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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

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BLACK LIKE WHO? The Body In Question

Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just a punch, a kick was just a kick. After I studied the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is a punch, a kick is just a kick.

The Tao of Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee, the Chapter on °Tools”

The masters tools cannot dismantle the master’s house.

— Audre Lorde

The collective body — that phantasm with which I share blood, history, and hips — ­goes for a stroll. Ambling, lumbering, hob­bling in a monstrous mass, more male than female, urban than rural, angry than forgiv­ing, the CB is reminiscent of some creature from a ’50s sci-fi flick, bigger than a house. Familiar and endearing to some, scary to others, the body in question shall remain surnameless, has to, which is no doubt one reason Malcolm took on the X. But let’s give it a handle anyway, call it the “black community” this time around, knowing full well, though forgetting all the time, that there is more than one collective body roaming the American landscape at any given moment.

Anyway, it’s a humid day in Brooklyn, so the collective body decides to take in a movie. Terminator 2 has just opened on the Fulton Street Mall. The collective body (working the affirmative-action tip by bringing along Julian and Jeff, who are white) digs deep into its pocket for $7, the price of the ticket for a flick with a decided­ly nonblack lead — though his name does seem to say “black,” two times.

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Without a doubt, the Metropolitan Cine­mas is one of the best places to see an action pic. The excellent “Awwh shit … Kill him!” call and response of the audi­ence makes it moviegoing like it oughta be. But still, who couldn’t be thrown by the sight of an African American scientist, played by Joe Morton, being chastised (“It’s you people who have destroyed the world!”) and not scream “Whoa!” (“Who, black men?!!”), and then wonder why the collective body continues to root and re­spond after that moment. Is there some more compelling (though perhaps uncon­scious) logic than the simple “that’s entertainment”?

Something in Leonard Jeffries’s deploy­ment of history suggests there is. And then somersaults to throw light on Jeffries’s own debacle. (And by debacle, I mean not only his delusions-of-personal-grandeur, pseudo­science, quasireligious filibuster, but the anxiety-driven, censorious paranoia with which its been met. Forget the Post and go directly to the more subtle Time piece by Lance Morrow and Thomas McCarroll, who use Jeffries to slip in a cursory critique of the “intellectually troubling” aspects of Afrocentrism, that new religion, which they intimate has no greater goal than to declare ancient Egypt as black and the rightful cra­dle of civilization.) Where Jeffries and T2 rebel John Connor meet is in their advoca­cy of history as something that “can be processed in a way to make it work for you.” And that is time travel, pure and simple.

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Well, not so simple. Terminator 2‘s back and forth between the past and the post­apocalyptic present is sexy but convoluted. Even so, the conceit of an adult hero repro­gramming a cybertool to save his boy-self (making him more his father than his own father could be) is easily the most groovy metaphor for the work of postmodern his­tory available. This is what history is like for the collective body, it is a tool to reengi­neer the past, get in there, fix it up, guaran­tee a future. (That some, like Jeffries, I venture, believe that the iterations have a natural stopping point, a “truth,” “our truth,” is a problem of a different stripe.)

With history conveniently declared de­ceased — an untimely death to say the least — even the less conspiracy-minded of us can’t help feeling that it’s been murdered in order to prevent us, the collective body, from resuscitating it, exhuming it, perform­ing an autopsy, doing whatever it takes to get it to bear witness to the atrocities and triumphs to which it’s been privy. This is, of course, one of the aims not only of Afro­centrism, but of multiculturalism and feminism.

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The collective body wants to know.

But what? Nothing less than its past, present, and future. The time when uttering a historical gem meant announcing a “fact” has slipped by. Not because events them­selves are malleable, but because their “meaning” is, from here on out, painfully contestable. This is embedded in Jeffries’s rail as well (though his history is more divisive than a device). But there is some­thing truer than all the bogus “frameworks” about sun and ice evoked to show people of color (and whites) that we’ve had our hand in this world from the get-go, which is that there is certainty no more.

We need look no further than Spike Lee and Amiri Baraka’s brawl over Malcolm’s legacy or Jeffries’s spiel on the dastardly deeds of a Jewish Hollywood, or even the uproar about Clarence Thomas and African American Republicans, to see that the col­lective body, the black community, hasn’t a cohesive identity. You don’t have to be a psychoanalyst to know how difficult and painful questions of identity can be. If one lone subject spends a lifetime of language trying to represent herself in total, all the while slip-sliding over a world of communi­cation, it’s not difficult to imagine the hell (and high points) a nation of millions wades through to express itself in one voice.

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Was there ever a time when the collective body moved and spoke as one? Not likely. And is that one-hand, one-heart feeling de­sirable, or even possible? Racism and in­equality make it feel thus — make it seem necessary, but would it be so in a world of undifferentiated difference? A world where race is neither the “Master’s house,” nor a tool to dismantle it. There is a tremendous push (ours) and an opportunity (let’s not forget the pangs of a hungry marketplace) for more representation, more film, more images, more, more, more. With this lurch forward comes a flood of anxiety as well. Competition for one: If individual blacks can only speak for the collective body, then exactly how much of it is there to be carved up and sold off? But also a more visceral fear: Will we become slaves to the collec­tive body? Forced always to speak for it and to its needs? And scared to death that if we don’t, we won’t be allowed to say anything; or if we misrepresent it for the sake of ourselves we will be expelled, we will not exist? We will be “Toms,” or “house negroes,” or “not black,” when clearly we remain in our skins.

It’s not a surprise to find film in the midst of this growing discussion of the col­lective’s identity. Film because it feels extraordinarily powerful — all that money, and narrative, and pleasure — and because historically it is how America looks at itself. While Leonard Jeffries was not wrong to assail “Sambo images” of black folk in ear­ly Hollywood films (though black film his­torian Donald Bogle has done better work of it in Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies and Bucks, locating the subversive in the submissive, finding the residue of the black actors’ resistance to demeaning roles), he couldn’t have chosen an odder time to do it, this being the year of black film and all. In the recent past Spike Lee’s films have been treated as something of a hand-held mirror by the collective body — many of us drawn to his images less like Narcissus than like people who have seldom seen them­selves — the cinema has now become a house of mirrors.

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New Jack City, Chameleon Street, Jungle Fever, Boyz N the Hood, True Identity all speak of, to, and/or for the collective body. With every viewing, the black community gets an inkling of its shape, its texture, even its age and gender (mostly young, mostly male these days). Indeed many of the Afri­can American films of the past year have done the work of retooling, demonstrating how that activity creates new, compelling difficulties for the collective body. In short: WHERE ARE THE WOMEN??!! From House Par­ty to To Sleep With Anger to Mo’ Better Blues to Boyz N the Hood, the sons are working overtime to secure the place of the father, and in doing so, themselves. If ever there were a symbolic effort to counteract a sociological assertion — that of paternal abandonment — it has been these films, which depict a world of fathers and sons. Need I add, this does not take care of all of us who partake of and make the collective body’s life 24-7. (Word to the brother: I will not have some 23-year-old man-child in LALA land telling me I must forego a ca­reer to be a good mother, that it’s my re­sponsibility to the embattled black family, just because he made a moving film.) If one were to seize the entrepreneurial moment, the T-shirt would read: IT’S AN OEDIPAL THING. YOU WOULDN’T UNDERSTAND. This is less a complaint, more an observation about the failure inherent in casting the collective over the individual or mistaking the individual vision as the collective reali­ty. If we Americans weren’t going through such a xenophobic moment in relation to French thought, I would suggest that when discussing black film, we put a slash through the “black” just to make a distinc­tion between a tool with a handle and … us.

That an essay about the identity of the black community can teeter just this side of being a film piece is a testament to our living in a uniquely American moment, when political activism, liberation activity, is more often than not bound up with ques­tions of representation. When the real lives of people are substantiated by their reel lives. The U.S. is at once a semiotic semiot­ic semiotic semiotic world and a material one; a place where we become the actors, the acted upon, and no one in particular.

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No doubt, our bodies are shot through with meaning, riddled with definitions and qualities not of our own choosing. Some­times the most positive thing to do in that instance is to choose wholeheartedly the meanings, embrace them dramatically, turn the joint upside down. Hip-hop does this aggressively. Film bobs and weaves. Identi­ty politics … well, at its best, it’s like social work at its best, a strategy employed on the way to a different place.

The collective body is at a weird stage. The question is, Will it become the cyborg that we construct, tend, love and hate, breathe life into, and can’t bear to part with (though its existence may doom us ulti­mately)? Or will we let it pass when the time comes? The fights over who will speak, what will be said and recounted, the “real” blackness suggest that the moment of relinquishing will not be an easy one. But in avoiding it we confound ourselves, throt­tle our artists, repress our meaning as peo­ple who, unlike the collective body, have proper names and rich personal histories. What exactly is the purpose of a politics based on racial identity, any identity? To prove the other guy wrong? Make him yell uncle? Or to deliver the subject from the jaws of a limited/limiting discourse into a meaty narrative, however painful, joyous, and lousy, of her own?

Next: “Black Rage” by Cornel West