What is the power of the African-American? What makes us special, unique, or able to contribute anything of great value in the context of America? Is it our artists, our singers, dancers, our authors, our poets and painters that grant our people an invaluable square on the quilt of this country? Is it our athletes who have broken down walls of separation in every major sport by not only their talent but their tenacity, their toughness of character? Or is it the legacy of black intellectuals and civil rights leaders, of preachers and professors who have been bold enough to stand and to decry the evils of our persecution in the face of the mighty and the wrong? It is indeed Maya Angelou and Sam Cooke. It is Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson. It is W.E.B. DuBois and Martin Luther King, Jr. It is all of these of course. Yet our power comes from more than any of these. The seat of our power lies seeded in a place deep within our moral memory and lights our path forward as we try to determine how it is that we as a people will win the future.
Black Americans are a proud people. And sure, we have accomplished much that gives us cause to be proud. And I know that pride may seem to be a virtue, but the truth is many people are proud. The Bible urges us, in the words of Zephaniah, “Seek righteousness, seek humility. It may be that you will be hidden in the day of the Lord’s anger.” (Zephaniah 2:3). Believer or non-believer, what the Bible here seeks to tell us is what we African-Americans should from our own experience already know: that it is not pride that is the face of righteousness but humility, and that in those inevitable days which history in its cycles always brings about wherein the deeds of men are placed squarely before the judgment seat of their own consciences, our best defense from the judgment of mankind and our very our own souls is simple innocence. In our own time, we can be innocent again.
Now as I say “we can be innocent again,” I speak as to be heard. But I know that man is never innocent. We must know even as we consider the tragedy of our tribal history that we came here as the children of evil men. We made war on our brothers like evil men, as did the Native Americans even after the nations of Europe established themselves on their shores. We fell into slavery at the hands of evil men. We were sold into slavery by the hands of evil men, into to the hands of men whose wickedness was driven not only by vendetta-less greed, but a dark and subconscious fear of everything they did not understand. And as we know, fear bubbles over into hatred and covers the land when the spirit of scorn marries profitability. Still it remains true that our mothers and fathers reaped much evil in the grounds of Africa before her soils gave them up. Just as the fathers of God’s tribe sold their youngest brother into slavery, so our brothers in Africa once sold us as Joseph into Egypt. Yet like Joseph we through our misery have gained an understanding of the price of freedom that informs us both as to how it is obtained in a hostile land, as well as how it is cultivated with people vastly different from ourselves. The answer is that we like Joseph must love our enemies as Joseph loved the king of Egypt, transcending their spiteful fear. We must love one another, coming together in what is most excellent about us, our culture and our values. Only then can we rise up and speak to America in one mighty voice in declaration of what is wrong and what is right.
Today our country is paralyzed in the twin grips of a broken political system and a broadly degenerating culture. In the first instance, the people who dominate our media and our government are so invested in exploiting their own differences, whether for money or political gamesmanship, that they bring all progress this nation could make on the problems that it faces to a screeching halt. On the other, we find that the dysfunction in our politics is mirrored by the vast fragmentation of the American people themselves. In a nation where a vast and ever heterogeneous people section themselves off according to subcultures, to ever narrowing musical and cinematic tastes, to ever more particular forms of news media, and to ever drifting standards of moral conduct, the less we are able to come together as a people in times of crisis. This problem exists for black America as much as it does for the rest of the nation. But in our case we are better positioned to overcome these symptoms of disintegration.
First however we must recognize the peculiar nature of the cancers that lie within the black American community. Yes, we understand the daunting challenges represented in our high unemployment, our high imprisonment rate, our rate of births outside of wedlock. But these problems themselves could be more effectively challenged if black America herself came together on what values she stands for. We embrace a hip-hop culture, a reality t.v. culture and a culture of materialism that prevents us from uniting as a cohesive moral force in this country. It is not that I have any problem with Hip-Hop or reality t.v. in and of themselves. There are always some things that are good to be found, (if Hip Hop were more about real love and substance in the Common and Talib Kweli variety and less about gratuitousness, and if there were actual values to be discerned in shows like “Flavor of Love” or “Basketball Wives,” I would be all for them). But the fact is that there is little nourishing substance in the art of the black community today, a community which has long reaped from the most fertile soil of this country’s great artists. Our music, our shows and our films may still make money. But little enough do they edify the soul. We need to think about the implications of that fact.
Now you might think that I am wrong, or least simplistic in placing so much significance on the impact of certain types of figures in our culture. Pardon me if I sound a little like Bill Cosby, for I do largely sympathize with the no none-sense style criticism’s he himself fielded so much criticism for voicing against our contemporary black culture. But the only partially justified indignities of Professor Michael Eric Dyson and others on behalf of our contemporary black culture aside, the source of Mr. Cosby’s righteous, albeit sometimes condescending, anger and disappointment is that he well remembers a time in this country’s history when even though the chips were stacked against us we could largely unite around the positivity of our art and our culture. (That now somewhat iconic episode of Aaron McGruder’s controversial cartoon The Boondocks wherein he brings Martin Luther King Jr. out of a forty year coma to see what has become of black America, pointedly if stingingly throws in our faces the extent to which we have sunk into a cultural perversion that serves us neither politically or socially.)
There are people in our communities of course who do not want to hear such talk. Some people like Professor Dyson are quick to point out, and rightly so, that there is a myriad of structural obstacles that still vie against black America’s equal acquisition of the American dream. Even still, can those who might call themselves advocates of our cultural status quo suggest with a straight face that our culture sustains us now in the face of adversity as it did for our enslaved ancestors? Does it nurture us in the way that the stirring, primal and majestic melodies of our “negro spirituals” provided hope and solace for those enduring the the cruel malice of the slave master’s whip? Does our culture today provide for the moral center of gravity upon which a Dr. King as well as a Malcolm X could stand; two men who both rejected materialism, who were both intolerant towards profane speech, who upheld a standard of black manhood which itself could only abide within it a high standard of reverence for black womanhood? Is their legacy reflected in the music of Lil’ Wayne and of Jay Z, for the most part? Are the values we teach in our churches reflected in the values imparted by the lyrical sentiments of Rick Ross or Rihanna? Do we uphold the standard of respect and admiration we should have for our women in these songs and videos of these artists, particularly when Black Entertainment Television is willing to show us these images over and over again but does not cover the deaths of Rosa Parks and Coretta Scott King at the time that they happen? I speak here of the vast trends of our culture. Surely I could think of a couple positive songs that Snoop Dogg has written, but I can’t think of a single song Marvin Gaye ever sang that was demeaning to women or disrespectful to anyone. The image we construct of ourselves in our culture, that we accept of ourselves, is wholly unbefitting a great people. But it’s so easy to accept it. That is why those among us who are willing to must band together on a higher plane of cultural observance. One which upholds the higher trends of our history and which cares not to appease the rest.
I am called to remember W.E.B. Du Bois’s belief that Afro-America could only uplift itself if “the advance guard of the race,” pursued a cultural awakening within the black community. (W.E.B. Du Bois labeled those blacks who would take up this charge, perhaps a bit snobbishly, as the “talented tenth,”) It was this conviction on the part of W.E.B. Du Bois and other prominent black artists and intellectuals including the NAACP, which prompted the direct engineering of the Harlem Renaissance, which really did elevate both black and white America’s view of the negro people. So did black operatic performance, black drama, poetry, literature and Jazz find their first major platform from which to leap into the imagination of the country at large. From this conscientious attempt to change the nation through high art did we get Langston Hughes, Bill Robinson and even Duke Ellington and these artists and many others of the time largely paved the way for every great black actor, singer and author who would come after. Art was the vehicle by which black America reached out across racial lines because in art and literature we were able to speak a language of the heart that was defiant of our differences. What language do we speak now with our artistry of materialism, sexual gratuity, disrespect and violence? Even if we do bring people together with these, what do we bring people together for?
Dr. King described the movement he led as a spiritual movement, one in which agape love and goodwill for mankind was recognized as the central element of their striving. In this is the ultimate show of humility. In this is the long-suffering self-sacrifice that I know some determined African-Americans will embody as they set the moral compass for this country in the 21rst century. Yet we must be willing to sacrifice ourselves to enduring the bitterness of those black people, those white people, and all those cynical voices so automatically arrayed against those who would labor to lift our consciousness to a higher state of mind. In this we make the path straight for the ultimate liberation of black America, which is the ultimate liberation of America herself. Those who carry this burden are the sons and daughters of slave heroes and martyrs. We are the Day Breakers, in the words of Renaissance poet Arna Bontemps. Non-violent resisters of a decadent social order. But even so:
“We are not come to wage a strife,
With swords upon this hill,
It is not wise to waste the life
Against a stubborn will.
Yet would we die as some have done.
Beating a way for the rising sun…”