Thursday, January 19, 2012

What Are You Speaking to Power?

Since the October 2011 publication of my book Living with Lynching, I have been asked whether I see parallels between our contemporary moment and the period that I study, 1890 to 1930. The short answer is yes. In fact, I find the last turn of the century fascinating partly because it looks so much like this one. The similarities include the ugliness of anti-immigrant sentiment, the need for women to fight for baseline equity and safety, the ease with which certain families are denied recognition and respect, and the dehumanizing treatment of the poor while corporations are treated as people. (See the 1886 Santa Clara decision and today’s Citizen’s United case leading to the doctrine that “money is free speech.”) And, of course, there are striking parallels between the lynching era and our present moment in terms of the strategies being developed—right now—to keep certain populations from voting.

Questions about whether or not the dynamics I examine still exist usually arise in relation to a very specific claim. Armed with the insight of those who lived and wrote in the midst of lynching, I contend that racial violence was a response not to black criminality but to black success. I hope to write several posts addressing various versions of the historical parallels question. Here, I begin with one from Michael Eric Dyson, who interviewed me for his hour-long radio show honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, January 16, 2012.

I was describing the revisions that black male lynching dramatists offered when they entered the genre a decade after it was initiated by women. While women playwrights had put forth ideal images of black manhood, black men offered the pimp and the coward. The message of their plays is that the mob attacks black patriarchs, those who gain traditional success and are family and community leaders, but it will often spare pimps and cowards. Michael Eric Dyson asked if there was any parallel between the collective message of these plays and today’s cultural landscape, in which black pimps are welcomed in popular media. I said that there is a link and that the circulation of pimp imagery is acceptable, and even desirable, because it does not disrupt the status quo. Let me elaborate here.

Living with Lynching is about citizenship. I am interested in the many ways that the nation defines citizenship as white and how racial violence contributes to this mission. After all, lynching emerged only after slavery ended (so, killing blacks didn’t mean losing property), and it intensified when black men began gaining ground politically. (Black women were far from voting rights at this point.) To discourage black men from voting and otherwise participating in the political process, whites used violence and they invented the black rapist myth to destroy black men’s reputations, portraying them as unworthy of citizenship. In other words, the images allowed to circulate in the public sphere—black rapists and white heroes who avenge rape—reiterated the assumption that whites are the rightful citizens.

Today’s pimp imagery works in a similar fashion to ensure that only certain people come to mind when you say “citizen.” Any success that a pimp might have is deemed immoral, so his popularity only confirms that black men cannot be responsible citizens because they do not live by the ideals of upstanding manhood that the country claims to respect. It is more threatening to have a black man who exemplifies american ideals, such as Barack Obama. He did everything according to what should bring him respect: he went to Ivy League schools, he’s heterosexual, he’s married, he's had only one wife, etc. He creates much more anxiety than does the commercial gold mine Snoop Dog because he embodies what the nation says it values, thereby illustrating that black men can be more admirable than whites, even by conservative standards.

Noticing this tendency is not enough, though; placing pimp imagery alongside Barack Obama reveals other dynamics that should not be overlooked. Namely, though conversations about the pimp lifestyle center on non-whites, white men have freely engaged in nefarious activity—including pimping, raping, and otherwise abusing women—since the founding of this nation. Indeed, this country’s biggest pimps have been and continue to be white men, but when we hear that word, they are not the image that comes to mind. Whites have created a society in which negative connotations stick to everyone but them. Another example: a white man can routinely bully and elegantly threaten others, in both his personal and professional life…but never be thought of as a “thug.” Meanwhile, all a black man has to do is choose a style of dress that we don’t like, and he is labeled a “thug” to the point where it limits his life chances.

On the other end of the spectrum, one finds Barack Obama and the countless black men whose existence is seldom acknowledged in mainstream media: black lawyers, black soldiers, veterans, and entrepreneurs, for example. If these men cannot be ignored, they are discredited (“he got that position because he is black”). Why? Because they expose the central myth of U.S. culture, that white men are the best the world has to offer.

Unfortunately, admirable people of color can also be understood as exceptions who confirm the worthlessness of others. You have heard it a million times from americans of all hues: “Just look at ____. Now, there are no excuses.” How did so many come to believe that the main thing that people of color do is make excuses? The ease with which people utter and accept this comment proves the success of the campaign to malign anyone who isn’t white. While everyone is busy making sure that non-whites don’t get away with making excuses, we ignore all of the systems put in place to prevent anyone who is not white and/or heterosexual and/or Christian and/or middle-class from attaining what the nation claims is within everyone’s reach.

But as I said on Dyson’s radio show, I am not invested in speaking the truth because I hope it might change white people’s minds. I am much more interested in keeping people of color from believing the lies that are meant to destroy them while making them feel ashamed if they notice that they are under siege. (Accusations of “playing the race card.”) To the extent that we buy the dominant portrait, which makes white right and everyone else wrong, we are in trouble.

Too often, I hear conversations on race among blacks that revolve around how “the white man doesn’t have to keep us down because we are doing it to ourselves—all these single mothers, deadbeat fathers….” Listening in, one would think that even we don’t know any examples of black mothers who are also wives and fathers who prioritize family life. Sure, images of single mothers and deadbeat fathers saturate mainstream discourse, but we are letting that dictate what comes to mind for us, too.  [And this is to say nothing about the fact that being a single mother isn't shameful!!] 

These conversations remind me of when then-Senator Obama chose the occasion of his address to the NAACP to insist on the necessity of “teaching our sons…to realize responsibility does not end at conception; that what makes them a man is not the ability to have a child but to raise one" (July 2008). He said this as if he does not know plenty of black men who are doing precisely that. He said this as if that’s the most powerful message he could bring to the NAACP. Really? Well, we don’t do any better when that’s how we talk about the race, too.

In contrast, lynching plays evince an understanding of the importance of speaking the truth about black communities that the rest of society is working so hard to ignore. The plays foreground representative figures that help audiences think together about black identity and citizenship. Because my book follows the conversation that blacks were having in the early 1900s, one chapter focuses on the black soldier, another on the black lawyer, another on the black mother who is also a wife. Imagine that! These authors actually placed a spotlight on the people they knew in their communities, not just those who saturated the mainstream: buffoons and mammies, rapists and whores.

According to mainstream assumptions, mobs targeted African Americans because they represented an evil that would destroy society: black men were supposedly rapists who cared nothing for stable domesticity and black women were said to be whores incapable of creating it anyway. In this climate, black playwrights most consistently depicted what national discourse denied existed: loving black homes. As they recorded and contributed to the community conversation, they placed a spotlight on the black soldier, the black lawyer, and the black mother/wife, so bringing the black pimp and coward into the genre constituted a major revision. Today, we seldom bother to talk about those who make us proud before focusing on those who don’t.

These tendencies have political implications. What is our current community conversation? What are we speaking to power? Do we talk about our own communities as if they contain no responsible men, commendable women, or adorable children? If so, is that the truth? Again, the mainstream denies that we have loving families, but we should pause before regurgitating those messages. Too often, we say these things as if we are the only admirable black person we know—and as if judging the presumed majority of the race will confirm how admirable and “objective” we are.

Having seen this pattern more often than I would like, I think we could take lessons from the playwrights. They preserved the truth that society’s myths disregarded, thereby affirming for African Americans what they hopefully already knew about the race. Doing so was (and remains) crucial because blacks are not magically impervious to the messages of american society; we are as vulnerable to national rhetoric as others, so we need to equip ourselves and each other to withstand the attack on our self-conceptions.

Today, no less than in the lynching era, the doctrine of white supremacy/black pathology insists that blacks are not worthy citizens of the nation because they are not even meaningful members of their own families and communities. Let’s not be the loudest supporters of those lies.