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Defined by defiance
By John McWhorter
THere is a village in Cyprus where potters always add two blobs of clay to jugs. They don't know why; they just do it because that's the way it's always been done. But jugs excavated in the area from 500 B.C. are modeled on the female form and always include two breasts. Over time, the connection with the female body was lost to history, and modern potters just add the blobs as a meaningless gesture.
Of course, the blobs have a certain aesthetic appeal. Not knowing about their origin as breasts, one might even think that at some point modern potters decided to add the blobs themselves because of a certain balance they lend the jugs.
In this case, something began as a concrete, purposeful action, but devolved into a meaningless, reflexive gesture. The gesture lived on because it hurt nothing, and even lent marginal benefits, although not the ones that the original action was intended for. This process has been called skeuomorphy, and it determines a great deal of our lives -- much more than we are often aware of. For example, it has decisively shaped black American identity since the '60s.
In black America, what began as concrete activism aimed at getting justice devolved into abstract gestures unconcerned with justice. The vestigial gestures live on because they serve a psychological function: they assuage personal insecurities that are legacies of our station in American life until very recently. Many today genuinely think that the gestures are activism. So much time has gone by, and ever fewer were mature in the era of genuine civil rights activism.
Our problems, then, have not been the eclipse of the manufacturing economy, overly ambitious middle-class blacks, drugs "coming in," structural racism, or any of things commonly adduced. Under ordinary conditions, black America could have stood up to all of these things. But conditions have not been ordinary since the late '60s. The burden of legalized segregation and disenfranchisement was immediately replaced with another one: a sense that black Americans are defined by defiance.
Only rarely does this create a gun-toting rebel spouting revolutionary rhetoric. More commonly it just programs one with a general sense that the rules are different for us. Things considered ordinary requirements of others are "too much" for us -- or at least, most of us. Choices considered inappropriate by others are "understandable" for us -- or at least, most of us. Allowing that racism plays no significant part in our lives would be disloyal for us. Even if some of us are OK, it must always and forever be that most of us are much less OK, and this could only be whites' fault. To be authentically black is to maintain a wary sense of white America -- whatever that is -- as eternally "on the hook."
The most crucial and damaging aspect of this way of thinking is that it is passed on from person to person and generation to generation because it sits well on the soul, but regardless of societal conditions. For this reason, this ideology has hindered black America from adapting to changing economic conditions. It has rendered black America overly susceptible to the temptations of open-ended dependence and criminality. It has discouraged black American leaders from innovative responses to community problems.
Yet over the years I have learned that my take on this is an eccentric one. Some are aware that posturing is not unknown on the black sociopolitical scene. But few are aware that it is the decisive factor on that scene today.
In the 1960s, civil rights leader Bayard Rustin was dismayed by a new breed of separatist black leaders. They shunned concrete, proactive lobbying and careful rhetorical suasion, instead preferring high-profile altercations, preferably involving getting arrested. In 1963, Rustin counseled the increasingly radicalized Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee that "the ability to go to jail should not be substituted for an overall social reform program." In Rustin's eyes, these scenes were ultimately, as he put it, "gimmicks." The typical demonstration often had "no relation to the fundamental question of how to get rid of discrimination" and was just "an end in itself." In other words, Rustin was watching activism devolve into mere gesture. A. Philip Randolph, who had founded the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and spurred the founding of the Fair Employment Practices Commission, saw the same thing. "Black Power is neither a program nor a philosophy. It is, like white supremacy, a slogan."
But slogans are powerful things, and old-school leaders like Rustin and Randolph would soon be edged aside by a new mood, in which slogans were considered activism in themselves while programs and philosophies were considered beside the point. But it would have been self-evident to any leading black organization before this time that being arrested on camera without a specific constructive goal in mind was mere play-acting. Therapeutic alienation was taking over.
Rustin's speech didn't go over well with the SNCC that night in 1963, and a few years later its chairman would be Stokely Carmichael, openly advocating violence and popularizing the "Black Power" term that Randolph criticized.
Carmichael was brought in to replace John Lewis. Lewis was devoted to nonviolence. But he was enough on fire to have the original draft of his speech at the March on Washington nervously edited for white consumption, and to have been beaten in Selma on "Bloody Sunday." Lewis went on to found the Voter Education Project, registering voters throughout the South and getting black politicians elected. Carmichael, on the other hand, moved to Africa after a few years and spent the rest of his life making speeches about imperialism, pan-Africanism and socialism, which had rather diagonal impact upon the lives of the people he had purported to be so concerned about in his Black Power days. Lewis was, and remained, an activist, whose efforts helped create today's black leadership. Carmichael, changing his name to Kwame Toure, was, and remained, a performer. One tries today to identify something that Carmichael left behind for his own people, and comes up with nothing except newsreels in which he says some colorful things.
The ideology spread fast, among a people left so susceptible to it by a hideous past, and before long, black "leaders" committed to acting up over action were accepted as normal on the black political scene. Al Sharpton rose to prominence in the 1980s refusing to recant his support of an arrantly mendacious rape accusation by a teenaged black woman seeking an alibi for time spent with a boyfriend. The idea of this as progressive is senseless unless we see that theatrics was the point. Sharpton has done nothing since to indicate otherwise: He has spearheaded no legislation and given no sign of wanting to, and his National Action Network has made only gestures towards its stated goal of registering black voters. Yet there has been no nationally influential body of black leadership directly and sustainedly decrying Sharpton's tactics and freezing him out of all substantial discussion of blacks' plight.
The point is not that Sharpton has hurt black America in any serious way; a people are not done in by someone making speeches. Sharpton is crucial to my point solely in that he has even been allowed a place at the table, when as late as 1960 he would have registered at best as a local character. Sharpton appeared, basically, "normal" by the 1980s because of the filter that the meme [an ingrained way of thinking] of therapeutic alienation places on the mind. For some, it meant outright cheering for Sharpton. For most, it simply meant not minding him -- but even this reveals a frame of mind that many fewer blacks could have even let pass before the '60s, and certainly not blacks' national leaders.
Whites toss out the ball
My claim is not that therapeutic alienation is a tic that somehow emerged only among black people. Not only does it occur in plenty of other people, but black people inherited it from others: specifically, whites during the countercultural revolution.
Whites' alienation from the Establishment began, of course, as a genuine and concrete opposition to the Vietnam War, as well as racism. The countercultural movement effected profound transformations in American society that all of us are thankful for today. However, there was, amidst the constructive efforts, always a certain gut-level thrill in the sheer rebelliousness in itself. As such, it was not surprising that after the smoke cleared, a mood was left in the air, finding pleasure in rebellion for its own sake. Action devolved into gesture, as the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland disappeared and left just his smile.
That legacy lives on in mainstream American culture today, in the form of a spontaneous embrace of anti-Establishment sentiment in a great many people, expected in particular of the educated and/or thinking person. Certainly plenty of active, committed political activism remains. But there is also a general psychological legacy which expresses itself not in outright rejection of the Establishment or concentrated efforts to change it, but in quiet attitudes now taken as normal that would throw most people brought to our America from as recently as 1960. David Brooks' Bobos in Paradise captures this perfectly: people living lives intimately tied to grand old middle-class Establishment values and concerns who go to great lengths to ensure that their kids perform well enough on tests to get into top schools, but who decorate their lives on the edges with genuflections to the counterculture in terms of artistic taste, dress style, food and voting choices.
Blacks take the ball and run with it
This brings us to why black Americans drank in therapeutic alienation so readily once whites presented it as a model, in their own politics and in celebrating it as the essence of true blackness. The reason was that this sea change gave black America something that it wanted, even if it ended up being poison more often than not. The stage had been set with concrete action: when blacks wrested the victories of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 from a racist America. But there had always been a theatrical thrill inherent to the marches, the protests, the talk show appearances, the speeches, the cheering crowds. It felt good -- and not only because it had helped black America as a whole, but because it helped black people participating in it to feel whole.
And in the late '60s, black America needed not only legislation, but feeling whole. Communally, sure -- but also individually, deep down, after the parade was over, when you were all alone, after dark, just you. After centuries of degradation, there was a hole in the black American soul. How could a people feel truly good about themselves when they had been told that they were animals by the Establishment forever, and were too far removed from their ancestral roots in Africa to feel the true wholeness of its indigenous cultures in any real way? When Eddie Murphy did his "happy African" characterization in "Coming to America," he captured a real difference that we see between African immigrants and black Americans. Africans often have a genuine pride, as products of countries where people on all levels of society are black, that contrasts with a wary "don't tread on me" air that history has left on black America.
©2005 Chicago Sun-Times
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