It is at first hard to quite understand William L. Van Deburg’s purpose in “Hoodlums” (University of Chicago, 304 pages, $29). He introduces the book as an examination of black “villain” figures, intended to “contribute to the formulation of a more accurate, less self-conscious African American history.” But as he recapitulates chapter-and-verse of leftist black historiography — the equation of the concept of black with evil since early Christendom, the dehumanization of African slaves, the horror of lynching, and white riots against blacks in the early 20th century — no novel contribution is apparent.
Nor is Mr.Van Deburg remotely the first writer to list black folk characters like Stag-o-Lee, Dolemite, and Shine as “trickster” paragons of resistance to racism, nor to draw a line from them through the “blaxploitation”heroes like Shaft through to today’s gangsta rappers. Mr. Van Deburg’s prose is too ordinary, and his observations too predictable, to lend special texture or insight. I was perplexed to see a writer devoting a whole book to tabulating the well-trodden.
I started to sense his goal, however, after he listed assorted fantastical conspiracy theories common in the black community, such as that Church’s Chicken puts an ingredient in their batter designed to sterilize black men. Mr. Van Deburg praises such nonsense as “energizing — not paralyzing — resistance to oppression.” For him, a black man in the inner city — where black male infertility is decidedly difficult to perceive — is on the right track in placing “suspicion over fear.” Never mind that people cherishing these conspiracy theories do not seem to transform this “suspicion” into constructive activism terribly often.
Unfortunately, “Hoodlums” is not only unoriginal but typical — one more book teaching the white man that black America’s main problem is that whites don’t like us, complete with the ivory-tower conceit that for blacks, confrontational behavior is a form of “politics.” The “less self-conscious African American history” Mr. Van Deburg seeks will embrace the naughty black icon as a prophet instead of treating such figures as embarrassments or aberrations. After a while, Mr.Van Deburg gives the game away with ideas such as that black “thug” imagery is based on a temptation to “treat bad as good for purposes of argumentation and survival.” Might we ask where the evidence is that such people would not “survive” if they did not embrace the cult of the thug?
Mr. Van Deburg’s book faces the usual problem such books do. He must frame blacks as victims even in the face of simple reality. After the Rodney King riots, “media coverage tended to privilege dramatic episodes of violence over thoughtful analysis of foundational social issues.”Yes, for about four days — but after that, the media overflowed for months with discussions about what had caused the riots, often victim-focused, and Mr. Van Deburg cannot have missed this. He breezily asserts that the criminal justice system is racist, and while the issue of sentencing discrepancies is complex, it is wrong to ignore issues such as the difference between being caught selling versus buying, or the impact of previous arrests upon sentencing.
Not even white abolitionists of yore pass muster: When they wrote fiction singling out noble slaves,they implied that “any race cursed with ‘black blood’ forever was destined to remain a hothouse transplant.”
In a brief shift of tone also common in books of this kind, Mr.Van Deburg departs from his temperate prose style in some choice words for conservative blacks, whom he outright labels “Toms.” When people like Clarence Thomas and Shelby Steele rebut critics, they can only be showing themselves to be “astute enough to make political capital out of opponents’ threats,” and have “regaled reporters with accounts of their own victimization.” As to some earlier “Toms,” they were wary of “integrating into blackness and celebrating victory over Whitey with new nationalist friends” — but here, Mr.Van Deburg refers to “Toms” like Roy Wilkins and Bayard Rustin! Even Spike Lee, we learn, does not depict poor blacks in his movies — in which case “Do the Right Thing,” “Jungle Fever,” and “Clockers” were evidently ghost-directed.
Mr. Van Deburg’s book is also typical of a certain class of scholarship in its assumption that black people are beyond serious criticism — other than,of course,black slaveowners and the old-time elitist black bourgeoisie. Even after a lengthy outline of the most nihilistically violent and misogynist rap lyrics,Mr.Van Deburg’s general feeling is that rappers are “musical method actors.” He ventures a gentle criticism that this music has “made actual gangland problems worse by making them appear intractable” — but soon returns to the tonic key of tribalist plangency, more interested in the fact that gangsta raps “have also spawned unjustified fears.” Only at the end of his concluding chapter does he engage reality directly and state that “when rage is no longer tempered with reason” and “concern for the collective welfare is displaced by self-aggrandizement,” we are faced with simply “bad blacks” not “baadd blacks.”
Even here, however, what follows is more critique of whites’ “fears” of blacks, and the main message of “Hoodlums” is the following. Blacks have been subject to animal stereotypes since antiquity. They develop “badass” folk heroes to bolster their psyches against this abuse, with gangsta rappers the latest example. They grapple further with black traitors in their midst, “villains” of a different stamp. The race problem will end only when whites vanquish their ingrained sense of blacks as less than human. Otherwise, black bandit icons will be necessary to keep alive the call for whites to face their inner racists.
That analysis presents fable as history, therapy as politics, and petulance as psychology. This kind of thing may have had a certain resonance, and even a crude consciousness-raising utility, in about 1968. But it will not do for serious writers in the racial landscape of 2004.
If cross-country black riots in 1960s were due simply to oppression, why did they not start occurring decades, or even a century, earlier? If gangsta rappers’ rhetoric is a call from the downtrodden, then where was music remotely this evil before the 1980s? Even Mr. Van Deburg steps away from the common line that old-time blues singers were as profane and nihilistic as gangsta rappers, and I expected him to grapple with simple questions like this. But he does not, and in the end, Mr. Van Deburg seems to hope that his book will make us look at today’s black gang-bangers and the rappers who celebrate (and often join) them as noble responses to white dismissal — as he puts it, “an antidote to apathy.”
This is a shame, as black “villainy” today plays a more mainstream role in young black American culture than before. This is not because racism has become worse, but because of a leftist orthodoxy, once restricted to a radical fringe, that jumped the rails into conventional wisdom in the 1960s. Distracting people from the college classroom down to the street corner, this ideology cherishes even the most unfocused brands of black oppositionalism in a way that would baffle even revolutionary black activists before the 1960s.
Mr. Van Deburg seems to suppose that his book is a step beyond the usual temper-tantrum boilerplate. He writes at the very end of the book that “those accustomed to attributing every central city social ailment to the machinations of white conspirators need to re-evaluate previous assumptions.”The problem is, for the preceding 200-plus pages, “Hoodlums” is a manual for exactly those kinds of people. No matter how thrilling or “deep,” theatrics are not, and never will be, politics in any meaningful sense. Books of this kind assume otherwise, and as such, they set certain heads a-nodding — but never make an iota of difference in the quality of life of a single black American.
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