marxist quasi-nationalist pro-lum­pen texts I’d read and felt. And guess what? The guide who’d brought us here wasn’t me — Peter from South Africa had told me about this place, and driven me here, and so I couldn’t even claim any special knowl­edge. This juke was not my secret black secret, or even the black secret of the black community — most African Americans I knew in town hadn’t ever heard of it. Most wouldn’t have come even if they had, I think. The evidence: older folks and espe­cially older women spent Sundays at church, while people my age or younger listened to hip-hop, not blues, and danced and imitated the “real niggaz” from Comp­ton at small, dangerous clubs nearby. In the juke’s dark corners there were no youth, and for a moment I thought that the black culture this woman was selling maybe wasn’t the “real” thing anymore.

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I’ve got a friend named David who works in the local record store and he’s been tell­ing me that N.W.A and the gangsta rappers have cornered this town’s young African market. Down here, traditional blues has lost Stagger Lee’s spirit to hip-hop’s real niggaz. The “real” niggaz, the new Bigger Thomases. David explains that folks do listen to other musics, but the essential mu­sic — the “real” thing — is the nihilist capi­talist hardcore hip-hop rap shit. Forget those Native Tongue suburbanites or those PE-type righteous brothers, nah man, we want the real niggaz even when they’re fronting all that bitch shit because of this: in America, violence and making dollars make for respect and those motherfuckers are getting it. Plus, on the subtext tip, N.W.A and the rest fly impotence like a flag. For truth. Can you relate? We can. And if y’all middle-class Negroes find the niggaz embarrassing just because they’re dirty blackface caricatures from the fields encouraging the worst in us and making whitefolks think worse, y’all better peep this: the empty shelves in David’s store speak big volumes, and they say Bigger Thomas has come back from the big city and he’s real now and hard like an African man should be. It’s a case of competitive authenticities, and among the youth down here, Bigger’s beating the blues.

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Which put me and my elusive blues es­sence in a seriously strange position. Be­cause the folks in that juke were definitely Field and they were definitely not playing N.W.A on their stereos and they were defi­nitely still the real thing. Certainly as real as the children at the dangerous clubs near­by. One brother must have checked the confusion on my face because he comes up to me with his eyes half-shut and his hand cupped around a beer and he starts asking me why I’m here, kind of nastylike. With his pale self. My friends are leaning against the walls. He cranes his face further into mine. I’m talking to him in my white En­glish and he begins to wear his Ole Miss degree on his chest. I say I’m a writer and I came to see This. He says, What’s this? I say This. He says, What’s your name? and I tell. “Joe,” he says, “My mother always said to me ‘If you want to eat rice, don’t put sugar in it.’ so be careful how you write this place up, Joe.” And I promised I would and I looked him in the eye and he walked off jigging and saying, “These are just peo­ple here trying to have a good time. No sugar, Joe.” And no Stagger Lee.

But the blues was here, and so was the authentic culture the oldtime cult nats had celebrated, that soul of blackness thang and whatnot. I thought. I mean, there I was watching it, and feeling outside the thing, but seeing it, and knowing it was mine, and knowing it wasn’t, too. Like, I knew it was “real” — at least as real as the very real “real” beneath N.W.A.’s obscenities. But damn! I could not claim this blues juke as my “realness” because I was outside: I live outside it now. I live outside this subcul­ture. Yes, y’all — this blues culture may be “real,” and even may be my subculture’s parent — but it’s not me anymore, and that’s all right. I’m still black. As those middle-class Jesus-loving King-following Negroes in town had proven long ago, cul­tural “authenticity” is too slippery to be the basis of anyone”s political identity.

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The bottom line, then, got real plain: we need a clearly articulated theory of coali­tion — political, economic, and cultural co­alition across biological, and class, and cul­tural lines — towards the liberation of African and other marginal peoples. Such a theory would be a new “black” objectivism, a grand theory that would include an expansive and progressive definition of “blackness,” one to describe African folk who choose “blackness,” as well as any fellow travelers. And so: while Coltrane and Professor Griff and Marian Anderson and N.W.A and Jean Toomer and BDP and Sojourner Truth and George Schuyler and Angela Davis and Michael Jackson, Bigger Thomas and Clarence Thomas and Uncle Thomas are all African American, they may not all be “‘black.” Brothers and sisters, if “Afrocentricity” is our new cultural herme­neutic, we also need (as Cornel West and others have been arguing) a broad (black) objectivism for political and material mat­ters. To get past this “realness” thing, and into the real thing. Next go-round we’ll drop Clarence Thomas quickly, and with theoretical confidence. And we won’t con­fuse questions about Michael Jackson’s Af­rican authenticity with the nuts and bolts concern — his political loyalty, his “black­ness.” And if MC Ren says, “I’m not with that black shit, so I ain’t gonna yell that,” we’ll take him at his word, and cut him loose. If “black” the term is to be of any use, it ought to mean something, and not any old African thing.

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So there I was in that juke with my big city ambivalent middle-class butt and I had drunk a bit and my white friends were against the walls and I was romancing the blues essence that was and was not there and suddenly I stopped watching and I stopped drinking and I caught the colorless and melted ice cube guy with the beard dancing and I started dancing too.

Next: “What Price Unity” by Julius Lester

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BLACK LIKE WHO? Ghosts

Let me start off by saying I’ve had some problems with this. That the (read white) media’s unwarranted attack on Leonard Jeffries, their fascination with the fact that, with Clarence Thomas, Bush’s appointee to the Supreme Court could be a black, radical conservative (as if skin color necessarily determined political alliances), or the hulla­baloo over Spike’s and Amiri’s apparent inability to see eye to eye on a figure as controversial as Malcolm X would prompt the Voice to do a segment exploring defini­tions of blackness among black writers is sadly typical of the racial dynamic in this country. This Western dissection of one’s cultural, spiritual, let alone racial identity is usually prompted by white America’s in­ability to figure out precisely who we are at any given moment in time. It makes them feel better. Furthermore, I have yet to see an article exploring the concept of “white­ness” provoked by the antics of the “al­leged” St. John’s rapists, Jermaine Ewell’s attackers, or Yusef Hawkins’s assailants. In addition to this initial resistance, I also realized my life as a “barely-making-ends-­meet black woman living in Harlem” rarely affords me the luxury of such bohemian introspection. “Blackness” stopped being the subject of emotionally wracked poetry at the completion of prep school and Wes­leyan. At 26, it is simply who I am.

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Prelude:
Violence often is the tie that binds in our community. My roommate has a message from the new friend. “He just saw Boyz N the Hood and sounded very upset. He kept saying, ‘It all came back and I knew Joan would understand.’ ” South Bronx, Comp­ton, Williamsburg: all around the ghetto, same song. Even peripheral knowledge of each other’s project pasts was enough to let the brother know; watching Ray’s chest get blown open let loose a floodgate of illy fucking memories: Me and a posse of 13-year-olds searching 20 flights of projects for the three 16-year-olds (two male, one fe­male) that ran a train on my homegirl Pye. Nina being raped and thrown off the roof of her building days before her departure for college. Not quite understanding what was going on, but knowing that the reason the candy store was closed on a weekday was related to the wine-colored mural on its gate and something called point-blank range. Like the new friend, I sobbed uncon­trollably, not only for what once was, but for my inability to live comfortably with these ghosts and give them the homage of memory. I cried because their repression had become a necessary part of my survival.

Summer Madness: Snatch 1
“Something is terribly awry,” a speaker would say later on, at her funeral. “One of our tribesmen has shot the messenger sis­ter.” News of Tamu’s leaving this earth reached us by pay phone on Broadway, around the corner from Sticky Mike’s. Ipe’s legs gave way and mine soon followed. Tamu was shot and killed in a robbery attempt in Baldwin Hills, and yes, I do know about the statistics, but aren’t those who are black and young and beautiful and vibrant and loud and sassy and talented and above all else doing extremely impor­tant work in the political, religious, and art arenas of the black community somehow exempt? I wonder if any other race of wom­en in this country sleeps with such an ugly dichotomy: if I am to leave here unexpect­edly it will probably be at the hands of one of my brothers. If I am to survive this at all, it will probably be because of them too. Insanity and rage are seductive, beckoning fingers on a dimly lit corner. The new friend becomes the good friend and nears unexpectedly: obviously sent at that mo­ment to pull us back from the line.

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Snatch 2
The women gather for a laying on of hands. We come from different paths and genera­tions to give our support to Dee Barnes and mourn and curse a system that produces, then supports, women-bashers like N.W.A’s Dr. Dre; one that gives rise to questions like the one Sister Souljah posed in her speech at the New Music Seminar. “The white male power structure has made our men insane: how can we hold them responsible?” Insanity must breed insanity be­cause hardly a day passes when I don’t find myself hoping Dre’s punk ass will catch a bad one. So, I’ve got to hold them responsible or I’ll spend the rest of my life reduced to loving brothers in the abstract and fear­ing them on streetcorners.

Snatch 3
The sounds of girlfriend laughter and the eager energy of road trips will not turn Leslie’s respectably corporate car into a thumpin’, bumpin’, finger-poppin’ Negro­mobile this summer. She imagines it to be a hearse instead. “The car is possessed,” she whispers, “and very evil.” Nairobi and I rush to Wall Street, hoping that Leslie’s fly corporate gear and sensible shoes will serve as Emperor’s Clothing and keep her office­mates from noticing the tearful phone calls and talk of strange animals lurking under the desk. Later, from the hospital, her mother confirms that the breakdown is similar to the one Leslie experienced post­graduation, “a chemical disorder, that is triggered by sustained drug use.” Her moth­er senses our confusion; Leslie hasn’t done blow in years. “It seems as if she’s been smoking small quantities of marijuana.” One jay a day and our sister lies strapped on some bed fighting for her faculties. I go, once again, to the place the tears are sup­posed to be and come up quite empty.

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Snatch 4
Hours before Tamu’s funeral my thoughts run to Carol, another sister lost and buried in June. Those who loved her described her as a happy (upper-middle-class) African American princess. Those who knew her and loved her watched Carol’s never acknowledged addiction to prescription drugs claim her long before the alleged asthma attack. Those who loved her wrote a scanty obit, summing up the last eight years of her life with, “She had taken up housekeeping in the Midwest and had lots of new friends.” Those who knew her and loved her wondered why it took two weeks for someone to find her. She died the day be­fore her 27th birthday. Those who loved her shook their heads and spoke softly of Jesus. Those who knew her and loved her were few in number and too angry to cry.

Coda
The pallbearers and ushers wore real kente armbands and very few folks wore black. I suppose we were all trying to look bright and full of the love that Tamu had that way of generating. The place where the tears are supposed to be is dangerously, unfamiliarly full. I grab my eleke and pray to Yemeya for enough strength to hold back the flood. The last piece of kente I see before they carry in the casket is on the arm of a recent ghost sister, one I have not quite yet repressed. I touch her to see if it is really Niambi, returned from the world of crack vials and pipe dreams. “It’s me Joan,” she whispers between barely audible sobs. “I’m back.” Yemeya sends a wave; the tears haven’t stopped falling yet. So maybe this is what blackness is partially about, learning how to make space for ghosts and love to the blues.

Next: “Niggers, Negroes, Blacks, Niggaz, and Africans” by Joe Wood

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BLACK LIKE WHO? On Black Rage

American culture seems to lack two ele­ments basic to race relations: a deep sense of the tragic and a genuine grasp of the unadulterated rage directed at American society. The chronic refusal of most Ameri­cans to understand the sheer absurdity that confronts human beings of African descent in this country — the incessant assaults on black intelligence, beauty, character, and possibility — is not simply a matter of de­fending white-skin privilege. It also bespeaks a reluctance to look squarely at the brutal side and tragic dimension of the American past and present. Such a long and hard look would lead this nation of undeni­able opportunities and freedom-loving peo­ple to acknowledge its legacy of unspeak­able crimes committed against other human beings, especially black people.

Unfortunately, this fact has become trivi­alized — partly by black middle-class oppor­tunists — into a cynical move in a career game of upmanship that reinforces white guilt and paralysis. Yet, as our great artists like Ralph Ellison, William Faulkner, Lil­lian Smith, and Toni Morrison have shown, the tragic plight and brutal treatment of black people is a constitutive element — not a mere moral mistake — of American civili­zation. To put it crudely, America would not exist without 244 years of black slavery, 85 years of Jim and Jane Crow (including the lynching of a black man, woman, or child every three days for a quarter of a century), and now, one of two black kids caught in a violence-infested life of poverty.

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Black responses to this unique American experience have been shot through with rage — just as were Jewish responses to at­tacks, assaults, and pogroms in anti-Semitic Russia and Eastern Europe at the turn of the century. Yet xenophobic czars and au­thorities were not surprised at Jewish rage. Wouldn’t any vicious tyrants expect this response from their victims? In stark con­trast, most American elites, owing to nar­row, self-serving notions of freedom and justice, have been flabbergasted at the ex­pression of black rage. This is so even though most black rage has not been direct­ed at American elites, but rather at other black people (especially women), Italian shopkeepers, Korean grocers, gays and les­bians, and Jewish entrepreneurs. These tar­geted expressions of black rage, though of­ten downright cowardly and petty, signify the social invisibility and relative power­lessness of a people toward whom Ameri­can elites have been and are indifferent.

The ’60s was a watershed period because black rage came out of the closet. As white institutional terrorism was challenged, black rage surfaced with a power and a potency never seen in American history. In fact, it threatened the very social order and stability of the country. The major Ameri­can-elite response to this threat was to re­duce tragic black persons into pathetic black victims and to redirect the channels of black rage in and to black working-class and poor communities. The reduction was done by making black poor people clients of a welfare system that both sustained and degraded them; by viewing black middle­-class people as questionable and stigmatized beneficiaries of affirmative-action programs that fueled their identity crises; and by rendering black working people (the majority of black people!) as nearly nonex­istent, even as their standard and quality of living significantly declined.

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The high social costs borne by much of black America during the Republican years of recession and “recovery” have been dev­astating. Measured in terms of housing, education, jobs, health care, and, above all, the massive social and moral breakdown in nurturing black youth, we may be at a point of no return. And yet the chickens now coming home to roost are not the ones we expected. Instead of a focus on the funda­mental sources of black social misery — the maldistribution of wealth and power fil­tered through our corporate, financial, and political elites, we find black rage directed at racist ethnic individuals and communi­ties, mere small players in the larger game of power in the city, state, and country.

Some of the blame can be laid at the feet of black leadership. In New York, Mayor David Dinkins, a decent man in a desper­ate situation, has failed to make the requi­site symbolic gestures to the black commu­nity in his efforts to disarm white charges of personal bias and racial favoritism. This strategy has backfired. Community spokes­people, like Reverend Al Sharpton and Reverend Herben Daughtry, two steadfast and courageous activists locked into an endless cycle of immediate reaction to events, are, at times and out of frustration, swept into a rhetoric that embraces the lowest common denominator of black rage. The slide from demands of justice and due process to those of vengeance and vigilan­tism is a shon one for an abused and en­raged people. Yet, as reverends Sharpton and Daughtry at their best recognize, this slide is neither morally right nor politically effective.

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Elijah Muhammad and Martin Luther King Jr. understood one fundamental truth about black rage: It must be neither ignored nor ignited. This is what separates them from the great Malcolm X. Malcolm indeed articulated black rage in an unprecedented manner in American history; yet his broad black nationalist platforms were too vague to give this black rage any concrete direc­tion. Elijah and Martin knew how to work with black rage in a constructive manner: shape it through moral discipline, channel it into political organization, and guide it by visionary leadership. Black rage is as American as apple pie. That is why the future of our city, state, and country de­pend, in large part, on whether we acknowl­edge it, how we respond to it, and the manner in which bold and wise leaders direct it.

Next: “Ghosts” by Joan Morgan