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Taking out My Eraser


The Root has an interesting list of people they say black history could do without. It got me thinking about who I would include on a top-ten list of that kind.

I’m going to take a different tack than they did. My interest is not in people it’s just fun to dump on, but in people who have had a decisive impact on black lives and thought in general—and so no Dennis Rodman or Wesley Snipes. I am also thinking about true uniqueness, i.e. people whose essences and trajectories were idiosyncratic enough that if they hadn’t come along, chances are no equivalent person would have filled their shoes (so, no Dennis Rodman or Wesley Snipes!).

I find that a list like this, if it’s really about impact on black people, cannot even be limited to black people. Here goes.

1. Malcolm X

Yes, I understand that in Malcolm’s time, rage among black people was deeply rooted for fully understandable reasons. Yes, I know that near the end of his life he was preaching a more inclusive message. Still, the way he comes down to us in shorthand is as the one who taught black people to channel their inner Angry Motherfucker. Articulately so—the speeches still work. But the problem is what that does for us now.

There is a tacit sense that the kind of anger Malcolm became famous for, with the upheld fist and the menacing “By Any Means Necessary,” is portentous, the start of something. But in real life, what Starts Things now is not going to be black America rising up in anger. The community isn’t cohesive enough, and the problems today aren’t simple enough.

I don’t wish Malcolm X had never existed, but I wish he hadn’t become famous. He was quirky enough that it’s possible that no one with equivalent star power to his would have emerged otherwise, and the mood he represented, long on oomph and so short on result, would be represented by no iconic historical figure today. The Black Panthers were so over-the-top that we marvel at them rather than wanting to be them, and Spike Lee wouldn’t have made a movie about Stokely Carmichael. The Malcolm T-shirts and the sense of reading his autobiography as a smart black persons’ rite of passage are distractions from the actions, as opposed to the moods and gestures, that really help black people.

2 and 3. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward

Piven and Cloward were white social work professors at Columbia who, in the late '60s, openly encouraged as many people as possible to take welfare payments open-endedly, hoping that this would bankrupt the government and force a complete overhaul of our distribution of income. It wasn’t that they thought there was no work for blacks—just that it was beneath blacks’ dignity to do it. By 1968, the organization was staging more than two hundred protests a month, sometimes assisted by the Panthers.

Traditional civil rights leaders didn’t get it. Piven has recalled, “We met with Whitney Young [executive director of the National Urban League] … and he gave us a long speech about how it was more important to get one black woman into a job as an airline stewardess than it was to get fifty poor black families onto welfare.” But when Piven and Cloward published a manifesto in The Nation, there were 30,000 reprint requests. One thousand neighborhood service centers nationwide encouraged people to go on welfare who would not have otherwise. In the '60s, one-third of the people whose incomes made them eligible for AFDC were on the rolls. By 1971, 90 percent were.

For three decades, welfare was an open-ended program, unconcerned with whether people got jobs or whether children’s fathers were present or able to work. The government never fell, and meanwhile black neighborhoods started falling to pieces. The near-fatherless tracts now thought of as normal would have sounded like science fiction in even the poorest black districts before the '70s. Rarely in American history have people with such a destructive agenda had such power over the lives of the innocent. I wish Piven and Cloward had stayed obscure teachers instead of helping to ruin the lives of, for example, some of my relatives.

4. Price Cobbs

Cobbs, a black psychiatrist, meant well, but he created a monster. In 1968, his book Black Rage, written with William Grier, was a hit, teaching that blacks were simmering with fury and paranoia and were, just as James Baldwin had couched it more literarily in The Fire Next Time, about to boil over. In the wake of that paradigm, Cobb pioneered “encounter groups” designed to teach white people about their inner racism. How? By having blacks vent at them, the idea being that this was “therapeutic.”

From a rare transcription of an actual session around 1970:

Woman: I don’t relate towards you, towards color or anything else, I relate towards every single person here as an individual.

Cobbs: You’re lying, you’re lying, you’re lying!

Woman: Why?

Cobbs: If I would say “you look like a little boy to me, I just don’t see anything” you’d say I was crazy because you’re a woman. ... If I could neutralize you in some way this is exactly what white folks do to black folks.

The constructiveness of things like this is decidedly unclear, and yet Cobbs did over 100 of these sessions, ideally culminating in screaming matches out of Norman Lear sitcoms of the period. Buoyed by the success of the book—I recall it as a common coffee table sight when I was a tot—they set a mood. People elsewhere started doing similar “ethnotherapy.” The idea got “into the air” that whites are always racist in ways they are not aware of, must be informed of this, and that it’s okay if the black people bearing the news are less than civil because it’s just desserts (and “therapeutic” for all concerned). The paradigm lives on today in diversity seminars, psychology and ed-school curricula, and the whole idea that there is a uniquely complex Race Thing that whites can never completely “get.”

I wish Cobbs and Grier had written something else. (And they did—a follow-up about black religion; needless to say, that one didn’t get around as much.)

5. Al Jolson

Because we moderns are so fascinated with cultural appropriation and hybridization, blackface exerts a deathless fascination—too much, really. University library bookshelves groan under the weight of fragile explorations of how Jewish performers like Jolson were supposedly trying on a different rendition of “otherness” in solidarity with blacks, etc. The problem is that the energy that goes into this blackface fetish could otherwise produce more work on actual black stage performance before the late '20s (Bert Williams gets attention, but he intrigues in large part because he corked up).

I designate Jolson as a culprit because he wore blackface longer than almost anyone, and as a result, happened to be caught doing it by the new invention of sound film—which brings it so alive for us today (Eddie Cantor has less renown). Plus there was the happenstance that he happened to be the star of the first all-talking film, The Jazz Singer, which keeps the legend alive even more.

If all we had were mute photos of blackface, the whole phenomenon would be harder to connect with viscerally, and more people interested in performance history from a racial angle would wend into the careers of actual black performers like George W. Johnson and Charley Case. Who? I know—that’s just it. Or, instead of one more “exploration” of blackface, what about a full-length, years-in-the-making biography of Ethel Waters?

6. Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire would be surprised to see himself described as bad for black history, and justifiably so—he was a Brazilian educator who was concerned with the pitilessly rigid class structure of the Latin American countries he knew best. Yet his 1970 Pedagogy of the Oppressed has distracted quite a few from teaching poor kids facts or, often, much of anything.

Far from Brazil, 40 years on, and without the guidance of an acolyte, it reads like a peculiar piece of Marxist rhetoric, designating students as teachers and calling for them to "critically recognize" the oppressor "as a force 'outside' themselves" in order to be "more fully human." Anyone who has been through, or near, a typical school of education is familiar with this language—but would not have been before Freire’s book. The philosophy’s oblique relationship to what schooling actually is recalls how, for medievals, learning to recite in Latin and Greek and engaging in disputes about religion was what constituted a proper education. Freire's work will look just as contingent in 100 years.

It’s one thing to think of leftism as a component of an education—although even that is open to question. The problem with Freire’s influence is that it has conditioned a sense that leftism should be the central pillar of education, with facts themselves distrusted as “dry” and “colonial” (a point Freire himself made), at best something to get to later or in passing. The uninitiated would be shocked at how deeply this notion pervades the way many teachers are “trained”—check with someone you know who’s getting an ed degree to get a sense of this. Example: an acquaintance has reported that two years of training at Columbia’s Teachers College included not a thing about actual classroom teaching technique and everything about shielding your students from a world of oppressors.

The idea is that this stuff is especially crucial when teaching poor and minority kids. Plus, white kids in private schools are less likely to be stuck with teachers who think this way, because private schools are less likely to require ed school certification. The adoption of Freire’s book by people caught up in a passing, quirky quest to unite their sixties politics with their classroom technique was a historical accident. Now set as a tradition, it has left countless innocent black kids (and others) undereducated at a crucial age. I wish it hadn’t happened. Specifically, black American history would be better off if Freire’s book had not been translated into English.

7. William Ryan

The mere title of Ryan’s book, Blaming the Victim, imprinted a way of thinking about race which, like other catchy phrases such as “By Any Means Necessary” and “Black By Popular Demand,” is longer on heat than light. Ryan was a white sociologist and Civil Rights activist who was enraged by Daniel Moynihan’s The Negro Family report and penned a riposte which appeared in assorted venues under names like “Savage Discovery” (The Nation) and “The New Genteel Racism” (The Crisis), which he expanded into another book visible in thinking people’s living rooms in the early '70s.

For Ryan, Moynihan’s report seduced the reader into “believing it is not racism and discrimination but the weakness and defects of the Negro himself that account for inequality.” This was untrue of Moynihan’s report, which was scrupulously attendant to the effects of racism past and present. But even for people who didn’t read the book, the title alone inculcated the idea that societal factors are the only justifiable ones to explore (except in parentheses) when it comes to black problems, and that to refer to anything else is (drum roll, please) “Blaming The Victim.”

The smackdown usage of the phrase discourages addressing the simple fact that all cultures operate according to legacies as well as the GNP, and that all cultural traits are not positive. If the book hadn’t inculcated the phrase, the riposte would not be as tartly expressed and would not elicit the argument-stanching applause it tends to—and I’m not sure anyone would have come up with a phrase as perfect (it really is good, in itself). Ryan had worked with CORE—his heart was in the right place. But the title of that book was poison for getting at what real problems for real people are.

8. Ron Karenga

This one is a bee in just my bonnet. In 1966, Karenga created Kwanzaa—okay. But Kwanzaa, in line with the day’s fashion that Swahili was a “pan-African” language, is cast with Swahili terminology. This has been central to establishing and keeping alive the idea that black Americans get in touch with “their” heritage by learning Swahili. Hence black college dorms named things like Ujamaa, or an early '70s coloring book of mine on Christmas with each page translated into another nation’s language dutifully including Ethiopia with a Swahili translation—when the language of that country is Amharic, a relative of Arabic. Even the fashion of African-sounding names for black people starts with the Swahili fetish—the source of the prefix business, with the Sha’-s and De’-s and so on, is how words work in Swahili.

This is not what I would call a tragedy, but it’s slightly ridiculous, frankly. The ancestors of black Americans didn’t speak Swahili, spoken in various countries in East Africa—and Africa is home to a thousand languages. Black Americans speaking Swahili as a heritage language is like someone with red hair and freckles taking up Romanian because it’s “European.”

If black Americans have a heritage language in Africa it’s Mende of Sierra Leone—that’s the one that black Gullah speakers in South Carolina used to be able to recite some fragments of song in. Mende is even kind of easy as languages go. Clearly, though, Swahili is here to stay. Ideally, Karenga either would not have happened to create a holiday, it wouldn’t have caught on, or, if fate had to make him become famous, he would have cast the holiday in one of the many African languages black people’s ancestors actually spoke. Just saying.

9. Jonathan Kozol

Kozol’s Savage Inequalities has taught legions of people that the reason poor (usually brown-skinned) students don’t do well in school is because ghetto schools don’t get as much funding as others. The notion sits easily in the memory and travels quickly to the same part of the brain that finds Malcolm X attractive.

However, it simply isn’t true. Does funding matter? Of course, some. But not enough to justify Kozol’s rock star status among those concerned with poverty and education. Take New Jersey in 1998. Since then, no funding discrepancy has been allowed between gritty urban schools and ones in cushy suburbs. And the result has been essentially nothing. The urban schools were hopelessly unable to comply, for example, with the No Child Left Behind requirements. Money didn't make the teachers and administrators any better at their jobs. Examples continue—of schools that didn’t change with big influxes of money, of poor schools where better teachers on modest salaries make for better learning, of simple reading programs teaching poor kids to read.

Kozol has a way with an audience—in one New York Radio interview he lovingly mentions a teacher describing children as “leaky little people” and dismissed think tankers as “dreary.” He clearly cares about children, but not specifically about what really helps poor children learn, even in poor schools. For that reason black history could have done without him being famous.

10. Orenthal James Simpson

This is my one selection that overlaps with The Root’s list, but for different reasons. Throughout 1995, during the big trial, we all watched the prosecution present a blindingly clear case for murder. Footprints in blood from a rare pair of shoes Simpson denied wearing (though of course people dug up photos of him in them). A mysterious gash in his left hand, a mysterious trail of blood left of the footprints. Blood in the Bronco. When told that his wife had been murdered, Simpson never asked about his children. And on and on.

And yet there were all of the elaborate scenarios as to how blood could have been planted here or there, or insisting that Mark Fuhrman’s comfort with the N-word justified assuming that the LAPD had been out to “get” Simpson despite having coddled him for years. Sure, the LAPD had given the black community ample reason to resent them in decades past. But there was no graceful room for the vigilante justice argument when it came to a case as plain as Simpson’s.

Frankly, the fashion for treating him as a victim made black America look dumb. I loved Howard University students cheering at the exoneration of a murderer (despite his avowed position on his dating preferences reportedly being, “I don’t shovel coal”). No cute rhymes about fitting and acquitting would have held any sway over black juries if Joe Namath had been married to a black woman and killed her. Everyone would have understood the fact that, as Vincent Bugliosi reminded us in his masterful book on the case, Outrage, an argument is not like a chain in which one weak link renders it useless, but like a rope, in which a few loose fibers leave it intact.

Fifteen years later most black people are comfortable admitting that the chance that Simpson did not kill his wife is infinitesimal. But at the time, the pretense otherwise created a fake, acrid slog of a national discussion from academia on down to the early Internet. In one book, Harvard’s Orlando Patterson charitably parsed the whole thing as a kind of living epic, stirring up America’s mythologization of black men as sexual threats, fascinating us all with day-by-day drama from the courtroom, and pitting black America against white America against the background of resentments centuries old. For years I have sought to feel that way along with him, but it just doesn’t happen.

All of that brouhaha because of something as weird as a football player killing (okay, “probably”) his wife, leaving a kind of suicide note, sort of attempting to flee, and getting sprung by a smooth lawyer working a pliable jury in a town just past the Simi Valley verdict. Roll the tape again and it wouldn’t have happened—and I wish it hadn’t.

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