“This letter is a gift for you. Bear in mind, though, that some gifts can be heavy to bear. You don’t have to accept it; there is no obligation. I give it freely, believing that many of you will throw the gift back in my face, saying that I wrongly accuse you, that I am too sensitive, that I’m a race hustler, and that I blame white people (you) for everything.” George Yancy, “Dear White America,” New York Times, Dec. 24, 2015
I’m sorry, but statements like the above make my eyes hurt. I see exactly what the author intended in writing his open letter to White America. What I don’t understand is why he felt he had to write it.
Between this letter and the massive wave of police terror afflicting black and brown (and, apparently, young white) people in the United States, absolutely nothing is new. The only thing that has surprised me is the speed with which the scales have fallen from our eyes concerning America these past two years. In spite of a black President, in spite of the enormous contributions that African Americans have offered to those United States, we are still considered somehow inferior, unworthy of the same respect shown people who are not black. Even our own elite conspires to keep the bulk of us at the bottom of the world’s racial totem pole: by refusing to invest their hundreds of billions in poor black communities, by refusing to educate those of us who are semi-literate (or worse), house our homeless and keep the drugs off the streets and the gangsters from destroying the lives of our children. Better yet, our elite has never once given a thought to creating industries that can offer employment to millions of African Americans; instead they hoard their money somewhere on some little island in the Caribbean, and blow it on dope, hookers, fancy cars and McMansions. Meanwhile, everyday black people keep getting casually gunned down–if not by cops then certainly by thugs from within the community and racist scum from without.
I repeat: none of this is new, save for the cell phones recording it.
I have heard–and in some cases witnessed–horror stories involving the police wherever I’ve been in the United States. One of my older brothers, who is autistic, was brutally beaten by P.G.County Police about 20 years ago. My youngest brother, who doesn’t have a criminal record, was pulled over by the police for kicks and called “boy,” among other things. When I was a student at Howard University, I overheard a story about a young pregnant woman (in D.C.) who was body-slammed on the sidewalk by an irate rookie cop; the two drunks (both black) who were telling the tale were laughing about it. My mother spoke of an incident in the 80s in which a cop literally rode upon the back of a black “suspect” as one would ride a horse–in broad daylight. At Howard, the campus police could be as thuggish and corrupt as the police off-campus; in fact, campus police once casually brutalized a fellow student who turned out to be the son of Andrew Young. (As a side note: decades earlier, an uncle of mine was lynched in Depression-Era Florida by a mob of rednecks; my father witnessed it first-hand.)
I witnessed one loathsome incident back around 1992. It was directly in front of the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, ironically enough. There was a drunken black man being collared on the ground in front of the library being taunted and tortured by a black DC cop. I referenced this incident in my previous novel, “NATE,” published in 2006. The only people who had stopped to stare at the incident were blacks and an occasional white; everyone else kept passing by, I wrote, unmoved, unconcerned. It was true.
Many years later and I would find a cop in front of our door in Langley Park, Maryland, after my mother called to report a racist incident being perpetrated by our Latino neighbors. I recall talking to the cop and he appeared to be trying to say two things at once—the first thing being the words which could be heard and the second carefully couched whispers under his breath. I realized what the cop was telling me under his breath: fuck your mother. He said it more than once. It was a white cop with a Latino partner.
Naturally, I didn’t fall for the bait.
After that incident, and a number of others, I became convinced that a lot of the police brutality incidents were in fact carefully (and perhaps subtly) provoked by the officers themselves—they knowing full well that they are policing communities full of desperate, despairing, angry, divided, bitter people. And for sheer spite and a petty sense of their own omnipotence, these rogue cops continued to subtly and overtly push people around.
George Yancy wrote an article for the New York Times in December of 2015. The gist of the article was a plea—yet another—on the part of Black America to White America. After three centuries of such pleas on Black America it does not bear repeating what the gist of this plea is. We already know it, or should know it.
I have read many of your comments. I have even received some hate mail. In this letter, I ask you to look deep, to look into your souls with silence, to quiet that voice that will speak to you of your white “innocence.” So, as you read this letter, take a deep breath. Make a space for my voice in the deepest part of your psyche. Try to listen, to practice being silent. There are times when you must quiet your own voice to hear from or about those who suffer in ways that you do not.
In other words, it is the same old hoagie sandwich in a new wrapper. White America, I really am a human being. White America, accept me as your brother. For I really am your brother. I bleed like you. I eat, drink, vomit, defecate, urinate, copulate, walk, talk, sing, dance and even die like you. In fact, I may even be related to you.
The sad part about this plea is that—like countless other attempts on the part of black intellectuals to gain the ear of White America—it passed unnoticed, unheard. George Yancy shouted his self-effacing and mock-eloquent words into a massive white void where nothing of substance gets heard, anyway. It is hard to be heard above a sea of racial slurs, fat demagogues, ringtones and auto-tuned, Stepinfetchit gangsta rap.
What if I told you that I’m sexist? Well, I am. Yes. I said it and I mean just that. I have watched my male students squirm in their seats when I’ve asked them to identify and talk about their sexism. There are few men, I suspect, who would say that they are sexists, and even fewer would admit that their sexism actually oppresses women. Certainly not publicly, as I’ve just done. No taking it back now.
In my opinion, Mr. Yancy is demanding far more from White America than what it can possibly give. His plea is couched in abstraction and riddled with clueless idealism. I would assume that Mr. Yancy is not a stupid man, and not half as blind as he makes himself out to be. I say “blind,” because somehow Yancy conflates his sexist tendencies with the overwhelmingly oppressive power of a racist state which, as it turns out, is the most powerful nation on earth—a state that can literally erase him at the slightest whim, with not a tear shed, and with the flimsiest of alibis. Yancy confuses his having been “fed a poisonous diet of images that fragment women into mere body parts” with America’s massive adult entertainment industry, which actually provides such sexual malnourishment to hundreds of millions around the world.
Meanwhile, Michael Eric Dyson has a few choice words of his own–his own “gift” to White America, one could say–concerning America’s KKKiller KKKop Mania.
You hold an entire population of Muslims accountable for the evil acts of a few. Yet you rarely muster the courage to put down your binoculars, and with them, your corrosive self-pity, and see what we see. You say religions and cultures breed violence stoked by the complicity of silence because peoples will not denounce the villains who act in their names.
Yet you do the same. In the aftermath of these deaths, you do not all condemn these cops; to do so, you would have to condemn the culture that produced them — the same culture that produced you. Condemning a culture is not inciting hate. That is very important. Yet black people will continue to die at the hands of cops as long as we deny that whiteness can be more important in explaining those cops’ behavior than anything else.
You cannot know how we secretly curse the cowardice of whites who know what I write is true, but dare not say it. Neither will your smug insistence that you are different — not like that ocean of unenlightened whites — satisfy us any longer. It makes the killings worse to know that your disapproval of them has spared your reputations and not our lives.
You do not know that after we get angry with you, we get even angrier with ourselves, because we don’t know how to make you stop, or how to make you care enough to stop those who pull the triggers. We do not know what to do now that sadness is compounded by more sadness.
Oh, well. Dyson says here what has been said countless times before, from Douglass to Baldwin to Ishmael Reed. The white majority response to such remarks has always been the same, their reprisals only slightly softening with each passing decade. But from day one the overall intent of the white majority towards Blacks in the U.S. has been unwavering.
The intent is to keep the niggers corralled. Keep the niggers in their proper place. Keep the niggers from freaking out—or, to be more precise, to keep African Americans from fully recognizing that when they bleed, it is no different than when a European or a Euro-American bleeds; that like any other people on the planet, they have a right to their own outrage and moral indignation, and that they have the human right to redress and ultimately correct the injustices heaped upon them in any way they see fit.
But the African American is not an abstract concept that can be manipulated and defined by entertainment execs or U.S. senators or alt-right demagogues or Tom Wolfe. The African American is a human being, and demands to be recognized as a human being. The African American is not “different,” deep down. All we “want” is what everyone else wants—to live, no more or no less free as anyone else on this planet.
If your average white American bled like the black American bled; if the average white American lived merely one week in the body of the average black American; if the average white American were forced to live just for five months as a Native American in the bowels of the Oglala Reservation, or a Puerto Rican in Spanish Harlem, or a Salvadoran in Langley Park, Maryland, the entire country—and not just white Americans—would be screaming for a bloody revolution. The rest of the country would fall in line with the rebellious white man without a second thought, because in America—even today—whatever any white man says is elevated far above what anyone else has to say. The white American’s views of reality are held as the laws of the universe, and this unfortunate fact has led hundreds of millions of people around the world to embrace the neo-coon Rap culture, to beat niggers and firebomb mosques, or to take a fat, ignorant thug like Trump seriously.
In fact, it took far less abuse from England to rouse the American colonists to revolt against the British crown. And it is considered not only just, but necessary, for a Ukrainian, or a Chinese, or a Romanian, or an Egyptian, or a Libyan to take up arms against a corrupt regime. Of course one must remember that the American mass media takes great care in defining precisely which Egyptians, or Romanians, or Libyans are actual “revolutionaries” and which ones are simply “terrorists”; and those of us who understand the U.S. media know damned well that all too often, those freedom fighters designated as “terrorists” are those who are fighting for interests not compatible with those of the U.S. Government, or U.S. economic interests.
“They require of me a song,” James Baldwin once said, “less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own.”
How the Black Lives Matter Movement fits into this remains to be seen; judging by the rough treatment they receive at the hands of American police, and their demonization in the American mass media, one would think that the aims of BLM are precisely in opposition to those of the American State. Actually, in a real sense, they are: for the American State—judging by its bloody record alone—has never given serious consideration to the civil rights or the human rights of African Americans. The 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution have been repeatedly violated in cases too numerous to mention here.
But I doubt this new movement’s ability to implement change in America. I have the gut feeling that BLM is essentially a controlled opposition, funded and directed by the same oppressive force it appears to confront. Maybe I’m wrong. But I have noticed a glaring difference between BLM’s reaction to the death of an African-American, no matter how socially dubious–and that of a non-black. When Dylan Noble, an unarmed, emotionally disturbed 19 year old white man, was casually killed on June 25th by Fresno, CA police, BLM was mum. They were equally silent when, in the previous week, six Latinos–Anthony Nunez, Fermin Vincent Valenzuela, Vinson Ramos, Melissa Ventura, Pedro Villanueva and Raul Saavedra-Vargas–were gunned down in cold blood by “America’s Finest.” Tactically, this is as mindbogglingly stupid as it is racially divisive. I’m no conspiracy theorist, but I feel that there is an ugly method in such madness from this new movement–if one can call it a movement.
Whether BLM will up the ante by striking at the heart of American racist oppression–that is, the American economy–remains to be seen. Their hearts appear to be in the right place. But at my age–and having seen a previous (and much milder) pro-black surge in the late eighties to early nineties–I know that these kids are barely making a scratch upon the behemoth of racist oppression in the United States. The “Black Lives Matter” movement is howling into that same white void–the void of white noise–that Dr. Yancy and Dr. Dyson shouted into, and with the same result: stasis.
Black America has given enough “gifts” to White America. Pick virtually any era and one can find such “gifts” in abundance. Our own bare, black asses were “gifts” from Africa, by which both Northern and Southern slave-owners used to build the very foundations of the American metropolis; indeed, much of the White House and the Capitol was built by slave labor. (And let’s not mention Crispus Attucks and Benjamin Banneker.) In the 1890s, at the beginning of the “Nadir” of race relations in the United States, Americans were given the gift of Ragtime—the first truly American musical art form. (Naturally, Native Americans mght dispute this, with good reason.) For decades after that the “gifts” came and went: Jazz (via King Oliver, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, etc.), The Negro Renaissance (via Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, Alain Locke, W.E.B. DuBois and too many other names to mention here), and innumerable inventions such as the golf-tee, the light-bulb filament, the ironing board, the gas mask, mobile blood banks, the internet, the cotton gin, ice cream, the potato chip, and food which was actually edible and a way of speaking English that didn’t stink of England. And a new way of comprehending reality–particularly among black intellectuals–that offered a spiritual alternative to the colonial cultures imposed upon the rest of the world by Europe. Hip-hop was but one of the manifestations of this new spiritual reality.
I, myself, and many of my artist friends who are black, have offered our own gifts to America; some of us have pleaded and continue to plead with white America to recognize our humanity. I, for one, never bothered and will never bother to plead my humanity to a group of people who, collectively speaking, always thought of me and my life as a bad joke. I personally don’t see the point of giving anything to such a people. America, at this stage in history, is not worth the trouble. It persistently demands of Black America that we “like” them. Unfortunately, in America these days, there doesn’t seem to be very much to like. I don’t need to waste my time tallying a laundry list of America’s ills, since the reader can find these details elsewhere, and in abundance.
America is not the center of the Universe. There are certainly other nations on earth where a creative black person can apply his or her genius, talent and drive. White America imagines that we have no memories and no history; they are wrong. They have almost always been wrong about the world, and most particularly about their own countrymen. They have never known us, anymore than they have known themselves, or anybody else on earth. We already know what our past gift-bearers have gotten in return for their “love” of America.
No: it’s too late. Worse, actually: it’s over. Done.
When Frederick Douglass declared in his Fourth of July speech that the crimes committed against black Americans* would “disgrace a nation of savages,” he was not being hyperbolic, but stating a simple fact. The worst crime committed by these white American savages has not, ironically, been these countless lynchings, beatings, burnings, brandings, castrations, rapes, nor scorched-earth pogroms such as Wounded Knee or Elaine, Arkansas (where up to 600 blacks were butchered in 1919). It has been the outright insistence that the African American—particularly the African American—be “happy” in the face of such systematic dehumanization.
“They require of me a song,” James Baldwin once said, “less to celebrate my captivity than to justify their own.” The African American was told to smile when getting raped and to tap-dance after being castrated; and to add insult to injury, the narratives of such sickening racist brutality were either denied outright, dismissed as “paranoia” or, still worse, carefully re-shaped to appear as comedy. It makes one ask the question that Jean-Paul Sartre asked, in his well-known preface to The Wretched of the Earth, “which side are the savages on?”
*Douglass could have just as well mentioned Native Americans, or the Chinese or even the Irish.