What I hope the events in Ferguson have made clear to all Americans is that in 2014, we still live in dangerous times. I’m reminded of, and find myself turning back to, many important figures and texts from the Civil Rights era in American history, notably Dr. King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail, some Langston Hughes, and essays from James Baldwin.
King was told time and again to wait, criticized by the powerful everywhere he went. He was attacked by local clergy in Birmingham and labeled an “outside agitator” for his activism in Alabama. Like many of the contemporary activists in St. Louis, powerful people told his organization to stay away. King responded eloquently, in words that now appear in many anthologies of quotations and on posters in classrooms–including mine:
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.
Like Dr. King, Baldwin recognized the urgency of inequality and the subhuman treatment of Black Americans at the hands of the state. In some ways, Baldwin’s literary work represents a drawn-out response to DuBois’ famous question, ever on the lips of white Americans: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Black Americans are told, in multiple ways, that they are not quite citizens, not quite equal, in so many ways not yet a full member of society. It is particularly difficult to swallow in the context of the American dream, which promotes the mythology of success through striving. In a 1984 issue of Essence Magazine, Baldwin was in conversation with Audre Lord. They discussed that same question: how does it feel–to be Black in America, to be marginalized, to be–in 1903 when DuBois wrote, in the 1960’s and today in 2014–a problem?
JB: One of the dangers of being a Black American is being schizophrenic, and I mean ‘schizophrenic’ in the most literal sense. To be a Black American is in some ways to be born with the desire to be white. It’s a part of the price you pay for being born here, and it affects every Black person. We can go back to Vietnam, we can go back to Korea. We can go back for that matter to the First World War. We can go back to W.E.B. Du Bois – an honorable and beautiful man – who campaigned to persuade Black people to fight in the First World War, saying that if we fight in this war to save this country, our right to citizenship can never, never again be questioned – and who can blame him? He really meant it, and if I’d been there at that moment I would have said so too perhaps. Du Bois believed in the American dream. So did Martin. So did Malcolm. So do I. So do you. That’s why we’re sitting here.
AL: I don’t, honey. I’m sorry, I just can’t let that go past. Deep, deep, deep down I know that dream was never mine. And I wept and I cried and I fought and I stormed, but I just knew it. I was Black. I was female. And I was out – out – by any construct wherever the power lay. So if I had to claw myself insane, if I lived I was going to have to do it alone. Nobody was dreaming about me. Nobody was even studying me except as something to wipe out.
JB: You are saying you do not exist in the American dream except as a nightmare.
All of this is to point out the ridiculousness of calls for respectability in the Black community. No type of behavior, no cultural change or adjustment, and certainly no alteration in fashion can correct hundreds of years of white supremacy and oppression. In a nation built on the backs of African slaves, why is it that change is expected to come from the oppressed, rather than the oppressors? When half-wits like Bill O’Reilly decry urban fashion as a moral outrage, it is merely a distraction; when the mainstream media find mouthpieces of color to deliver this message, such as CNN’s Don Lemon, it becomes increasingly problematic.
It is not the responsibility of Blacks to end racism. In fact, Blacks have always been victims of white supremacy, and many have endeavored valiantly to reform the power dynamics in this country. Many still do. The idea that minorities need to somehow earn equal rights through proper conduct erodes respect for our nation’s laws, particularly the 14th and 15th amendments, providing for equal treatment under the law and the full rights of citizenship for Black and white equally.
Having cited several of my favorite writers and activists of color thus far, it only seems appropriate to bring in Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic in conclusion. In his first commentary on Michael Brown’s killing at the hands of Ferguson police, he artfully declares in the headline that “Black People Are Not Ignoring ‘Black on Black’ Crime,” going on to take down the very idea of respectability politics:
The politics of respectability are, at their root, the politics of changing the subject—the last resort for those who can not bear the agony of looking their country in the eye. The policy of America has been, for most of its history, white supremacy. The high rates of violence in black neighborhoods do not exist outside of these facts—they evidence them.
This history presents us with a suite of hard choices. We do not like hard choices. Here’s a better idea: Let’s all get together and talk about how Mike Brown would still be alive if Beyoncé would make more wholesome music, followed by a national forum on how the charge of “acting white” contributes to mass incarceration. We can conclude with a keynote lecture on “Kids Today” and a shrug.