20 September 2007

What Did You Wear Today?

Wear black, they said. I was down with that. The only problem was my limited wardrobe. The first black shirt I put on I took off some minutes later when I noticed that some thing took little bites out of it when I wasn't paying attention. There was only one other black top I could wear and it's been sitting in the closet for a good two years. (I kid you not! I am a woman who prefers jeans, shorts and flip flops to clothing considered fashionable.) I prefer not to wear black in real life. Black only looks good on women whose looks need no assistance from their clothing. I am not one of those women. Today, I made an exception. Black clogs. Black skirt. Black top. I wanted to pull the locks back too, but everything I use for that purpose is colorful. The locks were set free for today.

At work, I saw only one other black person in black. What's that about? There aren't many of us there. Still, word gets around. Others knew, but chose to resist. One brotha, who was apparently too much of a punk ass to tell me his reasoning, told someone else that people didn't know the whole story. What did he tell me? I'm Jamaican, not black. This was the first time in many years that the words "Uncle Tom" came to mind.

My mother hadn't heard about the call for black. I told her, in complete seriousness, that she would get a pass. She'd already experienced enough in her 76 years. As far as I'm concerned, her generation has nothing to prove. They lived it. Nevertheless, when I saw her later in the day, she was in black. She was nice enough to mention she was even wearing black underwear.

When I was in college, I took a history class that finally provided me with a comprehensive overview of the Civil Rights struggles in the 50's and 60's. I remember calling home and asking my mother if she'd participated. When she said she hadn't, I think I had the nerve to be appalled. I assumed every black person in the country rushed to the South to be part of the protests. Now, I'm a mother who's cognizant of the history being made in Louisiana of late. And . . . I get it. I wore black out of solidarity. It's not like I was going to get on one of the buses going down there, not with a job, a husband and a child in school. I realized that some of us must continue to live our lives while the others man the front lines. I'm the same woman my mother was in the 60's. I've got to take care of mine and yet support the struggle as best I can from afar. I wore black. My husband wore black. My mother wore black. I took my son to school, went to work, picked my child up, and went back to his school later for Open House before finally taking off all this black. Today, that was the most and the best I could do.

19 September 2007

The Burden

I heard something interesting on Democracy Now the other day. The mother of one of the Jena 6 said that her son hadn't initially understood the meaning of the nooses hanging from the tree at the high school. When I first heard this, I was taken aback. How can any black person, especially a brother in the South, not know the significance of a noose?

After my initial shock, I realized this speaks to something I've wrestled with as both a black person and a mother of a black son. How much of our history, particularly the unpleasant aspects (i.e., those involving violence against us), should we force upon our children and the generations to follow? My reasoning is this: blackness in America, while something about which to be proud, is in many ways a burden. When you know too much, you carry an indescribable weight on your back. When you know too little, the rest of us want to kick your black ass and then shake some sense into you.

What will I tell my son? How will I tell my son? When will I tell my son? When will I tell my son that there was a time in this country that black men and women were punished for being black by being hung from a tree after ungodly atrocities were visited upon them? I don't know. But I will tell him. After that, it becomes a matter of degree. I don't want him to carry that burden. As humans, we all live with our burdens regardless of our race. My goal is to make my son's load as light as possible. He must know the past, but he needn't be so well-versed in our history that he is unable or unwilling to understand that his future isn't necessarily determined by it.

13 September 2007

12 September 2007

The Talented Tenth

W.E.B. DuBois wrote this in 1903. What scares me is that it may be too late for us, as a race, to be saved by our "Talented Tenth". (Although he uses this term to refer only to men, I'm going to ignore his misogynistic bent. The women of our race continue to distinguish themselves both for their fortitude and their ability to succeed.)

The introduction reads as follows: The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men. The problem of education, then, among Negroes must first of all deal with the Talented Tenth; it is the problem of developing the Best of this race that they may guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst, in their own and other races. Now the training of men is a difficult and intricate task. Its technique is a matter for educational experts, but its object is for the vision of seers. If we make money the object of man-training, we shall develop money-makers but not necessarily men; if we make technical skill the object of education, we may possess artisans but not, in nature, men. Men we shall have only as we make manhood the object of the work of the schools — intelligence, broad sympathy, knowledge of the world that was and is, and of the relation of men to it — this is the curriculum of that Higher Education which must underlie true life. On this foundation we may build bread winning, skill of hand and quickness of brain, with never a fear lest the child and man mistake the means of living for the object of life.

This is his conclusion: Men of America, the problem is plain before you. Here is a race transplanted through the criminal foolishness of your fathers. Whether you like it or not the millions are here, and here they will remain. If you do not lift them up, they will pull you down. Education and work are the levers to uplift a people. Work alone will not do it unless inspired by the right ideals and guided by intelligence. Education must not simply teach work — it must teach Life. The Talented Tenth of the Negro race must be made leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people. No others can do this work and Negro colleges must train men for it. The Negro race, like all other races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men.

My concern, as both a black person in 2007 and member of the Talented Tenth, is that DuBois' contention is no longer relevant. Is there still such a thing as the Talented Tenth? Decades after the end of Jim Crow, segregation, and The Black Panthers, we seem to moving backwards rather than forward. We are divided by our socioeconomic status, by our region of origin, by our generation gaps and by our stubborn insistence on pat definitions of blackness. If there is no Talented Tenth, where does that leave us?